Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Importance of Outdoor Mentors by Danielle Brigida

One of the themes in Anthill that resonated with me is the importance of an outdoor mentor.

In the section of The Launch, we see that Raff gets financial support from his Uncle Cyrus to attend college. He chooses Florida State University, where his longtime family friend and mentor, Dr. Norville, teaches.

While at FSU, Raff also meets Dr. Needham, who serves as yet another mentor in Raff’s life and even points him in the direction of studying the anthill at Nokobee.

Who was your outdoor mentor? If you’re like me, you’ve been fortunate to have many. My father was one of mine, along with my college entomology professor, Dr. Michael Meyer (pictured with me on the right) . His enthusiasm for the subject was contagious and his passion and wonder was something I'll never forget.

I think an outdoor mentor is an essential piece to loving the outdoors. Aside from being a helpful person to run ideas by, they can inspire us to learn more and share their love and knowledge for the topic.

Who was an important mentor in your life?
I’d love to hear about a few of them.

Fostering Outdoor Mentors
Outdoor Mentors is a program that does just that, inspiring people to pass on and share their love for nature. There are also organizations like Children and Nature Network and my own, National Wildlife Federation, that are working to empower parents, teachers and other leaders to help get kids to connect to nature and have a passion for the outdoors.

What Needham gave Raff, was not only a professional opinion but also the space to safely grow in his knowledge of entomology. Needham was so passionate about the subject that he even opened up his office to let the students partake in a group called the Bug Bash, where they drank tea, talked about timely topics and always brought the discussion back around to the world of entomology.

Needham was a great listener. When he suggested Raff study the anthill, he didn’t do so forcefully, but merely pointed out that it was an option. I think this is a great example of how a mentor gives you enough space to explore and learn on your own, while listening when you have questions and offering open-ended advice. Raff is a lucky character to have two!

"If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in." - Rachel Carson


Karla said...

My first outdoor mentor was my father - some of my earliest memories are of walks in our local park, exploring and discovering. I remember in particular being fascinated with ants, for many of the same reasons as Raff: they are social, and they have this seemingly hidden life led underground, full of mystery. Later in life, when I reached college age, I had a professor and advisor who encouraged me in my biology studies. Like Danielle mentions, he was not pushy but suggested options and opportunities. At that age, I knew I enjoyed the outdoors, and I liked science, but I had no idea what career path to pursue. Thanks to my professor, I explored different opportunities through summer internships and eventually found my way to a career in conservation. Like Dr. Needham, my professor was also a good listener. Today - 13 years after college - we still keep in touch.

Danielle Brigida said...

That's a really wonderful story Karla! It's inspiring to hear about people's mentors and how they have helped them!

Anne Post said...

I have had several amazing mentors over the years who have escorted me into the wilds but no one was quite like Dr. James D. Lazell, Jr. aka Skip, my biology teacher at Palfrey Street School (now defunct) who lead field trips to the Outer Banks, NC and a two-month long expedition to the Everglades, living in an abandoned migrant workers camp, and studying Oryzomys, indigenous raccoons, combing the grasses with my nets and identifying my insect catches in the evening with killing jar, pins, and Rapidograph in tow. Skip is still a field biologist, ecologist, herpetologist, mammologist, island biogeographer and explorer to this day and one of the most passionate and knowledgable people I know about life though I haven’t seen him for 40 years. The most memorable experience with Skip was the discovery of a Florida panther skeleton partially buried in one of the hardwood hammocks near our camp and the delicate extrication and identification of every bone of this endangered creature. This was 1973 and though I went on to write poetry, dance, run a library or three, my connection to that Everglade landscape will always remain strong not only because Skip shared his encyclopdedic knowledge but because of his passion and with this passion as my guide made this sawgrass marshy place forever home.

Kristin Johnson said...

My mother is my outdoor mentor. She knew the importance of kicking me out of the house and into our backyard on a daily basis, where I had all sorts of adventures catching lizards and roly polies, picking wild blackberries and muscadine grapes, and playing hide and seek for hours. She also helped me start my very own vegetable garden so I could experience first hand the magic of watching a seed grow into a cucumber or squash. (Later in life I learned that one night an animal had apparently dug up my entire garden. So I wouldn't be disappointed, my mother rushed that morning to the store to buy replacement vegetables that she then "planted" in my garden. I found the perfect, ripe, ready-to-pick vegetables later that day and was flabbergasted at how cool growing things was.)

Sarah Gannon-Nagle said...

So great to hear others' stories! (Hello, Kristin - nice to "see" you here at the Wild Read! Now I know who to call with questions about vegetable gardening.)

I've had a few outdoor mentors at different times in my life, but the one who continues to be an anchor for out-of-doors inspiration is without a doubt my father. In fact, I've just come in from traipsing around the "back 2" (acres, that is) together, checking out his garden at my parents' home, learning the latest native plants in the yard as well as gardening tricks (marigolds deter flea beetles from beans, so they're planted side-by-side). I also have great memories of fishing in mountain trout streams, and learning my way around topo maps with his guidance. Gotta love our outdoor mentors, especially those who stay with us and continue to teach and inspire over the years.

Ann said...

My father was my outdoor mentor. We lived on a mountain at the edge of the woods - he taught me the names of all the trees and plants in the woods, including poison oak and ivy! As kids we'd spend all day hanging out, making forts and swinging on vines...and I used to love to bring salamanders home. During raspberry- and blackberry-picking season we'd eat two cups of berries on the spot for every one cup that managed to make its way back to the house with us!

Eliza Wallace said...

My parents were daily mentors in every essential from social comportment to personal responsibility, and hammering in those lessons on remembering my please-and-thank-you's sometimes came with reprimand. When I was little, a sharp word against my behavior sent me into a pout, but I knew the next time around the acceptable way to act. Parents' small corrections gently prod a kid in the right direction and now I see that they are a pretty necessary element of parenting even if no one in the magazines wants to admit that you have to sometimes scold your wayward son or daughter. In this book, Raff experiences some expectations from his parents and mentors, and they all add to his experiences of growing up and learning.

So after that probably too-extensive intro, my outdoor mentor has always been my mom. Besides her passionate lessons about native plants and great patience with my constant questions about the natural world, it was her strong admonishments during early, key encounters with a certain part of the animal kingdom (that in pop culture gets a bad rep ten times out of ten) that pushed me to move beyond the low bar reaction set by society and to come out a wiser and seemingly more fearless individual. The reaction that got her yelling? A fear of the creepy-crawlies. When I went out to the woods with my mother, no "EW!" or squealing or shrieking or squishing-under-heal was allowed. If distasteful recoils and disrespectful words like "YUCK!" popped out in front of mom, she would scold me firmly and solemnly: "You are not that kind of girl. The kind who is afraid of insects. You know better than that." With those disappointed words, she condemned the widespread image of the pretty lady, standing on a chair out of reach of a mouse or a spider or a snake, shrieking and calling for her Prince Charming's help. She was saying that I was better than a player of that role of weak, naive girl, that I should grow up able to take care of myself and be knowledgeable about the ways of the world. Not only should I be strong in the face of fear, but I should not be afraid of good things with "ugly" exteriors. Spiders were to be seen as beautiful and helpful to the point of nobility, snakes were to be treated with great respect (harmless garter snakes could even be stroked on the spine), bats were a gnat-eating delight, and earthworms were like pet dogs. The untouchables, the scream-inducing, the hairy or slimy or gross, the most misrepresented beasts of the dark were to be embraced as equals to the bright-eyed cotton-tailed bunnies.

Had my mother not scolded those first poor reactions to hairy spiders, I would not have become the kind of girl who lights up at the sight of a big, powerful black snake on the Appalachian Trail, or a gleaming scorpion in the jungles of Guatemala, or the zooming of bats across my yard, catching bugs in a summer twilight. She pointed me in a certain direction, challenged me to look past every wrong thing the uninformed and drama-loving society had been telling me, and showed me how totally cool it was to know and to love the un-cool creatures.