Nature in education and education in Nature

The past year has seen a surge of interest in what has been called ‘reconnecting with Nature’. It is a sign of our times that it has taken a pandemic of global proportions to bring about this surge of interest and greater recognition of the importance of Nature to our lives, health and well-being.

The one thing everyone in the UK has been allowed to do during lockdown has been to exercise once a day outdoors, and many people have spoken/written about how this has helped them to reconnect with Nature for the first time in many years. Last week I attended an online event which explored this need for re-connection.

The event was organised by  Invisible Dust  – “What will our view of nature bring to the future?” in which a panel of speakers explored the following questions:

  • What changes in how we see the natural world could lead to a brighter future?
  • Rather than seeing ourselves as separate from nature, might we see ourselves as a part of it – changing how we see non-human animals and our relationship to the natural world?
  • Can we move forward positively from the COVID-19 pandemic and act to reduce future risks?
  • What can we learn from the indigenous communities that have lived in harmony with nature rather than tried to conquer it?

The panel was made up of a diverse and very interesting group of people, who were all deeply committed to exploring these questions:

Danielle Celermajer, author of Summertime: Reflections on a Vanishing Future

Milka Chepkorir, advocate for indigenous land rights from the Sengwer community.

Usman Haque, artist-architect and creative director at Umbrellium.

Iain McGilchrist, psychiatrist and author of The Master and his Emissary

Hosted by: Jessica Sweidan, founder of Synchronicity Earth and Patron of Nature for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature

The discussion started from the premise that we are now experiencing an ecological crisis in which our relationship with Nature is broken, and this is the root of some of our greatest problems. We are removed from the consequences of our actions and numb to the loss of our connection with Nature, but the paradox is that we, as human beings, have never been more connected, to each other, to other cultures, and to other ways of living.

Whilst panel members were coming from different perspectives, they all agreed that the heart of the problem is that we now think of Nature as something separate from ourselves, an exotic ‘Other’, something we use, something we are different from and superior to. We fail to recognise and acknowledge that there is no line between human beings and Nature. As McGilchrist said, We are Nature and Nature is us; we come out of Nature and we go back into Nature. Nature is not out there around us, but in us; it is something that is always being born. Milka Chepkorir, coming from the indigenous Sengwer community of Kenya, recognised this as a symbiotic relationship, saying that for her people there is no separation between Nature and people, and that we should know that if we harm Nature, then it will harm us. Indigenous people have not lost their connection with Nature, but are having to fight to maintain it. In a rather sad indictment of our education system, Milka said that in order to get her voice heard about this she had to get a recognised academic qualification for which she had to study what she and her people already knew! At one point she said that indigenous people don’t understand why the rest of the world don’t get it. Why don’t non-indigenous communities understand that Nature is in us and we are in Nature? The question of trust was raised in answer to this. How we can become more accepting of other cultures?

All agreed that we have to change the way we think to address the problem of disconnection from Nature. Usman Haque is just starting to work on The Eden Project in London, which aims to ‘rewild’ London; this would also involve ‘rewilding’ people! What an amazing idea! By this he meant that they would try and transform people’s relationships to each other and to non-human systems, and find ways to enable people to make a visible first step, such as growing things to eat, or bee keeping. These small individual steps would hopefully then grow into larger more collective actions.

There was a lot more in this discussion than I have mentioned here, and it is well worth watching the video of the whole event, not least because it is so enjoyable and uplifting to watch.

Of course, changing the ways people think is no easy matter, as Usman Haque mentioned, and it was recognised that education would play a key role in this.

It’s interesting that a brief look at the UK National Curriculum for schools doesn’t mention Nature in the science curriculum, but rather the environment. For example, in Year 1 Pupils should use the local environment throughout the year to explore and answer questions about plants growing in their habitat. McGilchrist does not like the word environment, which he believes reinforces the idea that we humans are somehow separate from the world, and the statement above does seem to emphasise the use of Nature. Pupils throughout school do of course study ecosystems and the interdependence of organisms, but I wonder if there is enough emphasis on our place as humans within Nature rather than separate from it, and I wonder whether a simple change of language, i.e. exchanging the word environment, for the word Nature might kick-start a change in awareness. The language we use is so powerful in influencing the way we attend to the world.

There are of course many projects which are being developed in the hope of helping people to reconnect with Nature. In my local area, there is the Morecambe Bay Curriculum (part of the Eden Project North), which aims to work with local schools to develop a unique educational tool to help unite and inspire the next generation in terms of our natural history and the immense environmental challenges we face as a society. But projects such as these will need to go beyond thinking of Nature as something ‘Other’ if we are to overcome the current ecological crisis. Studying Morecambe Bay or any other aspect of Nature from a distance, or from within a walled classroom, will not foster an understanding of Nature being in us and we being in Nature. Hopefully the Morecambe Bay Curriculum project, and others like it, will involve a lot of hands-on time in Nature. One of the richest educational experiences I have ever had was a week long field trip to Seahouses (North-East England) for my ‘A’ level Biology course.

Source of photo: https://www.trekearth.com/gallery/Europe/United_Kingdom/England/Northumberland/Seahouses/photo199218.htm

This involved days of peering into rock pools, and studying every imaginable aspect of the seashore. It was magical. This experience was more than 50 years ago, but it greatly influenced my relationship with Nature, and I still have the book in which I pressed the seaweeds I collected for identification purposes at that time.

The Invisible Dust event panel members were optimistic that people haven’t lost the ability to love and feel connected with Nature. Let’s hope so.

Photography and ‘Living in the Moment’

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Last weekend I walked across Morecambe Bay with two friends. This is a wonderful experience. Morecambe Bay is renowned for being one of the most dangerous areas of quicksand in the world, but the walk is guided by the Queen’s Guide to the Sands, Cedric Robinson, MBE  and there is no risk as long as you follow his lead. The walk, about 7 miles from Arnside  across to Kents Bank, took us three and a half hours and involved walking through water channels up to our thighs. We then got the train back to Arnside to pick up our cars.

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I thought the walk was magical – the light on the sands was stunning and the atmosphere was wonderful – there must have been about 100 people doing the walk. Another friend described it as having the feeling of a pilgrimage.

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I took a lot of photos, which the friend I went with did not appreciate. She told me I was being ‘a pain’ and asked me why I couldn’t just ‘live in the moment’. She’s a good friend so can say these things and get away with it 🙂

Since then I have been thinking about what ‘living in the moment’ means. At the time I believed and felt I was truly in the moment. Does taking photos to record and ‘capture’ an event necessarily equate to not living in the moment?

A search online reveals that many people have asked this question. I have often said in the past that I like to take photos as a memory aid. Some researchers believe that photography actually impairs your memory rather than aids it and that, for example, people in an art gallery who stand and look at paintings rather than photograph them, remember them better. I have lived long enough to know that this is not the case for me. I love visiting art galleries and if it is allowed I always take photos, but I also stand and look and I also spend a long time when I get back looking at my photos. I know I remember the paintings better by having taken the photograph and for me, remembering through a photograph is better than not remembering at all. Between my 40s and 50s, I scarcely took any photos at all and I now regret the conscious decision that I made at that time, believing that I didn’t need photos. I now have only vague memories of places visited and celebratory events over those years.

I do not only take photos for the purpose of remembering. I take them because I have been visually stimulated in some way, because I want to remember and capture that moment of stimulation, and because I want to share it with my partner who is a wheelchair user and sometimes cannot get to places I go to, or with my mother. My mother has dementia and my means of interacting with her is almost entirely through photographs, either current or past photos. (As an aside the other means is through singing old music hall songs. We do a lot of singing when I visit my Mum).

In the Ted Conversations archives I found this question by Charlie Friedman.

Should we live in the moment or should we stop and take a picture? – Is it worth losing part of an experience in order to remember it?

He goes on to write:

…….we can enjoy the sight of a beautiful mountain and be caught up awe in the moment, or we can enjoy a beautiful mountain and wonder how we are going to take a picture and show it to our friends. Is it worth losing part of the experience in order to better remember it in the days or years to come? Is it worth losing parts of future experiences by trying to remember those of the past? 

And then he quote Daniel Kahenman’s question:

What is more important: the experiencing self or the remembering self?

I don’t see that it has to be an either/or and why we can’t be living in the moment and take a picture of that moment.

Reflecting on my friend’s comment I think the problem was not that I wasn’t living in the moment, my moment, but that I wasn’t living in her moment. In other words, I was probably being rude by not giving her my full attention. Maybe if I want to take photographs on walks I should walk on my own. I don’t very often, for example, take photos when I am having meals with friends, so maybe I shouldn’t have my camera out on walks with friends.

But if we agree that living in the moment means …

You are characterized as “in the moment” if wherever you are, whatever you are doing, your mind and body are right there as well. No dwelling on the past, the future, or any obligations or troubles you may be encountering in your life. If you are in the moment, you are right here, right now, nowhere else.  (Source of quote: Urban Dictionary)

… then I was living in the moment on the Cross Bay walk – my moment.  Cross Bay Walk 20-09-2015