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Journal of Political Ecology:
Case Studies in History and Society
VOLUME 6 (1999)
How to Create
and Nurture a Nature Center in Your Community by Brent Evans and Carolyn
Chipman-Evans, (1998) Austin: University of Texas Press, xv, 250 pp.
Reviewed by Matthew Oppenheim, Burbank, CA.
This book, a visual as well as a spiritual and intellectual
delight, gathers the collective wisdom gained from nature centers across
the U.S. It is a "how-to" book for developing the activism
and administrative expertise to successfully start a nature center. It
weaves into this practical discussion reflections from Native American
traditions and from naturalists such as John Muir, as well as countless
inspiring stories by visitors and avid volunteers who have been transformed
by their experiences of nature. The authors interject their own personal
experiences from the Cibolo Nature Center - near the Texas Hill Country
town of Boerne - which they helped create in 1988. The visual experience
of the nature center is always close at hand in this book, conveyed through
photos of activities and graphics from building floor plans and detailed
drawings of native flora.
The authors claim that the awakened consciousness
from the nature center experience can lead to sustainable planetary change. Yet
the link between a small local nature sanctuary and the remedy to rapid
environmental degradation is not clearly established. While enjoying
the this book's inspiring and richly realized stories, we also must look
critically to see whether and to what extent the nature center is indeed
a pivotal local response to the need for encompassing change.
The book begins with a quote attributed to Chief Seattle
- "and what is there to life, if a man cannot hear the lonely cry
of the whippoorwill . . ." - and the personal experiences of the
authors that inspired the vision and sense of mission for the book. They
tell the story of their own Cibolo Nature Center, followed by short descriptions
of what they consider to be sixteen of the more successful nature centers
across the country. Whether Chief Seattle actually spoke the words
later attributed to him is open to question, but their invocation here
capitalizes on the popular view that privileges indigenous ecological
The book then considers the mission and purpose of
nature centers: "A nature center protects a piece of ground that
can both inspire and teach." The authors discuss the interdependent
issues of conservation, education, and recreation, and quickly move on
to pragmatics. Facilities are discussed first, from designing buildings
and trails to live animal enclosures and botanical centers. Then
come "Program Possibilities." We learn about "maple
sugaring" projects, "Enchanted Halloween" parties, as well
as more traditional activities, from nature walks to wildlife seminars. There
are tips for presentations and details of the Cibolo education program. A
more lengthy discussion of the process of creating your own center follows. As
always, the chapter starts with an inspiring quote, this time from Margaret
The next step is to consider ways of community organizing. We
again are rallied around the cause, before given practical advice: "As
modern life separates families more and more, with fewer moments of beauty
and connectedness, a saunter together through nature can do more than
a dozen family therapy sessions." We are encouraged to work
with Chambers of Commerce, city planners, farmers and ranchers, church
ministers, and health care providers.
For my own work, as an applied anthropologist with
a life-long passion for grassroots organizing and educational transformation,
I found a wealth of information on group process and neighborhood organizing,
as well as practical advice on resolving group conflicts and mentoring
volunteers. Most important, we are reminded regularly that true social
change must be inspired by that which nourishes the soul. In this
book this source of nourishment is the transcendent, peaceful, centering
experience that just about all of us are said to gain from nature. The
authors want you to know and internalize their sense of mission. We
are led to believe that if our consciousness awakens, sustainable global
change is close at hand. While the authors acknowledge that many
nature centers have led battles to save endangered species, or to protect
critical wildlife or ecologically vulnerable areas, nature center lands
are often carved out of otherwise undevelopable areas, places that when
taken out of local tax base are less likely to be contested.
Organizational development issues are raised next. We
are taken through the growing pains and triumphs of starting an organization,
moving from the "seed" phase, to conflicts with individuals
and egos, adolescence, to maturation, and mid-life crisis. All those
who have been involved with community organizing will appreciate the authors'
candor and sense of organizational evolution. We are reminded of
how useful it is to adopt an outlook that whatever happens is of benefit
to our learning and growth. The authors help us develop our vision
and action plan, bylaws, and articles of incorporation. We are presented
with ideas for building membership, developing staff, and finding interns.
We are then taken through the details of running and
developing our nature center. We learn about fundraising and letters
of support. There is a list of community resources to help us and
a sample newsletter and detailed operational budget. An outline for
writing grants is presented in such a succinct style, that I am eager
to show it to my friends in a new community-based organization in Los
Angeles. A section on land management addresses predator management,
use of water, and ways to feed the local fauna so they dont become
dependent on handouts. Trail building details are followed by suggestions
for developing a master plan so that all details discussed in the book
come together in a strategic process.
Finally there is an inspirational talk to keep us
motivated in a chapter entitled "Hope:" "As your project
evolves, so does your message, the lesson you wish to teach. As your
love of nature depends, you will begin to sense how vital it is that you
act upon your beliefs". We are reminded that we will learn to
heal ourselves as we nurture our planet, and that we must sustain our
internal wildness and creativity. The authors want to plant a seed
to be nurtured, and hope that they have somehow served as midwives in
the process. Finally, we find quotes from George Bernard Shaw, Edward
Abbey and Jacques Cousteau. An appendix lists organizations across
the U.S. and publications where we can go for further advice.
We have been rallied, mentored, and inspired to take
action. With my renewed spirit, however, I wondered what steps the
authors would recommend to channel this back to our despoiling urban economies. Do
psychic and spiritual renewal and a nearby nature preserve lead to systemic
changes? Is there some sort of cumulative "change in consciousness"
that occurs, or is the renewal of the spirit a catalyst for more directed
change that truly remedies the underlying cause of environmental degradation? Can
this change of consciousness address the real cause of environmental problems;
the march of global capitalism that deforests, disinvests indigenous peoples,
and divests us of thousands of plant and animal species?
Critical issues emerge from what is presented in the
book and many "ecologies", both human and "natural"
are glaringly absent, as are countless ethnic groups from its photos.
I would like to address these issues by contrasting the world of the nature
center portrayed in the book with my experience with ecological issues
of a different sort, in an urban barrio on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Here,
a large local park, the neighborhoods only access to "nature"
has been re-zoned for commercial use, leaving a small remaining section
that contains a public swimming pool (now closed), a few park benches
and a touch of grass. One of the industries planted on this land
was a chemical storage facility, now one of the many on the local list
of the EPA charged with chemical leakage. I would guess that few
of the residents benefit from the kind of nature center in the book, either
as a space for regeneration and renewal or as a center for activism. Penalties
for toxic waste are dramatically higher in areas of predominantly white
populations than African American or Latino, and action for cleanups begins
as much as 42% later for these minority groups and the percentage of African
Americans and Hispanics living in polluted areas far exceeds the white
population (Bullard 1994).
The urban barrio and the suburban nature center have
a good deal of distance between them; while not necessarily a great distance
physically, the political, intellectual, economic and cultural gap is
huge. The actual human inhabitants may rarely cross each others
paths, except to the extent that a bus of urban children from our barrio
may be lucky enough to visit a nature center for one day a year.
Ethnically, we find many urban immigrants coming from
lands where they and their ancestors farmed and were part of the land.
Their barrio yards contain healing herbs, lemon trees and chickens, while
in the public streets the city council ignores its responsibilities to
plant and care for trees, and people live in constant fear of violence.
Economically, our urban inhabitants are under constant threat, as factories
take over residential areas, and then close down and move elsewhere in
the hunt for cheaper labor. Affordable transportation and housing are
beyond reach for many, and it is a struggle to keep open the last remaining
bank branch. All the while, the suburban nature sanctuary is not
under apparent threat of closure.
Do nature centers point towards a solution to the
environmental degradation that forces hundreds of thousands to flee their
homeland, ending up in ecological wastelands, whether Mexico City, Calcutta
or Los Angeles? This book makes no reference to this type of sustainable
solution. In urban schools children learn about endangered species, rapid
deforestation, toxic waste and global warming, but where is their space
to connect and embrace nature and to act towards meaningful change?
In How to Create and Nurture A Nature Center,
we are encouraged to leave these types of issues behind and gather inspiration
and renewal from a land unaffected by poverty. We are reminded of
the transcendent healing power of nature that heals our souls and gathers
wisdom. But in saying this, is the book fostering an escapism from
the real world issues that truly shape our futures? Are we running
to an imagined space, and by doing so contributing to neglect of the real
struggle for our planet?
The crux of the issue is whether there can be limited
good for a few, while the welfare of the whole is neglected? Along with
this is the acknowledgment that if we are not addressing the whole of
an issue, we are working with limited and fragmented solutions and may
well be contributing to the problem if we do not address truly systemic
A recent issue of Whole Earth magazine addresses
the urgent need to defend "the commons." Here the commons
is a local as well as a global psychic place, tied to heritage and nature
as well as to economics and values. Indian philosopher Prabhat Ranjan
Sarkar challenges us to develop an equilibrium between our socioeconomic
and environmental commons, grounded on a spiritual sense of ecology:
In his social theory, PROUT (the Progressive Utilization
Theory) we are encouraged to form ecologically sound regional economies,
challenging the economic and political forces that exploit natural and
human environments (Sarkar 1992). Here, inspired by spiritual renewal,
a personal ethic of non-harmfulness and service, and led by locally-governed
cooperatives, there is a balance between individual freedom and social
responsibility. Regional economies tied to local watersheds and cultures
help prevent over-industrialization by balancing agricultural, industrial,
service and retail sectors. Each region collaborates on a national
and then global scale to guard rivers and oceans, to protect indigenous
culture, and prevent exploitation.
Bullard, Robert D.
Sarkar, Prabhat Rajan.
Sarkar, Prabhat Rajan.