Coral reefs provide medicines that save lives. Forests give us wood for shelter and heat. Rivers provide fish to eat and jobs for fisherman. Through the Conservancy’s special feature on why Nature Matters, you can hear directly from people who depend on a healthy environment for their food, livelihood or medication.
Reading these inspiring stories and watching the videos got me to thinking… why does nature matter to our own Conservancy scientists? What has motivated them to do the work they do? So, I reached out to a few and asked them just that.
Stephanie Wear, director of coral reef conservation, is inspired by the amazing things that coral reefs do for people. “True,” she admits, “coral reefs are mind-blowingly beautiful, and if you are short on inspiration, just dunk your head under the tropical sea – you’ll be hooked!”
But, to Stephanie, coral reefs are so much more: “They are the hub of ocean life, supporting 25 percent of all ocean life and providing food to nearly a billion people. Reefs also protect our coastlines, making it possible for hundreds of millions of people to live along the coast, and they bring us important drugs that are treating cancers, malaria, HIV, Alzheimer’s and more.”
Senior Freshwater Scientist Jeff Opperman applies that same enthusiasm to rivers and floodplains.
“Most people think of floods only in negative terms, but they are the underappreciated key to healthy rivers, “he says. “The floodplain is the most productive part of the river and so, to be productive, rivers need to periodically spend some time there. When a river rises onto its floodplain, the floodwaters slow and become shallow and clear, allowing sunlight to penetrate and drive the food web. Rivers with access to their floodplains support the most productive and important freshwater fish harvests in the world.”
Well, it’s obvious that Conservancy scientists not only know their stuff when it comes to conservation, but they understand the “why” as well. It’s not just about preserving a beautiful place – a healthy, functioning environment is actually vital for human life and survival.
But the question I was really after was: Why does nature matter to you?
For many of our scientists, that’s a tough question to answer – if you don’t want a touchy-feely response.
“I can talk about how protecting floodplains can reduce flood risk for people and provide fisheries, but, because of where I live, no river has ever kept me safe from floods, and I’ve only occasionally eaten fish from a river,” Jeff admits. “It would be like asking someone what they loved about music and they respond that they’d read a study that music education in elementary school helps brain development and leads to higher test scores.”
For Jeff, it’s much more personal than that.
“As a kid,” he explains, “one of my favorite places was the backyard creek and its jungly uncharted territory. I loved that it was always changing – during a hot summer I could cross it and barely get my feet wet but during an early spring storm it looked like a raging mini-river. During rainstorms, I’d run down to the creek and just watch it.”
Still today, during a big rainstorm, Jeff can be spotted slipping down the hill to his backyard creek or hopping into his car and driving to waterfalls and tributary junctions, where he’ll snap pictures of the local river in its “surging, powerful, flood form.”
“When the rain trails off, I’m one of the few that feels disappointment,” he says, “Because for me, the flood show is drawing to a close.”
For Stephanie, too, the question of why nature matters to her is both simple and difficult to answer at the same time.
“Beyond the basics – the air I breathe, the water I drink, the food I eat and the climate I live in – there is how it makes me feel, how it affects my brain,” she explains.
“I am inspired by nature. I get stress relief from being in nature. It is my reset button when life gets too crazy. It is my retreat when I need space from the world or need to be reminded of what is most important in life, which for me is being with family – and hopefully somewhere wild and wonderful!”
The Conservancy’s Lead Scientist Sanjayan took a few minutes out of a hectic travel schedule to respond to my question. I had emailed him asking for a “concrete example of why nature matters to him.” He complied and sent back a beautiful description of a trout creek near his house with a nearby spring that delivers cool, sweet water year-round as a reminder that “this basic ethereal substance so crucial for all life – even our own – comes from nature.”
But the more honest response was in the body of the email itself, addressed to me:
“This was a little tricky,” he wrote. “because for me, with nature, it is simply love. To value it in a ‘concrete’ way makes it seem as if saying ‘I love nature’ makes it somehow less important or less valuable to me. It’s like being asked why you love someone and answering with a list of specific descriptions rather than really expressing how you feel.”
So, it seems that it’s impossible – even for our brainy, academic scientists – to talk about nature and why it matters without getting, well… at least a little touchy-feely.
[Image: Glacier National Park, Montana. Image Source: Simon Williams]