I remember it like it was yesterday: my brother’s sleeping bag too close to mine, a little water in the bottom of the tent, bologna floating in the cooler, and a few mosquitoes to bid us good morning. This may sound unappealing, but it was precisely this—camping with my family when I was a young girl—that placed me on my path to become a conservationist. Looking back, people say that my parents must have been crazy. Who takes a two- and four-year-old out into the woods to sleep in a tent, cook over an open fire, and brave the wildlife and insects? I guess we do!
Living in a family where camping was a way of life, I learned to appreciate and respect nature very early. By age six, I could flip a rock and catch a snake with the best of them, rehabilitate an injured bird or squirrel with ease, and spot deer in the field with what I call my “eagle eyes.” While in most cases my “wild side” never caused any problems, I do remember one or two occasions where some of the other kids would make fun of me for swimming in the local pond instead of the swimming pool, which was located just a few yards away. “What?” I’d ask them. “I’m watching the frogs.”
When I moved to the Gulf Coast of Mississippi from Green Bay, Wisconsin, at age 10, I was a bit frightened. I didn’t know what to expect from the people or the environment. While the cultural change was a bit of an adjustment, I immediately found solace in the local biodiversity. Living on the bayou, I was blessed with having dolphins, blue claw crabs, and red fish in the “front yard” and alligators, herons, and water moccasins in the “back.” How beautiful and diverse it was.
If I had to choose one thing that connected me most to nature during this time of adolescence (and all that comes with it), I would say that it was watching the locals read nature. Old Greg from the family-owned bait shop down the bayou could watch the birds and predict a weather storm better than any weather man, could observe the water and tell where the fish were better than any fancy fish-finder, and could navigate the inlets of the bayou and channels of the Gulf better than any GPS unit. I realized then that nature holds the answers to many of life’s questions, and it was during this time that my fascination with nature evolved into appreciation. And it is with this combination of fascination, appreciation, and respect that I became an idealistic teenager with an earnest desire to save the world.Now, as conservation education research coordinator for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, I have been able to turn my earnest desires into action. Daily, I work with students, teachers, and professionals in our Conservation Education Lab promoting conservation biology, environmental literacy, and love for nature. Through our international community-based conservation projects in Vietnam, Cameroon, and Baja California, Mexico, I am able, once again, to sit in awe while soaking up knowledge and wisdom from local people and the surrounding environment. Who knew that camping with family and living on the bayou could have such an impact? All I know for sure is that I am very thankful and that I love my job. Early connections with nature have the ability to change a person’s world. So go out there, explore, get dirty, and make the connection!
Corrin LaCombe is the Brown Endowed conservation education research coordinator for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Monkey Habitat in Vietnam.