There are about a dozen people who have significantly influenced my environmental thinking. In this instance, I am not referring to the great nature writers (although they certainly have made an impact), but friends and colleagues who have personally contributed to my understanding of nature and my relationship to it. Some have taken me to exceptional wild places or taught me new outdoor skills. Others have advanced my ecological knowledge. Still others have just set an example of how to be when in the natural world.
There is one person, however, who has influenced me in a completely different way from all of the others. I don’t think that his impact is any greater than that of several other people, but because his contributions are so different from everyone else’s, they stand out. That person is Kenn, a retired philosophy professor from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse (UWL). I mentioned him in a blog a couple weeks ago, but I did not describe in the blog our relationship to each other. Kenn is not an outdoorsmen. He would not know a canoe paddle from a kayak paddle, nor a sandhill crane from a great blue heron. In fact, the primary lesson that Kenn taught me is that a person does not have to be waist-deep in marsh muck to appreciate nature. Direct experience is the best way for me to interact with nature, but Kenn taught me that a theoretical connection to nature is just as valid as a connection born of time in the outdoors.
Kenn founded the environmental studies minor on the UWL campus. Geography professor Virgil Holder and I from Recreation Management helped, but the concept and the passion came from Kenn. To be honest, I don’t remember how I got drawn into the effort to create the minor, but I certainly recall that my role was to offer practicality as a complementary opposite to Kenn’s purely intellectual approach. Up until that point, I’d never known anyone who looked at nature as an intellectual construct, and it was an education. If anything, Kenn’s love and passion for nature were stronger than my own, even though he did not play in nature himself. This forced me to broaden my thinking when it comes to environmental awareness. I doubt that I personally can relate well to nature without being in nature, and I doubt that I can convey an environmental ethic to students without physically bringing them to natural places, but now I know that that is not the only way to go.