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A SHINING HOPE FOR NATURE

By Anne W. Schultz  |  Photography by Michael Granberry

Could I be looking at the next Rachel Carson, E.O. Wilson, or any of the other naturalists whose pictures hang on the classroom walls indoors? I wonder as I survey the fourth graders circled around their teacher outdoors. My husband and I are at the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center observing a typical school day at a science learning facility unlike any other in the nation.

Local conservationist M.C. Davis developed it on Nokuse Plantation, 49,000 acres in Northwest Florida set aside as conservation land. The expansive exhibit hall, classrooms, theater, laboratories, and nature trails are designed not only to educate minds about our natural surroundings, but also to open hearts to them. The center’s namesake, E.O. Wilson, calls this natural love “biophilia,” a term he coined from combining two Greek words for love and life. He believes biophilia is implanted in every person, perhaps so they will preserve God’s creation. Obscured by thick forest, the buildings are barely visible from Highway 20, except for peaked tin roofs gleaming in the sunshine like some shining vision of hope. Over ten thousand children have studied here since it opened September 12, 2009.

View of Navy Pier Featuring Lake Michigan And The Centennial Ferris Wheel

 

This autumn day feels chilly yet still warm enough for the cotton T-shirts color-coded by the center to keep classes separated. We follow our group wearing turquoise to a grassy clearing to learn how to track the home range of a gopher tortoise. Birds sing and breezes ruffle native grasses strewn with pink and yellow wildflowers. The vaulted-ceilinged screened porch looms nearby. Its steeply pitched roof points skyward, drawing attention to the majestic longleaf pines towering above. These trees are part of a three-hundred-year project to restore the land to the original longleaf pine ecosystem that covered 95 percent of the Southeast before European settlement.

 

Next, we file into that screened porch where students reinforce what they learned outdoors by writing it out on paper. We sit on benches near a black Lab snoozing in the sunshine. Dalton, one of the center’s biologists, looks like an ecotour guide dressed in khaki pants and matching ExOfficio shirt intended to blend into the natural surroundings. He charts the path on a graph and asks questions. The “Yes, sir” and “No, sir” responses indicate you’re in the South, as this northern section of Florida is more like an extension of Alabama than the rest of Florida. This area is ranked sixth in the nation for its biodiversity—the same rich landscape riddled by marshes and pine forests that stimulated E.O. Wilson as a boy and inspired a passion for nature, resulting in a lifetime career as an eminent Harvard biologist who won two Pulitzer Prizes for books in his field. He shares the belief of founder M.C. Davis that children are the hope for the future of our planet. The wide-eyed wonder on their faces, the concentration, and enthusiasm show me it’s happening right here in front of me.

At our next session, the class learns how habitat destruction affects the gopher tortoise.  Turtle Bob introduces himself as a field biologist and explains that his office is outdoors; that is where he studies live plants and animals. “What’s the difference between a turtle and a tortoise?” he asks the attentive class seated on the floor surrounding him. When no one answers, he responds, “Turtles spend some or most of their time in water. The gopher tortoise lives strictly on land. Around twenty thousand used to live here and now only about 580 remain. That makes them threatened. This means, if we don’t take care of them now, they will soon become endangered and then could become extinct. And that means forever,” he adds.

View of Navy Pier Featuring Lake Michigan And The Centennial Ferris Wheel

View of Navy Pier Featuring Lake Michigan And The Centennial Ferris Wheel

 

“Gopher tortoises can live up to a hundred years old,” he explains, “and spend 80 percent of their time in their burrows.” “Who are their main predators?” he quizzes them. Hands shoot up, and several call out, “Humans.” He asks what else, and then gives them a clue: “What yips a lot?” “Coyotes,” they confidently answer in unison. The students learn a gopher tortoise is a keystone species because others depend on it for survival. Turtle Bob explains that 360 different kinds of animals find shelter in gopher tortoise burrows, especially during forest fires or when chased by predators. “Why is the width of the burrow the same as the length of the tortoise?” “So they can turn around,” one boy answers. Again I realize how little I know about nature and how facts like this reveal its intricacy and perfection, as these children are teaching me!

 

And then, like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat, Turtle Bob brings out the very tortoise species he has been talking about from a large crate, along with a six-foot-long black indigo snake. “This snake is one of the species that finds protection in the burrow,” he tells the awestruck audience. “There are no more indigo snakes in Walton County, as we decimated scores of longleaf pines and lost the burrows that sustain them.” The kids rush in closer, clustering around the animals when he asks if anyone wants to hold or touch them. One by one, they gently stroke the hard shell of the tortoise, or hold it in both hands. Then he gathers up the snake and places it around the neck and shoulders of each child in the same graceful way Hawaiians drape floral leis on arriving tourists. The snake interaction is only with parental and school approval, and students choosing to interact appear to love it. In my day, the girls would have shrieked and run away in terror, but these girls rush up, breaking centuries of superstitions and fears about snakes that have been passed down through generations.

View of Navy Pier Featuring Lake Michigan And The Centennial Ferris Wheel

 

And then, like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat, Turtle Bob brings out the very tortoise species he has been talking about from a large crate, along with a six-foot-long black indigo snake. “This snake is one of the species that finds protection in the burrow,” he tells the awestruck audience. “There are no more indigo snakes in Walton County, as we decimated scores of longleaf pines and lost the burrows that sustain them.” The kids rush in closer, clustering around the animals when he asks if anyone wants to hold or touch them. One by one, they gently stroke the hard shell of the tortoise, or hold it in both hands. Then he gathers up the snake and places it around the neck and shoulders of each child in the same graceful way Hawaiians drape floral leis on arriving tourists. The snake interaction is only with parental and school approval, and students choosing to interact appear to love it. In my day, the girls would have shrieked and run away in terror, but these girls rush up, breaking centuries of superstitions and fears about snakes that have been passed down through generations.

View of Navy Pier Featuring Lake Michigan And The Centennial Ferris Wheel

 

We left feeling hopeful about the future of nature as we see it will pass down to those who care. These children have entered into a relationship with nature that will last a lifetime. Mine sure has. Chances are the hand that stroked a gopher tortoise as a child will be the same one that reaches out as an adult to lift a stranded tortoise off the highway, reach down and pick up trash off the beach, and pick up a cell phone to protest developments that don’t consider the environment in their planning. These budding naturalists will raise a stink about filling in wetlands because they know that shorebirds and other creatures they have seen and studied live there. They know that wetlands and marshes are their homes: where they nest, raise babies, talk to each other, and forage for food.

Even if no one attains the status of a Rachel Carson, or Florida’s own Marjory Stoneman Douglas—who helped rescue the Everglades with her classic book, The Everglades: River of Grass—these future citizens will know they’ve made a contribution by doing their part as stewards of the earth. It all begins with a little love. Look what happened to M.C. Davis and E.O. Wilson!

— V —

View of Navy Pier Featuring Lake Michigan And The Centennial Ferris Wheel

 

This past summer, the center opened for the first time to the general public, so children of all ages can now see what all the fun is about.

From June 1 through August 31, the center is open on the following days and times: Fridays – 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Saturdays – 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Sundays – 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. From September 1 through May 31, the center is open on Saturdays from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. To learn more, visit www.eowilsoncenter.org or call (850) 835-1824.

Contact Info: Anne W. Schultz 93 Quiet Water Trail Santa Rosa Beach, FL 32459 saait@aol.com (850) 231-0947



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