(Cross-posted from National Wildlife magazine)

HAVE YOU NOTICED that wild strawberries picked from tendrils growing in the most impoverished, barren soils have the sweetest fruits? In their struggle for moisture and nutrients, these small, cone-shaped berries enrich and sweeten far beyond their well-cared for, broad-shouldered domestic counterparts. My earliest recollections of picking wild strawberries were along an abandoned electric trolley right-of-way once known as the Harmony Short Line.

Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Photo credit: Flickr, Aditi-the-Stargazer)
Jack-in-the-Pulpit, one of the many wildflowers native to the woods of western Pennsylvania where I grew up. (Photo Credit: Flickr/Aditi-the-Stargazer)

As soon as the five-petaled white flowers appeared each spring, my brothers and I established a daily surveillance until the blooms turned to ripened red fruit. Then we raided mom’s kitchen for pots and pans to collect the tiny treasures. Since those days, I have eaten many big strawberries and even grown a few in my own gardens, but I have never found one to match those wild berries for taste.

Some of my cherished memories go to my earliest discoveries on the wild landscapes near my childhood home. What I knew about the world then was very simple. Trees were for climbing, strawberries were for picking, creeks were for exploring, rocks were for turning and empty jars were for catching crayfish. What else does a boy need to know about life?

These childhood experiences forged a deep connection with nature that transformed my life. Now, watching my three grandsons play outdoors, I am mindful of the need to connect children to nature early in life so they develop a concern that leads to an environmental ethic.

Nearing the end of his 21-year tenure as head of the National Wildlife Federation, Thomas Kimball wrote a piece in January 1981 for EPA Journal titled “An Earth Ethic,” in which he reflected, “As citizens we know that the quality of our life in the future will be determined in large measure by how environmentally aware the world’s population can become. As educators we know that two things are necessary to develop that awareness: caring and knowledge.”

Caring and knowledge so simply stated by Kimball is what underpins NWF’s mission and purpose. We are committed to inspiring all Americans to protect wildlife for our children’s future. These essential ingredients are needed more today than ever before. The only way that wild places will be saved is through informed and caring citizenry standing up for wildlife now.

Protecting nature has become a lot more complicated in recent times, as exploding human populations have imposed exponential demands on the living resources of the planet. Habitats, fragmented by oil, coal and gas developments, subdivisions and highways, are now under intensifying stress from rapidly shifting climatic conditions.

The oceans are now overfished and overheating from global warming. They are acidifying as depositories for billions upon billions of tons of carbonic acid from fossil fuel burning. Phytoplankton, the basic building blocks of marine fisheries and critically important sources of oxygen for the planet, have declined by 40 percent in recent decades and are continuing to disappear at a rate of 1 percent per year.

Our challenge is further complicated today because more and more people live lives that are disconnected from nature. Recently a college student asked me why he should care if Earth is overheating as long as he has air-conditioning and the Internet. For his “plugged-in” generation, it seems, handheld gadgets may matter more than faraway melting sea ice.

As the recent elections demonstrate, America has been profoundly influenced by hollow, front organizations that are funded by oil, coal and gas interests. These interests create a cloud of confusion and undermine the ability of people to understand the real threats. They also deliberately reduce our ability to create the kinds of changes necessary in energy and climate policies to protect wildlife and the future of our children.

Clearly, we must redouble our collective efforts to care for nature. The threats are many and are increasing in pace and scale. Each of us must become a voice for change in energy policies, for wildlife habitat restoration and for education. We must address the troubling trend of children disconnecting from nature because they get so little unstructured outdoor playtime and almost no environmental instruction.

All of this leads me back to the wild strawberries of my youth. We need to move away from the distracting screens and handheld gadgets so we can rediscover what is important, as I did many years ago. Our children must fully understand and appreciate how our very existence is linked to the health and vitality of nature itself. If ever there was a time for an Earth ethic, it is now.Jack in the Pulpit