As I was reading Mary Pipher's book Writing to Change the World last night, I came across a startling statistic. On page 3, she writes "Tech Tonic, a publication of the Alliance for Childhood, reports that the average American can recognize over a thousand brand names but is unable to identify ten indigenous plants or animals."
Ouch. Could that possibly be true?
Ironically, I don't question in the least that most Americans can recognize over a thousand brand names. What scares me is the thought that most Americans could not identify ten indigenous plants or animals.
(Could this be a language issue: not understanding the meaning of the word "indigenous"? If that word were defined for them by the researcher, would they then be able to come up with ten indigenous plants or animals?)
I can't imagine any Kansan over the age of 10 not being able to identify: bison, blue jay, raccoon, opossum, skunk, bald eagle, meadowlark, box turtle, (fox) squirrel, and turkey.
The plant side is harder, though. Most of the plants people can recognize are weeds...and most of those are not indigenous. (Dandelion springs immediately to mind.) By the age of 10, I'd like to see Kansans able to recognize cottonwood, red cedar, poison ivy, big bluestem, cattails, Indian grass, willows, and a couple prairie wildflowers. Knowing the grasses and wildflowers would help them know when the land they were looking at was relatively undisturbed, and it would help them learn about and understand the ecosystem that formed the landscape they live in. Recognizing cottonwood, willows and cattails would help them understand where the land they're looking at is often wet. Red cedar's the only native evergreen here. And knowing poison ivy might help keep them from inadvertently getting themselves in trouble.
Ultimately, though, I think the problem is that most people don't think understanding the land is important any more. They still "hunt and gather", but now they hunt and gather clothes and CDs and DVDs and cars and other stuff. Stuff to make themselves look powerful or important to their friends and enemies. Stuff to impress the other sex. Occasionally even stuff to help them survive.
In other words, they are still acting as animals, but now their frame of reference is divorced from the environment that actually supports them. Who needs to know plants and animals when you think that everything you need is in a store?
My gut tells me that it's important for people to be able to understand the physical world around them. That our health as living beings depends on the health of the environment we live in. And that if we have absolutely no clue how to "read" our environment, we won't take care of it... and we'll "break" it, perhaps irrevocably as far as its ability to support us.
But I wonder if I'm right to be concerned.... Maybe we really aren't living beings any more.