Opening Nature to the Young

Marlin Perkins would have been proud. In the "cement jungle" of the San Fernando Valley, a budding naturalist got his first taste of wilderness through Perkins' long-running television series, "Wild Kingdom," and other nature programs.

"I'm a pretty good example of the urban child," says Harry Helling. "My parents didn't particularly like to camp, and my early exposure, my emotional connection, to wilderness and wildlife was literally through TV." Helling apparently wasn't hampered by the less-than-idyllic environs of his boyhood; his TV-spawned interest in nature led him to study marine ecology and cultural anthropology at UC San Diego, and he later received his master's degree in environmental education from Humboldt State University. Now he is in his fourth year as director of education for the Orange County Marine Institute in Dana Point, where he works to give other city youths a firsthand look at nature.

His remarks were taken from an interview with Times staff writer Rick VanderKnyff.

It seems obvious that even the planned development, and the planned use of urban parks, isn't providing the type of ecological experience that was provided to kids in the past. When you have a mowed lawn that takes up even two or three square blocks, you don't get the same sort of food chains and natural habitat that you did when it was a natural field with rabbits and coyotes and burrowing owls and all sorts of other interesting animals. You get a lot of introduced animals. The average student's perception of wildlife and ecology is limited to crickets, frogs and mockingbirds.

At the Marine Institute, we run a residential camp up in the mountains, we run a floating lab program, we run intertidal excursions and lab programs, and they all have one thing in common--it gives students firsthand exposure to the natural elements; giving them the time to follow an ant to and from its destination or to sit on a mountaintop and watch the mating ritual of hawks, to hold an octopus--all of which were experiences that were readily attainable by youths of the past, but not as much now.

One of the rewards of this particular job is the amazing effect that we see on students, and the effects are long-lived. We now have people coming back to work here who went through the program when they were in high school. Almost every time I give a talk on the Marine Institute, somebody comes up to me and tells me that they personally were affected, or their son or daughter went through the program years ago and still remember it in vivid detail.

We recognize that in a day or a week you can't teach a lot of facts about the ocean. When we teach here, it doesn't really matter what species of bird we're looking at or what species of plant it is, because they won't remember that down the road, several years from now. None of our programs are designed to deal strongly with facts and figures.

What all of our programs are designed to do is create a positive emotion associated with these facts, so we try to create a positive experience of holding an octopus or a tarantula, or going off to sea and helping to haul in a net filled with different types of animals. It doesn't matter really what the animals are, as much as it is the process of going out there and working with an enthusiastic staff and seeing, firsthand, the relationships.

They dissect a fish, and inside they see that fish has another fish in its stomach. And then you open that fish, and gee, you look at the contents of that fish under a microscope and you can see that it was eating small crustaceans or something else, and my God, the food chain has come to life. In an hour's time, we can do that type of education. We can bring a concept to life. When they go back, from that time forward, they will always remember the food chain. It's a foundation that they will build on for the rest of their lives in their understanding of the environment. That's our target.

Deep in my heart, I would love to be on a boat defending the whales, standing between a whale and the whale boat, interfering with people clubbing harp seals or people going out and hunting mountain lions in our mountains here. There's probably a need for that in the overall conservation drive, to have the people who are willing to do that, but the real solution to conservation worldwide lies in education. Education and an informed citizenry.

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