More extinction of experience – or is it? (Alison Parfitt)

[Alison recently emailed me this editorial that she wrote  for ECOS , the journal of the
British Association of Nature Conservationists, back in 2005 (Vol. 26 No.1). Since it relates directly to some other points recently discussed on the blog, regarding experiential learning, I’m posting it here with her permission. SB]

So what’s the fuss about? You might have felt gloomy after reading the first issue, ECOS 24 (3/4), on our extinction of experience theme. We called it: ‘The Great Outdoors – Just the tonic?’  We explored the  theme through articles about children’s loss of the outdoors experience, whether at play or in education. We also discussed the concerns about possible risks to people when going to wild places. It prompted questions about how people can appreciate nature and have any relationship with nature if experience of the outdoors, never mind anything approaching ‘wild’, is increasingly limited or even extinct? In putting together this follow up issue I have become less gloomy. Don’t get me wrong, the trends we worry about are still there. Geoff Cooper writes of Disconnected Children, but read on about the Campaign for Adventure, the Real World Learning Campaign, The Stoneleigh Project and Richard Keating’s Walking the Land, all of which show how people are working to reverse some of these trends.

Several writers have contributed short personal pieces about how they got connected to the outdoors. They were asked to say, very briefly, when and how they fell in love with the outdoors. For instance, was it childhood experience, cultural inspiration, influence of a significant person, through sport and adventure, a family tradition? They were also asked how they enjoy the outdoors now, at work and play. Our examples show that it was often several of those things in the life of a child that are remembered as connectors, prompts and inspiration.

Hearing what others say has led me to understand better why outdoors is so important to me. I am always wanting to be clearer about what I feel and think.  Being outdoors, whether ambling about for days at a time or even just sticking my head out of the window in the dark when I wake at night, brings more of that clarity. I don’t mean that being outdoors is an experience of ‘crystal clear, free as a bird, see straight through’ nothingness; quite the contrary. Being outdoors brings space and sense of place, often subtle as well as grand sights and sounds, the feel of weather and frequently an inspiring and comforting feeling of being a part of immense aliveness which makes everything feel clearer and usually better.[i]

I am particularly pleased that this issue follows the previous one on ‘Wilder Landscapes, wilder lives?’, about moving towards a wildland strategy. The ideas behind this issue and the last, are for me two parts of a whole. The last issue was about wilding of place, this one is about wilding of person. I am not a ‘wild’ person though, I cannot imagine that I would ever be called wild and I have hardly ever seen really wild places or big animals in the wild. When I did see big animals in Africa decades ago I was overwhelmed to realise how awe-inspiring and beautiful they were and could not stop talking about it. Now, if walking in the forest I saw wolves or disturbed a big cat, I would be struck with terror. Some of that reaction would be shock. I just don’t expect to meet bigger and perhaps more assertive creatures; animals, which however beautiful they are, could, in rare circumstances do me harm. That is not part of my current world. I guess I am actually more at risk from traffic when cycling up the road where I live, but would probably feel more at risk in such an encounter in the forest. Nonetheless whatever my reactions and despite any risk, I would value that experience.

I would value that experience and wanted to extend our ‘extinction of experience’ theme because I care about understanding human life within encompassing nature. This care is no more complicated than a belief that we, the human species, need to understand better how to live with the rest of nature in order to develop our potential as sentient, thinking and spiritual beings. Within that belief there are notions of respect, delight, mystery and knowing.[ii] And this belief underpins any understanding I have of sustainability and how to live with nature, in a more sustainable way, with a feather light footprint.  Duncan Mackay describes some of this as a long, slow and wiggly experience.

Building on all of this, Mathew Frith’s article develops one strand of our extinction of experience theme saying: “our policies and practices are still largely based on the assumption that the public has a good understanding of our nature; that only if we shout even louder they’ll flock to our conservation cause(s)… we need to challenge the disconnection of people from nature in ways that work from where they are…  The dominating role of television and the internet will make it imperative that we  advocate a vibrant and relevant nature that provides social benefits above and beyond those of the virtual natures that will undoubtedly evolve in society.”

So what does that suggest for all of us who want a life with real experience? And especially for those of us  who are stewards and creators of the outdoor world? How far should we challenge the policies and perceptions that lead to children and the rest of us having restricted opportunities to experience the outdoors?  And do we need to be even more creative (and perhaps more populist) in the ways we communicate to people about opportunities to experience, gain more confidence and inspiration from the wild? And I suggest that applies especially to both wild places and the wild of heart nearer to us than we might always notice.

Alison Parfitt

[i] Several authors in both this issue and in the previous one on the topic have referred to the work of Edward O. Wilson, whose ‘biophilia’ hypothesis posits that humans are attracted to other living organisms and that this contact with the natural world may benefit health. Medical science is catching on, for example see the work of Howard Frumkin at Emory University Rollins School of Public Health, USA.

Also, benefits beyond physical activity, fresh air and company described by participants in BTCVs Green Gym initiative, see evaluation by Oxford Brookes University.

[ii] Also an understanding that as part of this we need the experience of living with more complete eco-systems and with the larger animals that implies, as outlined in the wilder landscapes aspirations.

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