If someone were to read Terence Mosher’s profile on ratemyprofessors.com, that person would probably wish he or she were a student at SUNY Fredonia five years ago and could take a poetry class with him.
On the popular professor-rating website, his students write that he is “hilarious, kind and extremely passionate” and “the nicest man alive.” One reviewer insists “everyone wants to adopt him as their grandfather.”
What the reviews don’t discuss is Mosher’s love of nature and storytelling as a vehicle for inspiring ecological appreciation and stewardship. In recent years, the retired professor has become particularly interested in ornithology, the study of birds.
Mosher will lead an informal “Storytelling and Nature” workshop about birds at 4:15 p.m. today at the Roger Tory Peterson Nature Classroom, behind the Hall of Christ parking lot.
Rather than give a lecture, Mosher will invite people to share their experiences and encounters with birds from wherever they are from.
“Part of the fun is people at Chautauqua are from all over the country, from places where the birds are very different,” he said. “People who live in San Diego have seen dozens of birds that people in Maine or Minnesota have not.”
Mosher, who has lead similar discussions at Chautauqua Institution in the past, said children always enjoy coming to the discussion and talking about birds.
“Usually, people feed off each others’ experiences. Someone will remind someone else from a different place of [a bird] she saw,” he said. “So it’s a conversation rather than a lecture.”
Mosher has grown to appreciate ornithology in part because of the environmental applications of the field.
“Birds are wonderful indicators of the health of natural places,” he said. “When birds that you would expect to breed in a marsh or forest are no longer there, it usually points to some damage to the environment.”
He also appreciates the accessibility of bird watching.
“Anybody can watch birds,” he said. “You can put a feeder in your backyard or take a walk in the nearest park.”
Mosher’s interest in nature and the environment began 30 years ago while teaching English at Fredonia and English education courses to aspiring high school teachers. He discovered the emerging field of ecocriticism, which blends ecology and personal relationships with the environment into literature.
Going beyond archetypal environmental literature like Thoreau’s Walden, Mosher read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a book he described as “life-changing,” Aldo Leopold’s and Robert Frost’s poetry.
“This whole wonderful field of environmental literature — both poetry and prose, old and new, opened up to me,” he said. “I began to create and teach courses in environmental literature and in poet naturalists — poets with a strong and almost scientific interest in nature.”
He started to incorporate the direct study of nature into his college literature courses, taking students outside to show them the birds, wildlife and ecosystems they had been reading about. When the students were able to experience the subjects written about in literature, he said, their understanding of it deepened.
“For instance, Robert Frost has a great poem called ‘The Oven Bird,’ and it’s quite easy in the spring to take students out and let them hear the song of that bird,” he said. “When they hear it, the poem opens up in ways they hadn’t seen before. They see the poem as not just about the human experience but also about nature.”