Baba Dioum, a prominent Senegalese conservationist, said: “In the end we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.” As TSS educators we use this ecosystem as a classroom to teach concepts and content in hopes that our participants will better understand the environment they are experiencing. Hopefully, this understanding develops into love and conservation. In the last two weeks I had the opportunity to witness a transformative experience shared between two very different TSS programs.
Last week, on a week-long Wildlife Expeditions odyssey through Yellowstone, we brought a small group of travelers to Old Faithful at 10 o’clock at night to witness the geyser erupt. Throughout the day, the visitor center announces predicted eruption times, and the masses congregate around those predictions. When the sun goes down, the staff goes home and the predictions stop for the night. So we waited alone among the stars, sharing the quiet and the darkness. Old Faithful erupted and settled, seemingly as a courtesy to us alone. A wolf began howling from a distant ridge. Two of our travelers had never been in the Northern Hemisphere, so we showed them new stars while fellow travelers shared their favorite constellations. In those moments, this group of strangers from across the world developed a camaraderie and solidarity around Yellowstone’s winter solitude.
A few days later at the Kelly Campus, I stood in the lower field at night with a small group of students of color from across the country, brought together in a program aimed at developing conservation legacies in our National Parks that represent the true diversity of our country. Many of the students lived in big, chaotic cities, and fell asleep every night to the sound of helicopters and gunshots. Some had never seen the stars, stood in snow, or experienced real silence. We looked at Pleiades and Jupiter’s moons through a spotting scope, and listened to coyotes yipping out in the sage. These students were strangers the day before, and now had built a community around this shared winter wilderness experience.
Winter in this ecosystem is cold, dark, and profound. As environmental educators, we use nature as the classroom. But some of the most humbling moments as an educator happen when nature becomes the teacher. Experiences like this propel Dioum’s progression of learning to understanding to love to conservation better than our own lessons ever could.