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These talented teachers left an outdoors legacy

Retired teacher Hugh Birdsall, in an article that appears in today's Perspective section, suggests public K-12 education stop focusing on remote learning and other work-arounds to compensate for pandemic-related loss of time in school. Instead, he says, recruit the help of naturalists and knowledgeable nature lovers to help educators move learning to the great classroom of the outdoors.

Planning a broad-based move to nature's classroom seems like it would take years. Yet I am struck by how much of that already goes on in local schools, nature centers and environmental programs —and is staffed in part by volunteers.

Southeastern Connecticut is an especially rich place to introduce students to the biosphere. Hundreds of acres of land remain unspoiled, transected by rivers and streams. Most towns touch estuary waters, including Long Island Sound and the Connecticut, Niantic, Thames and Pawcatuck rivers. In a lifetime you could not fathom all the biology, geology, hydrology, chemistry and physics on display to learn. But what an enthusiastic teacher can bequeath is a lifetime of devotion to nature. And Earth needs human advocates more than anything.

In the past month we have lost two of the region's most passionate outdoors-and-nature teachers, both of them experts and volunteers. Curtis Nelson and Eleanor Robinson each made sure, however, that the natural world hereabouts would have champions long after they departed.

Curt Nelson was a retired EB engineering manager from Ledyard. He embodied the fly fisher's creed that the places where trout live are unfailingly beautiful, and that humans who visit those places will find peace and excitement at the same time. Curt helped found the Thames Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited, an organization whose name is its mission: to sustain the trout population and the local streams where these gorgeously speckled fish can thrive. He and other TU guys annually helped state Fish and Wildlife workers stock trout in streams up and down eastern Connecticut, overjoyed to be wading frigid April and November streams. Once they even set out to raise brown trout from the egg stage and eventually set them free in Merrick Brook in Scotland, north of Norwich.

Curt and his fly fishing friends would land trout on barbless hooks and release them unharmed. They hosted fishing lessons for children, teaching woods and water safety and sportsmanship — and the science of entomology, because you can't tie an artificial fly if you don't understand the life cycle of the real bug as it emerges, spreads its wings, and hovers over moving water. When Curt died Dec. 14 at 86, he bequeathed to people he would never meet a web of clean and beautiful waterways where a trout would be glad to live, and a passion for preserving them.

Eleanor Robinson, who died Jan. 2, was responsible for educating even more  lovers of nature. In 2015, the first year she led a small group of volunteers for the nascent Roger Tory Peterson Estuary Center in running a nature program for third-graders in Essex, they enrolled 35 kids. In 2021 the center's camps and programs, including science education for all elementary school students in the New London Schools, reached 3,500 children — and more than 1,500 adults.

Eleanor was the prime mover and first director of the estuary center in Old Lyme; a teacher, biologist and environmentalist. She had banded birds in the Amazon rain forest and climbed in the Adirondack Mountains, but she believed that the environment in each child's neighborhood was the most compelling one. The science-based curriculum she developed with others takes children out of the building to study the ecology within walking distance, whether urban, suburban or rural. It now serves children in 15 towns.

Eleanor Robinson and Curt Nelson were many things besides environmentalists; she a musician and he a submarine builder, among others. They did not stand still. When they had time, they shared it. They had fun. They were "Look-at-this!" people.

I hope their successors are out there, ready to share with young people what they have learned outdoors.

Lisa McGinley is a member of The Day Editorial Board. 

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