Marc C. Hirrel, Leopold Education Project State Coordinator, SFNC Docent

A plaque on the stone archway leading to the Jewel Moore Nature Reserve reads,

The objective is to teach the student to see the land, to understand what he sees, and enjoy what he understands. – Aldo Leopold, 1942.

Like Jewel Moore and hundreds of other nature reserves and centers such as ours, Leopold’s philosophy and teachings are the nutrients our roots draw from the land that is South Fork. Teacher, above all and foremost, Leopold taught through “the Land”. He was all about turning kids loose to read the landscape. At SFNC, we say,”Teach Outside, No classroom required!!” There’s curricula in a turned over log, a textbook under every tree, and a quiz in the dust of a set of tracks.

So now that I’m in the autumn of my years as the song goes, tell us about Leopold and South Fork, which is easy, and yourself, which is not. The short, to the point story is great teachers, mentors, and the Boy Scouts. I’ve taught with and without classrooms, in and outside of Arkansas, and had students from grades 2-college and adults of all ages.

W. C. Fields advised, ”Never follow the animal act!” Don’t go into outdoor education, if you can’t stand being upstaged by Nature….Get Used To It! In nearly 50 years of teaching that started in the Boy Scouts, I’ve been turned invisible by a 12 point mule deer dining on prickly pear about 30 feet behind me and struck mute by a Coopers Hawk having a park pigeon for lunch during my birdsongs of Leopold activity. I suspect there will be more. So learn when the teachable moment is upon you and let Nature take over.

1st Rule to Teaching Outside- Know when to Shut Up! and do it often.

South Fork Nature Center is committed to providing enhanced, outdoor educational opportunities on a regional basis. We can do this because of the Gates-Rogers Foundation commitment to protecting and preserving Arkansas native flora and fauna in a manner that ensures and encourages public access,…that’s us! And this happens because the Foundation is dedicated to the development, application, and dissemination of ecologically sound land management practices that further this mission. To Aldo Leopold, this is a Land Ethic.

In striving to find harmony between men and land, through A Sand County Almanac and sketches here and there, Leopold crafts The Land Ethic and his challenge , There is as yet no ethic dealing with man’s relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it. Land, like Odysseus’ slave-girls, is still property. The land-relation is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but not obligations. Our mission states the obligations to our Land Ethic. The Aldo Leopold Foundation’s mission is to foster a land ethic through the legacy of Aldo Leopold with a vision to weave a land ethic into the fabric of our society; to advance the understanding, stewardship and restoration of land health… Great Foundations think alike!

To learn more about the Aldo Leopold Foundation go to

Obviously, education is required to develop ones Land Ethic. For Leopold, it was a “liberal education in wildlife…” What is less obvious is how it starts. The when it started is when you were young and in your favorite place to play. The instant you finished the last sentence that place came front and center in your mind. You saw yourself in that place. You could feel it, hear it, smell it. The games you played were unstructured except by your imagination and you were in Nature. Whether it was woods behind grandpa’s farm or a vacant lot in an inner city, you found Nature on your own and through play your land ethic education began.

Research over decades continues to support improvements in student achievement when nature experiences are the contextual frame for learning. Why do school districts in Southern Illinois have nearly 50 years of camp and outdoor education as part of the middle school curriculum? Because it works!

The Aldo Leopold Foundation through its education arm the Leopold Education Project (LEP) has released a new set of activities to help educators shape the land ethic for future generations. Along with other materials, the new Interdisciplinary Land Ethic Curriculum, is based on Leopold’s conservation philosophy. But the LEP curriculum should not stand alone. It needs integration into the excellent natural resource curricula that have been around far longer. These curricula focus on forest resources, Project Learning Tree-PLT; water resources, Project WET; and wildlife resources, Project WILD. All these curricula are taught through one day workshops year round in Arkansas. We will have dates in 2017 at SFNC to get you started and hit the trail teaching.

2nd Rule to Teaching Outside- All great curriculum is stolen. Steal some, Get trained!

The cover of the new LEP curriculum is our Mission Image: It’s not my, or your Land Ethic that needs developing; it’s those two kids. Our two, South Fork kids. In the July essay, Prairie Birthday, Leopold laments the sorry condition of land health when once extensive populations of compass plant are relegated to the unmowed strip of an 1840’s graveyard, and will anyone ever again care about loss of fauna, flora, or habitat. What a thousand acres of Silphiums looked like when they tickled the bellies of buffalo is a question never again to be answered, and perhaps never asked. Never asked….It will be at South Fork!

Our brains come pre-programmed and wired for the natural world. No additional apps or software upgrades are needed. Updates are 24/7. Overtime we have evolved a sixth sense to the five biological ones. The sense of Wonder. Nature makes us wonder in two ways. We wonder because we are curious (left brain) and we wonder because we are in awe of Nature (right brain). Nature Deficient Disorder is very real, very prevalent, and very damaging to our brains and sense of Wonder. The objective to teach the student to see the land, to understand what he sees, and enjoy what he understands falls in all our laps. It’s one of those obligations to give back to the land. Your love of nature is all you need to share with a child.

So no one should be surprised that many of our docents as well as nature centers nationwide, are educators, some never stood in front of a blackboard. Too many would be docents have the desire, but lack the “knowledge” to go into nature with our youth. If this is you, then let me assure you that it’s 99% desire and 1% knowledge, which is the easiest to acquire. Aldo would say to you that a, Liberal education in wildlife is not merely a dilute dosage of technical education. It calls for somewhat different teaching materials and sometimes even different teachers. The objective is to teach….

3rd Rule to Teaching Outside- Share your sense of Wonder with a child.

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One of our favorite South Fork photos is featured on the cover of this curriculum guide!
One of our favorite South Fork photos is featured on the cover of this curriculum guide!