Let Nature Be the Teacher
by Francine Gair
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
“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
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
About the author
Francine Gair is a freelance writer and
editor with a background in advertising writing. She lives in Chico.