Museum curator Scott Sampson on
the need to restore nature in our lives
By Allen Best
You’ve heard of the web of life, right? Scott Sampson would also have you consider the whirlpool of life. That, he says, is a more apt description for the process of living things.
It’s not stationary, but fluid. And this whirlpool is deep into time. Imagine, he says, that we’re breathing dinosaur air.
A dinosaur paleontologist by training, Sampson is chief curator at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. He’s a Canadian by birth, reared in Vancouver, but with a career in New York and Utah before his arrival in Denver earlier this year. He studies late-Cretaceous dinosaurs in order to better understand how ecology and evolution work in a hothouse world.
Sampson also says he is very interested in how humans bond with nature and how this process changes as people age. He has a young daughter as a case study.
In a talk at the Geological Society of America conference on Oct. 26, Sampson made the case for what he calls place-based education as a way of understanding this whirlpool of life. It most fundamentally means getting people, especially children, out into nature, and not just museums, to discover nature on their own terms.
“So many parents, caregivers in general, think they have to know everything about nature,” he said. The relationship should be of sharing in discovery.
“Learn with them, explore with them. If you go down that path, they will soak it up – and they will teach you along the way. They will see things that escape you,” he said. “It’s all about co-creating.”
But that personal experience is crucial. People must be exposed to nature, not just replicas.
“What does the extinction of a condor mean to a child who has never seen a wren?” he asked.
Sampson also argued for reframing how we live. The world is increasingly urban, which is unlikely to change. It is also more fixated on technology. We may not turn our back on technology, but he advocates balancing technology with time outdoors and a deliberate effort to include nature in our daily living. There’s a healthy body of evidence that human immune systems are improved with time spent outdoors, he said.
To accomplish this reconnection, Sampson calls for what he calls “renaturing of cities – or, even better, a rewilding of cities.”
Thoreau, in his essay “Walking,” long before said much the same thing: “In Wildness is the preservation of the world.”
What does this mean in the context of suburban neighborhoods that are cheek by jowl with houses and, in public spaces, manicured parks? Human-contrived order exists in all but the most ramshackle of places, undergirded by human values and often codified in law. Homeowners associations have no place for wildness.
There can be “wild parts,” said Sampson, if only sections of backyards.
Sampson’s work can be seen within the broader context of the study pioneered by Richard Louv, author of “Last Child in the Woods” and other books, about reconnecting with nature. It’s also a question that perplexes some museum curators, who recognize that in an era of smartphones, with all the knowledge of the Internet available, they must rethink their role in science education.
Driving this rethinking is also a broader recognition that human ingenuity now threatens to destroy the foundation for human life. Sampson lays this out very clearly on his website:
“The single greatest question that humanity must face in the 21st Century may be this: How do we rapidly shift human world-views so as to establish a mutually enhancing relationship with non-human nature? Any solution to this staggering challenge, and to the sustainability crisis as a whole, must be founded on a radical transformation of our education system.”
In his talk in Denver, he described global warming and species extinction, caused by habitat loss, as two great crises facing civilization. Confronting those challenges requires understanding nature.
“You can’t solve these first two crises, global warming and loss of habitat, without resolving the disconnect between man and nature,” he said.
Nature ignites imagination, and imagination is crucial to solving the problems of sustainability. The answer is not slapping hands for failure to recycle or for driving SUVs, he said. Rather, the answer lies in imagining a world we want to live in.
“If we don’t solve our problems, it will be a failure of imaginations.”