The other day my grand-nephew, not quite nine months old and just starting to discover the world around him, was crawling towards a line of ants on the veranda. Immediately there was a chorus of calls from the vigilant adults around him. “Be careful, the ants will bite him”. “Be alert that he doesn’t put a few in his mouth!” “Mind the ants don’t get into his clothes.” The little boy was picked up and taken away many times, and just as many times he determinedly crawled right back to the tiny creatures that were neatly marching away on their own business.
The ants took me back to my early days as an environmental educator. One of the first publications of CEE was a simple 8-pager called Ant. I was fascinated at how much one could write about creatures that were either not noticed, or when noticed, decried as pests! Further down the line I ended up putting together an entire teaching-learning manual on Insects. Besides opening up a whole new world this also led me to EO Wilson whose writings became a great inspiration, not just for what he studied, but equally for how wonderfully he shared his thoughts.
Edward Osborne Wilson is not just the world’s foremost authority on the study of ants (a myrmecologist!) but one of the founding fathers of, and leading expert in, biodiversity. His autobiography titled Naturalist traces his evolution as a scientist. Young Wilson knew early that he wanted to be scientist. A childhood accident left him with weak eyesight and hearing, so instead of focussing on animals and birds he concentrated on studying the miniature creatures. Thus the dreamy child turned into the focused scientist. Naturalist also reveals how these steps from daydream to determined endeavour involved a mix of random encounter, enthusiasm and opportunism.
My little nephew’s first explorations reminded me of EO Wilson’s words. “Why do I tell you this little boy’s story of medusa rays, and sea monsters nearly sixty years after the fact? Because it illustrates, I think, how a naturalist is created. A child comes to the edge of deep water with a mind prepared for wonder. He is like a primitive adult of long ago, an acquisitive Homo arriving at the shore of Lake Malawi, say, or the Mozambique Channel….The child is ready to grasp this archetype, to explore and learn, but he has few words to describe his guiding emotions. Instead he is given a compelling image that will serve in later life as a talisman, transmitting a powerful energy that directs the growth of experience and knowledge. But the core image stays intact. When an adult he will find it curious, if he is at all reflective, that he has the urge to travel all day to fish or to watch sunsets on the ocean horizon.”
In the current age of over-protective parenting, and educational systems that feel that rote learning is the key to science, EO Wilson’s words hold truer than ever: “Hands-on experience at the critical time, not systematic knowledge is what counts in the making of a naturalist. Better to be an untutored savage for a while, not to know the names or anatomical detail. Better to spend long stretches of time just searching and dreaming.”