January/February 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 4

Looking for Nature in All Kinds of Places

Posted: Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

by Annette Huddle

The San Francisco Botanical Garden is an unnatural place.

Now there’s a provocative statement – especially since we pride ourselves on the nature education programs we provide for urban children, reaching about 12,000 children and their teachers and parents each year! But in a sense, the statement is true. The 55 acres that comprise the botanical garden include about a dozen manmade water features, miles of paved roads and paths, green lawns, and thousands of exotic plants from around the world. Many of these need supplemental watering or occasional frost protection to survive. The sand dunes and associated ecologies of 150 years ago are gone, destroyed in the interest of the humans who built the city of San Francisco. Quite unnatural!

Teachers explore the diversity of life inside a hula-hoop on the garden lawn

Teachers explore the diversity of life inside a hula-hoop on the garden lawn

Except, of course, that it’s not. For one thing, human beings are a part of the natural world, and the actions we take that alter it are a part of that world too. That’s a key message that children, and adults too, need to learn. If we insist on separating ourselves from “nature”, we will miss the fact that we are truly linked to and dependent on the systems and organisms that surround us.

But another important point is that natural processes are at work everywhere on our planet, with living organisms and abiotic features linked through a rich variety of interactions, creating elaborate interconnected systems. These interactions and systems exist at one scale or another in even the most “unnatural” environments. In the San Francisco Botanical Garden, a wide variety of living things have found ways to meet their needs. While the players may be different than in a less human-altered area, the processes are the same – living things develop, grow and change while obtaining food and water, protecting themselves, and trying to reproduce, either limited or enhanced by the geology, climate and weather and the processes and cycles associated with them.

 A huge non-native snapping turtle basks in the pond near giant South American gunnera leaves, both dramatic sights for visitors.

A huge non-native snapping turtle basks in the pond near giant South American gunnera leaves, both dramatic sights for visitors.

In guided walks at the SFBG, students from kindergarten through 5th grade learn about various aspects of the natural world, including our place in it. The garden teaches us lessons both in spite of and because of its unusual diversity of plants. A five year old does not care, or particularly need to know, that a plant she is examining is an exotic monkey hand tree from Mexico, but she does need to learn that this plant, like any other plant, has specific parts that do certain jobs for the plant. A second-grader on a “Web of Life” walk can learn about food chains even if the native red tail hawk is eating a non-native squirrel which fattened up on exotic Chinese magnolia buds and human-supplied and officially forbidden peanuts. A fourth grader learning about traditional Ohlone uses of plants in our native garden can contemplate other ways humans use plants while passing the weaver’s bamboo from China or the fiber banana from Japan.

In our Children’s Garden, young people are immersed in experiencing the natural world, learning to recognize its cycles and processes, and the things we humans can, and cannot, do to alter or control these. We can add compost to build the soil on the sand dune on which our garden grows, helping retain water for our plants, but we can’t make it rain. We can plant pumpkin seeds in June, but are at the mercy of the fog that covers our San Francisco garden in July and August, allowing mildew to cover the stunted leaves. We can plant in containers to dissuade hungry gophers, but since they are even hungrier than we are, we never entirely outwit them!

A native heron hunts for fish in a man-made pond in the San Francisco Botanical Garden

A native heron hunts for fish in a man-made pond in the San Francisco Botanical Garden

It’s clear that a landscape can be quite altered by human activity and still support a rich web of life. Perhaps visiting a botanical garden is not the same as visiting an area of undeveloped wilderness, but there is still a lot to explore, discover, and learn. By the same token, a neighborhood park, a school yard, a vacant lot, even a cemetery can provide an opportunity to observe natural processes and cycles at work. Living organisms evolve and adapt to all kinds of habitats, even those that may seem barren at first glance. We humans need to learn to recognize nature in all its forms, whether in the densest urban center or the most pristine landscape, to truly understand that we too are part of it all.

Annette Huddle is Director of the Youth Education Program at the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society

Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy: http://www.classroomscience.org/disclaimer.

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  1. […] else you might find interesting is this article I just wrote for the California Science Teachers Association called “Finding Nature in All […]

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