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Teaching at the Edge
by John Elder

Introduction: The Orion Society's Stories in the Land and Watershed Partnerships programs support teachers in bringing place-based environmental education to the forefront of their teaching. Integrating cross-disciplinary studies with work in the field, these programs encourage teachers to use the resources of their own communities in educating their students about nature and nurturing in them an environmental ethic. Volume Two of The Orion Society's Nature Literacy Series will present eleven stories from teachers who have, through participation in these programs, found effective and inspirational ways of adapting the place-based education model to their own teaching environments. The following essay is from John Elder's introduction to the forthcoming Nature Literacy Series monograph, due to be published this spring.

Teaching at the Edge by John Elder

The writer and ethnobotanist Gary Nabhan, resisting the marginalization that he felt in the term "nature writing," jokingly remarked before one of his readings that it might be better now to simply refer to books on the same shelf with Thoreau, Leopold, Carson, and Williams as "literature" and to books on the other shelves as "urban dysfunctional writing." I'd like to suggest in a similar spirit of playful seriousness that we now conceive of "environmental education" simply as "education"--in contrast to the disciplinary compartmentalization and abstraction that often characterize conventional curricula. My sense of this contrast relates to two things that have been confirmed by Stories in the Land and the Watershed Partnerships: education is most productive at an edge, in the ecological sense; and the beginning of education, as of an environmental conscience, is love.

We might do well, for a start, to replace the term "interdisciplinary" with the ecologists' language of "ecotones" and "edge-effect." An ecotone is the zone where two ecosystems meet, and is a habitat typically marked both by a greater number of species than exist in either constituent ecosystem and by a higher density of organisms. Rather than assuming that the "two cultures" of science and the humanities must remain forever discrete, environmental education needs more boldly to inhabit the ecotone where they join and commingle, where something new may evolve. In The Edge of the Sea, Rachel Carson used four telling adjectives to describe such rich convergence along her beloved Maine coast. She said that "the edge of the sea is a strange and beautiful place." She continues: "[Since] for no two successive days is the shore line precisely the same...[it] remains an elusive and indefinable boundary." These four terms may help us to understand the character and promise of environmental education as it evolves in this Orion ecotone.

Successful education has the power to make the world strange again. Without any stake in the places where we live, we walk through days in which there are trees but no tree in particular, we drive along roads that could be anywhere, never registering the mountains to the east and lake to the west that determined, in fact, exactly where that route would run. Such casual familiarity is the opposite of intimacy and attentiveness. When I think back to the defining moments in Stories in the Land and the Watershed Partnerships, they often seem to have been sudden glimpses of a real world, out of alignment with our expectations and therefore restoring three-dimensional solidity to the landscape.

I remember walking in the woods near Bristol with Steve Bless's sixth grade class from Monkton and an expert tracker named Sue Morse. We were bushwhacking along a narrow slope when one little boy spotted something really strange in a tree. It took everyone a moment to figure out what it was--a big, disheveled porcupine blinking mildly down at us from a crotch in the tree where it had been napping. Every kid's (and adult's) jaw dropped, our eyes widening in surprise at the spectacle of that large animal swaying above our heads--an unexpected life in an unexpected place.

Another moment of memorable strangeness came when my Middlebury College seminar that was part of the Watershed Partnerships went to the Bread Loaf campus for an afternoon workshop on field sketching with Clare Walker Leslie. It was a day of laughter and looking closely. But as we completed our final exercise, lying on the grass and drawing the layered outlines of woods, mountains, and clouds, several people noticed simultaneously that the setting sun was highlighting strands and hammocks of spider webs that swung from the tips of grass blades in such abundance as to transform the dark green lawn of Bread Loaf into a shimmering canopy. When the wind arose, these catenary loops of silver flexed into iridescence. Drawing out of doors had already helped us see a world of buds and clouds, and now let us in for a revelation of the unregistered beauty that always and everywhere surrounds us. Such an experience can raise an educational community to a new level of expectation, and can help every individual in it cultivate more sustained attentiveness. Everything looks different, including the meaning of education, when we bear in mind that the world is beautiful.

The sense of beauty is fostered, thus, by the experience of the world's strangeness, and both are closely allied with what Carson called "the sense of wonder." In her book of the same title, she connects these values in a way that bears not only on primary education, but also on the vitality of education at the secondary, college, and graduate levels:

If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow. The years of early childhood are the time to prepare the soil. Once the emotions have been aroused--a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love--then we wish for knowledge about the object of our emotional response.

We wonder at the world's amazing variety, and we love it for its beauty. These facts are at the heart of attentiveness to nature, and we educators need to assert them with some defiance in the face of disciplines that pride themselves on their presumptive objectivity.

I revere the scientific method, with its effort to arrive at unbiased and reproducible results and its quest for a universal language. But when the language of scientific objectivity is bandied about too glibly it can suggest that we are capable of achieving observations in which there is no observer. The highest, and most trustworthy, science arises when the scientist is also capable of expressing in a personal voice the love that motivated his or her lifetime pursuit of knowledge about volcanoes or snakes or the origin of the universe. It's true of science, as St. Paul declared it to be of good works, that without love it is as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. We need to pay close attention when a scientist of E. O. Wilson's stature speculates about the principle of "biophilia," the innate sense of love and admiration for other forms of life that in his opinion lies at the basis of biology.

Love is where attentiveness to nature starts, and responsibility towards one's home landscape is where it leads. Aldo Leopold summed it up this way in his essay "The Land Ethic": "It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to land can exist without love, respect, and admiration for land, and a high regard for its value." The love, respect, and admiration to which Leopold refers are the natural outgrowths of a sense of wonder. They are a recognition of deep affiliation with the "land," by which Leopold means not only the soil but also the whole web of life which it supports.

An approach to education that begins with love is a romantic pedagogy. As opposed to the classical, or deductive, model that impresses knowledge, in the different cookie-cutters of each discipline, on the amorphous mind and sensibilities of children and the otherwise insufficiently formed, a romantic or inductive approach assumes that the capacity to recognize natural patterns and the power of creative expression are innate. Education's function, then, becomes exposing people to the range of their possible relationships in the world, and giving them the language and models to explore and express such affiliation within a vivid community of values.

Love is the deepest science, but it is not quantifiable. Loving attentiveness to one's bioregional community is a discipline, in the sense of being a life's study. It does not, however, depend upon the sort of exclusive vocabulary which those academic categories we call "disciplines" use to define and defend themselves. It has already become a temptation, given the rapid growth of interest in environmental issues, to develop environmental studies or environmental education into separate new departments or programs of their own. But we should resist this impulse. The essence of environmental education is a certain energetic waywardness with regard to compartmentalization and boundaries of all kinds.

One revelation of Stories in the Land and the Watershed Partnerships for me has been that often, the most whole-hearted and integrated teaching occurs in the lower elementary grades. Instead of always having schools and colleges looking up the line to the specialized and professionalistic standards of graduate schools, I would recommend that they also try to emulate the best first grade classes, where music, art, and literature flow directly into the studies of science and mathematics.

Such a suggestion might sound as ridiculous as tree-hugging (which I also advocate) to the upholders of a deductive, hierarchical pedagogy. But one of the things I have experienced, and want to testify to here, is that such an integrated pedagogy can work. It is nothing as fixed or predictable as a "curriculum," in the sense of a step-by-step program of instruction with quantifiable measures of progress. Rather, this approach to environmental education must be a perpetual process of discovery, celebration, and community. Rachel Carson is not disappointed, after all, that the edge of the sea remains "elusive and indefinable." Rather, that fact represents for her a perpetual escape into the wonder of the world's unfolding presentness. She can celebrate with the poet A. R. Ammons, in his own walk along the shore in "Corsons Inlet," that "tomorrow a new walk is a new walk."

John Elder is a director of The Orion Society and a professor of environmental studies at Middlebury College. He is the author of Reading the Mountains of Home (Harvard University Press), editor of American Nature Writers, and coeditor, with Robert Finch, of the Norton Book of Nature Writing.

If you'd like to order these (and other) books, please visit The Orion Society Bookstore.

This essay was originally published in the Winter 1997/98 issue of Orion Afield. To order a copy of this issue, please visit The Orion Society Marketplace, call (413) 528-4422, write The Orion Society, 195 Main Street, Great Barrington, MA 01230, or e-mail us at The expanded monograph version of this essay will be published this spring as part of The Orion Society's Nature Literacy Series. This monograph can also be ordered from The Orion Society Marketplace.

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