Nature Connection is not just Nature Contact by Jon Cree
Food for thought for the Forest School Conference 2018 – “Belong in this Place” 5 – 7 October in Norfolk

“Come forth into the light of things. Let nature be your teacher” William Wordsworth (The Major Works)

“Surely any outdoor learning is a good thing and is creating nature connection, at least we’re getting them out there, nature teaches all the time”. This is a mantra I often hear from outdoor and indeed environmental educators. Having been involved in the EE/OE movement for almost 40 years now I know this is not necessarily the case. In fact done badly without a congruent value system that dictates an educators practice it can create disconnection from the natural world and the very ecological systems on which we all depend for sustenance and beauty. Is the recent upsurge of the nature “connection” movement a good thing regarding the long term relationship with our planet? When I wake to the news that the arctic temperature is currently at least 45 degrees ABOVE normal, even at the end of the 2017/18 perpetual arctic winter night, when it should be below freezing, and then we get unusually freezing weather in the UK for early March AND THROUGH APRIL, I fear we have failed in our attempts to build connection and relationship to the planet in the EE/OE movement. In this short article I would like to explore what we mean by nature connection, especially in relation to Forest School, and raise questions about practices that embody this that could lead to regenerative systems.

So what do we mean by nature connection? For me it is about a continuous relationship with the natural world and it’s ecological systems i.e. the planet itself. It is about the improvised duet between our animal body and the fluid breathing land which we inhabit – a participatory relationship. There is an active dialogue with all life – between the human and the non human, between the inner mind and the outer world.

Steve van Matre, of Earth Education fame, recently wrote “…this (environmental education) is not a matter of planting seeds. That’s what most everyone in our field claims they are doing, but without careful cultivation, most of the intended growth withers and dies. It is choked out by other desires and demands on learners lives………Most seeds did not and don’t make it”

Relationship takes time, effort and cultivation – it is not a one off field trip or a momentary wow atop a mountain or deep in a bluebell blooming wood. What nature connection is really about is both the long term rich first hand contact with the natural world that engenders reverence, respect, kinship, joy AND, importantly, love and understanding. This is why Forest School can be so powerful as it is about having long term regular contact with the natural world, through the seasons. A key part of all this is cultivating of these emotions is a deep ‘knowing’ of the ways the ecological processes of the planet operate and how we as humans are part and parcel of it all.

Nature connection, if it is all about loving relationship with the natural world, is also reciprocal…indeed all relationships depend on reciprocity and that can only happen when we humans recognise how we are fed physically as well as emotionally by the natural world. Steve van Matre goes on to say “…in a loving relationship there are three entities; two people plus the relationship itself…”

I take from this that for both people to gain from this they have to sacrifice in the relationship. In our relationship with the natural world we have taken the relationship for granted and not sacrificed enough and now the natural world is kicking back in the many environmental ways it only knows how to kick back (rising temperatures, surging methane, species loss etc). Developing this relationship and knowing what to sacrifice takes intentional time. When we are open to it and know the workings we can see ourselves as part of this vast interconnected web and really connect rather than have that all too brief in-comprehensive contact that is often equated to connection. What, as Van Matre states, we need to do is to “sharpen our senses and open our minds…letting nature flow into us and to really deepen our understandings in order to ‘give back’ rather than take”. Sustainable development has often been construed as something that can help human growth, and in the Forest School constructivist approach make meaning for ourselves. However after thirty years of sustainable development speak we are in a worse situation and the term has meant, in the end, more growth – we need new language and dialogue.

As Herbert Girardet has said we now need ‘regeneration’ not ‘development’. Just having nature contact does not necessarily enable learners formulate a deep integral meaning of what our true ecology is which can then enable a regeneration of our planetary systems and ourselves. It does not necessarily help us understand the basic energy flows and material cycles – how sunlight flows into our veins to enable our ancient friend carbon to move and connect all living beings on the planet. How do we then enable the deeper connection that is required to restore and regenerate the ecological systems that are currently at tipping points? I fear that Forest School sometimes misses this reciprocity in taking children and learners into the woods.

So I leave you with three questions about nature connection to intentionally and mindfully consider when looking at this deeper connection question:

  • What does constitute deeper nature connection practise where we can rewire and really understand the workings of the planet?
  • What routines do we have to embody to realise a regenerative relationship and not see nature as a separate entity – as an IT, but as a whole where there is a unity that can regenerate?
  • And what sacrifices do we have to make for the natural world in order to reinvigorate dynamic restorative ecological systems that can include the young whippersnapper – ‘human’?

In the end it is not just going out into nature, making contact and knowing what it can do for us in terms of learning and development. Nature connection, as opposed to nature contact, is about letting nature into our everyday lives and making US and IT a WE, fulfilled and integral.

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