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A New Year's Resolution: Nature Literacy

Updated: Dec 27, 2023

We’ve lost our nature literacy.  Here’s why that matters.

It wasn’t that long ago that just about every Islander knew how to catch a trout, when to look for Lady’s Slippers, which wild plants are edible, or where to find the Big Dipper.  Many of us still do, but this is becoming the exception rather than the rule. On average, children today recognize 1,000 corporate logos but only a few local plants and animals.

Photo 1: Female cones of Eastern Larch (Larix laricina). All conifers produce both male and female cones, and those of Larch are a beautiful deep red colour when young.

Social media feeds are full of people asking questions like “why are there purple berries on my spruce tree?” (female cones on Eastern Larch, Photo 1), not understanding that flowers develop into fruit as part of a plant’s normal reproductive cycle (Photo 2) or wondering how to ‘save’ that fledgling bird or baby Snowshoe Hare that was perfectly fine on its own (Photo 3). 

Photo 2: One example of hundreds that I see on social media each year, underscoring the disconnect between people and the world around them.

These examples are in no way meant to shame the askers.  You can’t know what you haven’t been taught.  And practical biological skills – basic plant and animal identification or natural history, for example – are rarely being taught anymore. In 1890, PEI naturalist Francis Bain’s Natural History of PEI was part of our public-school curriculum. Covering Island geology, botany, and zoology in little more than 100 pages, this book remains (in my opinion) essential reading. A few decades later, Island naturalist John MacSwain’s high school botany text included information on PEI’s wild plants and was part of students’ basic education. Today, natural history isn’t taught anywhere on PEI, and botanical education is becoming increasingly hard to find globally, even at the post-secondary level. 

Photo 3: Baby Snowshoe Hares (Lepus americanus) are called leverets. Seeing leverets without an adult around is normal and does not mean the animals need help. The same is true of most baby wildlife: they rarely need rescuing and the best thing we can do is leave them alone.

So, why does this matter?  Because we have a public that is concerned about nature and conservation, while at the same time being disconnected from – and often afraid of – it.  This disconnection and fear may seem innocuous, but I argue they are not.  We’ve all seen social media posts about snakes, for example, with comments about ‘nope rope’ or ‘danger noodle’. I get it: it’s just a joke. But for humans, fear of the unknown is fundamental, and too often that fear translates into destruction. 

On the conservation side, for things that we don’t fear this disconnect leads to oversimplification. Tree planting good, tree cutting bad. Herbivores good, predators bad. Decreased nature literacy leads to poor decisions both at the individual and collective levels: at personal action and public policy.

Fortunately, increasing nature literacy can be done and offers both individual and collective benefits.  Individually, it contributes to physical and mental health, resilience, and food security.  Collectively, it gives us the tools we need to adapt to climate change, co-exist with wild species and spaces, and live sustainably on this planet.

As we enter 2024, I invite you to make (and keep) a simple New Year’s Resolution: commit to learning at least one new thing about the wild side of our Island. Identify a new wildflower. Learn your first mushroom. Taste wild spring greens. Read an animal track. Find a fossil.  Learn, explore, and reconnect with PEI untamed!

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