To answer this question I invite you to come with me to Saanich, British Columbia, a rural municipality outside Victoria on Vancouver Island. I recently returned to Saanich, to the arbutus-filled acreage where I grew up. I ran my hand over the smooth bark of an arbutus tree, one still growing on the property, much bigger now than when I was last here. The cool, silky texture of the bark, the look of the knotted and twisting branches, and the patterning created on the leaf-strewn ground beneath the tree evoked some powerful, emotionally-charged images in my mind. Growing up, we used, abused and ultimately adored, the arbutus trees sharing our land. We peeled their bark and - I now shudder to recall - carved messages into their trunks. We also cut some of the trees down, clearing land for our driveway and home, for running trails, using some of their wood for our stove. We had a rope swing attached to the biggest arbutus on the property. It supported our daring swings out over the land below. Under the arbutus trees were the paths we ran, the imposing fortresses we built, the hiding places we felt no one would ever find. I recall being mesmerized by the soft, dancing patterns cast by the sunlight as it streamed through the arbutus branches. The trees offered welcome shade in the afternoons, a canopy of broken light protecting me from the sun’s rays. I often thought that their peeling bark was like my skin after too much time in the sun. By night, the arbutus leaves, on twisted branches created dancing patterns against the darkening sky.
My memories. My stories. And yet this particular Place - one that evokes my emotions and imagination - is populated by more than the ghosts of my family and friends. It is storied with the tales of all those that came before - including centrally the Saanich First Nations people who inhabited the land, who walked upon the same earth, who touched the arbutus trees, and who rested in the trees’ patterned shadows. Our Places are haunted - sources of mystery and magic that can be evoked in the telling.
My work in Ecological Education has been influenced in no small part by this Place and its gnarly arbutus trees. On this recent visit I brought, for the first time, my two daughters aged 9 and 6. After only one hour in this Place my oldest daughter said, ‘Mom, I feel like there is magic here.’ My girls, like all human beings, are place-makers and are thus constantly making meaning and forming emotional connections to the spaces in which they live. Unlike myself - or my husband - they are not growing up in a rural context. They simply do not have the time to dwell, to play, to imagine worlds, in nature. [For how many children is this now the case?] I fear, moreover, that their learning isn’t supporting the kind of place making that engages them with the natural mystery and wonder immersing them. As an educator I continually ask myself the following question: How can we evoke students’ sense of mystery and wonder about the storied nature of their Place? I believe that evoking the wonder - the magic of our storied landscapes - is part of what we can do as educators to develop ecological understanding.
Q. How do you see the environmental/sustainability education landscape at this point in time?
I am encouraged to see how the environmental/sustainability education landscape is changing in subtle, and not-so-subtle ways. Indeed, it is thanks to organizations like Sustainability Frontiers that encourage international and interdisciplinary conversations to take place that pedagogical and ideological cross-pollination is possible. Of course, what we notice (hear, see, feel) depends on the ideas and beliefs to which our senses are alert. Mine continue to seek out and notice those educational conversations that consider the emotional and imaginative dimensions of ecological understanding - how developing students’ sense of implicatedness in a living world requires the nurturance of the imaginative capacities we have as human beings.
Q. What likely and desired future directions do you envisage, and what do you see as the implications for your own work?
I have always considered the development of ecological understanding to be a central aim of any and all educational programs concerned with the health of the Earth. For teachers, cultivating ecological understanding is a much more challenging task than imparting knowledge of ecological issues; it requires re-imagining ourselves and our world. My work - and, I hope the direction of further work in this field - focuses on how we can make significant pedagogical changes to acknowledge the role of imagination in all learning and, importantly, in the development of a new understanding of the human-nature relationship.
I have recently finished a book for educators and teacher-educators entitled Engaging Imagination in Teaching: A Practical Guide For Teachers (Pacific Educational Press; in press) that describes how to practice what I call Imaginative Ecological Education, or IEE. The book is designed as a kind of guide and resource for all teachers who want to stimulate their students' imaginations in learning. It shows how, for students of all ages and across all subject areas, educators can interconnect the engagement of the body, emotion and imagination with the local natural and cultural contexts in which students live. With the hope of being immediately useful, it provides detailed examples of imaginative and ecological curricula and offers resources all teachers can use to transform their practice in imaginative and ecological ways.
The meaningful contexts, or Places, in which we dwell are storied. Each is shaped by the beings that currently live there, but also by those that came before. Our Places - indeed all Places - are, thus, full of ghosts. Ghosts that are sometimes acknowledged through Place names or distinctive features of landscape but, more often than not, ghosts of countless unnamed beings whose living - and possibly loving of a particular corner of the planet - has forever shaped the context we now call home. We are all, thus, part of a shared geographical and historical story. I would invite you to stop for a moment and think about where you have a sense of place - that is, a natural or cultural context you identify with, somewhere you have deep knowledge of, and a sense of belonging or attachment to. What’s the story of this Place? What’s your role in the story?
Q. How do you envisage your engagement with SF developing?
I hope to engage with others in conversations about our pedagogical practices and, from there, play with possibilities. Rather than talk new activities or planning frameworks alone - though these have a purpose - I want to shift conversations towards how we actually understand the nature of the development of our students’ thinking and ecological understanding. What can happen if we acknowledge the imaginative and emotional lives of our students in all our teaching? How might conversations change? How might connections be formed? What can happen as a result?