Nature as curriculum: The Wellfleet Harbor Conference

Wellfleet Harbor

Wellfleet Harbor

The annual State of Wellfleet Harbor Conference was held at the Wellfleet Elementary School on November 4, 2017. See the schedule here.

This was a learning event throughout. Janet Reinhart started off with a reference to Wallace Nichols’s Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do. Before we could become complacent about that, we began to see the many threats to the water around us.

Elizabeth McDougall (R) and coworkers from the Cape Cod National Seashore

Elizabeth McDougall (R) and coworkers from the Cape Cod National Seashore on estuarine restoration (water quality)

Continuing what’s now a 15-year tradition, the conference showed the complex connections among trout, whales, menhaden, horseshoe crabs, shellfish, seals, terrapins, sunfish, eel grass, phragmites, bacteria, protozoa, other living things, the land, sea, and air. Most notably, it considered the impact of these diverse aspects of nature on people. In every presentation or poster, we saw the major ways in which human activity affects other aspects of nature.

Presentations at WES

Presentations at WES

The Harbor conference is at once depressing and inspiring. It’s depressing as it details the many ways in which humans damage the beautiful world we inhabit, through greenhouse gas emissions causing global warming, increased storm activity, and sea level rise, pollution of many kinds, black mayonnaise, habitat destruction, and more. But it’s inspiring to see the dedication of people trying to preserve what we can, and to learn so much about the ecology of the unique region of Wellfleet Harbor.

Americorps workers helping serve Mac's clam chowder

Americorps workers helping to prepare Mac’s clam chowder for the lunch

The conference is billed as an opportunity to hear about the latest research, a task it fulfills admirably. Beyond that, I see it as nature school, or nature as curriculum. Participants, including volunteers, fishermen, students, town officials, and staff of the Mass Audubon, the National Park Service, the Center for Coastal Studies, and other organizations, come to report on what they have learned.

The sessions are not simply reports. For example, Geoffrey Day and Michael Hopper spoke for the Sea-Run Brook Trout Coalition. They’re studying the history of anadromous trout in the area and whether traditional runs could be restored. The research is part ecological, looking at the hydrology of Fresh Brook and part historical, using archival data. The presenter, Day, asked for listeners to share any family accounts they might have–letters, maps, and so on– which might document the conditions for the trout population from a century or more ago.

Inquiry in and for nature

Inquiry in and for nature

Whether for brook trout, or many other examples, investigation thus becomes collaborative, a community activity. Moreover, in each case, participants ask “what can be done?” Sometimes the answer is to create, which may be an aesthetic response, political dialogue, collective action for the environment– solar energy, harbor dredging, dam removal, pollution monitoring, and always, more research. Participants continue then to discuss and to to reflect on what they experience, thus enacting an inquiry cycle of learning.

You might find similar activities at many conferences. But the Harbor Conference stands out in terms of the collaborative spirit among presenters and audience and in the ways that knowledge creation is so integrated with daily experience and action in the world.

Poster on monitoring diamondback terrapins nesting on the Herring River

Poster on monitoring diamondback terrapins nesting on the Herring River

This learning was not in a school or a university; there were no grades or certificates of completion. There weren’t even “teachers” or “students” per se. However, by engaging with nature along with our fellow community members, we explored disciplines of history, politics, commerce, geology, biology, physics, chemistry, meteorology, and more. Nature itself became our curriculum guide.