I’d been there before, but Duncan hadn’t ― and as I expected, he loved it! Ashfall is a treasure trove of prehistoric skeletons, featuring many fully intact rhinos, camels, and horses ― plus smaller clues to their more bizarre contemporaries like horned rodents, bear dogs, saber-toothed deer, and hedgehogs. (Hedgehogs in Nebraska? Who knew?) Twelve million years ago, give or take a few, they were killed and eventually buried by clouds of volcanic ash. Now wonderfully displayed in situ, within a large weatherproof structure, the main fossil beds are an awe-inspiring site (and sight). But I’m not trying to play travel agent here. If you’re in driving range, just go see Ashfall yourself.
While we were there, I was pleasantly surprised to spy old friend Mike Voorhies, who I hadn’t seen in over ten years. Mike is a paleontologist by trade ― only he's much more than that at Ashfall Fossil Beds. You see, in 1971 he dug out the very first fossil here, a complete young rhino! Ashfall is Mike’s baby.
Now retired from his career as a university professor, Mike still volunteers at Ashfall. When I found him on that Sunday, he was quietly working the outside edge of the excavation, alone. Each gentle scoop of his shovel picked up a couple of fistfuls of loose, grey dirt, which he then slowly sifted off the shovel with the fine touch and practiced eye of one who has spent decades searching for tiny specimens amidst the chaff. Mike greeted me warmly, and we had a nice chat about old times and shared passions, until it was time for the kid and me to head on. I glanced back once, as we walked up the trail. Mike was bent slightly over, still handling his shovel like a surgeon with a scalpel.
Duncan dozed on the drive home, while I pondered what it must be like to make such a momentous discovery as Mike had ― leaving a true impact on both science and people. Being a father and an educator, I naturally wondered about my own influences….
It is a blessing to be able to positively influence even one other person’s life course, so in that regard Mike Voorhies is exceptionally lucky: his lasting legacy has enriched uncounted thousands of human lives, bringing them closer to the natural world. For many of you who are reading this, part of your own legacy is likely very similar: you have helped connect people with nature. Perhaps it is just one person: your child, your grandchild, the girl who lives next door, or the boy you mentor. Maybe it’s many: the school kids you teach, the adults you train, the family nature club you facilitate, or the scouts you lead. Whatever the numbers, you undoubtedly care deeply about the child/nature bond, and you pass that concern on through your own actions and spirit. Each of us has the ability to enhance other lives, and fostering a lasting love of nature is a damn fine enhancement!
Although few people will ever leave impacts as spectacular and prominent as Mike’s unearthing of Ashfall Fossil Beds, anyone can break the ground for a child’s life-long connection to nature. No PhD is needed; mostly it just requires heart: a love for the natural world and for the children in your life. A child's nature bond is not formed through facts and figures; it is formed through joyful outdoor experiences that any caring adult can help foster. Joys like splashing in mud puddles; toasting marshmallows over a campfire; marveling at a red fox, gorgeous in its winter coat; soloing across a wilderness lake; or contentedly dozing away a couple of hours in the dappled sunlight beneath a centenarian pine.
These sorts of formative nature experiences require little in the way of specialized skills, and historically they were an effortless part of growing up. Sadly, today they often need a push. The nature bond now must be dug out of the fear-and-electron-infused years that constitute modern childhood. Whoever you are, whatever your role in children’s lives, you can help turn the first few shovels of wonder in the excavation of a child’s nature bond. There is no telling the ultimate depth that excavation may reach, and the delights it will reveal.