From Our Archives – October 2007
GENE LOGSDON (1931 – 2016)
The Contrary Farmer
A teacher friend called recently with a strange message. “I just found out that a lot of people don’t know what tree acorns grow on.”
He (I will call him John because that’s his name) first became aware of this strange phenomenon after another teacher asked him the question. The other teacher didn’t know. John got to wondering. So he asked one of his high school classes to raise hands if they knew where acorns came from. About two thirds did, so John, long experienced with high school students, asked one of them for the whereabouts of acorns. The student, embarrassed, said he didn’t really know. John addressed the class again: “Perhaps you didn’t understand the question,” and then he repeated it. This time, with the threat of being asked hanging over them, only a handful of the students raised their hands.
Perhaps this class was an exception, John thought. He had the opportunity a little later to ask the question of a larger group— about 250 people. Only a handful knew the answer. Asked John of me: “Are we supposed to believe that people are getting a good education?”
The truth is, many of us, perhaps most of us, are illiterate about the world of nature. Our attention in life is focused elsewhere. Perhaps the way to resolve this kind of ignorance is to make up computer games based on natural history. But electronic games might not be the remedy for this kind of illiteracy. The problem is that the knowledge achieved would be almost entirely virtual. You could have a game based on identifying bird species— call it “Guess The Bird” — but the knowledge gained would be like that of many birdwatchers. They can name the bird they see, or even hear, but they don’t know the least little bit about how that bird fits into the ecosystem, which is the most important part of learning about them. For instance, which birds depend on acorns for an important part of their food supply?
There is nothing wrong with not knowing something that ought to be common knowledge. It is only wrong when people don’t know that they don’t know. Everyone today likes to spout off about how we should manage nature but very few of us know enough about the issues (like population carrying capacity, like climate change) to discuss them intelligently. Not knowing where acorns come from is symptomatic of something very perplexing. A culture which is that ignorant is going to be unaware of a great many more facts about nature and that could lead to environmental suicide. A culture that doesn’t know where acorns come from obviously doesn’t know much about trees at all, and so will go heedlessly on destroying forests until it destroys the ecosystems of about half the earth. If you don’t know where acorns come from, you won’t know that acorn flour was once a staple food of native Americans, especially in California, and could be a staple food again. If you don’t know where acorns come from, do you know where oil and coal come from? Do you know where a healthy environment comes from? Do you know, for instance, that a mature shade tree gives off 60 cu. ft. of pure oxygen every day? Do you know where most of the building material for houses comes from? Where good furniture and tool handles come from? Where most fruit and edible nuts come from? Where rubber comes from? Where coconut, varnishes, nutmeg and turpentine come from? Where millions of acres of fertile land came from? Where hundreds of species of wild animals come from, some of which were probably our evolutionary ancestors? Where the life-saving fuel for many millions of people comes from?
Will a society that doesn’t know where acorns come from really know where humans come from?