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Life Lesson From a Little Green Heron

A Nature Based Leadership Essay

 Little Green Heron

©2016 (SJones)

Steve Jones; 2.28.16

My list of lifetime regrets stands at 49. No, not every “I should not have said, did, acted, or behaved the way I did.” Instead, these are the ones of significance that have traveled with me, some for four decades and more. Ones that hurt someone, or something; not those that simply made me look dumb or feel stupid. I started the list probably twenty years ago. I lost it once and rewrote it. When I found the one I had lost, the new one matched perfectly. These regrets are deeply etched, as are their lessons.

Not to worry, I am not about to recite all 49. Just one of the regrets and corresponding lessons relevant to my thinking about nature based leadership and the Nature Based Leadership Institute we are creating here at Antioch University New England.

I grew up in Cumberland, Maryland at the western terminus of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, constructed in the mid-19th Century, its eastern terminus in Georgetown near Washington D.C. Dad maintained an entire menu of fishing holes within an hour or so of home. Battie Mixon, a restored and re-watered section of the canal just 18 miles away, offered sunfish, bass, catfish, and a few other species. We fished there 5-10 times every summer. Dad could fish and allow me the freedom to wander the shoreline staying in sight. Once I reached adolescence he no longer insisted I stay within view. Steve little green heron 1

I was perhaps 12 or 13 one day when the fish weren’t biting enough to command my full attention. Just to the right (south) of the towpath (see photo) a linear depression (where canal construction engineers took additional fill for the elevated towpath and the next lock a half-mile from the photo point) also held water, but shallower than the fishing hole and being reclaimed by sediment and emerging vegetation. I often watched that wetland for turtles, snakes, and birds. This day I saw a wading bird that I can identify today from the remembered image as a little green heron. I did not know its identity at the time. I did know that at 100 plus feet distance from me the bird offered a tempting rock target to the adolescent Steve. I found the perfect rock and without considering the consequences, aimed and threw at the impossibly small target.

I hit the beautiful little green heron in the head; the bird toppled. I waited for it to regain its footing, or rise and fly. It did neither. I did not celebrate my accuracy nor congratulate my “lucky” throw. I stood stunned, suffering silently for the foolish act I had just completed. I close my eyes today, fifty years later, and I can see the image clearly, and I feel the regret as though I had just this moment slung the rock.

I did not tell Dad; in fact I told no one until this writing. Yes, I’ve killed birds since then, upland game birds as a licensed hunter: woodcock, pheasant, ruffed grouse, quail, and turkey. But no more errant rocks. Such birds as the little green heron are protected by law, and now safe by virtue of my own awareness of unintended consequences. My guilt and shame live on, fueling a palpable regret, unabated by time.

The shallow, warm-water slough surface was green in spots with filamentous algae that day; I still see the bird’s floating, delicate corpse as I walked closer, hoping against hope that my missile had done less than mortal harm. Not so. I suppose my lament relates more to the symbol of the bird than of the actual death. I brought to an end the life of a creature that brings magic to an otherwise dismal setting – not dismal to me, yet few people see the beauty and wonder in the stagnant, algae-coated warm water he fished. I found magic in the setting even then, the sunning turtles aligned on fallen logs, the dragon flies darting just above the green surface, the muskrat tracing a ‘V’ through the still water. The little green had stood there fixed, and transfixed, watching for edible life, waiting patiently, fearing nothing. Steve little green heron 2

My projectile came without warning. Evolution had not alerted his nerves, sensors, and reflexes to adolescent-heaved stones. I robbed a vibrant ecosystem of a precious participant for no purpose other than to test my arm. Perhaps I am further saddened because that selfish act of violence and waste symbolizes my own species’ careless disregard for so much that is nature and natural. We tend too often to ask of other life, “Does it add material value?” If not, then go ahead, toss a rock its way. So much of what we do is blind to the intrinsic values that economics ignore. Isn’t it time we gain awareness, learn to attribute real value, and stop throwing rocks to test an arm?

I ache for that individual little green heron, and always will. I paid the deep price of guilt, humility, and shame to learn and accept a life-lasting lesson. Every action yields consequences. Nothing should be done for which consequences are not apparent.

I also now know that a conscience doesn’t develop from reading a manual. I learned that late summer afternoon the power of recognized guilt and responsibility as soon as the heron fell. I’ve held myself accountable for fifty years. A cog in the wheel of life is connected to the whole. No little green heron stands alone, separate from all else. How can our Nature Based Leadership Institute open many more eyes to such lessons of interconnectivity, responsibility, and consequences? How can we discourage rock-slinging in all its metaphorical dimensions? How can we illuminate the consequences of every decision? Perhaps most importantly, how do we instill an Earth Ethic (a disciplined self-awareness and conscience) in every business, NGO, organization, and individual? How do we successfully encourage, develop, and instill an obligation to be responsible Earth stewards?

Perhaps most importantly, how do we apply nature’s lessons to living, learning, serving, and leading? That afternoon years ago I looked at the little green heron. Blindly, I looked, yet did not see. I did not see the life and its place in the wetlands ecosystem, nor the wetlands and its place on the landscape. I saw only a target to serve me in a brief moment of self-absorption and shameful entertainment – a contest of sorts to, again, test my arm. Only after I exacted the toll of death to the bird did I both see and feel. I saw the act for what it was and I felt the consequence and harm from my foolish throw. I could not undo the deed. Instead, I decided to learn from that day, and to apply the lesson time and time again.

Now, I am embedding the lesson in the fabric of our Nature Based Leadership Institute, and sharing this tale for the benefit of those engaged and for the many we hope to touch. All lessons distill to stories. I will take the little green heron to the end of my life’s journey, telling and retelling my story and the fateful role he played.

About the Author: Steve’s PhD is in Natural Resources Management (1987). He practiced forestry in the southern forest products industry for a dozen years prior to pursuing his doctorate. He has since served eight universities, including three as CEO (2004-present). He is currently President, Antioch University New England (AUNE). He also chaired the Governing Board of the University of the Arctic 2005-08. Steve believes that every lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading is either written indelibly in or inspired compellingly by nature. Steve co-created AUNE’s Nature Based Leadership Institute in 2015 (http://www.antiochne.edu/community/nature-based-leadership-institute/). Reach Steve at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

 

SustainAbility Newsletter Archive Article (random)

Support Organic & Sustainable Farming

Organic Certified WineThe Problem
Pesticide use -- which has increased 50 percent over the last 30 years -- has been linked to cancer, birth defects, and reproductive problems. Studies show that pesticides are among the five worst environmental threats to children's health. In addition, pesticides contaminate water and often poison wildlife. Non-sustainable farming has also been shown to lead to topsoil erosion, toxic runoff from farmland into rivers, lakes, and streams, and decreased biodiversity.

What you can do
Ask for organic produce. Often, organic produce costs more and is more difficult to get, but many supermarkets and greengrocers are willing to stock organic food if they know customers will buy it regularly. Talk to your friends and neighbors about their willingness to buy organic and then let your produce manager know that many customers are interested.

Deal directly with organic food growers and suppliers. If you can't find a local grocer who will stock organic food, contact organic growers and suppliers directly.

Become a Community Supported Agriculture supporter. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) cooperatives bring together local farmers and consumers. As a member of the cooperative, you pledge to cover farm operation costs for the season. In return, you share in the harvest. CSA farms are not all organic, but they all strive to operate sustainably.

Farmers: cut down on pesticide use. Innovative and successful farmers around the country are switching from conventional pest management practices, which are heavily reliant on pesticides, to profitable alternative agricultural practices that substantially reduce pesticide use.


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References and Sources used in this issue of SustainAbility Newsletter Include:

Audubon Lifestyles
www.audubonlifestyles.com

The International Sustainability Council
www.thesustainabilitycouncil.org

Home Yard Waste Compost Guide
http://www.compostguide.com/

The US Environmental Protection Agency
www.epa.gov/compost

Landscape Lighting
A Consumer Guide to Low Voltage Outdoor Lighting
http://www.sitelights.com/

Solar Light Store
http://www.solarlightstore.com/

Saving Natural Resources
Natural Resources Defense Council
www.nrdc.org

Organic Farming
Organic Farming Research Foundation
www.ofrf.org

National Agricultural Library
www.nal.usda.gov

Local Government & the Environment
Project Vote Smart
www.votesmart.org

Audubon Today
Audubon International
www.auduboninternational.org

    

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