Restoring interest in nature
Teresa Wisnewski Vaughn (from left), Curt Carter and Al Shearer opened the Land for Learning Institute. (Provided)

Americans are losing their connection to nature. That idea is so repugnant to Curt Carter, he started his own business. The Anna-Jonesboro-based Land For Learning Institute, which he opened with Al Shearer and Teresa Wisniewski Vaughn, is designed to rekindle an interest in the natural world.

"In the last 10 years, especially since 9/11, the interest for outdoor programming has really gone down," Carter said. "It's changing times and a shift in societal interests."

Former employees of Southern Illinois University's Touch of Nature, the trio decided to take matters into their own hands. So far, the response has been favorable.

"We did 39 Cache River Wetland canoe adventures last year," Carter said. "We've grown from there. This coming programming season, we'll be larger than we ever were at Touch of Nature. We've turned that whole direction around."

The Land For Learning Institute immerses clients, from small family groups, to large church or school groups, in the outdoor world.

"We've stayed with the original focus of what camping should be about, getting kids in the out of doors, getting them out in the woods, out on the lake and getting them in touch by direct contact," Carter said. "Every night, we still have campfires.

"The kids on our river trips, they help cook. They help clean and they have to set their own tents up. It's all cooperative learning."

Typical clients include outdoor or biology clubs from high schools.

A typical trip might include canoeing on Cache River, an owl prowl, campfires, rock climbing, environmental studies and plenty of swimming or fishing.

"Some of these kids have never been outside at night without lights," Carter said. "They flip out."

Close contact with owls in the night-time forest literally opens some eyes.

"These kids are like grabbing my arm," Carter said. "They're like, 'Is that real?'"

He recalls another occasion when he shared a canoe with a young man on Little Grassy Lake.

"He looked up and said, 'What is that?'" Carter said. "I said, 'That's the Milky Way.' He had never seen the Milky Way.

"It's those kinds of moments, that's why I do what I do. Sometimes we forget these kids in this iPod world, they don't have these experiences. Why I continue to do it, this generation of kids coming through now that will be in decision-making positions, don't have these experiences. That legacy isn't being passed on as consistently as it used to be."

Some of Carter's campers are experienced, some are inexperienced. Most learn that real life is different from what they've seen on television.

"I had a big old black rat snake," Carter said. "This one kid was standing way back. He said, 'That's nothing, I saw Steve Irwin grab a crocodile.' I walked up to him and said, 'Here, hold this.'"

"It all changed. I try to turn the TV vision off and show them the real thing."

He also tries to put all the campers on common ground. That means all campers give up their watches immediately.

They operate on nature's time.

"Just those little simple changes, they step out of their comfort zone," Carter said. "By the end of the week, they're ready to stay longer."

The Land For Learning Institute's outdoor programs operate from March 15 through Nov. 15.

More information is available at www.landforlearning.org, or by calling (618) 833-8030.

(618) 529-5454 ext. 5088

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