of the Canadian Network for Environmental Education and Communication
(& David Abrams keynote speech)
Ann Jarnet, December 2001
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.
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 Id miss out on
something if I stayed away.
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
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).
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.
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
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."
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).
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.
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).
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.
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
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
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
is shaped by breath - we breathe out as we speak. Air becomes the
mysterious intermediary. Power air/breath is in oral culture.
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
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 Presss son, who made the observation
about trees breathing in what we breathe out. David said the same
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.
concluded by asking what are the stories that we need to be telling
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.
the end of the conference, I had the privilege of sitting with David
Abram, Ed OSullivan, 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
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.