My 5-year-old daughter wants to be an astronaut. She wants to go up into space and see for herself what it's like out there. She and I sometimes go out to the backyard on chilly winter nights and reach toward the stars pulsing just beyond our fingertips. On midsummer nights, the constellations vie with fireflies for our attention, but in the cold seasons we tilt our heads skyward, entranced. Something has connected for my little girl on those evenings, with bedtime postponed and pajamas thrust in overcoats, that will lay a foundation for a lifetime of curiosity and delight in the marvels of the universe.
When I was her age, I also knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. Drawing was my preferred medium for self-expression, so one day I illustrated my future profession in crayon and Manila paper for my kindergarten teacher. I wanted to be a scientist, but there were no white lab coats and mathematical calculations in my vivid depiction of racing antelope, careening pursuit vehicles and men leaning out of helicopters with lassos and tranquilizer guns. My model and ideal type was one of my earliest heroes: Marlin Perkins.
During the first half of the 1970's, Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom was a weekly ritual in our house. Television was tightly controlled in our family - Watergate, PBS and nature programming were about the only TV fare, although I can still remember watching one of the last Apollo lunar missions splash down in 1972, when I was 4 years old. Wild Kingdom, however, was an exception and a familiar part of our Sunday evening routine. It's host Marlin Perkins was a comfortable and reassuring presence, more akin to Mr. Rogers than Jacques Cousteau, my other great conservationist role model, whose exotic undersea world also held a siren's appeal. Marlin's world, not Disney world, became my fantasy.
My parents shared a love of birds, and oftentimes we would pause on family walks through the woods while Mom and Dad "bished" furtive but curious birds into closer view. At Christmas my sister and I both looked forward to finding that candy red miracle of conservation marketing that chirps when twisted, the Audubon Bird Call, in our respective stockings. The big picture window in my grandparents' kitchen affords a front row view of myriad bird-feeders, with framed field guide plates decorating the walls to aid in identification.
We were not big campers in my family, although before getting married my parents had individually enjoyed the back country of the Tetons and the Whites: Our family vacationed at my grandparents' marvelous old house on Buzzard's Bay in Wareham, MA, and at my Great-grandparents' cottages on Monhegan Island, ME. I preferred to swim underwater more than across the surface and for many happy summers spent hours with mask and snorkel before getting my diving license at 12. Wareham especially has been the constant landscape in my life, the place where my roots are deepest, that I know best of all and to which I return. A powerful sense of place, its seasons and its changes both subtle and profound unfolding over time, informs my approach to community and landscape. It was my childhood wilderness, with worlds to discover beneath a log or in the shifting moods of the sea.
Yet this grounded connection to place is not a limiting or insular geography. I am fiercely protective of my "home" place, but understanding what is around me provides an outward focus. My first moments in Africa played out in darkness, the smell of wet grass wafting across the tarmac under strange and wild stars. I taught myself the southern constellations, learned hundreds of birds and the sounds of the veld in the gathering dusk, and the smell of rain in the wind.
Natural History museums also played their part, along with Mass Audubon's Drumlin Farm. It probably helped the development of my conservation consciousness that I grew up beside an accredited zoo. The Trevor Zoo at Millbrook school was 4 acres of enchantment. There were koatis and tamarins in my formative years, along with family pets. One memorable afternoon, I watched our rangy calico cat staring down an enormous stork in our front yard that had wandered up the hill from the Zoo.
Environmental education is the holy grail of the conservation movement. There have been a few, notable successes in changing our collective behavior - recycling in a number of "blue" states comes to mind - but the values that we act on as adults are formed first and foremost at home. The arrival of Ranger Rick was a welcome occasion in our household and it was my parents who made that possible. Our schools have vital roles to play in exposing our children to new ideas and fresh ways of looking at their world, but the behavior we model has the greatest impact. My daughter and son may discover their own Marlin Perkins, a merry Pied Piper to inform and inspire, but they are exploring universes on their own in the back yard.