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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)

Johnny Appleseed Natural Area Conversion and Native Habitat Demonstration at Urbana University

Campus ShotISC Charter Member, Urbana University has launched an effort to establish the Johnny Appleseed Natural Area on campus.  The major goals associated with the project include:

  • Protect and enhance upper basin watershed represented by our 128 acre campus.
  • Restores natural features that contribute to quality of life and natural heritage.
  • Enhances educational opportunities.
  • Reduces and eliminates nonnative, invasive species of plants.
  • Enhance habitat for rare wildlife (Indiana bat).
  • Enhances recreation- and ecotourism-based economic development in an economically depressed region.

The University is proposing to enhance the natural area features of the Urbana University campus for intense educational purposes; convert significant portions the campus to native Ohio plant communities; enhance upland watershed landscape features; demonstrate best management practices for created wetlands and wetland vegetation; and maximize the educational efficacy of the campus’ sustainability features. The University intends to “walk the walk” of sustainability and aggressively showcase those converted and enhanced landscape features to our own faculty, staff, and students, as well as school groups, businesses, organizations, and other community members.

  • 11.3 acres of previously mowed grass converted to Ohio prairie vegetation, established from a 24-species seed mix sowed spring 2009 (hereinafter referred to as “the prairie”)
  • 1.3 acre natural vegetation in Chinese Memorial woodlot (hereinafter known as “the woodlot”) north of McConnell. Current vegetation will be herbicide treated October 2009; native seed mix will be sown before winter 2009.
  • 1.7 acres at north entrance to campus will be herbicide treated and sowed with appropriate native seed mix in fall 2009. The area is designated as the “entrance prairie/savanna.”
  • 1.0 acre in storm water catchment basin (hereinafter referred to as the “basin”) at northwest corner of prairie is converting naturally to native wetland species. We will continue to monitor the area and will cooperate with the USF&WS to supplement conversion by planting if deemed necessary to complete the conversion.

The aggregate of the natural areas accounts for 36.3 acres of the University’s 128 acre campus, a significant addition to Champaign County’s natural and protected acreage. The 36.3 acres encompassed by this proposal will be among the more intensively interpreted, most readily accessible, and innovatively presented set of native habitats in the region.

Urbana University embraces the tenets of natural resources stewardship and sustainability as cornerstones of our academic programs, extra- and co-curricular endeavors, facilities and grounds management, community engagement, and institutional ethic. We are the nation’s first university chartered by the International Sustainability Council; the country’s first Bird Campus USA under the auspices of Audubon Lifestyles; and we have achieved numerous other sustainability related milestones detailed within UU’s ISC Charter. This proposal seeks funding to further enhance UU’s campus to capitalize on the educational potential offered by “walking the walk” of sustainability in a manner that clearly meets the following objectives:

  • Protecting and enhancing the headwater drainage (upper basin watershed) served by our 128 acre campus, including the catchment basin and the rainwater garden.
  • Increasing habitat protection
  • Reducing/eliminating exotic invasive plant species
  • Restoring high quality, viable habitat for plant and animal species
  • Benefitting the Federally Endangered Indiana Bat by controlling invasive species in the understory of The Forest and The Grove, favoring shagbark hickory individuals, and girdling selected trees to create snags for bat roosting.
  • Restoring and preserving aquatic communities and wetlands
  • Restoring natural habitats in a very visible and easily accessible near-urban setting at an educational institution, contributing to quality of life and natural heritage
  • Planting vegetation for filtration
  • Incorporating aesthetically pleasing and ecologically informed design in a highly visible learning environment
  • Enhancing educational opportunities in a perfect location with diverse elements
  • Supporting comprehensive open space planning in a county rich in natural areas and demonstrating centuries-long sound and highly productive agricultural land management and stewardship; our campus is connected by bike path (Simon Kenton Trail) to Cedar Bog just four miles south
  • Providing multiple recreational, economic, and aesthetic preservation benefits
  • Enhancing economic development regionally by establishing a major natural attraction at a university already responsible for considerable economic activity

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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 

General Motors
www.gm.com

Toyota
www.toyota.com

Fisker Automotive
www.fiskerautomotive.com

Golfpreserves
www.golfcourseproject.com 

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing Partnership
www.cmhp.org

Chesapeake Bay Foundation
www.cbf.org 

University of Alaska Fairbanks
www.uaf.edu 

Taylor Properties Group
www.taylorpropertiesgrp.com  

Urbana University
www.urbana.edu 

The Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA)
www.gcsaa.org 

American Society of Golf Course Architects
www.asgca.org

The United States Golf Association (USGA)
www.usga.org

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