Friday, February 22, 2013

Picky, Picky, Picky

I'll come right out and say it. I'm a rule follower. Some of this has to do with my basic fear of getting in trouble, but for the most part, I believe that rules are there for a good reason. This is not to say that I don't have my moments of rebellion. But basically I believe that there is a social compact, a set of guidelines that helps groups of people live together in safety and harmony, looking out for the common good. If there is a line to get to something I need, I will wait my turn. If a sign says "Do Not Enter", I don't enter. When they say to turn off your cell phone at the start of the performance, I do it. I believe that we should drive the speed limit to help avoid accidents on the highway and to keep residential areas safe and walkable. I think that cleaning up trash and recycling is good for everyone. And when I see that people around me are violating this covenant to look out for the common good, I get indignant. My husband teases me all the time that I could play the lead character in John Waters' "Serial Mom", a movie about a suburban housewife who exacts her revenge upon petty rule breakers by murdering them.

Parks and preserves are especially sacred to me. To me, they represent the epitome of the common good. This is shared space, there for the benefit of us all and for preservation of the natural world. It belongs to no one and to everyone.  I was taught at an early age that in parks and protected areas you "leave no sign" and "take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but footprints". Who wouldn't want to respect and protect our shared places? And yet people don't. I get enormously frustrated when I see people abusing that sacred space. Walking off the trail tramples plants and soon creates new trails that encourage people to go where they shouldn't. Sometimes there is danger off of the trail and leaving it can put that person in harm's way. Last year in my duties as a park volunteer, I removed some children from an area where there are large alligators. They told me they thought it was safe because they'd seen other people walk down there. It was not safe at all. People drop litter in pristine areas, oblivious to the pollution and potential harm to wildlife. They approach or feed the wildlife, not realizing or caring that it harms the animals when they lose their fear of humans. And our human diet is not good for them. Visitors pick flowers, collect fruit and seeds, and even animals. The other day I heard a man telling his father about the old days when he had gone into a state park to catch baby alligators. People ride their bikes and bring their dogs on trails where it is marked that they are not allowed. And graffiti and vandalism just make me mad.

I know that speaking up is probably the best thing for the good of the resource. But I don't always want to do it. When I'm not in my volunteer uniform and I'm just there as another visitor, I don't like to remind people to follow the rules. After all, where do I get off telling other people how they are supposed to behave? When I do say something, I seem like the mean lady, the kill joy, the goody-two-shoes-nature-know-it-all. Who wants to be seen like that? I am resentful of these inconsiderate people who put me in this position in the first place. The signs are there--can't they read? Don't they know any better?

Well, maybe not. Probably there are a lot of cases of willful ignorance, but sometimes it really is just a matter of not having seen the sign. A lot of people really just don't know any better. I have worked as an environmental educator and many adults and children know very little about protecting nature. They fear wild animals and insects. They don't see the harm in tossing a piece of trash. They don't always see the value of a vast empty place, like a park. And sometimes they break the rules just to seem cool. So what can I do? Take a big breath, suppress my urge to murder, and do some basic nature educating. They are already in the outdoors, which is a good first step. That shows that they have some level of interest. I can try to share my love of the place so that they can see that it is worth taking care of. I can use the "authority of the resource" to explain how their actions might affect the place and animals they've come to see.

In the words of Senegalese Environmentalist, Baba Dioum, "In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught."

So, like or not, there's no shirking duty. The future of our natural areas depends on those who can to step up and educate. And if we're successful, there will be more loving eyes and caring hearts out there, ready to help protect and preserve our natural treasures.

Learning to Love Nature

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