In september 2011 I presented a talk at the Queensland Outdoor Education Conference discussing why in my declining years I am writing novels rather than memoir. Here is part of that talk:
A Pedagogy of Place and Why I Write
Presentation at the Outdoor Education Conference, Maroon OEC, September 2011.
I wish to begin this talk with a reading from my forthcoming novel, Cave Hill, because it illustrates what a pedagogy of place, as perceived by Brian Wattchow and Mike Brown, is all about. I am refer to their recently published book, by the same name, A Pedagogy of Place, Monash University Publishing, Melbourne Vic., 2011.
The setting in my story is the Consuelo Tableland above Carnarvon Gorge, and the characters are five of a party of twelve, ten students and two leaders, on the fourth day of a fourteen day expedition across the Carnarvon Ranges aiming to finish at Salvator Rosa National Park. Seven of the party have gone off to climb Black Ally Peak and the other five are awaiting their return.
…… That day, Anya’s delicate face, framed by straight blonde hair, was to come alive under Emma’s pencil. She sketched to a soundtrack of Anya’s voice, soft and musical, telling us about her life. Penny, Susan and myself lay around on the grass, listening.
‘My family arrived in Australia ten years ago, in 1957,’ she told us in her quiet way. ‘Dad is an electrical engineer, recruited to work on the Snowy Mountains Scheme. We lived at Jindabyne first, then Tumut, and then moved to Mount Isa in Queensland. There were lots of other Finnish people there, working in the mine. It was so hot, I remember, so very hot. I was glad when Dad got a position down at Toowoomba, in the foundry. I like the cold,’ she smiled a Nordic smile. ‘Finnish people love the cold. They play out in the snow, then instead of hot showers they go to the sauna, sometimes the whole family together. Nudity is not rude to Finns. They enjoy be natural together. Last year I went back to Finland for six months, living with my cousins. I love Australia, but Finland, it’s more special—closer to my soul, you know. Finnish people love the forest. Most families own a summer cottage or a retreat in the forest by a lake. There are many beautiful lakes in Finland. Finns pick berries, play running games, go swimming, canoeing and sailing. They talk about ‘the nature’ like it is the love that surrounds them. Australians aren’t like that. Here, land is just another resource to be used. Everyone only thinks about how the land can make money. There are these ‘trespasses will be prosecuted’ signs everywhere but the same bush is often abused by the landowners.’
‘It’s a pity, isn’t it,’ Susan agreed. ‘The land ethic Mr Makepeace wrote about for the project, it’s missing in Australia. My grandmother often talks about China and its wild places. She says wild places create good Feng Shui so they must be treated with respect. Chinese people are much more concerned with the appeal of landscapes, the aesthetics, and the balance of the elements, than Australians are. My grandmother says, “Harmonious surrounds mean harmonious life.”’
‘That’s not fair,’ I interjected, feeling my British heritage was under attack. ‘We’ve set aside national parks and scenic reserves, and you can’t blame the pioneers for getting things wrong. They came from a different culture and had a new environment to settle. They had to learn by mistakes.’
‘Yes, but you have to agree that a lot of agricultural practices have damaged the bush,’ Penny said. ‘Colonisation introduced many plants and animals that have become feral pests. Aboriginal elders must be horrified by the changes.’
‘I know, but it’s easy to say that now, isn’t it? Mr Makepeace often goes on in geography about how our perceptions can cloud our logic when thinking about landscape. It’s like how early settlers in South Australia thought rains would follow the plough. They were wrong and after a few good seasons they faced years of drought and had to walk off their properties. It takes time to learn how to live in an environment. Farm management is much better now. I believe most farmers care about the future.’
‘I don’t think we really understand this country,’ Susan retorted. I’ve begun to think not enough credit is given to wisdom the Aborigines have passed down through the ages. Knowledge doesn’t only come through science, you know.’
‘But we need both—science and experience,’ I argued, finding it hard to keep a tone of exasperation from my voice and feeling as if I was under attack.
‘Understanding the land takes time—more than five or six generations living in the one place. Australia is only a young nation after all,’ Emma said, casually laying down her pencil and holding up her drawing. It was a wonderful likeness of Anya, sitting on a log with the sleeves of her over-sized hiking shirt rolled up her slim arms. It could have stood alone as a portrait, yet Emma had sketched in a backdrop of other figures gazing out across a moody landscape. Something subtle about the composition suggested Anya might be saying, ‘’Now you are here, open your eyes. Let the land speak to you.”
You see the point is that a lot of Outdoor Education, as it is currently presented, uses the land as a resource, it does not aim to ‘let the land speak to you’. Brian Wattchow and Mike Brown, in A Pedagogy of Place (2011), develop the argument for a place-responsive focus in Outdoor Education programs, where students are challenged to see the places they visit through a range of lenses – the aesthetic, the geographic, the natural systems lens, the cultural lens … past and present…., yes and how the landscape has evolved, the settlement history, the indigenous perspective, how wealth generation initiatives develop and what are the ensuing environmental problems. So they argue for developing an intimacy with the land that builds a lasting appreciation, a ‘spiritual’, for want of a word, …. a spiritual connection with the place.