To begin addressing this question, we have to ask, what is conservation? A cursory Google search will tell you that it means a variety of things, ranging from preservation to resource management. Though these may be apt descriptors for conservation on a very logical level, a newer growing definition is centered around the intentional protection and management of natural spaces to ensure their continued role in reconnecting people to the land. To better understand this intentionality, I’m going to take you into my backyard.
Growing up in a small farm town in central Massachusetts, about an hour outside of Boston, I took for granted a casual walk in the woods. We had a big backyard surrounded by tall pines, woods to run through, a steep hill to sled during winter, and a sturdy log home. In the spring, when the snow began to melt, my friends and I romped in the woods behind our house with sticks for swords and old tree bark for shields, fighting off invisible enemies. In those woods, nestled between a few steep outcrops and brambles was a pool, filled with spring snowmelt. When we first found it, it was just water, no visible animals or fish, but one early spring night the air was particularly warm. I remember lying in bed and hearing this cacophony coming from the direction of the pond, a sound like hundreds of frogs croaking together. When I returned to the woods, I could still here the croaking, but as I got closer it stopped. I squatted by the water for a while and it started to move, as if the water itself was writhing. Tadpoles. Thousands of tadpoles were swimming in this pool. It was awe inspiring, so much life and vibrancy in this little pool. I went back every chance I got to watch these tadpoles grow, they grew tails, and then hind legs, and slowly they resembled frogs, eventually leaving the pool for larger bodies of water. For most of my childhood, the frogs would come back every year to lay their eggs in the pool on what I came to understand as “Big Night”; but over the years they stopped coming, the woods weren’t filled with frog croaks and the pool didn’t fill up with snow melt. I never understood why the frogs stopped coming, why the pool dried up, or why my little brother couldn’t watch these tadpoles transform from eggs to frogs like I had.
I remember how formative this experience was, it was part of how I became interested in science. I used to excitedly bring a few tadpoles into my biology classroom where my teacher would put them in a terrarium, so all the students could watch this transformative process. Even after I went on to other courses, every year around Big Night she would ask me if I had seen any tadpoles. When the frogs stopped coming, we lost this educational tool and I lost a companion space. I went back there last spring, picking my way through the overgrown brambles, pushing through the thickets of briars to get back there. When I stumbled out into the clearing, the place was unrecognizable, there was only a rotted log and some depressions in the ground where the pool used to be. A few small puddles held some murky looking water where a few worms squirmed around. I felt like a stranger in my own backyard, a place where I spent hours running through the woods, watching frogs and tadpoles. The memory is still there, playing in my head, but the colors aren’t as bright now. The buds on the trees aren’t as green and the water isn’t as alive.
For the sake of this discussion, we’re going to call that vernal pool an affective space, a physical natural space that I have emotional ties to. Affective spaces don’t need to be unique or individual, a community can share an affective space and develop widespread connections with a natural space. What remains important about these affective spaces is their protection. These spaces need both protection for us to enjoy them, but also protection from us so that they can continue being integral parts of our place-based experiences. The conservation and protection of these spaces are essential for communities to reconnect with natural spaces in their own individual ways. This is extremely important as our lives continue to be globalized and being to lose ties to our Earth. Without relationships like this tying us to the Earth, we become unmoored and ungrounded in a very literal sense.
To explore one’s own relationship with land, it is often helpful to think of impactful spaces from your youth. These spaces don’t need to be “outdoorsy” in a traditional sense, but rather a physical space that has emotional meaning. It is important to keep this space in mind when we consider the importance of conservation, and its place in reconnecting people to our environments.
I hope you’ll stay tuned for next week’s blog about our visit to Peaks Island to explore some of Oceanside Conservation Trust’s properties!
— Jared Fong, 2019 Southern Maine Conservation Summer Associate