The transformative power of plants, people, and places
“I won’t hike,” the 12-year old said.
I paused, not exactly sure how to respond. As one of the parent chaperones on a recent Girl Scout outing, I needed this girl to get out of the car. We had arrived at our destination. It was a beautiful, perfect morning.
“We’re here. C’mon, let’s go,” I encouraged her, as my daughter and the other girls tumbled over each other to get out, excited to stretch their legs and start the day.
“I’m not hiking,” she repeated. A new member to our troop, this was her first outing with us.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. I was honestly confused. We were there for an all-day badge program to learn about trees, forests, and forestry careers. We had talked about it in the weeks prior, and in the car ride there. Why this sudden resistance?
“I’ll walk with you all. But I don’t want to hike. I am NOT hiking.”
I think my mouth fell open a bit. It took me a few moments to fully appreciate that this 12-year-old, smart, vivacious, outgoing young person did not have a personal understanding of the word “hike,” and in her mind, had equated it to something to be feared or avoided. This made me deeply sad on many levels.
After a few moments, I took a deep breath, and smiled at her worried face.
“Well, then…let’s just take a walk.”
While it hurts my head and heart to acknowledge it, it is not uncommon to encounter a person who has little to no affinity for being outdoors.
Thousands of peer-reviewed articles and books have documented this phenomena, pointing to a host of factors: safety fears, technology habits, lifestyle trends, societal values. Much has been written about the growing disconnect between humans, especially children, and the living world. Childhoods spent walking in woods, wading in creeks, making whistles out of weeds, and falling asleep to wind and frog-song are fading fast. While it’s heart-wrenching to witness this loss manifest in the youngest among us, it’s just as troubling to consider the consequences of this disconnect manifesting in people of all ages who are living, working, and making everyday decisions in the here-and-now.
Many of us at the Garden think about this a lot. And while many of the causes and trends associated with this disconnect may be out of our control, one basic truth remains: More often than not, plants are the answer.
Not only do we need more people of all ages and abilities experiencing the extraordinary plants all around them, we need more plants in more places where people are. We need more plants in places where they can clean our air and water, cool our urban heat-islands, protect us from extremes, feed us, heal us, connect us, and beautify our communities. We need plants in places that can serve as much-needed habitat corridors connecting a fragmented world. We need plants in places that can inspire daily awe and wonder among young and old alike. This is the type of nature-inspired “growth” our greater St. Louis region is well-positioned to pursue.
Fortunately, we’re already doing just that. Our region is home to an impressive network of natural assets— forests, farmlands, wetlands, grasslands, bluffs, caves, parks, trails, and an iconic river confluence like none other. It’s also home to an unparalleled human network of biodiversity advocates, ranging from conservation organizations, government agencies, and municipalities to businesses, schools, universities, and community groups. Together, these assets—both places and people—are creating a tipping point in our region in recent years, one characterized by more people working together to value, care for, and in some cases, connect these special places. As a major player in this ecosystem of activity, the Garden has invested in two basic strategies: celebrate, then activate.
Every chance we get, Garden staff and volunteers strive to directly connect people with plants and the living world in personally relevant ways. Whether participating in a trail run through an oak-hickory forest, volunteering to remove invasive bush honeysuckle, or surrounding one’s home, school, or workplace with healthy green living things, we find that the more people are around plants, the more plants they want to be around.
To help people connect with nature wherever they are, the Garden celebrates our region’s outdoor gems through the Meet Me Outdoors in St. Louis campaign, a series of events at Garden sites followed by a year’s worth of nature- inspired adventures across the bi-state region.
The Garden practices its love for plants through action—discovering new species, propagating at-risk plants for conservation programs in the field, and restoring degraded habitats close to home and around the world. But we need help: to reach the tipping point, we must do everything we can to activate the millions of people who engage with us every year.
In the St. Louis region, activation takes many forms. With early childhood audiences, our Sprouting Science program helps schools create nature-rich habitats in their schoolyards. With teens, our long-standing Eco-Act Environmental Leadership Program and the more recent Outdoor Youth Corps summer jobs program are cultivating the next generation of environmental advocates. With teachers, our professional development series of summits and workshops aims to increase comfort and confidence with outdoor learning. With adults, people taking multiple years of classes with us are encouraged to pursue Master Gardener or Master Naturalist certification. With businesses, the St. Louis Green Business Challenge promotes biodiversity-friendly practices on corporate campuses. With homeowners, the Deer Creek Watershed Alliance project helps neighborhoods use plant-based solutions like raingardens and bioswales to improve water quality and mitigate flooding.
Activation also takes the form of BiodiverseCity St. Louis, the growing network of 100+ organizations and thousands of people who are joining forces to increase biodiversity across the bi-state region in ways that connect our communities and improve quality of life for all. Since 2012 the Garden has served as the behind-the-scenes “backbone” organization of this network, fulfilling the roles of convener, connector, and catalyst. Recently, the BiodiverseCity St. Louis network was tapped to help create a special living inventory and atlas for the region, one that focuses on the natural assets that transcend city and county boundaries. Currently under development, BiomeSTL: Biodiversity of Metropolitan St. Louis is intended as a practical resource for citizens seeking greater connections with local lands and waters, as well as for city and county decision-makers seeking to strengthen their communities through nature-centric design and planning. BiomeSTL is also, at its core, a citizen science and stewardship project. Already, the project has amassed 38,000 observations of local plants, animals, and other organisms submitted by more than 3,000 people across the region.
To be sure, neither celebration or activation are possible if people are not comfortable in the outdoors. On this front, we need everyone to invite their friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues to join them in outdoor adventures this year, taking time to experience the living world in ways most relevant and meaningful to them. Healing the disconnect remains both our biggest obstacle and opportunity. On a daily basis, what we choose to pay attention to matters. In so many ways, simply taking the time to notice nature in the great outdoors—the brilliant, beautiful ways the world comes to life all around us—can be an incredibly powerful and life-changing habit.
Later that day…
…we took the girls to another part of the reserve, for a walk through a forested bluff canyon filled with mossy rocks and a quiet stream.
We asked them to stop, stand still, listen, and breathe. After a few minutes, we asked them how this place makes them feel. “Peaceful.” “Relaxed.”
“Strong,” announced the non-hiker.
Personal growth, brought to you by a walk in the woods.
Vice President of Education