A New Contract With the Environment

In our world, people, and children in particular, find it difficult to establish anything but a superficial connection with nature – we can go and look at nature, walk through it, read about it, or watch documentaries, but that is, generally, about as far as it goes. Almost all of the countryside has been moulded in one way or another to meet the needs of modern farming methods, and no one really has any idea what it might look like if it was managed in a more holistic fashion. This leaves us with a vision of nature shaped by ‘wild’ places, such as stretches of coastline in remote areas, or mountain tops, far away from centres of population, which helps to re-enforce the idea of nature being inhospitable and something from which we need to be protected.

The antedote to this sense of detachment from the natural world, is to find a way to take direct responsibility for an area of land – whether it be large or small – and to find out for oneself how nature responds to ideas that one may have about how it should be managed. For most people, the default ideas are those with which they have grown up, and which underpin our society: we decide what we want, and then try to make nature give it to us – whether it be flowers, trees, lawns, vegetables, or just a pretty place to sit and do nothing. The tools that we have at our disposal have largely been developed over the past hundred years – manufactured garden tools, lawnmowers and hedge trimmers, polytunnels, plastic sheeting, slug pellets, bags of peat, packets of commercial seeds, etc. – and in theory they should work.

The other approach starts off from what may appear to be a similar point, and it is to work out what one actually needs, and to see if an area of land can meet any of those needs – wihout you have to resort to outside help by using industrial products that are far beyond your personal ability to create.

In the first approach, you will encounter unforseen problems as the natural world does not respond in exactly the way in which you had imagined it would – things that you want to grow don’t grow, things that you don’t want to grow do grow, the weather is too hot or too cold, it is too wet, or too dry, there are pests and diseases, etc. If you keep sticking to your original idea of what you want to achieve, the solutions you find usually involve buying more products, and expending more energy to make things the way that you thought they should be. In one respect you move closer to your goal, but in other respects you move further away, spending more than you can afford in time and money, and always creating unforseen consequences that lead to new problems requiring new solutions, and so on and so forth.

When involved in a project of this sort with a child or young person, they soon lose interest; adults, who often have stronger ideas about how they think things should be, tend to stick with it a little longer, but unless there is an outside source of finance, sooner or later the project will grind to a halt, leaving behind an assorted mess of garden-centre products, depleted soil, and devastated wildlife. In itself this could be a profound educational experience, albeit a slightly depressing one. It is a microcosm of our idea of economic development, providing a clue to what is happening to the planet as a whole.

The second approach leads to a different destination. Similar problems arise as in the first case, but instead of reaching for an off-the-shelf solution, you re-examine whether or not your original objectives were valid or not – did you really need tomatoes in April?, etc. – and you look for simple things that you can do to resolve a problem without having to go to the shops. Over time, you adapt what you are trying to achieve, and come more into line with what is feasible given your local conditions. At some point, things start to change, you find yourself working with nature, rather than in opposition to it. The soil starts to gain in fertility, seeds germinate better, seedlings survive better, pests that had been a problem seem to be automatically kept down to a reasonable number, birds and other wildlife make a home on your land, and the seasons start to display themsleves in the flora and fauna that flourish in the natural conditions that you are nurturing. All this makes sense to children, and, freed from the obligation to use power tools, and chemical products, there are always things for children to do, and to be part of. In this environment, the idea of forcing anything to do things against its will makes no sense at all, and the idea of working co-operatively suddenly appears to be the natural order of events.

School teachers and administrators often justify what they are doing by focussing on what they are teaching, rather than on the way that they are teaching it. This is a fundamental mistake: it is the way that one teaches that determines what children learn, and how they will go about leading their lives. The information that children and young people are being given about the environment and the damage being done by human activity on the planet, may be broadly accurate, but it will not lead to a new approach to the way in which we deal with the natural world if it is taught using the hierarchical school-type model. Young people need to be given a chance to work closely with nature and to gain a first-hand understanding of the give and take required to live in harmony with natural systems if a more harmonious relationship between modern man and the natural world is to be forged.

The Curriculum

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Gareth Lewis

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