Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Pedagogy of Place and Poetry in Nature Rewilding Learners

Reflection – Marna Hauk - Sense of Wonder and Earth in Mind – Pedagogy of Place

"To see what is here, right in front of us: nothing would seem easier or more obvious, yet few things are more difficult. There are unmistakable signs that something may be dying among us: that capacity to see the world, to recognize the 'other' and admit it into our lives. Invisible walls shut us out, or shut us in, and we make them stronger and thicker by the day."

- John Haines, Living off the Country, p. 17

In Living off the Country, John Haines describes a possibly dying capacity amongst humans to experience the world deeply and connect. Haines focuses on the role of the poet to resuscitate a capacity of seeing and a culture of connection. In as much as educators are like poets, he is also describing a revitalizing pedagogy of place. Rachel Carson, Wendell Berry, E. O. Wilson, and David Orr all confirm the essential elements of this sensory opening and connection with place.

The capacity to wonder sparked by intimate experiences with place sources both poet and scientist. E. O. Wilson argues in "The Poetic Species" (Biophilia, 1984) that poets, like scientists, are engaged in enterprises of discovery bound by our relationship to other organisms (p. 63), founded in love and childhood fascination, providing a lodestar and sanctuary (p. 65). In other words, love and connection are the bases of poetry and science. And education that awakens this love and connection revitalizes our humanness.

The capacity is within us, it is in-built, this sense of wonder, this capacity to deeply notice. E. O. Wilson and Carson agree about the central role of a sense of discovery. For Carson, informal and direct primary experience and discovery nourish the sense of wonder. Carson (1998) confirms that a sense of meeting the unknown with primary senses, and having someone to share the experience with, are the critical process. "The sharing includes nature in storm as well as calm, by night as well as day, and is based on having fun together rather than on teaching" (p. 17). Shared informal and primary sensory experience and discovery can be exhilarating: "just going through the woods in the spirit of two friends on an expedition of excited discovery" (p. 23)

Educators, like poets, break down the walls that have been built up against primary perception and discovering a sense of wonder. Orr affirms that biophilia and a sense of mystery are connected (2004, p. 138). Haines articulates how by becoming connected with place, places can speak through us—by becoming authentic and connected, the voice of the place can enter our work:

"What counts finally in a work are not novel and interesting things, though these can be important, but the absolutely authentic. I think that there is a spirit of place, a presence asking to be expressed; and sometimes when we are lucky as writers, and quiet in a way few of us want to be anymore, a voice enters our own…I have come to feel that there is here in North America a hidden place obscured by what we have built upon it, and that whenever we penetrate the surface of the life around us that place and its spirit can be found." (Haines)

How can we design, provoke, and/or encourage learning experiences that allow "the hidden place" below the surface to emerge in us, in writing and in life? Berry suggests that Haines points us towards a focus on authenticity and connection: "Once a place and its spirit have become not just subjects but standards of the writer's work, then the connections between art and community, art and tradition, art and thought become necessary and clear" (2010, pp. 52-53). Berry argues that cultivating this sense of connectedness also saves us from "the shrinkage of the world to the limits of the isolated, displaced, desiring, and despairing self" (p. 53), bringing us to realize Orr's values, consciousness, questions, and conscience (2004, p. 8). Andrea Olsen in Body and Earth encourages a process of direct engagement and what she calls inclusive attention before writing and reflection, "valuing experience as well as the language used to describe it" (2002, p. 5). Carson describes this as "expressing pleasure in what we see, calling his attention to this or that but only as I would have shared discoveries with an older person" (p. 23) As Orr expresses, "True intelligence is long range and aims towards wholeness" (Orr, p. 11).

These scholar-practitioners provide insights into how to reconnect and increase what I term Earth empathy (see, the capacity for humans to connect with the larger presence of the life of the planet in a deeply meaningful way. Fostering and encouraging earth empathy is a critically important fruit of emplaced learning. Complexity science, with its understanding of emergent properties arising greater than the sum of parts helps us understand how fostering a Gaian connectedness, an Earth empathy, can help connect humans with the larger living presences of which we are a part – place and planet.

One way to apply these insights regarding a sense of wonder and education that keeps Earth in mind takes inspiration from the field of poetry therapy and poetic medicine. By creating collegial experiences of direct sensory experience and discovery as well as writerly reflection, I have witnessed awakenings with groups across ages. Whether with kindergarteners in a school courtyard opening up to the happenings of a blossoming jacaranda, with middle-schoolers getting their feet muddy at a cob building site and habitat restoration, or with adults in deep forest, direct experience with spacious nature opens and connects. Poetic processes and writing integrated with these experiences help learners track the path of their own discoveries, offers a wider language for their expanded perceptions, and allows them to become metacognitively capable of continuing connection. We become, at least for a time, re-wilded.


Berry, W. (2010). Imagination in place: Essays. Berkeley: Counterpoint.

Carson, R. L., & Kelsh, N. (1998). The sense of wonder. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Haines, J. (1981). Living off the country: Essays on poetry and place. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan Press.

Kellert, S. R. & Wilson, E. O. (Eds.). (1993). The biophilia hypothesis. Washington D.C.: Island Press.

Olsen, A. (2002). Body and Earth: An experiential guide. Lebanon, NH: U Press of New England.

Orr, D. (2004). Earth in mind: On education, the environment, and the human prospect. Washington DC: Island Press.

Wilson, E. O. (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

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