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Let Nature Be the Teacher
by Francine Gair

Nature author and educator Joseph Cornell (Special Major, ’73) remembers playing in his Yuba City, California, backyard on foggy winter days and watching the snow geese flying just yards above his house. “I was thrilled,” he recalls. “They matched perfectly the color of the fog, but every once in a while I would get a peek. I would watch for hours, hoping to get a glimpse.”

Cornell never lost his awe at the wonder of nature. Later he would ride his bicycle to Gray Lodge Wildlife Refuge and wander there, looking for snow geese and other birds. At age 16, he read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, and it set the direction for his life.

“I had lettered in three sports my sophomore year—wrestling, baseball, and cross-country—but all of a sudden I just stopped,” says Cornell. “I became a vegetarian and spent more time in nature, looking at what life really had to offer. I became inner-directed, rather than other-directed. I just wanted to follow through with the inspiration I had been given.” Then he adds with a laugh, “My coach was really annoyed.”

That juxtaposition of the spiritual with the down-to-earth typifies Cornell’s nature education work with children and adults through his Sharing Nature Foundation, founded in 1978 in Nevada City, California. He and his wife live in Ananda Village, a spiritual community near Nevada City dedicated to “simple living and high thinking,” where he also conducts retreats and classes. “It’s important to temper one’s idealism with a healthy dose of practicality,” he notes. “Otherwise, few people will be able to appreciate your vision.”

Cornell was CSU, Chico’s first special major student, designing a nature awareness degree. During two years of liberal arts studies at Yuba College at the height of the Vietnam War, he worked with Students for Peace. He entered CSU, Chico as an international relations major, planning to work for international peace. Two experiences of “incredible stillness, expansion, and peace”—one high above Yosemite Valley and one on the lawns outside Bidwell Mansion—were so strong that he decided that this was what he would seek in his life and work. “I realized that the peace of nature is something I can share with people,” says Cornell. “I switched majors and designed a nature awareness program that would bring together my spiritual quest and my work with nature.”

Cornell values the opportunities provided by Chico’s natural environment and credits his professors with giving him the “freedom and support to be creative.”

Called “one of the most highly regarded nature educators in the world today” by Backpacker magazine, Cornell has served as a classroom teacher, school district outdoor educator, and High Sierras camp naturalist for the Boy Scouts of America. Rather than just lecturing to people, Cornell has found it much more dynamic to involve them in activities that get them in tune with the principles he wants to convey. “They learn from their own inner experience, so there’s less resistance,” he says.

Cornell believes it is necessary to make learning inspirational, to help children establish a relationship with nature before overwhelming them with ecological facts. “Most modern cultures confuse knowledge with wisdom,” he observes. “Facts are important, but they will not in and of themselves give us clarity and wisdom. The Sharing Nature approach promotes bringing the heart of intuition back to education.”

A 1989 workshop in Germany illustrated Cornell’s philosophy clearly. He was invited because their concerted efforts to teach every child about environmental problems weren’t working—children were disassociating themselves from nature because it was too overwhelming. Cornell felt the children needed to establish a strong connection with nature first and let actions come out of that.

“If kids hear only about problems facing us,” he says, “they can feel that the power of humans to destroy life is more powerful than life itself. Both need to work hand in hand, but it is essential to work in a positive and joyful way.”

Cornell's first book, Sharing Nature with Children (Dawn Publications, 1979), features 50 nature games and activities to help children connect with nature joyfully. It has sold 450,000 copies in 19 languages, becoming a valuable tool for nature education worldwide. “The book is also secretly written for adults, to help us reclaim that natural sense of wonder that children have,” says Cornell. CSU, Chico classmate John Hendrickson (B.A., Social Sciences, ’73; M.A., Environmental Education/Biological Sciences, ’76) took the photographs for the book. “John’s photographs helped make the book successful,” says Cornell.

In the 1989 sequel, Sharing Nature with Children II, Cornell introduced a teaching technique he calls Flow Learning, plus some of his most popular nature activities, such as Build a Tree, the Camera Game, Sound Maps, and Predator/Prey. The Sharing Nature books and resources include inspirational guides for nature walks, video and audio activity programs, animal clue games, an earth stewardship program for young adults, and an “autobiography” of John Muir.

In November 2001, Cornell returned to CSU, Chico for the first time since his graduation in 1973, by unanimous request of Mark Stemen’s environmental studies students, to teach a workshop for student and professional educators and deliver a public lecture.

In the workshop, Cornell had students and professors lying on the floor as tree roots, stalking blindfolded as predators after prey, running animal clue relays, and guessing mystery animals, while he pranced around mischievously imitating a long-snouted pinebark beetle, demonstrating John Muir’s encounter with a black bear, or displaying the wide-eyed wonder of a child in nature.

After the workshop, Cornell joined faculty and students of the Butte Creek Outdoor Classroom at the Butte Creek Ecological Preserve on Honey Run Road. They brainstormed possible nature activities to promote nature awareness in the community, including a Living History activity to pass on local canyon lore as well as weekend family programs for parents and children.

At the public lecture, Cornell was introduced by Roger Lederer, retired dean of the College of Natural Sciences and director of the Bidwell Environmental Institute, who served on Cornell’s special major committee as an assistant professor. Describing Cornell’s student job leading tours at Bidwell Mansion, Lederer said, “Joseph had a hard time staying connected to the inside of the mansion. He kept telling everyone to look out the windows.”

Cornell says his CSU, Chico nature awareness degree was extremely helpful to him in getting his first job with the National Audubon Society. There were only three internship positions and 300 applicants for each, but he was accepted to all three—because he was the only nature awareness applicant.

Cornell also holds a master of science degree in nature awareness from the University of the Trees in Boulder Creek and an honorary doctorate from Unity College in Maine. He has won many international awards for his contributions to natural science education and was nominated for an international peace prize from Sweden, The Right Livelihood Award.

Cornell finds that his nature education work and his spiritual work go hand in hand. “Profound religious and nature experiences come to us when we learn to expand our own self-identity,” he says. “Techniques like meditation are marvelous for quieting our restlessness, which prevents us from experiencing life deeply. The stillness present in nature can quiet us, too, and provides another way to help people discover the joy of life within and all around them.”

About the author

Francine Gair is a freelance writer and editor with a background in advertising writing. She lives in Chico.


  Chico Statements is published by the Office of Public Affairs and Publications twice a year for alums, parents, faculty, staff, and friends of California State University, Chico.

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