Eco-Art: How to Flow Upstream

Eco-Art: How to Flow Upstream

By Shimshon Obadia

hirty-one degrees Celsius and the air is dry to the touch in downtown Kelowna, BC. I whip my bicycle down the shoulder of Pandosy Street where the bike lane would be until I hit K.L.O. Road where I connect to the actual bike lane embedded in the road with a glowing grass-green path and neon white icons. My body feels like it is being hit with a light rain shower but it’s just my sweat in this Canadian desert’s air. Passing Fascieux Creek on Casorso Road, I glance at the luscious wetland full of tall cattails and a small sign indicating the creek’s adoption by École K.L.O. Middle School where I’m headed in a frantic rush. I switch gears and pedal faster. I cannot be late for this. The school is coming up on my right and checking both ways— the sidewalk is empty — I mount the curb. Launching myself through the pre-teen sized gap in the school’s fencing I walk my bicycle along the length of the garden. This is the garden Michelle Hamilton and her Environmental Education students have planted on the school grounds separating the school from the roadway. I am just on time.

Even though it may cost me my punctuality here, I have a little routine that I’ve taken to since beginning my eco-art work with the students at École K.L.O. Middle School. Standing at the side door to the school, I peer over to the creek that runs through the school’s grounds. Covered in old, cracked, sinking concrete pads with a ripple from the far end of the creek off the school grounds barely slipping through the water where a stream once flourished, this section of Fascieux Creek was once a luscious wetland like the section of it I pass on my way to this school, the perfect learning environment on this school’s grounds. It was covered as a decision made by the school’s administration many years earlier and now the school benefits from a legal-sized soccer field and an uninterrupted sightline across the entire property.

I begin to open the door as it is opened for me from the other side by Michelle Hamilton and her students. These are young people who have pledged their efforts and energy to reversing this concrete problem by way of their time spent in classes as well as the time they volunteer outside of them. These students were originally challenged to raise $100,000 by their school board for this habitat’s restoration; multiple “generations” of students remarkably raised $86,000. As of this writing, the first phase of re-naturalization is nearly complete and funding for the final phase is almost in place. But this community, originally only a few students, now an impressive mass of parents, concerned citizens, local naturalists, and environmental consulting firm, and more, fought for almost a decade against points of concern everywhere from the size of that soccer field to the idea of children-turned-flower-thieves at the sight of fresh, local flora.

This is when I came in. Working with the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) Eco-Art Incubator research initiative founded by UBC faculty members Nancy Holmes and Denise Kenney, I have been providing art as a means to attract attention to the work these students have been tirelessly committed to, while simultaneously providing a creative outlet for the environmental concerns directly impacting their education. This is why I wanted to be on time. We were going to the section of the Fascieux Creek on Casorso Road, which has not been disturbed or covered up, to approach this work a little differently.

In my backpack, I had three cameras, and attached to my bicycle were the accompanying tripods. Michelle Hamilton had given up this class (as one of quite a few over the years) to allow the students and me to create videos. Using visual storytelling. At that time, we had just begun tackling the concrete problem in the creek using art.

Fighting for the money to get their wetland restored was only one part of this work; fighting against the mainstream prioritization of what looks good on paper, such as outdated laptops for an entire school, versus what students want and need is another. This is the work these students have tirelessly been pushing for. In a stream like that of Fascieux Creek, fighting the current only gets so much attention; flowing gracefully up the stream can captivate passersby for the rest of their lives. In his book, Conversation Pieces, Grant H. Kester states, “[i]f any collective identity is inherently corrupt, then the only legitimate goal of community art practice is to challenge or unsettle the viewer’s reliance on such forms of identification”. [1] This is where eco-art comes into Fascieux Creek: when everyone else cannot imagine something changing, we began to make that change happen.

So how does art beat concrete? This is a question I asked myself when first starting the Daylighting the Classroom project. I wondered how this partnership with the University of British Columbia’s Eco Art Incubator, and École K.L.O. Middle School students and faculty could be used to restore the wetland habitat. This was a project for the home of Western Painted Turtles, a home currently occupied by the school grounds, and concrete pads sinking into the remains of what was once the main creek flowing through them, Fascieux Creek. I started out by picturing the whole project as a complex version of ‘rock, paper, scissors’; before even getting my feet on the ground, I was looking at a puzzle of what I could do to get the students to create change, or how to get an integrated learning ecological system for the students at École K.L.O. Middle school where they could have a mutually beneficial relationship with nature for the sake of their education. As is popular in artistic practice, however, my initial intentions were very far off the mark.

It turned out that the situation was far more complex than a logical puzzle of figuring out what paper I needed to write to remove the rock. When I first got to the school and met the people involved with this re-naturalization, I realized that a quick fix answer was not what was needed, and more importantly, was not going to get the job done. I became aware that the project of restoring this habitat at the school was a project that faculty member, Michelle Hamilton — the person who first contacted the University of British Columbia with this project proposal — had been working tirelessly towards for years now. More important than this was the fact that the students at École K.L.O. Middle school were already greatly invested in the project, and wanted to see it through for the benefit of their learning, their planet, and their community. Here my project quickly turned all the way around from being meant to restore a wetland through art, into a project meant to empower the students affected by this lack of integration with nature. This was not my own original idea: it was a problem they had already begun fighting for themselves.

As an artist, I drew from my performance background to give these students educational tools that would allow them to express themselves in the area of environmentalism as well as to expand their connection with nature for the sake of a more holistic learning experience. I work in applied drama, a form of performance which Helen Nicholson explains in her book of the same name to be “forms of dramatic activity which primarily exist outside conventional mainstream theatre institutions, and that are specifically intended to benefit individuals, communities and societies”,[2] meaning more or less, drama with an applicable, and direct, intended use. This is a necessity for students in today’s ecologically disconnected world; embodied, creative integration of a subject is vital to the learning of that subject. In his book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv explains that our intuitive connection with nature should lie along the lines of existing as “the unquestioned belief that being in nature [is] about doing something, about direct experience — and about not being a spectator”.[3] Entering into this process, I took Louv as my first influence for content, and Nicholson as my initial influence for form. These were the first of many guideposts throughout this continually evolving artistic endeavour, but looking back at where I began now, I see this was where the Daylighting the Classroom project first stood up and began taking a tangible form. It was from these roots that everything else has grown.

In the work I have done thus far with the students at École K.L.O. Middle school, I have seen massive change in how students connect with what they are learning about in nature. This has been generated by both the approaches of Michelle Hamilton and myself, from the moment the students walk into the classroom from other classes, half asleep and in a deep state of non-interest and apathy towards any notion of learning. The difference when they begin their ‘hands on’ work in our classes is that they become alert, attentive and engaged in the work and learning they are doing. In this essay, I will be covering three ways in which I have used art and environmentalism to help these students overcome apathy in the classroom, and positively engage in learning outside the classroom over the course of the first year this project ran: having a class of grade eight students use video and the art of documentation; having grade seven classes put themselves at their ecosystem’s level and communicate with plant life through a participatory performance practice called ‘eco-drama,’ and through a dialogical performance series of lunchtime conversations which employed varying forms of communication between the students, myself and a camera.

Starting to work with such a compelling group of students, a young generation dedicated to saving their currently disappearing world by way of making it more sustainable, my first impulse was to gain their perspective. I wanted to capture that and share it with their community to help them build their own momentum for their own environmental actions, for it is truly an inspiring one to watch unfold. With the help of UBC’s Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies as well as the UBCO.TV media centre on UBC’s Okanagan Campus, I was able to get cameras into the hands of each of the students in Michelle Hamilton’s grade eight Environmental Education class. There I taught them how to put together a documentary video piece in small groups. Each of these students was passionate about integrating the natural ecological system we all depend on into their learning and every day lives more effectively. To see this through, each had already been involved extensively in initiatives such as the creek restoration, a school compost project, and gardening with local species of plants on school grounds. I had them document these initiatives on video, incorporating subjective and creative elements, to bring out their own points of view on each topic. I had these groups of students use creative storytelling tactics to show, through the lens of their cameras, what they saw in the work they were doing. This gave them the opportunity to creatively integrate themselves with what they were studying and align their passions accordingly. The resulting videos created by these students were inspiring. I saw this in both the positive tone, and their evident commitment. These videos ranged from a spoken word set, to a montage, to songs, and a music video inspired by social media trends. What these students did was share their perspectives, but in the process, they ended up doing what Helen Nicholson describes as being one key goal of drama in application, “traveling into another world […] which offers both new ways of seeing and different ways of looking at the familiar”.[4] Although they were all shooting the same setting, the familiar environment around their school’s creek, each video had a unique perspective to share. For example, the spoken word video just featured one student sitting on a bridge overlooking the flooded concrete covered creek. But when intercut with shots of ducks trying to eat garbage off of the concrete slabs, at the line “they put it there, and they didn’t care,” all of a sudden it becomes overwhelmingly apparent how out of place that concrete creek is in the everyday lives of those students, like the boy sitting on that bridge.

With the grade seven classes, I focused on a different angle. I wanted to take the brilliant Environmental Education class curriculum designed by Michelle Hamilton and provide a creative way in which her students could embody and explore this knowledge. In her classes, Hamilton’s students were already on their hands and knees in the dirt learning about local plant species, face-to-face with them. The class was broken into groups and each group was designated a section of the local-species-garden planted by Hamilton the year before. The school’s prioritizing of limited resources on a tight budget has put the restoration of an embodied natural learning ground below that of items such as a class set of laptop computers. My intention was to provide the students with a different kind of tool: eco-drama, a growing trend in eco-art discourse described by Dalia Levy — an eco-drama practitioner whose participatory research in education has directly influenced my own work: an art form that “employ[s] performance as a tool to explore and learn about complex issues [empowering people] to think critically and creatively, to be vulnerable and engaged, to be active about […] learning about the earth. […] It can take a host of forms and is a consistently inclusive forum in which everyone can participate”.[5]

The students had by this point in the year already developed a deep attachment to their sections of the large local-species-garden and were caring as well as learning from it with great attention. What I decided to do was put them on the next level with their garden by having them communicate with it. To use the term created by Robert A. Heinlein’s science fiction novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, I did not want them to just understand the garden they were learning from, I wanted them to ‘grok’ the garden: to understand it as if it lived as part of themselves. In greeting, praising and giving performative gifts of sound and movement to the garden, these students used their knowledge of the plant life to communicate with it on a completely different level than they were used to. This was very well received by them (and the plants) and allowed them to land right into the system of the work they were learning about and from. The earliest of these conversations often consisted mainly of “hello plant, how are you,” but as these conversations progressed, the communication became more genuine. One student even spent an entire class period doing nothing but sitting between a Saskatoon and a dandelion that threatened it. When I asked her what she had done that class, she just told me she was listening to them.

In our information-saturated age, there is no doubt that knowledge is invaluable. We see the advantages the children of today have over the children of only a couple of generations ago such as intimate knowledge of other cultures, not just through websites, but through the kind of online social networking that can connect one to a stranger from the other side of the world at the click of a button. A lot of this is due to access to and availability of an infinite amount of information and opinions on the internet and interconnection through social media between people, ideas and things. However, having online databases and textbooks means nothing without the natural ecological system which can teach hands-on and without the context for information which the natural ecological system can provide. My experience as a performer has led me to believe this is because these sources lack the natural ecological system which can teach this through embodiment. In this practice, I look at that embodiment as the context for information which the natural ecological system which it comes from. A popular truism in the art world is that without context, there is nothing; anything could be anything else but what one is trying to learn about. Context comes from dialogue between the elements that are being explored and learned about and that just cannot happen holistically out of a text alone. One can use an audio/visual interactive software to learn every word, grammatical rule, possible syntax and inflection that could be used to speak a language such as Quebecois French, but when standing in the middle of Rue du Trésor in Quebec City admiring the outdoor oil paintings, you won’t be able to get more than a word in before the local passerby you are trying to hold a conversation with begins talking to you in English out of pity. Technically, your Quebecois French might have been perfect, and yet without learning it from being in contact directly with the culture, it doesn’t take three words to show how little you knew about what you thought you knew. My eco-drama work with the grade seven Environmental Education classes at École K.L.O. Middle school continued with the work Michelle Hamilton had begun putting the students I was working with right into the ecological system they were learning about, this time encouraging their creative faculties to more holistically experience their ecological system. This allowed them to take their database knowledge and place it into a tangible setting. In Conversation Pieces, Grant H. Kester plainly states, “[t]here is nothing inherent in a given work of art that allows it to play [a given] role; rather, particularly formal arrangements take on meaning only in relationship to specific cultural moments, institutional frameworks, and preceding art works”.[6] The formal arrangement here was what I consider to be the original arrangement: nature. We are natural creatures who benefit from natural experience and connection to everything comes out of our original, corporeal, sensory interaction with our natural ecological system. This is where we have come from for millions of years. With education, why would we break away from the very context that, from our origin as a species, has defined us? Through my eco-art work with these students, by pairing the scientific knowledge of the grade sevens with a creative tool to engage the knowledge about the ecological system they were learning in their classes, a context was forged and thus the presence of a noticeably fuller learning was at hand. Using movements and sounds as gifts to their more-than-human natural counterparts in the garden, I observed students beginning to change the simple ways they would interact with the plants they had worked so tirelessly to maintain in their school grounds. Initially, these plants were lucky to be addressed by their species label instead of “that plant there,” but throughout this process, I began to see students talk to me about the plants they were working with in similar ways to how they talked about the events of their day or another classmate, or even used a tone typically reserved exclusively for gossip. In her eco-art text book, To Life!, Linda Weintraub defined the eco-artist’s purpose as having to “align art’s expressive, narrative and ethical significance with the physical components of experience”.[7] This is not the experience gained from studying a plant from a text book. The text book experience is valuable but the very way that information is made available removes the student from what they are studying. Planting these plants to learn that same information brings a fuller connection to them. Then, creatively engaging the natural ecological system creates empathy and allows the student to learn in a fashion that appears to be almost instinctive, like how they might have learned to eat from a parent as an infant.

The eco-art work I have done with the students at École K.L.O. Middle school so far has been surprising, and rewarding. Working with them has reminded me how valuable it is to be able to have expectations broken. Coming in to work on a small summer project, I have now committed to working the next year with these students. They are aware of their natural ecological system and how that directly impacts their learning; they are also committed to taking action to change their world for the better. The dedication I have seen from these students to connect with the natural world that they (as we all do) depend on for survival is extremely refreshing in a world so eager to turn its back on that. But what was missing, and what I felt compelled to provide as an outside artist coming into this school’s ecological system, was an alternative to their school work and school-run extracurricular activities to freely express what these students were thinking and feeling in relation to their current situation. More and more the integration of the natural elements which they are learning about in their world is being blocked. This lack of integration is creating a disconnected form of learning that unfortunately can result in the disconnection of people from education and their world. People like Michelle Hamilton will not let this happen overnight but it is possible that a removed education will become the norm if it is not so already. This is why these students need creative expression. Spending time with roots in hand to learn about local flora will teach a student what the plant is, and planting and watering and maintaining that plant into maturity will teach that student to respect their natural ecological system, but when creatively engaging that same plant, that same student may learn what they didn’t know they could learn: they can learn compassion, they can learn sensation and ecstasy, they can learn to feel and think as their natural ecological system does, and with that they can grow.

Once to twice a week I would hold lunchtime conversations by the concrete-padded creek with a video camera and some free pizza for those willing to share their words — a very effective barter method with middle school students — in which students could speak their minds on environmental issues in an interactive performance-based dialogical series. Through the method of having a conversation and the added presence of a camera, these became a kind of performance which allowed the students to embody what they were talking about and to directly address the issues they care about critically and creatively. The methods we used in these interactive dialogical performances started out simply with our first conversation being a question and answer period on the students’ thoughts on the creek and what they would like to see there one day as well as why. As we gained momentum and a regular group of students began coming to these sessions, we delved deeper into our creative faculties to bring out more interesting ways to engage the issues we were talking about. One day we would only speak in questions: another day, only communicate in statements describing what we saw and what we wanted to see in the creek: and one day only in the animal noises of animals which would have lived in the creek but could not due to the concrete. This allowed the students to creatively express themselves without feeling like they had to fill a check box or pass a test: “working in the ‘imaginary space’ of drama enables participants to juxtapose different narrative perspectives, to fictionalize life as it is experienced and, conversely, to make the imaginary world of fiction tangible and ‘real’”.[8] In these conversations, opinions about the environmental situation I had not previously seen surface with these students came out, and in a way that was very well articulated. The students were adamant that they needed the natural habitat of their school grounds to be restored so that they can experience a better, more integrated, embodied learning. One girl who has been very committed to this project since she started attending École K.L.O. Middle School told me something very powerful that has stuck with me throughout the entire course of the Daylighting the Classroom project: “We learn from the garden so much. There’s lots of plants and stuff we can learn from.  If this was a wetland, we wouldn’t even need to be in class anymore, like we could do all our things out here and everyone would actually have fun actually being at school.” She later translated this into an appropriated language of BC’s local Lynx Canadensis with outrageous hisses and growls. That was coming from a student who, when I first met her, would barely speak a word to anyone unless she was asked to recite a fact in class. This was a common trend with even the most dedicated students to their cause. Though they may be passionate about the ecological promotion they were working on, they often would shy away from publicly expressing that. After some time engaging that same passion through eco-art experience, they have become comfortable embodying their own passions. Even though they have only just had a taste of this kind of learning through their work with Michelle Hamilton and myself, they are already fully aware of how valuable it is and how advantageous it can be for them. These students were not talking meaningless “L.O.L.s” as I was at their age; they were demanding that a peaceful coexistence and mutual learning be available for them with their natural ecological system. These students were aware of exactly how valuable their world is and exactly how vulnerable it is, particularly at this time.

Linda Weintraub asserts in, To Life!, “[t]he history of civilization is chronicled as a narrative of yearning and striving, not satisfaction and contentment”.[9] These students are hard set on yearning and striving, much more than I would have ever expected from a group of prepubescent school children. Against every cliché we know of this generation, I have seen students taking real action: building compost, planting gardens, fundraising, grant writing (with the assistance of passionate community members such as the school’s Green Parent committee), and everything else they can do to change their situation for the better just because they’ve had a taste of what they know they can get. What the students I have worked with over the past school term are fighting for is a better future, not just for them in their immediate trajectory, but for us all through better learning which, for reasons beyond reason, is not readily available to them: an embodied, integrated, applied learning that connects students to their ecological system. And that places those learning in direct contact with what they are learning about. Living with such a sense of corporeal connectivity to nature, as if it is living as part of you, is needed for this to work. Clearly these students thrive from this kind of integration. In the videos the students at École K.L.O. Middle School have created, the eco-drama they have done with me and the lunchtime conversation series I’ve conducted where they have expressed themselves and their desire for change in how their future is readied for them, these students have had a taste of the sustainable future they can have, and they see that it is not the world they currently have.

My hope is that these students will not settle for second best in a world that needs this particular brand of care. In all my work so far with these students, I have been a catalyst to help them get where they want and need to go; because of the inspiring spirit I have seen in them, three years later, I find myself still intensely committed to continuing my work with these students — and because of them, now students from many other schools in the Okanagan Valley — to see them gain more tools to help us all move into a better, more sustainable state of being. Art might just beat out concrete after all, if not this round, then in round two or three.

*********

We are walking back now. The students, Michelle, and I are headed back towards the school. The dry, unforgiving heat of the day has not yielded but instead feels as if it has doubled. I wish I had brought a hat. The undisturbed, wild Fascieux Creek at Casorso Road is behind us, almost as behind as Michelle’s students who are trying to find a balance between keeping up with our pace and talking to each other about the videos they have just shot.

One girl in the class steps up her pace, dragging her two close friends with her until the three have broken clear of the pack and are keeping up with Michelle and me. She begins talking to us about the creek; her and her friends’ video focused specifically on the work the three of them have been doing for the creek’s restoration. She begins complaining about how long it has taken and how they have seen no progress: “I think they should make it easier for this to really happen already,” she complains. “It’s so stupid how long this takes […] we have the money, why can’t we do it already? Can’t [the school’s administration] just let us have the creek? It’s not like it’ll hurt anyone.” Michelle reminds her that they are still about fifteen thousand dollars short of their goal and that it is important to work from within a system to achieve an objective rather than pushing people too far, too fast. It isn’t until Michelle and I are clear of the pack and back at the front of class that she expands on this point.

She told me then, in her warm French Canadian accent, that she wished she could just push all this through, that it hadn’t taken five years, that they had had more support from the school.  However, she restated to me what she had told Daylath moments earlier, “You can’t fight everyone, Shimshon. You will be alone if you do. You have to show them why they want what we want. That’s why I have you here.  That’s too much work for me to do and teach them. You think I don’t need to eat or sleep too?” She was right.  This is not all about the fight to get up the stream; it’s about the flow to get up there pleasurably and playfully so that everyone can learn and benefit.

[1] Kester,  “Conversation Pieces,159

[2] Nicholson “Applied Drama,” 2

[3] Louv “Last Child in the Woods”

[4] Nicholson “Applied Drama,” 13

[5] Levy, “Participatory eco-drama,” 40

[6] Kester,  “Conversation Pieces,” 90

[7] Weintraub “To Life!”

[8] Nicholson “Applied Drama,” 64

[9] Weintraub “To Life!”

Bibliography

Kester, Grant H. Conversation Pieces. London: University of California Press, 2004. Print.
Levy, Dalia. “Participatory eco-drama: unconventional dramatic forms that foster critical thinking and environmental learning.” Green Teacher 91 (2011): 40-43. Print.
Louv, Richard. Last Child in the Woods. 2nd ed. New York: Algonquin, 2008. Ebook.
Nicholson, Helen. Applied Drama: the gift of theatre. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005. Print.
Weintraub, Linda. To Life! Eco Art in Pursuit of a Sustainable Planet. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2012. Ebook.

Bio

Shimshon Obadia is an Eco Artist living in Kelowna where he studies Interdisciplinary Performance at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus. Obadia has presented this essay in 2014 at the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences annual conference in New York, and the International Association for Ecology and Health’s biannual conference in Montreal. Obadia works as a research assistant for the Eco Art Incubator Research Initiative. There, he is currently leading this project, Daylighting the Classroom, working with public school students to merge environmentalism, education, science and art.

Suquamish Basket Marsh: Creating a Living Library

Suquamish Basket Marsh: Creating a Living Library

Traditional Ecological Knowledge

cattailwritingCROPThe Suquamish Basket Marsh: Creating a Living Library


An Outdoor Environmental Learning Classroom for the students of Suquamish Elementary School

By Melinda West

There is a Salish legend passed down by the First Peoples of the Pacific Northwest that explains the origin of the cedar tree and why it has been referred to as: “Long-Life Maker”.  For over four-thousand years this slow-growing, shade-and- water-loving evergreen has resided amongst the fir, yew and hemlock trees, in forests along the edges of Puget Sound. The legend explains that the cedar trees were once generous people who looked to the welfare of others in their community and responded to their needs.  I’d like to tell you a story that makes me believe the spirit of this legend is alive and flourishing today.

My relationship with Suquamish Elementary school was rekindled in the spring of 2000.  This was the public school my own two, now adult sons had attended.  For over a decade, I had spent many hours volunteering in each of their classrooms.  On this occasion I was invited as a consultant because of my work as a natural fiber weaving specialist.  This visit was to hear about an innovative idea for a project that would combine science, social studies and art education.  The proposed project would involve converting a barren, fenced-off drainage catchment area on school grounds into a pond and native plant garden.

Pulling into the auxiliary parking lot, I glanced straight ahead at this desolate space, off limits to students, yet taking away up to one third of the play area.  These depressions in the landscape surrounded by locked chain-link fences are commonly seen throughout the Kitsap Peninsula, in Washington State, where I’ve resided for over a quarter century.  They are required for surface water purification.  I tend to look away from these sites and search for alternative focuses which hold some beauty — the chirping sounds of children at play, verdant leaves unfurling, even the bright yellow of dandelion weeds.

Six years later, as I drive into that same parking lot at Suquamish Elementary, my eyes are drawn to cattail leaves dancing over a shimmering pond.  I see delicate, green stalks of the Northwest sweetgrass sedge growing in the bog.  Both plants have been used for centuries as weaving materials by the First People of this place.  There is a boardwalk and gravel trail that follows the perimeter of the pond.  A rain shelter built of yellow cedar is reminiscent of the long houses that once stood nearby.  A small cedar tool shed, and wooden benches are nestled in between adolescent hazelnut, vine maple, and western red cedar trees.  Shrubs, ferns and ground covers mingle below the wild roses, red currants, and willows.

There is a class of third graders using this space when I arrive.  Little faces peak out from behind a bird blind woven with grapevines from a local vineyard. Other students are sitting on boulders perched near the pond, glacial remnants generously donated by a local landscape company.  At this moment the students are quietly engaged, making observations and entries in their pond journals.  They are smelling and touching plants, writing, measuring, and sketching.  In a little while, I will be accompanying a class of fourth graders the fifty odd yards away from the building, through the woven arbor gate and under the twig sign that says: “Welcome”.

“In traditional Native American cultures, art was not a separate pursuit.  Beauty and utility came together in objects of everyday use to reflect a way of life and an aesthetic that respected the relationship people had with their environment.”…Shaun Peterson, Salish Artist, 2004 SAM exhibit” Song, Story, Speech”.

 

As a plant fiber artist, teachers invite me to present ethnobotanical knowledge about Pacific Northwest plants to their students.  This provides content for social studies and science requirements, while the techniques for using the plant fibers provide physical activity, math and art skills.  The Basket Marsh and outdoor classrooms of its kind are living libraries and laboratories.  They contain unlimited resources for teaching every subject students need to learn.

What I have to offer as a teaching artist is most effective in an environment where students can see, touch, smell, hear, and sometimes even taste, the subject-matter.  Again and again, I have witnessed that this first-hand experiential learning of natural science and culture gives lasting memory and meaning to students.  The virtues of the western red cedar can easily be appreciated by children, when they are given pieces of the leather-like inner bark to experiment with as they sit next to young growing cedar trees.  Non-conventional learning environments like the Suquamish Basket Marsh give opportunities for students and classroom teachers to meet and interact directly with artists and other specialists from the community.

Today I will model my craft, and students will get to experience weaving with cattails that they have helped to grow and harvest from their Basket Marsh.  We will share stories, sing a weaving song, and then weave a mat or make some rope in order to experience first hand the ingenious ways that cattails and other native plants have been used by the First People of this place.

 

Connecting the Project to the Place

Suquamish1Every part of this country is sacred to my people.  Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove has been hallowed by some fond memory or sad experience of my tribe.”…..Chief Seattle, speech at the Pt. Elliot Treaty signing, paraphrased by Dr Henry Smith, 1854.

Twelve thousand years ago, a thick layer of ice covered the Pacific Northwest.  As the ice melted, glaciers formed and slowly carved out deep channels that the water filled.  Forests grew, and the land that was left became covered with plants.  In some origin stories, native North American storytellers have told that the First People were once plants and animals who later took human form.  Those people began to live in villages along the shorelines, and since then their descendants have been living here too.  Long before contact with explorers, trappers, and settlers, the place near the present day town of Suquamish was highly populated.  Everything needed to sustain a rich community and cultural life was present in the forests, meadows, rivers, at the water’s edge, and in the sea.

“Children learned from an early age not to pluck too much or ruthlessly destroy the valuables of the earth.  They learned responsible, caring behavior both through stories, metaphors and focused instruction at opportune moments and through observation, emulation and experience.”…Nancy Turner, from THE EARTH’S BLANKET, 2005.

 

Prehistoric survival was dependant upon the knowledge of place accumulated over time: geography, seasons, cycles, weather patterns, plants, and animals.  In recent times, this knowledge, reflected in the First Peoples’ relationship with the flora and fauna, is being referred to as Sacred Ecology or Traditional Ecological Knowledge.  This body of information has been passed down through the oral tradition from one generation to the next, through stories, songs, ceremonies, and through the practice of traditional technologies, skills, and arts derived from the environment.

In Lushootseed, a language spoken by many of the First People of the Puget Sound area, the word for Suquamish is d’suq’wub which means “place of clear salt water”.  The city of Seattle was named in honor of Chief Seattle, the Duwamish and Suquamish leader, who in the mid 1800’s protected his community from the raiding parties of other tribes. Later, in hopes of further protecting his people from the influx of settlers and a new government hungry for land and resources, he signed a treaty with the United States government which resulted in the city of Seattle being built upon traditional Duwamish Tribal land.  Chief Seattle’s burial site is only a few blocks away from Suquamish Elementary school.  Every August, the Suquamish Tribe sponsors a huge gathering of Intertribal-Nation festivities and canoe races known as Chief Seattle Days, honoring this important leader.

Nearly one quarter of the students at Suquamish Elementary school, are descendants of First Peoples indigenous to North America.  After many years of misunderstanding by impinging dominant cultures, the perspectives and approaches to education espoused by some of the traditional First Peoples’ teachings are starting to be better understood and valued.  The holistic ways of thinking about the Earth, organizing information, and connecting knowledge to daily life are as important today as ever.

“In our culture all things are living….everything has life.”…Dr. Martina Whelshula, Colville Tribes, Benchmarks Panel, WAEYC Conference, 10-27-06.

Traditional teachings are imbued with lessons for sustainable living and are intrinsically linked to place.  Relationships — with people, plants, animals, and all the elements, are emphatically important. Now the Suquamish Basket Marsh is providing opportunities everyday for these types of lessons to touch children of all cultural backgrounds within the school and community.  The Lushooteed name for this outdoor classroom is:  gelk’ali. It means “place of weaving”.

Weaving has always been part of the community in the First People’s traditional culture here in this place.  Now it is part of the healing for our people.  We are stitching and mending the culture back together.”….Darlene Peters,PHD, counselor, teacher, Suquamish and Port Gamble S’Klallam, gelk’ali dedication speech, May 2002.

 

Planting the Seed

The idea for the gelk’ali came from Ron Hirschi, a fisheries biologist who worked for many years with the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe.  He is author of over fifty books for children, many that combine real life pictures of animals with accurate scientific information.  While appearing as a guest for the school’s May 2000 Young Authors Day, Mr. Hirschi shared with students, projects from other schools including the restoration of a wetland at Pickerington Elementary in Ohio.  He suggested creating a pond out of the storm water retention area at Suquamish Elementary.  His idea was that by planting it with native plants traditionally used by the local First People, especially plants used for traditional basket weaving, there would be an opportunity for tribal families to become more involved at the school. Tribal members living in the community could be invited into classrooms to share cultural experiences and knowledge with all the students.  Mr. Hirschi also shared how students, at nearby Seabeck Elementary, formed an after school group called the “Salmon Team”.  He helped this team partner with parents, the S’Klallam Tribe, and Trust for Public Lands, to acquire an entire estuary after research by the Salmon Team showed the presence of endangered salmon in its waters.

 

Recognizing a Problem

“As teachers we should be striving to give kids moments of greatness.  How can we help students have these moments?”…Jan Jackson, personal interview, 9-13-06

After 18 years of teaching, Jan Jackson, a librarian at Suquamish Elementary school, was considering retirement.  She felt she was losing an important connection with her students.  Like many classroom teachers today, Ms. Jackson recognized the challenge of engaging students with a broad spectrum of learning styles from various cultural and economic backgrounds.  She noticed that many students were spending more and more time in front of video and television screens.  She also saw the pressures put upon teachers to spend more time teaching to a system of standardized tests, leaving less time to develop relationships with students for building life and learning skills.  At the same time, children were having fewer opportunities to be outside, fewer chances to be observing nature, less time to be exploring and responding to the natural environment through the arts and sciences.

Suquamish2“Direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development – physical, emotional, and spiritual….it is a potent therapy for depression, obesity, and ADD…it improves standardized test scores…it develops skills in problem solving, critical thinking, decision making…and creativity”… Richard Louv, The Last Child in the Woods, 2005.

When a need is recognized and a community cares, a good idea can be set into motion as long as there is someone like Ms. Jackson to see it through.  She first approached Principal Joe Davalos with the concept of the outdoor classroom.  “It helps to have a principal that lets people follow their heart,” she says of Davalos.  Other teachers became interested, and a committee was formed which met through the summer to plan a Basket Marsh curriculum.  Relating the curriculum to career education helped the school apply for funds from their school district’s vocational department to get them started.

 

Gathering a Team

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  In fact, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead, anthropologist 1901-1978

With the principal, teachers, students, parents, and the Suquamish Tribe on board, it was time to see if there was community support for the Basket Marsh.  For the next two years Ms. Jackson spent many hours in outreach, bringing students with her to attend school board and other community meetings. Individuals, families, corporate and business sponsors, all stepped forward to provide funds, services, equipment, materials, and the invaluable hours of labor and expertise required.  Approval from the school board, consulting with the water district, permits from the county, all needed to be researched and secured.

The Suquamish Tribe partnered with the school, providing ongoing funding for programs and projects at the gelk’ali.  They helped develop the plan for the marsh, provided soil testing, water flow analysis, ground surveys, plant recommendations, and consultations by hydrology and fisheries professionals. The county departments of Waste Water Management and Solid Waste, as well as the local public utility district’s Education Department, have given continual support.

Institutions of higher learning have been important resources for the gelk’ali.  Each year, many students from Suquamish Elementary spend four days at IslandWood’s School Overnight Program, receiving an intensive environmental education experience.  An ongoing partnership has formed with this nationally acclaimed environmental learning center, and inspiration for many of the class service projects have come from this relationship.  Members of IslandWood’s staff and some of their graduate students have helped with improvements at the gelk’ali, and have been involved in follow-up teaching.  The National Wildlife Foundation and Cornell University’s department of Ornithology’s “Classroom Feeder Watch Program” have also enhanced environmental education and science curriculum.

As director of the pond project, Ms. Jackson credits the whole community with building the gelk’ali. Students, teachers and staff, PTA, school district personnel, county employees, the Suquamish Tribe, biologists, carpenters, scientists, authors, specialists, garden clubs, the local Rotary, civil engineers, architects, landscapers, artists, area businesses, parents and volunteers — all saw the need and understood the benefits.

 

Involving the Students

“I want kids to get their hands dirty, and not be afraid to make a mess.” …Jan Jackson 9-15-06

Known as the “Pond kids”, these 4th-6th graders fill out applications at the beginning of each year in hopes of gaining a position on the Student Advisory Board.  This extracurricular group of 25-30 students meets weekly with Ms. Jackson and the volunteer docents.  The Pond Kids have been involved in all aspects of the development of the gelk’ali, from research, to fund-raising, to planning and coordinating Earth Day assemblies.  Early on, the students helped design and plan the pond.  After meeting with a parent who showed them how to take topographical measurements of the site, they built a 3-dimensional scale model to help with their presentations to the School Board, sponsors, and to other community groups. They cleared out the blackberries and Scotch broom, and helped rake, dig and plant.   Now the Pond Kids continue the ongoing physical labor at the gelk’ali, restoring habitat and maintaining the plants.

“Before the pond was built the grass was brown and now it’s green.  I enjoy knowing I’m making a difference in the school.” …Winona, 5th grader, 2002

 

All the students at Suquamish Elementary utilize the gelk’ali for learning.  Each student has a pond journal they use for documenting their observations at the gelk’ali throughout the year.  Along with each class, every year a new group of Pond Kids implement one or more service projects that connect the gelk’ali with the whole school.  One project inspired after a visit to IslandWood has been recycling lunchroom waste. The Pond Kids researched vermaculture, and agreed upon the size needed for the worm boxes based upon their measurements of daily school lunch food waste. The boxes were built by a parent volunteer. The students made instructional posters, gave presentations to classes, and volunteered to stay in from recess to help collect the food waste.  Now the school saves district money since there is less trash.  At the same time, the worms decompose all that food waste into useful compost for the plants at the gelk’ali.

As well as learning important aspects of being responsible stewards of the land, the Pond Kids are encouraged to be active citizens and communicators. They have written letters to sponsors, articles for school newsletters, and corresponded with foundations and public officials. In the course of these activities they have won local, regional and national recognition for their environmental leadership.  Each week the Pond Kids report back to their classrooms what they are leaning at the gelk’ali.  To help build relationships between grade levels they also report weekly to their “buddy classrooms” in the primary grades.  Each year all the students at Suquamish Elementary are learning about environmental stewardship first hand.

“The marsh is like a puzzle that fits into the big picture.  The plants protect the pond from harm.  The trees grow, give shade, and hold together the pond with their strong immense roots.  The dirt absorbs nutrients and, sometimes, the pollution.  The animals in the pond make it a happier place for us.” …Tyler, 4th grader, 2002

 

 

Imagining the Future

 

Teachings of the Tree People: The Work of Bruce Miller from NWIN on Vimeo.

“An intimate participation leaves a memory as long as you are on the earth.”…Bruce Miller, the late Skokomish Spiritual Leader and Cultural Teacher, from Teachings of the Tree People, 2005 video produced by Katie Jennings and IslandWood

 

How can teachers find the support they need to step outside of the metaphoric boundaries of classrooms today?  In conjunction with standardized learning and testing, is it within the realm of possibility that community-born projects for learning could be used by more teachers and children, on a daily basis?

Imagine every elementary school in the United States being able to tell a story like this.  Not identical, of course, but a story of how their schools, students, parents, and communities could find authentic ways to meet the educational needs of their children.  The native plant garden and outdoor classroom is just one possibility for providing an atmosphere for student-driven, inquiry-based learning.  At the gelk’ali, as teachers become more comfortable embracing this resource, the natural history of Suquamish can come to life for their students.  Differing cultural perspectives can be explored giving all students the opportunity to examine their own cultural roots and traditions.  The scientific and artist processes can be taught –honing observation skills, exploring and asking questions, experimenting, designing solutions, researching, making measurements, learning techniques and skills, documenting results, reflecting upon them, and finding new questions!

Throughout the development of the gelk’ali, the school, tribe, and community have proven to be devoted advocates for promoting diverse cultural perspectives and approaches to education. They have diligently created a place of learning that enhances the educational opportunities for students with various learning strengths, and engages them through methods that mainstream classrooms cannot offer.

“Working with the Suquamish Tribe…planting the grasses the indigenous peoples worked with for their basket making, takes teaching to the highest level:  Every time we educate our children on the rich diversity that exists in this country, we educate ourselves.” …Jay Inslee, US House of Representatives, Washington State Congressional District # 1, Letter for the Dedication of the Galk’ali 4-02

 

Outdoor classrooms, such as the Suquamish Basket Marsh, broaden educational opportunities for a diverse group of students. They give non-conventional teaching specialists the opportunity to use their respective art forms as vehicles for teaching science, math, social studies, language, history, and the arts.  Concepts difficult to learn from books alone or while sitting inside at desks, become illuminated, when students are given opportunities to relate them to natural living systems on a daily basis.

Many caring individuals have built this special place of learning.  Around the pond, the cedar trees are growing taller.  As in the ancient legend of the cedar tree, each sword fern, camas bulb, huckleberry and Oregon grape plant – reflect a piece of a story of someone’s generosity.  When people care about their children’s education, even a small puddle on the school grounds can become a lesson about the transformative power of a community working together.

 

Additional Information:

History/Stages of Pond Development

Stage I – 2000 – Planning

Stage II – 2001 – Construction

Stage III – 2002 – Maintenance, Improvements, Service Projects

Stage IV – 2003 to Present – Maintenance, Ongoing Service Projects

Partnerships

Suquamish PTA

Suquamish Garden Club

Kitsap County Solid Waste Department

Kitsap County Storm Water Management Department

Public Utilities Education Department

IslandWood

Cornell University

National Wildlife Federation

Awards

President’s Environmental Youth Award, 2003

Kitsap County Commissioners’ Earth Day Award, 2002, 2006

Grand Prize, Ivy Sculpture Contest, Bainbridge Gardens, 2004

Grants

Suquamish Tribe Appendix X, 2000-present

Lowe’s Toolbox For Education Grant, 2006

Gifts from many assorted local business and individuals

 

Artists

Traditional Native American Tribal Weavers

Botanical Illustrator

Natural Fiber Weaver

Cedar Weaver

Cartoonist

Soft-metal sculpturist

Book illustrator

Visual artist

Authors

Ceramic artist

Mosaic artist

 

List of Service Projects by Classes and Pond Kids

Science Fair Projects

Water testing

Building a copper water gauge for measuring water level at pond related to rainfall

Stepping Stones

Weaving a branch and vine bird blind

Earth Day Celebration assemblies

Native plant tiles with imprint and scientific, common and Lushootseed names

Native plant studies, drawings over the seasons

Cattail weaving projects

Ivy animal sculptures

Classroom Bird Feeder Watch, Cornell University

Participate in making film, Teachings of the Tree People, sponsored by IslandWood

Recycled material baskets

Contribute drawings for IslandWood field Guide:  ALL MY RELATIONS.

Cedar gathering bark with Suquamish Tribal Elder

Cedar basket weaving

Cordage making

Dream catchers

Mason Bee house

Bird feeders and houses

Bat houses

Programs with Tribal Elders

Worm bins

Field testing a weaving project for a book by Bruce Miller and Nan McNutt

Participation in a Nature Conservancy Education Video

Bird Observation Garden

For More Information Contact:

 

Ron Hirschi www.ronhirschi.com

Watch for the new book: We all Live Downstream. These are the words of Holly Cocoili, Environmental Biologist for the S’Klallam Tribe.  Her words and the concept inspired a new book by that title written by Ron Hirschi, and including the Suquamish Basket Marsh, Pickerington Pond in Ohio, and Seabeck Salmon Team projects on Hood Canal, WA.

Suquamish Environmental Education Boosters, (501(c)(3) www.seeboosters.org

Jan Jackson, librarian, Gelk’ali Director           :                       jjackson@nksd.wednet.edu

Melinda West, fiber artist, article author                      :           melwest@centurytel.net

IslandWood Environmental Learning Center www.islandwood.org

Author’s Note:

Much of the credit for this article comes from the inspiration I’ve received from reading the works of Distinguished Professor Nancy J. Turner, author of the recent books:  THE EARTH’S BLANKET – TRADITIONAL TEACHINGS FOR SUSTAINABLE LIVING, and KEEP IT LIVING – TRADITIONS OF PLANT USE AND CULTIVATION ON THE NORTHWEST COAST OF NORTH AMERICA; along with Richard Louv’s book:  THE LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS – SAVING OUR CHILDREN FROM NATURE-DEFICIT DISORDER.

Author’s Bio:

Melinda West, of Indianola Washington has been practicing the art of natural fiber weaving since 1985.  She has studied with many native and non-native weavers and artists, the foremost being Ed Carriere of the Suquamish Tribe. Melinda enjoys sharing her love of natural history, environmental stewardship, and indigenous cultures through the teachings and the practices of traditional fiber arts.

Review: The Wonder of Wetlands

Review: The Wonder of Wetlands

Review by Sam Lyman (and Kris Eacker)

wowWOW!: The Wonders Of Wetlands: An Educator’s Guide By Environmental Concern Inc. and The Watercourse, Bozeman, MT Published by Environmental Concern Inc., St. Michaels, MD, 2003, 348 p. ISBN: 1-883226-07-4

POW!: The Planning of Wetlands: An Educator’s Guide By Karen Ripple & Edgar Garbisch Published by Environmental Concern Inc., St. Michaels, MD, 2000, 346 p. ISBN: 1-883226-05-8


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