The teenagers from Pittsford High School, dressed in red and blue life jackets and paddling the aluminum canoes in a zig-zag of confusion, are louder than a construction zone. I realize our chances of seeing much wildlife out here on the Honeoye Inlet at Finger Lakes Community College’s Muller Field Station is probably next to nil, but theirs is a joyful noise, so I try to let it wash over me with calm assurance that despite their inexperience, nobody will end up in the drink.
I want these kids to notice the beaver scent mounds all along the channel’s edges between freshly-risen royal fern. I want them to look for sign of otter slides along the banks, to spot the numerous brightly feathered warblers singing from branches of maple, ash, speckled alder, and high bush blueberry that inhabit this swamp ecosystem, but it’s hard to get them to “see.” They are too busy navigating and experiencing new paddling skills for one thing, so how could they be attentive to what they don’t know could be missing?
Rafted up, I asked them questions about what is visible to my eyes, for which they have no reference to discern from the environment—the caches of twigs, the chewed-down alders, the piles of castor odor mud. Beaver were once nearly extirpated from New York State due to heavy trapping for their fur, especially when beaver-felted top hats were all the rage until the Mid-1800s. I also explain that this swamp is a designated wetland, and that when Emil and Florence Muller had these channel waterways dug in the early 1960s, there was no protection for wetlands at that time. Wetlands were drained for farmland or filled for dumps or residential uses, before we acknowledged their importance in flood control, groundwater recharge, and essential wildlife habitat. The Wetland Act could still use some improvements, but at least the foundation is here.
Otters, too, were gone from our region just 30 years ago. In 2000, a restoration effort was begun on Honeoye Lake and now, 16 years later, sleek otters swim the shorelines looking for freshwater clams and mussels, some even venture up the gullies into Wesley Hill Preserve, Cumming Nature Center, and further afield, expanding their range.
Two bald eagles soar at the south end of Honeoye Lake as we paddle further on. I tell the students how, when I was a child, there were no bald eagles here, or anywhere in New York, or most of the Lower 48 for that matter. When I ask them if they know what happened to the eagles, they struggle to recall what they learned in their biology class. “Something to do with industry?” one student asks. We discuss the pesticide DDT, how its use caused bioaccumulation on up the food chain, how the eagles who ate the fish didn’t die, but they just could no longer reproduce due to the thinning of their egg shells from the toxin (of course, eagles were also shot and suffered from habitat loss as well). I tell them a story about how the return of the bald eagle to New York began here in the Finger Lakes Region.
In American history, the beaver and the otter and the eagle were considered numerous and ordinary, with no imagined end to them. We took them all for granted, but the world is not full of ordinary things; the world is full of beings that buzz and flutter and soar, gifted with those who unfurl and blossom and grow, as well as brethren who crawl, leap, lope, and run. The world is full of miraculous life of all kinds that we are kindred to.
I begin to realize that what needs to be taught is our environmental history, not just to show what damage we humans have caused, but to give inspiration about how we can make changes to reverse damage or restore ecosystems. We can make a difference.
If the news we portray about our serious environmental issues only creates despair, then we have accomplished nothing. If we teach fear and intolerance regarding others (I’m talking invasive species here, although you could stretch this statement to mean other races and cultures within our own species), then we are still teaching an attitude that some life is of value, and some is not! We can no longer get back the Carolina parakeet or the passenger pigeon, and our current extinction rate is said to be greater than that of the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event, during the time of the dinosaurs. I believe healing the Earth arises from love and deep gratitude for all of Nature, and all her gifts. I believe that we can motivate one another by teaching hope based on examples of what good we have done, to give heart to the good we very much need to keep doing.