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Austin Peay biologist and water expert wades into children's books

February 11, 2003

Animals, both real and imagined, have been the mascots of good causes for decades. Smokey the Bear reminded us "only you can prevent forest fires." McGruff encouraged us to "take a bite out of crime."

But the freshest new ambassador for good causes is speechless, hairless and hatless. And it's known for its big head and bottom-feeding ways. It's none other than the Tennessee catfish.
February 11, 2003

Animals, both real and imagined, have been the mascots of good causes for decades. Smokey the Bear reminded us "only you can prevent forest fires." McGruff encouraged us to "take a bite out of crime."

But the freshest new ambassador for good causes is speechless, hairless and hatless. And it's known for its big head and bottom-feeding ways. It's none other than the Tennessee catfish.

Brought to life through the computer keyboard of Laurina Lyle, Austin Peay biologist and environmental educator, these whiskered, freshwater creatures will introduce middle-schoolers to the life and lore of Tennessee's Cumberland Riverand teach them why it's important to protect our natural resources.

The book," A Catfish Lives Here," was a natural for Lyle, coordinator Tennessee's "Water Education for Teachers," or WET program. Through WET, Lyle has trained more than 3,500 teachers how to educate their students about the environment.

"Catfish," her first book, is intended for fourth to sixth graders. "This age group is enthusiastic about nature," Lyle says. "They like being outdoors, and they love water."

Nine- to 11-year old children are also at the prime age to have what Lyle calls "an outdoor experience," which can profoundly shape their roles as keepers of the environment.

"Research indicates that people who care about the environment usually had a key event or outdoor experience where they made a connection with nature," Lyle says. "They developed a love of nature and a desire to protect it. And people often say that the experience was when they were around 10 or 11."

The need to enlist young Tennesseans into the environmental protection effort is particularly strong here, Lyle says. "Most people don't know that Tennessee has the highest biodiversities of aquatic life in North America. More crayfish, more fish, more plants and more mussels."

Tennesseans, like other American citizens, are becoming "nature ignorant," Lyle says. "A day may come when children don't know the difference between an oak and a pine, with no adult to tell them the difference. That's sad, and it's also dangerous.

"We live in a place blessed with a lot of green, a lot of trees and water. If the population doesn't know the worth of these things, we can be taken advantage of by people who do. Look at the tropical rain forest."

Normally soft-spoken and reserved, Lyle becomes animated when discussing the need to protect Tennessee's natural resources. Asked the source of that animation, she ruminates a moment and says, "As a child I was very shy. It was difficult for me to be around people. My introversion was coupled with my mother's not being well.

"I sought refuge in nature. I found in nature a place where I felt safe and comfortable."

The grottosquiet, mysterious places near her homebecame her spiritual sanctuary. "I'd go there to say prayers for my mother."

Lyle's comfort with the physical world led to her pursuit of a doctoral degree in botany, and an acquired expertise in the order filicales ferns. "But I didn't finish," she says. "It wasn't right for me. I didn't want to just be an expert in ferns."

She was asked to teach biology at Austin Peay and, eventually, a whole new discipline emerged in that field: environmental education.

"I found it to be a bold discipline, one that didn't just teach people but asked them to make life changes." Finally, Lyle's passion had found a place.

With her love of nature now aligned with her scholarly interest, Lyle knew what to do. This fall she will receive her PhD in environmental education from Union Institute and University in Cincinnati.

But she's already accomplished one of her most important goals. "It was on my 'life list' to write a natural history of Tennessee," Lyle says. While the 16-page book on the catfish and the Cumberland River isn't the tome she might have imagined producing, it certainly fits the "nature" category. And it could well be the first in a series.

Clearly, Lyle's passionsnature, teaching and writinghave merged at the river's edge. As a source of both comfort and inspiration, she's found that the water is fine indeed.

Editor's note: "A Catfish Lives Here" is in its final revisions and should be available soon. Those interested in receiving a copy may do so through Austin Peay's Center for Excellence in Field Biology, a field science and information clearinghouse created to foster field biology as well as environmental education, awareness and responsibility.