A Talk with Bob Pyle
Mr. Madison: Today is June 27th, 2013, and I’m Mark Madison at the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, and we are here with Robert Michael Pyle who has come out for a return visit to the Student Climate and Conservation Congress. He just addressed about 110 high school students who are interested in pursuing environmental careers. So Bob, the first obvious question for you is what message did you give the students?
Mr. Pyle: Oh, I thought you were going to ask me what message the students gave me. That’s far more important!
Mr. Madison: Maybe both.
Mr. Pyle: I barely presume to give any messages, but if there’s anything I could convey to the students I hope it was my respect and gratitude for their hopefulness and for the fact that they’re not jaded and they’re not spoiled and they’re hopeful. They’re genuinely hopeful which we are too, but you know after nearly half a century working in conservation it gets tough sometimes. We thought we were going to fix it in the 60s and 70s and we didn’t, although things improved and we got wonderful federal laws out of that time and that was all very encouraging, but then of course there have been the downturns and the very perilous, powerless situation we find ourselves in so it’s easy to get cynical and we know friends who have, but the kids aren’t. They’re not cynical and I love that.
So I hope that the main message I may have given them was to reinforce that and reinforce that there are biological, ethical, political and perceptual reasons for their hope. Their hope is not founded on clay.
The second thing was to please put down the handhelds for a significant period every day and engage -- not to put those devices down -- but to literally put them down and engage with the physical details of the actual earth because it’s so easy to divert ourselves from that and it’s not just young people with handhelds. Everybody does that with a sit down computer or a job or anything else. Even books, which I venerate. You’ve got to get your nose out of a book from time to time and go out of doors and to touch things and smell things and engage personally. Become a better naturalist every day because if you care about conservation you need to know something about the actual natural history of the physical components of the earth.
Mr. Madison: You’ve written about this a lot, Bob.
Mr. Pyle: Yes.
Mr. Madison: And you’re one of the first to alert us to what’s now sometimes called nature deficit disorder or more eloquently extinction of experience.
Mr. Pyle: Well, I think they both have their eloquence. They’re both lucky terms. Extinction of experience arose for me when I was trying to prepare a lecture in the stead of my professor at Yale, Charles Remington. He was supposed to give a talk to AAAS, “American Association for the Advancement of Science” media in Boston on “Wildlife in the Year 2001” and that was in 1975 and he said will you please go give this lecture for me. I was a graduate student of his and I said what am I going to talk about? Well, I’ll talk about the very first butterfly extinction that I witnessed where my own school was built on top of my own favorite butterfly habitat and when I was trying to come up with how I would convey that, that term slipped into my mind, a great piece of luck because it’s lyrical. It sings and it says exactly what it needs, the extinction of experience.
It’s been a great pleasure of mine to see that term enter the lexicon. You Google it and it will come up Latin. Lots of times it is in fact attributed and that’s gratifying, of course, but it’s almost more gratifying when it’s not attributed because it means it has kind of come into the thinking so that was a lucky thing.
Nature Deficit Disorder ; Richard Louv will tell you that, I think it was Kathy, wasn’t it, his wife, who came up with that term and it was his editor who insisted they use it. So there’s a piece of double luck.
It’s like when Nabokov threw out the manuscript of Lolita with whom I’ve had a couple of magnificent conversations with some of these students about, them bringing it up and reading it and I was so thrilled that they had and saw the environmental implications of it, but that astonishingly important book, one of the most moral treatments of human enormity in our time was tossed in the trash can by Nabokov because he was sure it would be misperceived as pornography which of course it was, but his wife knew what it was and how powerful and important it was, pulled it out of the trash can. That’s another one of those pieces of that luck.
So we have luck and we live in a stochastic universe which means stuff happens contingently and when we’re on the right side of that because we’re aware of the possibilities, some nice things happen and so I wouldn’t say that extinction of experience or nature deficit disorder, one is more eloquent than the other. In fact, they’re more complimentary than they are synonymous. They kind of -- they absolutely go hand in hand and it’s been a really sweet commensalism to see the Children in Nature Network and the Green Schools Alliance and the Natural Leaders Programs and all the things that have come out of Richard’s book basically and that Richard says that Thunder Tree, my book in which I expatiated the extinction of experience had a certain amount of inspiration for him. That’s all the community of conservation and that’s what NCTC is about. It’s a community of conservation. I think of this place as the capitol village of the community of conservation.
Mr. Madison: Great. Very quickly: You said we need to get kids out in nature and so on. I’ve seen a lot of students come up talking to you. It’s been great to have you here for the whole week.
Mr. Pyle: It’s been fun.
Mr. Madison: And you’re just kind of an in-house sage for the week.
Mr. Pyle: The oracle of SC3.
Mr. Madison: So what do you tell them?
Mr. Pyle: Well, that’s my favorite part. When they do approach me, I try to be available, but I especially love it when they come up with a question or a comment based on the talk I gave about butterflies and climate or anything else they’re thinking.
First of all, I’m flattered that they think I might know the answer and we try to have a conversation about it rather than a didactic -- we had a wonderful conversation late last night. I felt bad because some of the young women stayed up till nearly midnight talking in the lounge of Murie about evolution and about how butterflies convey that.
The other day in my talk I was asked why are butterflies significant to me and I said well, there are lots of reasons. They’re elegant indicators of ecosystem health as we’ve shown. They are fun to study and they were fun as a kid to chase and they still are and they are elegant and beautiful. You don’t need anything more, but there is one more trait that they have that kicked off this conversation late last night and that is a young woman was asking me about crypsis and camouflage and how that arises so we got into natural selection.
I said the other thing about butterflies that I should have mentioned to that question to that young man, so I hope he listens to this, is that butterflies, the wings of butterflies are canvases of evolution, more than probably any other organism, not more, they respond just like other organisms, but they advertise it. They proclaim their adaptations through natural selection on these amazing canvases that are their wings that are painted with the pixels of scales. They’re pixelated images. That’s exactly what they are.
Long before we managed to do that on a screen and that’s one thing I often say about nature deficit disorder is these are wonderful devices, but the shimmering pixels on a silicone screen will never match the shimmering pixels on a butterflies wings; a direct experience. So any way when natural selection acts upon mutations on butterflies and makes them more fit for the circumstances that they confront in life, it is reflected and expressed directly. Not metaphorically. Not figuratively and not opaquely, but directly and nakedly and openly and brilliantly on their wings.
So the wings of butterflies are one of the most marvelous windows on the world and windows into evolution. So that’s one of the conversations I’ve had now with three or four groups of the students who are interested in one aspect or another. Also, the other thing I’ve been saying to the students a lot. We talked about our river trip yesterday. There were so many wonderful experiences I love. We’re sitting in the Archive at NCTC and there are some wonderful canoes and watercraft in here, probably were used for wildlife purposes.
Mr. Madison: Somewhat.
Mr. Pyle: (Inaudible) But we were in canoes on the Potomac and I always love canoeing a new stretch of river for me, anyway, but my favorite thing of the whole day was seeing some of those students in their solo kayaks or doubles and even a triple canoe or two, get off on their own, away from their own pack. The pack stuff’s fun and I love watching that too but when they got off into the shallows, into the edges, under those sycamore bowels, imagining themselves lying on that sycamore bowel reading or writing or listening to music or just listening to the wood thrushes I hope, and they got off on their own and they got to be quiet. There’s not always a lot of quiet time in a busy young person’s life, social life, so that was thrilling and then to see some of them walking through the paths here at NCTC and actually without prompting, I did prompt often. I’d say hey. Hey, you guys. Check that out! That’s a wood thrush, but to see some of them actually discover the wood thrush on their own because it was so theoretically beautiful. They might not have known what it was, but they’d stop and listen.
So our contacts have been both information rich in both directions. I always want to know where these kids are, what contexts they come out of and what their take is on things and it’s always thrilling to me to see how they have come to conservation and where they hope to go with it. Talked about giving us hope. Talked about rejuvenation. That’s the best thing about coming here – I know Steve stays so young here I think. I know there are a lot of mature Fish and Wildlife and other agency people that come through here but you have young people through here a lot too and that is simply rejuvenating.
Mr. Madison: Well, that’s a good one to go out on.
Mr. Pyle: I think so.
Mr. Madison: Thank you so much. We’ve been speaking with Robert Michael Pyle. He’s an author, lepidopterist and this week inspiration to 110 high school students so thank you very much.
Mr. Pyle: Thank you Mark. Thanks for having me again.
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