Can't See the Reef For All the Polyps

It occurred to me today, while standing at the edge of the lagoon, that I’ve become so wrapped up in all the conservation issues present in this resource that I may be losing the ability to appreciate it as most other people do: as a tremendous natural area of water, fish, and sunshine.  It makes me wonder if my skewed focus corrupts my ability to make meaningful outreach campaigns on behalf of the lagoon to the people who live right alongside it. 

For instance, the vast majority of people refer to the lagoon as “the river”.  Its not a river at all for the simple reason that it does not flow in one direction.  Instead, the IRL has vagrant currents driven by the direction of the prevailing winds.  In the beginning, I was adamant that my students called the IRL a lagoon, or an estuary at least, instead of “the river”.  These days I don’t really see the reason to stress specific terminology (although I still of course cover the topic).  Semantics aren’t sticking points. 

In environmental education you manage a balance point between inspiring curiosity, stewardship, and developing and teaching concepts.  Sometimes, you have to negotiate the obvious limits of the young mind.  There are only so many salient messages that can fit inside one brain in one day and in one field excursion.  Is it more significant, in the long term, that my students break decades of habit and call the IRL a lagoon?  Or is it better to give them the tools to explore the area and attempt to let the resource speak for itself through the fish, birds, copepods, manatees, and breaching dolphins?   

Essentially, I can’t forget the forest for all the trees or the reef for all the polyps reaching out for plankton.  I absolutely believe in teaching details, terminology, and truly scientific concepts while in the field.  Yet I have to consider that  I only get a few hours to inspire a change in consciousness with kids who may have very little exposure to the natural world in their everyday lives.  Perhaps I should endeavor to cultivate a big-picture focus that helps me foster big-picture connections from my students to saltwater. 

I’m not the only one thinking along these lines: American Media and the Green Movement on Treehugger.