My latest on the Scientific American Guest blog:
Some experiences stick to you even when you try to wash them off. For me, the experience was a field course I taught many years ago in the Dominican Republic. It was a course composed of city-dwelling students from Columbia University. When I met these students, many of whom had never seen an animal larger than a rat in the wild, I felt as though I had entered a foreign realm. I have written elsewhere about the course and the inspiration it offered me, but if I am honest, some days it still wakes me up with a kind of panic.
For these students the forest was as threatening and dangerous as I have sometimes perceived Manhattan to be. I was born in a rural community. I spent my childhood in swamps and woods. I explored. I chased. Along with my sister, I made forts and followed animal trails and caught anything that fled. To this day, I feel most at ease in forests (and perhaps least at ease in the biggest cities) and now I work among a tribe of other adults, biologists one and all, with similar backgrounds. We all spent our childhoods dirty with life; it is a reality that seems normal and was for most of human history. But what I sometimes felt in watching the Columbia students, lost among the trees, unable to name the birds and plants—or even sometimes to tell the birds from the bees—was that, in them, I was seeing the future.