By Howard Meyerson
GRAND RAPIDS, MI – Mary Jane Dockeray is concerned about kids today; they are out of touch with the land and so are their parents. Not farm land and cornfields so much, but the origins of things most take for granted: boxes of cornflakes, cans of peas, toilet paper and even window panes.
Glass from sand, cardboard from trees, aluminum from the earth: These are lessons the 86-year-old naturalist says are disappearing in a consumption-driven world where manufactured goods are considered of the highest value.
“The present generation of parents is a lost generation in terms of the environment,” said Dockeray, a lifelong nature educator, Michigan Audubon Society lifetime-member, and lecturer for National Audubon. “We live in a boxed, bagged and canned economy and kids don’t know where things come from before they are boxes and cans.”
Dockeray knows of the lapse first-hand, the urban children who know little of the natural world, and the youngsters who’ve never played in mud or listened to a symphony of crickets and frogs at night. She is the founder and former director of Blandford Nature Center and its environmental-school called Blandford School.
During her 22-year tenure there and 19 prior years lecturing about nature for the Grand
Rapids Public Museum, Dockeray taught thousands of young students, who in turn educated their parents about their connection to the world around them.
“It became plain to me in my first 19-years that kids had less and less connection to the land, said Dockeray, who was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in 2012 for her work in environmental education.
“And, as the years went by, I got really concerned. When the nature center started we saw kids who didn’t want to get off the bus for fear of what was in those dark woods. I thought then, we really need to be here.”
Dockeray retired from Blandford in 1990, but her love for the natural world has not diminished. At 86, she remains a picture of health: spunky, well-spoken and still passionate about environmental education. Daily water aerobics help keep her fit and in good shape. She continues to spend time each week at the center as a naturalist-in-residence.
“Her ability to connect is why people come back here year after year. She leaves a lasting impression because she is so engaging,” said Annoesjka Steinman, Blandford’s executive director. “She was a pioneer when she started this nature center. Her work style was no-holds barred, get it done. I admire her willingness to buck the system back then.
Early love of nature
Dockeray grew up on poultry farm in Walker Township. Her father, Winfield Dockeray, was a bookkeeper who also raised chickens. Her mother, Mary, was “a total city-girl,” she says. The family owned 2.5 acres just outside of Grand Rapids, an area where neighbors raised goats and open space was plentiful.
“My mother was afraid of anything that moved and my dad grew up on a farm in
Rockford. They didn’t know the names of things, but they appreciated living things,” Dockeray said.
“My mother was always eager to learn what things were: this moth or that butterfly, but she was queasy about living things popping up around the house, so my dad and a neighbor built a little cabin in the backyard for all my collections: butterflies, flowers, rocks and anything else that interested me.”
Dockeray attended Oakleigh School, a 7th Day Adventist Academy. It was there her late 5th grade teacher, Anna Nelson, learned that she wanted to become a geologist. Nelson, who was known to be stern, saw something special in young girl and took Dockeray under her wing becoming her mentor and counsel, a relationship that would grow over several decades.
“Never underestimate the influence a teacher can have,” said Dockeray who graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in Geology and a combined masters and doctorate in Conservation Education.
Environmental education continues to be important, Dockeray said. College instructors could use more of it. Their students are not getting the background they need.
“What bothers me is college teachers don’t have any idea of how to integrate the world around them,” Dockeray says in typical, outspoken fashion. “They are not trained to do that. So much (in a curriculum) is dictated to them. But our (Blandford School) teachers do it and no one rides herd on them.
Blandford School ranks high
Blandford School, which serves 60 sixth graders and ranks in the top one percent of schools in Michigan, was expanded this year to nearly double its size, following a successful $2.3 million capital campaign to fund construction of a 7,000 square foot LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) school building and retire the portables where students had been taught.
“I would call her extremely passionate and focused on the goal she set for what she wanted to see at Blandford,” said Rob Keys, an associate professor of science at Cornerstone University and former Blandford Nature Center director from 1997 to 2000. “A lot of what Mary Jane did was visionary at the time.
“National Audubon was pushing the creation of nature centers across the United States. Mary Jane hopped on that bandwagon with Blandford. She introduced a lot of inner city kids to the natural world that never would have had that connection.”
Sitting on the shaded backyard patio of her northeast Grand Rapids home, Dockeray’s fondness for nature is evident. Extensive gardens fill the landscape. Wood-chip pathways meander by bird feeders, a pond she built, and around assorted flower and vegetable plots. There are birds singing in trees and chipmunks on the ground.
Ever the geologist, Dockeray points to rock cairns she’s built, reciting where and when she picked up each stone. Dramatic flowers fill beds, grown from seeds she’s collected in her travels. Smiling, she refers to the urban oasis in front of her as her “playpen.” It is a veritable nature center in her backyard.
This story appears in the September/October issue of the Jack Pine Warbler published by Michigan Audubon Society
© 2013 Howard Meyerson