Retired teacher Hugh Birdsall, in an article in Today’s Perspective section, suggests that K-12 public education stop focusing on distance learning and other workarounds to compensate for lost time at school due to the pandemic. Instead, he says, enlist the help of savvy naturalists and nature lovers to help educators move learning into the large outdoor classroom.
Planning for a widespread move into a nature classroom seems to take years. Still, I’m struck by how much is already happening in local schools, nature centers, and environmental programs – and is partly made up of volunteers.
Southeast Connecticut is a particularly rich place to introduce students to the biosphere. Hundreds of hectares of land remain untouched, crossed by rivers and streams. Most cities touch the waters of the estuary, including Long Island Sound and the Connecticut, Niantic, Thames, and Pawcatuck rivers. In a lifetime, you couldn’t imagine all of the biology, geology, hydrology, chemistry, and physics on display to learn. But what an enthusiastic teacher can bequeath is a lifetime of devotion to nature. And the Earth needs human defenders more than anything.
In the past month, we’ve lost two of the area’s most passionate outdoor and nature teachers, both experts and volunteers. However, Curtis Nelson and Eleanor Robinson each ensured that the surrounding natural world had champions long after they left.
Curt Nelson was a retired EB Engineering Director from Ledyard. He embodied the fly-fisherman’s credo that the places where trout live are foolproof beauty and that the humans who visit these places will find both peace and excitement. Curt helped found the Thames Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited, an organization whose name is its mission: to support the trout population and the local waterways where these beautifully spotted fish can thrive. He and other guys at TU each year helped fish and wildlife workers stockpile trout in the streams of eastern Connecticut, thrilled to wade through the frigid streams of April and November. They once even set out to breed brown trout from the egg stage and eventually released them to Merrick Brook in Scotland, north of Norwich.
Curt and his fly fishing friends would land trout on barbless hooks and release them unharmed. They ran fishing lessons for kids, teaching wood and water safety and sportsmanship – and the science of entomology, because you can’t tie an artificial fly if you don’t understand the life cycle of the true insect when it emerges, spreads its wings, and hovers above moving water. When Curt passed away on December 14 at the age of 86, he bequeathed to people he would never meet a system of clean, beautiful streams where a trout would be happy to live, and a passion for preserving them.
Eleanor Robinson, who died Jan. 2, was tasked with educating even more nature lovers. In 2015, the first year she led a small group of volunteers for the brand new Roger Tory Peterson Estuary Center in running a nature program for third graders in Essex, they enrolled 35 children. In 2021, the centre’s camps and programs, including science education for all elementary school students in New London Schools, reached 3,500 children and more than 1,500 adults.
Eleanor was the prime mover and first manager of the Old Lyme Estuary Center; a teacher, biologist and environmentalist. She had banded birds in the Amazon rainforest and climbed the Adirondack Mountains, but she believed the environment in each child’s neighborhood was the most fascinating. The science program she has developed with others takes children out of the building to study ecology within walking distance, whether urban, suburban or rural. It now serves children in 15 cities.
Eleanor Robinson and Curt Nelson were more than environmentalists; she is a musician and he is a submarine builder, among others. They did not stand still. When they had the time, they shared it. They had fun. They were “Look at this!” people.
I hope that their successors are there, ready to share with the young people what they have learned in the open air.
Lisa McGinley is a member of The Day’s editorial board.