Review of the Canadian Network for Environmental Education and Communication
Annual Conference
(& David Abram’s keynote speech)

July 2001

by Ann Jarnet, December 2001

I attended the conference of the Canadian Network for Environmental Education and Communication in Whitehorse, Yukon in mid-July. The theme of the conference was "Telling our stories..." -- the role of the narrative in environmental education.

I can't say enough good things about this conference -- it was, by far, the best conference I've attended. Usually by
the third day of a conference, I sneak away for a break -- here, I stayed with it right to the end, because it was so rich and inspiring and there was so much coherence that I know I’d miss out on something if I stayed away.

The conference started on an amazing note. Rishma Dunlop is a woman who completed her PhD in English at the University of British Columbia. Her thesis was in the form of a novel, pure narrative. Some of you would have loved to hear her talk about modes of knowing and how challenging it was for her to have the novel approved as a form of dissertation. In her defense she ended up fielding more questions about the form than the content, which in a way is most disappointing as the content of that novel was very moving. What a trail-blazer she is.

That was followed by a series of workshops on phenomenology: women's experience of nature; the phenomenology of dwelling (what a great context to talk about sense of place). Then Val Plumwood (an Australian woman whose story about being attacked by a crocodile was published in the UTNE reader last year) talked about creating place-sensitive culture. She shared her ideas about renaming towns, streets, etc. as decolonization and reconciliation, saying that traditional knowledge or local knowledge would/should drive the re-naming. She talked about how rural names are often considered "hokey" and how power names are a big source of the problem with our communities... how we could recover the narrative in re-naming a place. It made me feel how we are so quick to surrender our own power and good feeling about a place by giving it a name of some far-away monarch (e.g. Victoria, British Columbia, or Regina, Saskatchewan).

Then it was on to another workshop on creating a sense of place with an amazing woman from Salt Spring Island, then another on "mind and body - place - and privilege" (ooohh right up my alley), in the rain shadow forest.

The next day's keynote was a Vancouver poet named Robert Bringhurst. I have never heard anything as wonderful as this - Bob just breathes poetry. He's the fellow who has translated the myths of the Haida Gwai into English and was a close friend of Bill Reid's. I was blown away by his attachment to Earth. He talked about how teaching aboriginal languages in schools isn't going to save the languages. He focused on the notion of language as an endangered species, and said "language is what becomes when you think in it..." referring to linguistics as a branch of natural history. Linguistics deals with stories that creatures tell, but how about the stories that creatures are? The story starts where you enter it and stops where you leave it... and on and on and on. Unfortunately his books of poetry are difficult to find.

Then it was David Abram. I had high expectations and didn't expect to be blown away by anything that preceded his talk, so I was already carrying a lot of baggage when he set foot on the stage. He was there with his partner and their new baby, Hannah, a cute little thing whose stories are still vowel-based. He began with a prayer: "May a good vision catch me, may a luminous vision come over me, burst around me, may I awaken into the story that surrounds, wondrous story find me, wildness. May we taste something sacred."

He talked about interspecies conviviality, asking how did we lose the experience of the world around us as alive? Animistic experience of the world is not a conglomerate of inert things, but as community of living objects. Said we are made of the same stuff as that which is around us. He urged us: don't look at water for long unless you've been there 10 times -- then it will be used to you and won't mind you looking at it (a form of etiquette).

He told this funny story: he was "naturalist in residence" on a cruise ship going to Alaska some time ago: 2000 passengers, 800 crew, and he felt that the only critters around were those on platters. He wanted to jump ship, so when they docked at Juneau, he hitchhiked north up the coast, borrowed a kayak and paddled around some islands. It was silent, but soon there were little sounds. All of a sudden, there was a weird sound coming from a certain distance. He went around a "corner" and saw a colony of over 120 sea lions sprawled on the shore. When he got closer, they started to bark, and then they were all barking. He sang, to try to be non-threatening. The sea lions fell silent, looking at each other. David kept paddling, and all of a sudden there was a humpback whale between him and the seals. He was overwhelmed by the stench of the whale's breath, and began to back paddle till things got calm again. Then the whale appeared again, and David felt that the mind-altering stench of the whale put him in a trance.

The sea lions seemed to be saying "not too close to my kin here", and they came towards him. David started to dance with his hands and arms, and they retreated. He did this over and over until it was time for him to paddle away. This experience, he said, kept him in a trance for the rest of the cruise. (I can't describe here how the crowd of 200 roared when he waved his arms and moved forward and back on stage - it was a real hoot).

Then he got serious, and talked about how there was something regarding language in the story, how we share with other animals. The body speaks by posture, poise, presence, all of this being a primordial level of language. Content is inseparable from form, from body. He talked in terms of the splashing speech of the waves, the creak of floorboards - says that everything speaks.

How did we get to the mute terrain? Talked about what writing does to our senses, to our experience of language (all the great stuff in his book).

Talked about how ancestral knowledge gathered over generations was held and transmitted (plants and what to eat, curing headaches, what is toxic, etc.). All stored and held in stories. Not just through repetition, because some are within rituals and not told often. Stories associated with place - when we encounter a place, the site triggers the memory of the story that happened there and with speed associated with 20th century progress we can't keep up with the story because we move too fast through the space. Land was the primary mnemonic.

We're forcing people out of their mind by transplanting them. They need the land to think by. A land stripped of its story also loses its power.

Speaking is shaped by breath - we breathe out as we speak. Air becomes the mysterious intermediary. Power air/breath is in oral culture.

Talked about spirals... in our fingerprints, toes, spirals in folds of our ears.... all little winds that linger, little winds that are subsidiaries of the Wind. Referred to ecopsychology as breath and wind.

David concentrated a good part of his lecture to the Hebrew tradition (part of this is in his book) where wind/spirit are inseparable. Yhwh, too sacred to pronounce. All consonants, no vowels. Consonants are shape, vowels are breath. Yah -- breathe in; Weh, breathe out. I thought of Maureen Press’s son, who made the observation about trees breathing in what we breathe out. David said the same thing.

He talked about mind as wind and the air up here in Yukon differs from the air by the Rio Grande. Each place has its own air, its own awareness.

Abrams concluded by asking what are the stories that we need to be telling now....

The next day offered equally rich events. Edmund O'Sullivan is the Director of the Transformative Learning Centre at the University of Toronto. Inspired by Thomas Berry, he talks in terms of Earth Literacy being required at the terminal phase of the Cenozoic Era and are beginning the Ecozoic Era. Now this is a guy I need to learn from, as he talks about the need for emancipation from privilege. I highly recommend his book Transformative Learning.

At the end of the conference, I had the privilege of sitting with David Abram, Ed O’Sullivan, Pamela Courtenay-Hall and the host, Bob Jickling, for a plenary session during which I had an opportunity to talk about my own work on environmental education and sustainability here in Canada. In a future issue of Gatherings I would like to tell you my story of the magical things that have happened as I toured the country to consult over 5300 Canadians in the last twenty months.

Along with elders’ prayers, French-Canadian knee-slapping "reels", a duet of Abram and Bringhurst poetry readings, animal theatre and wonderful meals, the camaraderie of the 125 participants has lingered over the last several months. The next conference is planned for Montreal in August of 2002 and a bi-cultural approach will surely make for a dynamic and creative event.