We are all indigenous to place. Some place we call home now, some place we once came from, some place we may long, one day, to return to. I’m still homesick for the landscapes of my youth—the woods and fields around the houses of my grandparents in Berkshire. I can never return there, in the sense that we cannot step into the same river twice. But the idea of them exerts a powerful pull in my memory. They are bounded by the horizons of a young child, the distances I could see across to the surrounding hills. Not parish or county boundaries, nor hedges or fences, or the confines of the gardens but a sense of running in and belonging to what was visible.
I didn’t know it at the time but I was defining place in watersheds, delineated by the highest ridges encircling my territory and down which water flowed into the local stream. A watershed is also a bioregion: an area defined geographically rather than politically that has a coherent eco-system or several linked eco-systems. Bioregions can be as vast as the chalk downs of southern England or as small as a coppice or stream. When human tribes first formed in Palaeolithic times they defined territory in terms of natural resources and adapted their cultures to what was locally available. In relationship to the land and its local fauna and flora those cultures shaped Nature as much as Nature shaped them.
All over the world the health of eco-systems is threatened by the human impact of air, soil and water pollution, industrial agriculture, extractive industries, waste, toxic production processes and the building of ever more roads, houses and factories. Out of love with place (excepting designated “beauty spots” or parks) we are no longer as shaped and contained by Nature as we once were. Forgetful that we cannot have healthy human communities, or economies, without healthy ecologies in functioning bioregions, “indigenous” has become to “culture” what “craft” is to “art’: nostalgic, picturesque, decorative…. and somehow irrelevant to contemporary life.
Finding signposts in the disregarded is a neat way to flip a problem into a solution. One of the premises I work with in my quest to bring an ecological worldview into education is that reconnecting to place is key to recovering a sense of responsibility to our bioregions. Which is why embedding in place is step one for a School in Transition, coming before connecting to community and then taking action to solve a real-world problem outside the walls of the school. Also, understanding that everything in a bio-region is interconnected: water quality, soil, energy, food, waste, economic potential, manufacturing, materials for shelter, means of transport, animals and humans is well aligned with Transition thinking.
On Friday 11 October this year 220 year 8 students from King Edward VI Community College (the Totnes secondary school, and one of the pilot Schools in Transition) and at least 30 adults gathered at Sharpham, the estate just down-river from Totnes, to spend a day out of doors in a place that is geographically home. Regular readers of this blog will already know Sharpham as the residential centre that we use for Next Generation Leaders (the weekend that launches the year for Schools in Transition) and for the first meet-up of One Year in Transition (the social change programme for young adults). On that sunny Friday it was a piece of our watershed, a chunk of our local bio-region, and we were getting to know it in eleven different but connected ways.
Led by experts from Sharpham and the local area, and teachers from KEVICC, students divided up into groups that spread themselves across the land and went down to the river, or into the woods and the quarry. Local poet Alice Oswald, and author of “Dart” took her group into the reed beds for a creative writing experience. Other groups did sound mapping in a range of different locations; photography of landscape and harvest, and of animal and bird tracks; landscape drawing and painting looking back up the river to Totnes; charcoal making and using the charcoal sticks to draw moths; and mapping soil types and different habitats (including the extinct volcano). One group went out on the river in a boat sent up by Dart Harbour Authority to look at life in the waters of the estuary; two others foraged for wild edible and medicinal plants and went on a food-growing trail: mapping all the food produced on the estate from beef to vegetables. Another group turned into reporters for the day and went around taking photos and collecting stories. Having arrived in coaches that just managed to squeeze down the narrow lanes almost the entire year group walked back along the cycle track that follows the river into Totnes. Released from the classroom, adults and children had an air of joie de vivre that overcame the unforeseen snags.
After the event I asked the teachers and workshop leaders to reflect on their experience. Sophie Killock, head of English, said: “The students thoroughly enjoyed the day but I think the highlight was the walk home along the river. They loved the views and powered home with surprising energy and enthusiasm after such a busy day. Students appreciated the fact they had opted for their activity of choice and liked having a day out in the fresh air with their friends. I was thrilled by how open they were to new experiences – picking and eating stinging nettles for example – I’m not sure I would have been brave enough to do that when I was 12! When complete, we will have drawn and collaged the Sharpham estate and labeled it with our findings and our own poetry. This could be expanded to include a map of the whole of the Dart from Watershed to Mouth. The students were keen to walk the whole length of the river at some point.”
Beth Coombes, who led the food-growing trail told me: “They saw how grapes were crushed, turned into wine and sold. They saw how cheese is made with the people at work, tasted different types, and viewed the land and cattle, taking into account wind, sun, soil type, food source, workforce, etc. This was a great overview and inside view of the wine and cheese area of Sharpham. They felt they were very welcomed and listened to the stories of the workers. It also helped that an ex-student of KEVICC was working in the winery and had a good connection with the teacher. Eating and collecting from the walled garden, together with exploring the camp area and having beetroot cake, gave the children a sense of belonging to Sharpham. What would bring more of this would be an activity that gives them more responsibility. Could this include picking veg to be sold, or possibly a challenge to produce a map for the Sharpham website?”
In response to my question “How important do you think it is to enter an engagement with place through a wide variety of “doorways”? Charcoal-maker Jon Howell reflected: “Very important! Places, especially natural and wild places are our community. People forget (and Western culture supports this forgetting) that community is not about people, children and adults and elders meeting for song or to eat or live together. To truly know themselves and their place in the world (and therefore their roots, their security and in turn their confidence and creativity) it is vital to acknowledge the wider community of plants, animals and place… all of whom are interconnected and without which our lives would cease to exist. I would go so far as to say our very existence depends on children being fully engaged with the natural ‘place’ in their lives.”
And to the question “How might the day have been framed better to introduce a sense of belonging to, or responsibility to, this place that is also home: just downriver from the school?” Jon said: “Firstly I think more should be made of how the outdoor wild nature enables an expansion of freedom and therefore consciousness and therefore creativity. Sessions should be less prescriptive and more open and child-led than in the classroom. Less based on learning facts and more based upon sensory input, noticing, emotional journeying, wandering and exploration. For example, whilst science may insist that a certain tree is called an oak or an ash, actually this guides a child’s awareness of it away from what it is and how it functions in the community. And it leads away from any relationship with it, any “seeing” of its character that might enable a child to feel some kind of relationship to it. I would say even climbing it would be more useful than learning its name. I’m advocating the space itself being different from a classroom and letting the experience of the place itself guide the learning/playing.”
Adrian Rainbow, who teaches on the narrative of place in the English department at Zurich University, later wrote to me: “I spent my time with the creative writing group, led by Alice Oswald. I think that this was an extremely effective experience for the pupils, especially in terms of connecting with space in a unique way. The creative writing group spent the first hour inside discussing what “poetry” means, and came away from the experience with a renewed understanding of what poetry can be (not just rhyme, meter and foot). Invigorated by Alice’s talk, and the notion that there is no formula for poetry, that it comes in many forms, and that nature can be an optimal complement and muse for poetic creativity, they then went down to the reeds (by the Dart) to see how a sense of place might increase their awareness and creative capacities.
Alice went into the reeds and my role was to send one student at a time into the reeds so that they could connect with the space independently. What amazed me more than anything else was to see the students, most of whom ventured into the reeds with some trepidation, come out five minutes later transformed from the experience. Each student was definitely affected, and this was the point. They then wrote poetry from their experiences and I was very impressed with their output. Would they have been able to write such poetry about the Dart and this space without the experience of walking alone through the reeds? I don’t think so. I think they connected with the place in a very positive way because they were immersed in it, affected by it, and that this led the way to unleashing their creative instincts. I think it would have been very difficult, if not impossible, to replicate this within the classroom, and that these experiences should be encouraged whenever possible. As an educator, this certainly made me consider the importance of getting out of the classroom…”
The day was the lead-in to a term’s worth of work in Art, Geography and English during the autumn. I’m planning a future blog to focus on that, and on the ongoing engagement with this place. Included in the brief for this past term was making a cross-curricular map of this part of the Dart watershed (in other words, bioregional mapping) using digital, creative, visual, sound, and oral history techniques. All the work, and the map, will be shown at an exhibition in the Ariel Centre at KEVICC in autumn 2014. Primary schools have been invited to join in and will be spending days in the coming term looking at, and creating responses to, the work done by the secondary students that emerged from the Watershed Day at Sharpham through the medium of myth and story-telling. A smaller group of KEVICC students will carry on exploring the Dart through to July and we’ll be asking them to collect the responses of their fellow students to the Sharpham experience. The intent is to embed this work in the curriculum so that each year 8 will have the same experience, and build on the accumulated knowing of, and caring for, place.
To end back where this blog started, with bioregionalism, in 1992 a short course at Schumacher College made a bioregional map of the Dart Valley published as “Dartia”. I managed to track down the last remaining copy in the Totnes study centre so I can offer you a quote from the anonymous introduction:
“Bioregionalism, for all its 7-syllable grandeur, means simply an understanding of the re-enchantment of the earth, at the scale of the nature-given territory, according to the laws of nature, and guided by a reverence for the other species of the territory and goal of seeing them flourish. Bioregionalism means learning a sense of place, a love of place, through a knowledge of its lore, an appreciation of its natural systems and flows, a reliance on basic natural resources, and a liberation of its best energies and talents.
Bioregionalism means understanding the world all around one—as all ancient people and many country folk did, and an appreciation of the birds and animals, the trees and flowers, the rivers and hills, the land and air, the families and communities, the traditions and wisdoms. Bioregionalism means saving one part of the earth from the spectre of ecological disaster—what some are calling “ecocide”—by trying to live without the consumption, the complexity, the poisons, the pollutions, the waste, the destruction, and the extinctions of the modern industrial monoculture that surrounds us. Such a task is not easy but it does seem increasingly to be necessary to secure a safe and happy home”.