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How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature by Scott D Sampson
How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature

Michael Barton, March 24, 2015

Last year I had the fortune of reading a draft of a forthcoming book about connecting children to nature. Geared toward mentors - be they parents, teachers, or other adults in a child’s life - this book captured for me a wonderfully blended mixture of nature experience how-tos, succinct overviews of relevant research about nature connection, and personal anecdotes about growing up with a love of nature and passing that on to the next generation. The author is none other than everyone’s favorite dinosaur expert, Dr. Scott Sampson of PBS Kids’ program Dinosaur Train. While a practicing paleontologist and museum administrator, Sampson also advocates for getting kids outside (and “making their own discoveries”) through the television program, through social media, and now as Nature Rocks’ first Program Ambassador.

There are many books on the topic of children and nature - do we really need another? I think so. In his introduction, Sampson lays out the goals of his book:

- to raise awareness about the disconnect between children and nature
- to explore the process of nature connection
- to help parents and educators become nature mentors

Through ten chapters Sampson does all this and provides a wealth of stories from his own life and folks across the country who are working to make nature part of the everyday lives of children. Sampson believes that “[m]any more kids need to experience a bootfull of pollywogs.” And I don’t think he means this in a literal sense. While not every kid will have the opportunity to put on some rubber boots and wade into a pond a little too deep so as to let the pond water full of metamorphosing frogs fill up the boots (Sampson did when he was a young child, with his mother and close to home), it is an experience like this - personal, triggering one’s senses, and perhaps a little dirty - that will leave an impression on a young child.

As a parent who gets his own two kids outside on a regular basis, trying to instill in my son and daughter a love for nature as much as I can, I know that How to Raise a Wild Child was not written for me. While I have a lot to learn about the natural world myself, it is the act of exploring in nature with a child, asking questions and seeking out answers, that makes a parent, educator, or other adult in a child’s life a successful mentor. This book is for those who wish to become mentors, or perhaps those who have never thought about doing so and just might come across Sampson’s book at a store or library (or even better, receive it as a gift).

In chapter 1, Sampson takes on the task of defining nature (wild vs. domestic vs. technological nature) and asking why humans need nature in their lives (what are its natural benefits?). He addresses the lack of nature connection in today’s youth, and describes how, in centuries and decades past, learning about “natural history” and perhaps even being a “naturalist” was part of everyday life for Americans. (As a student of history myself, I appreciated Sampson’s quick romp through the role of nature study in American history.) He notes that while visiting large wilderness places (like national parks) are a great thing to do, more frequent visits to wild places closer to home will leave a deeper impact on kids. The chapter ends, as they all do, with a short list of “Nature Mentoring Tips,” ideas that prospective mentors can do with their children or students to foster nature connection.

Chapter 2 looks at the notion of place and living in proximity to nature. Sampson describes traits of humanity that allow for adaptability in different environments: large brains, prolonged childhoods, and ability to collaborate with others. Humans had to know nature in their environments in order to survive. This natural knowledge became ingrained in us as a species (and since lost in a majority of the species). But that connection remains, even if suppressed by modern distractions and responsibilities. Sampson shares his idea for a Topophilia Hypothesis - it proposes that “humans possess an innate bias to bond with local wildlife and landscape, inherited from our foraging forebears.” Again, he stresses that for the development of children, regular experiences in nature near home are more powerful than periodic trips to wilderness areas. And those experiences are often best when accompanied by an adult engaged in “playful, side-by-side exploration” and unstructured time outdoors with an understanding of big ideas about the world we live in.

Sampson describes how to be a nature mentor in chapter 3. I don’t want to share too much from this chapter, except that Sampson hits on something I’ve always known when out and about with my kids: mentors “are not the people with all the answers.” I am not a biologist, and although I have a strong passion about science and the natural world, I don’t know everything about what my kids and I see when we’re out exploring. And that’s okay. Asking questions and thinking of the big picture is more important, as well as knowing where to seek out the answers.

Chapters 4 and 5 address some of the big ideas that mentors should know about and be able to share with the children they are helping to connect to nature: ecology and evolution. Falling in love with nature depends on “felt encounters,” and Sampson wonders why, growing up in the northwest, learning about the water cycle never involved actually stepping outside of the classroom and feeling part of it. The best place to teach kids about the ecology of the natural world is in it, but Sampson notes that “public education in North America today is still geared toward control, obedience, and self-restraint much more than engagement, inspiration, and empowerment.” We are a part of nature, and connected in a variety of ways to the other life and physical environments around us, and teaching about nature should reflect this embedded relationship. He describes some ways that ecological topics are taught in engaging ways, such as forest kindergartens and school gardens. While ecology is about relationships, evolution provides the story - a multi-billion year narrative of the history of life on our planet, and where humans fit in the tree of life. Not only are we connected to nature through our actions toward it, but by sharing common ancestry with all the other organisms we share this planet with. Going even further, we are connected to the universe because, as Carl Sagan popularized, we are indeed “star stuff” - the atoms in our bodies were forged in stars billions of years ago. Sampson says, “Alongside the horizontal connections viewed through the temporal snapshot of ecology, evolution offers us vertical, transformational roots in deep time. Whereas ecology addresses how nature works at any given moment, evolution focuses on how nature came to be.”

About one-third of the book, chapters 6, 7, and 8, covers the differences in connecting different age children to nature - young children (2-6), middle childhood (6-11), and adolescents. Young children are natural born scientists, and play is learning. Open-ended play with loose parts that can be found outside fosters imagination and the use of the body. (Never underestimate the power of a stick for play!) And getting dirty outside actually benefits young children’s health in the long run. For kids in middle childhood, having a sense of independence and freedom in nearby nature, such as a neighborhood creek, is crucial. This is also the age where kids become overscheduled, overprotected, and over-screened, so it becomes difficult to provide kids with the time and freedom to explore on their own. A solution, says Sampson, is to plan for family time in the outdoors, but to allow some freedom on such outings for kids to take some risks. For adolescents, connecting to nature means connecting with peers on riskier and longer outings in nature - rites of passage. Also, volunteering in environmental projects are a great tool for this age group.

The topic of technology and nature is addressed in chapter 9. Since technologies will be everywhere - they are not going to disappear - mentors need to know how to best utilize technologies for nature connection. While learning is best when we engage with all of our senses, technologies minimize the number of senses used. So, a balance between technology and nature is needed. Smartphones can be used for geocaching, photography, natural history identification, citizen science projects, or using Google Sky Map to see what that planet showing in the evening sky is. All good things, but crucial to keep it to a minimum. The gadget is a tool, not the experience. Take a picture, look up a bird, then put the phone down. “The quintessential 21st Century digital naturalist may once again carry binoculars in her backpack,” says Sampson. “But the pen and notebook will be long gone, as will the guidebooks. In their place will be a single hand-held digital device with built-in phone, camera, video, magnifying glass, and various field guides, ranging from plants and animals to rocks and stars, making identifications a cinch.”

In his final chapter, Sampson discusses connecting to nature in urban environments. From seeding cities with native plants and putting nature back into schools to providing nature programs to the underserved and putting parks within an easy walk from peoples’ homes, the idea of rewilding cities is growing. And the folks behind such efforts will be nature mentors of all varieties.

Want to connect kids to nature, and not sure how to go about it? Picking up How to Raise a Wild Child is a great start. Read it under a tree. And take Sampson’ advice: “Get used to dirt.”
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Darwin and His Children: His Other Legacy by Tim M. Berra
Darwin and His Children: His Other Legacy

Michael Barton, December 12, 2013

There is much to take in on Darwin - a constant barrage of books, journal articles, magazine features, blog posts, podcasts, videos on YouTube, etc. It can be a daunting task to keep up with it all and stay current with what historians and writers are discussing about Darwin: his life, his scientific work, and his legacy which permeates many fields beyond those sciences in which he worked. Sometimes new work takes an unexplored avenue, other times rehashing worn territory. A new book by biologist and previous Darwin biographer Tim Berra explores Darwin’s life from a different angle but with largely familiar subject matter. If you’ve read about Darwin at length before, then you likely know that he and his wife Emma had a large family and that Darwin was very involved in raising their children. In Darwin and His Children: His Other Legacy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013; 272 pp.), Berra describes the lives, careers, and achievements of the Darwin children, who, Berra shares, “were devoted to their father and mother, intensely loyal to the family and to each other, and protective of their father’s reputation.”

The book is organized chronologically by their birth years, beginning with a chapter on Darwin’s life and work (a summary, essentially), and a chapter on his marriage to Emma. The following ten chapters cover each child, so there tends to be some repetition of information, but the book is nicely organized. Illness in the family is a thread throughout the chapters, and this was a constant source of anxiety for Darwin (he felt that marriage to his first cousin may have created weakened offspring).

Darwin and Emma’s first son, William (1839-1914), “my little animalcule of a son,” he wrote to Captain Fitzroy, became a subject of infant behavior, and information from this was included in The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). He was a banker, helped Darwin with mathematical calculations in a botanical study, and was an avid amateur photographer. Anne, or Annie (1841-1851), Darwin’s favorite, died young and this tore her father apart. Mary (1842-1842) only lived for 23 days, her cause of death unknown. Henrietta (1843-1927), or Etty, did much to help her father with his work. She assisted in pigeon breeding experiments, corrected proofs for The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication (1868), and edited book manuscripts, including The Descent of Man (1871). She also edited a collection of family letters and biography of Emma. George (1845-1912) was a mathematician and became a world authority on tides. He befriended Lord Kelvin, who disagreed with Darwin on evolution, and defended his father against critique from St. George Jackson Mivart, speaking freely about his views on prayer and other religious matters (as opposed to Darwin’s avoidance of making public his views on religion). Elizabeth (1847-1926), or Bessy, was the Darwins’ eccentric daughter, and was helpful to her mother in household duties and caring for her father during his illnesses, and helped to raise her nephew Bernard. Francis (1848-1925) was an accomplished plant physiologist, was an assistant to his father on plant experiments, helped with his massive daily correspondence, and edited The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin (1887) and, with A.C. Seward, More Letters of Charles Darwin (1903). Leonard (1850-1943) was a military engineer, politician, and economist who is most remembered for his work in eugenics (a term coined by Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton). Berra notes: “The negative eugenics advocated by Leonard is shocking to today’s sensibilities, but it was a product of the times.” Horace (1851-1928), their ninth child, was an intelligent child (Darwin wrote in a letter about Horace’s grasp of natural selection when age 11). He was founder and director of the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company, which succeeded due to World War I, a public servant in a variety of matters, and elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (joining his father and brothers George and Francis). Charles Waring (1856-1858), their tenth and last child, was their third to die in childhood. His funeral allowed Darwin to avoid the joint reading of his and Wallace’s papers on natural selection at the Linnean Society in July 1858.

However enjoyable this book is, I can’t help but point out the many myths about Darwin that continue to remain in popular treatment of the subject (this is not to blame Berra, of course, for it will be some time before corrections to these myths become mainstream). Darwin was not knighted, because “he was much too controversial for Queen Victoria’s taste (but Darwin did not carry out work in service of the British government, for which knighthoods were given). Darwin kept his ideas private, “except to broach them to his closest scientific colleagues” (Berra lists Lyell, Hooker, and Gray, however the list of who Darwin shared with is much longer). However, Berra rightly notes that Darwin was indeed the appointed naturalist on HMS Beagle, and that the common story of the Huxley-Wilberforce debate in 1860 is exaggerated.

Berra’s sources are already published: Darwin’s Life and Letters volumes, his autobiography, reminiscences from some of the children as well as Darwin’s granddaughter Gwen Raverat. Given this, there are no grand revelations here. This is straightforward narrative history, and here Berra provides a charming, detailed narrative that gives due credit to Darwin’s children, whom he loved and shared in their griefs and successes in life. “Darwin” continued to be a very recognizable name in England, if not for Darwin’s own work, but the achievements of his descendants. An important takeaway from Darwin and His Children is how involved they were, from youth to adulthood in the case of some, with Darwin’s science: as editors, experimentalists, subjects of study, ambassadors (George and Francis traveled to the United States in 1871), and a variety of other roles. Several became respected scientists themselves, not too surprising given the nature-rich atmosphere and encouragement in which they were raised. The Darwins were truly a scientific family.
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I Wonder by Annaka Harris
I Wonder

Michael Barton, October 23, 2013

Scan book store and library shelves, and you'll see scores of books for children about scientific topics - space, cool animals, field guides, science experiments, gross science, etc. Yet how many of those books stress the importance of wonder in thinking about science? "I Wonder" does just that, and does so beautifully. As a parent, I strive to introduce my children to the natural side of the world they live in. But doing so can sometimes turn into looking at what we know, and if we don't know something, it feels like we aren't succeeding. But science would not be a human endeavor if scientists had everything all figured out! The exciting thing is that we don't know it all, and reading "I Wonder" helps in recognizing that perhaps most important attribute of living a life that embraces the importance of science: knowing that it is continuous and changing. What I love even more about this book is that in every illustration, Eva and her mother are outside: in the woods, at a beach, in the clouds, and in space (using their imaginations, of course). A first step to instilling an interest in science in a child is to step out the front door. A second step is to read and be read to, and a parent and a child cannot go wrong with getting comfortable under a tree and reading "I Wonder" together.
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The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild by Lyanda Lynn Haupt
The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild

Michael Barton, September 29, 2013

When you live in an urban environment, there are many things to deal with: pollution, traffic, noise, and other people going about their business. Another public nuisance is the ever-growing presence of urban wildlife. Whether birds or mammals, they encroach on our yards, our gardens, in our homes, and threaten our pets. Humans have devised many ways to control these critters, most to no avail. In her latest book, Lyanda Lynn Haupt seeks to turn around our usually negative impressions of urban animals and see them as neighbors and visitors worthy of our attention. The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild is a defense of animals that essentially share our homes with us: from coyotes and moles and raccoons to pigeons and crows and owls (as Haupt describes them, The Furred and The Feathered). Each chapter shares general natural history, worldly mythology, and encourages us to be kind to our "gracious co-inhabitants." She also includes chapters on trees and humans; unfortunately, perhaps due to space, The Scaled and The Segmented are not included. Haupt drives home that urban animals are simply doing what is natural: being animals. And like us, they are only seeking food and shelter and protecting their young. Considering that it is human activity that pushes us into closer proximity with wild animals and that our sacrifices are small, are our wild neighbors really asking for too much?

This review originally done for the Portland Book Review.
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Trying Leviathan: The Nineteenth-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature by D. Graham Burnett
Trying Leviathan: The Nineteenth-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature

Michael Barton, August 5, 2012

In Trying Leviathan, Burnett, a historian of science at Princeton University and author of Masters of All They Surveyed: Exploration, Geography, and a British El Dorado (UCP, 2000), explores a little known New York trial from 1818, Maurice v. Judd, in which a fish oil inspector (James Maurice) brought a candle maker and oil merchant (Samuel Judd) to court over his refusal to pay fees on whale oil (a law stated that fish oil had to be inspected for quality and purity). Maurice was represented by lawyers William Sampson and John Anthon, who desired to keep the trial about commercial regulation and away from, in Burnett’s words, the “muddy matters of taxonomy” (p. 17). Judd, whose defense included the testimony of the well-respected New York naturalist Samuel Mitchell, was represented by Robert Bogardus and William M. Price, who thought differently ��" they saw this as a taxonomic issue, and were willing to get dirty in the muddy matters (this case is also mentioned in the endnotes of Eric Jay Dolin’s Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America (W.W. Norton, 2007), pp. 384-385). What results is a splendid examination of questions about taxonomic systems, epistemology of natural historical knowledge, semantics, literary references, authority of various classes of New York citizens, and the relationship between science and society. Although the trial centers on the question of whether whale oil is fish oil, and hence if whales are fish, Burnett strives to look deeper into the reasons why the trial came to court at all, and what it meant beyond the straight science of taxonomy; he writes in his introduction: “It is perhaps cliché to assert that all taxonomy is politics, or to insist that epistemological problems are always problems of social order; Maurice v. Judd provides a striking occasion to test the viability (as well as the limits) of such sweeping claims” (p. 10).

Burnett organizes his book around three reasons why this case is important to study: the status of “philosophy” and natural history in learned institutions and intellectual culture of New York in the first quarter of the nineteenth century; the importance of whales and other cetaceans that were considered “problems of knowledge” to this period of history in the United States; and the shaky status of zoological classification, surely not one of a “golden age of the classifying imagination” (I do think I should fully read Harriet Ritvo’s The Platypus and the Mermaid: And Other Figments of the Classifying Imagination (Harvard UP, 1997) ��" I read the first chapter for an animal histories course in 2005). These considerations, and the trial’s main question in general (is a whale a fish?), are investigated by chapters devoted to what different categories of people in New York did or did not know about whales: naturalists, sailors and whalemen, artisans, merchants, and dealers in whale products, and regular folk of New York. While Mitchell thought it important to understand the authority of the first three, Sampson added the last category, considering the opinion of everyday citizens as worthy of attention.

The everyday citizens are tackled first, with Burnett concluding that a majority of people ��" whose limited contact with whales (textually or physically) included the authority of the Bible and its tripartite taxonomy (fish/water, beasts/earth, and birds/sky), popular natural history texts, the occasional strandings or moorings of whales, and the whale jaw bone of Scudder’s American Museum ��" thought of whales as fish, and it was hard to stomach that whales could be in the same category (mammals) as humans. Whales seemed to sit outside of natural history, more as curiosities than as creatures which could be easily classified. Peculiar examples of animals pointed to exceptions to the rule of classification, which damaged the authority of the new philosophy of taxonomy, brought forth mainly by the comparative anatomy of Cuvier (as being different from the Linnean-style categorization of plants or animals based on external characteristics).

Yet the naturalists, “those who philosophize,” would make the case that whales are indeed mammals, the subject of Burnett’s third chapter. Anthon, who represented the oil inspector, stated to the jurors: “Many of us may not have seen a whale,” but this should not cause us to be “led astray by the learning of philosophers” (p. 41). At issue was the authority of the naturalist and ichthyologist Samuel Mitchell, author of “The Fishes of New-York” and star witness of the defense, and in the long run, the authority of the enterprise of science itself. If common sense tells regular citizens of New York that whales are fish (for the Bible says so, and they swim in water like fish), then on what grounds should a naturalist’s erudition and, maybe, mere opinion, tell them otherwise? Since taxonomy was brought to the forefront in the case, the prosecutors sought to show that the current state of taxonomy is in question, and that there is disagreement between the learned.
Not only did Mitchell represent the “new philosophy” of classification based on comparative anatomy, but he had big ideas about a program for a patriotic, American natural history, to make New York a scientific center by popularizing the city’s natural history collections and promoting natural history to its citizens through lectures. And it was to this up and coming natural history and scientific culture that Maurice v. Judd may have owed its time in court: “through the trial flowed the strong currents of opposition to the institutions, innovations, and schemes of state-sponsored ‘philosophy.’ Science in the service of the state looked to many New Yorkers suspiciously like the state in the service of the men of science” (p. 207), while there existed an “emerging cultural and intellectual ambitions of a rising community of artisans and merchants, who were seeking support for their own institutions for the advancement of learning” (p. 203). Maurice v. Judd was more about social order in New York than it was about figuring out what a particular type of creature was (such that Burnett could have titled his book Trying Natural History, or Trying Mitchell, but Trying Leviathan sounds better).

In Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1869), the naturalist Pierre Aronnax, with his apprentice Counsel, and the harpoonist Ned Land at times disagreed over not only their fate aboard Nemo’s Nautilus, but also matters of life in the sea; and while Aronnax showed erudition as to the species of plants and birds (expert knowledge), Ned Land knew how to capture and prepare them for eating (practical knowledge). Naturalists and whalemen had different ways of looking at whales, and in the fourth chapter of Trying Leviathan, Burnett investigates what whalemen knew about their prey. Two whalemen were witnesses in the trial ��" one believed whales were not fish, noting similarities with humans, and the other did, until the trial caused him to possibly think otherwise. Whalers combined physical experience with whales with texts that discussed natural history of marine mammals, which may or may not have contrasted with the views of “cabinet naturalists.” Burnett uses the logs and journals of whalemen to understand how they understood cetaceans. One way whalers thought of whales was in terms of oil; they were not solely animals, but instead storehouses of a money-making product. But they also thought of whales in terms of zoology. Important to Burnett’s look into the whaleman’s natural history is their cutting-in patterns, diagrams which depicted the methods by which a whale would be cut up, a “high-seas butchery,” in which different whales necessitated different cutting-in operations due to different anatomies ��" anatomies different from those of naturalists, an “autonomous domain of natural knowledge” (p. 118). I like Burnett’s observation that a harpoon or shaft is just as much a pointer to anatomical detail as it is a whaler’s fatal tool. But he is quick to note that such anatomical detail represented for whalemen only a “superficial anatomy,” because whalemen learned the anatomy useful to their purpose (whale oil was found in areas near the outer layer, or “blanket,” of the animal), while naturalists learned as much as they could to have as complete a picture of nature as possible. With whales referred to as fish in logbooks, whalers not considering some whales to be “whales” (semantics), and whales as whales in the water yet fish if out of water, I take it that whalers generally considered their catch as fish.

In the fifth chapter, Burnett discusses the last group worth studying, those involved in the whale product industries (mainly oil), the “men of affairs.” Although the shortest of the chapters to look at what a group of people knew about whales, it is here that Burnett teases out more motives of Maurice v. Judd. He asks what was really at stake, since the fine put on Judd was only $75. Like the Scopes Trial in 1925, Maurice v. Judd best represented a formal test case for the New York law passed in March of 1818 that authorized “the appointment of guagers [sic] and inspectors of fish oils” (p. 147), to test the scope and interpretations of “fish oil.” Dealers in oil generally understood fish oil and whale oil to be distinct, while Gideon Lee, a leather industry man who drafted the statute, desired to have all oils under the term “fish oils” inspected for purity to clean up a messy oil industry, full of “deceptions and fraud” (p. 162). Plus, fish oils were important for leather manufacture, and for Lee, “money made its own taxonomic distinctions” (p. 161). In the end, Maurice v. Judd really concerned venders of oils (those who were inspected) and purchasers of oils (the leather tanning industry) protecting their commercial interests. Animals were classified differently in this context, in what Burnett calls “taxonomies of craft and trade” (p. 164).
In the pages of the penultimate chapter of Trying Leviathan, Burnett reveals the outcome of the trial, and for that reason, I am not going to discuss it. This book was an exciting read, and Burnett brought to life for the reader many characters and their arguments in early nineteenth century New York. I think the reader deserves to find out the outcome for themselves. He pulled from a multitude of sources ��" logbooks, natural history texts, lecture notes, trial transcripts, newspaper articles, letters, and illustrations ��" representing a variety of people concerned with the trial. It’s science history, social history, intellectual history, religious history, economic history, and law history (are there any others?) all brought together to illuminate one small and largely forgotten event in American history. There is much more in this book than I could possibly share, and I am still trying to decide if Maurice v. Judd owes its occurrence to a science vs. artisans issue or a venders vs. purchasers problem in New York.
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