June 23, 2016
Carmen Frontera, a young friend who might become an environmentalist
Carmen Frontera, a young friend who might become an environmentalist

“Perception is reality.”  This is an aphorism, the use of which I’ve been guilty.  It contains a grain of truth, but everyone’s perceptions are different and everyone’s realities are different, all flavored by disparate life experiences.

One of my regular running routes winds through a city park, and on Sunday mornings there I often encounter several large groups of army reservists in training exercises.  I recently ran right between several soldiers standing around the path having a discussion with an officer.  He must have been explaining some sort of safety precautions, and I caught just a snatch of his message--“I’ll often tell older folks, birdwatchers and people like that . . . “

This happened a week after the Arizona Republic ran a column by a Latino state legislator commenting on this year’s 100th anniversary of our national park system.  He lamented the fact that the parks don’t have enough outings and programs specifically targeting Hispanic youth.  Sure enough, a letter-to-the-editor a day later implied the legislator was racist because all young people, regardless of ethnicity, are spending most of their time indoors tethered to their personal devices.  And this writer then lamented the fact that someone is forming a committee to boost ethnic diversity in the national parks, a solution looking for a problem.

If you’re scoring those two paragraphs, you probably recorded several perceptions that have crossed over the line to become stereotypes, but here’s the reality.  Birding remains a small niche, a facet in the jewel, a chapter in the book.  Birding is not the game we have to grow.  The real game is saving the planet, and we’re all in this together, regardless of age, religion, political affiliation, or skin tone.

Thirty years ago I might have stopped and had a conversation with the officer, but I figured it might be lost on him now, I being older than he.  I still see little old ladies out with their binoculars, but most of them are wearing vibram, not tennis shoes.  I also see many Hispanics enjoying nature, most of them in family groups, some carrying binoculars.  I’m an optimist.  I think it’s all good.

When I go to Boyce Thompson Arboretum during the school year, I often encounter large groups of children arriving in school buses.  Deva volunteers at the Phoenix Zoo and reports the same thing.  Desert Rivers Audubon conducts two family walks a month, fall through spring, guide books and binoculars provided for those without their own.  I know thousands of young people are being exposed to the “wow” factor of the outdoors--the ruby gorget of a male Anna’s Hummingbird or the needle talons on a Liberty Wildlife education raptor.

Those two items, either through binoculars or up close and personal, are the reality of what we have.  We, the overriding species if you will, are but the caretakers.  And you may have noticed our species comes in multiple flavors.  If you’re not an optimist, don’t let perception fuel your angst about the planet.  Take a non-birder out birding with you.  Introduce an indoor person to the reality of the outdoors world.  Joy and “wow” mandatory, tennis shoes optional.