29 Sep 2014
Hayley Spann on What Nature Taught Me
“Hold a question in your mind and allow nature to answer it by simply listening with all your senses. Let it lead the way in this next step in your life”. Those were the instructions I was given, one sunny day in July in a protected natural woodland enclosure beside a river. I was to contemplate my question for several hours, sat still and alone. Having not eaten lunch (that was part of the practice) I was glad to escape the rest of the group because I’d managed to smuggle some banana chips.
I was on my final meet-up for the One Year in Transition course, a course from the Transition Network aimed at helping young adults to find a livelihood doing what it is they’re passionate about in a way that is sustainable for themselves and their communities. We were undertaking a Vision Quest; which asks us to regard nature as a teacher to help guide us in our lives. Now I’m a part-time teacher myself and I’m always on the lookout for new approaches, so I’m going to reflect on how and what nature has taught me over this past year.
The Nature of Love and the Love of Nature
One thing seems pretty clear to me; nature clearly doesn’t have any concise lesson objectives. Despite all of the heightened sensory experience I had sitting under that tree beside the river, nature did not provide a powerpoint presentation or a handout. We don’t learn lessons directly from nature that can be analysed or sometimes even articulated but that doesn’t mean we don’t learn something. Of course we can learn the names of all the trees, their life cycle, optimum conditions and so on but that doesn’t necessarily lead us to loving and caring about that tree. To cultivate a loving relationship with that tree you need to make time for it, not just for watering and pruning it but also for observing it and wanting to be around it.
A bit like the relationships we have with other humans, as I have discovered this year. One important aspect of the course is that although we have four meet-ups in different places in the country, the majority of our learning experience throughout the year takes place on the ground in our own communities. Mine is in Manchester where I’ve been participating in a community growing project at the Moss Side Community Allotment. It’s a remarkable space where people come together from different backgrounds to grow food and share skills. Nobody owns the allotment, rather we all co-operate to maintain the area as a site for food-growing and a home for wildlife (including homo sapien varieties of course).
From day one, I’ve been inspired by how (for want of a better word) ‘organic’ the community relationships are. There are no squabbles over who’s in charge or who is going to take home the biggest marrow. People just love being there. Why is it so successful? It’s all down to a wholehearted commitment to tea breaks and of course; fun. Our relationship is not just practical, above and beyond that we are building trust and strength because we all enjoy just being together, sharing a natural oasis in our inner city neighbourhood.
Just as an example, this year we held an event called The Village-in-the-City-Fete; a day of traditional family games, homemade food and drink, local crafts and oral storytelling. Our aim: just to have some fun together enjoying the natural space! It was an interpersonal, inter-natural encounter for all. As with all relationships, it’s all about the time you put in.
The Unruly Classroom
Likewise with relationships, we’ve got to learn to take the rough with the smooth. Making time for nature doesn’t just mean tottering down country lanes. Nature, as we have all experienced, has a dark and sometimes dangerous side. This wild aspect really came into play sitting under that tree. As I sat contemplating my life path and my rumbling stomach, a raincloud passed over, quietly mocking my puny human existence.
Unlike the classroom, when we’re out in nature, really wild nature, we don’t actually have any dominance over that space. Ultimately nature is boss. That can be really scary sometimes but it is also what contributes to the wonder of nature. It’s why we’re so enraptured with it; why a solitary walk in nature can be more stimulating than any special effect movie ever made. It’s a subtle reminder that there’s something bigger than us and this brings us outside of ourselves, reiterating that we do not have all the answers, that there’s more adventure to pursue. In its essence, it ignites curiosity and a love of learning, realizing every teacher’s life-long dream. In this way, nature really does meet the OFSTED targets.
Participating in this course over the past year has invigorated this inquisitiveness in me. What’s interesting about the course is that there is no set curriculum that tells us what we have to learn. The course rather kindles conversations that are so fundamental for young adults to be having; about ourselves and our relationship to nature, about what we love and of course what we want to learn.
By having these conversations we then have the resources to pursue our goals and go out into the community and learn the skills we want to acquire for ourselves. It introduced me to the concept of mentorship for the first time; about being taught by questions rather than answers. By offering a more spacious way of learning we have all learned to make room in our lives for our own nature as well as the nature outside of us, an invaluable life lesson for a young adult if you ask me.
Obviously, I’m a city dweller and the closest I get to wilderness on a daily basis is the ecosystem that festers in my plastic compost bin, but armed with a sense of wonder and a brave heart I’m able to make space for nature in my life every day. Completing the course has stirred me to seek out ways of inspiring this sense of wonder in others, particularly children. This has led me down the path of the oral storyteller and through my course I have found two storyteller “Skills Masters” who teach me the ropes, participating in a non-monetary exchange, similar to an apprenticeship. I’ve always been enthralled by stories and their capacity to incite imaginative and emotional exploration. Storytelling also emulates nature in its capacity to rouse curiosity and enchantment which is why I’m pursuing the art form.
‘Wonder’ I have learnt, is not only awakened in enchanted ancient forests, it’s there all the time for those with eyes to see it. The awesomeness of nature lies in the stories we tell each other, the aloe vera plant on your windowsill, the smell of your neighbour’s cooking or anywhere else you might choose to find it. After all, try as we might to control the natural world, it has its own way of poking it’s resilient green fingers through the cracks in the pavement. However, sometimes our senses need refreshment from the hubbub of the city, to be reminded of this and to imbue us with the humility that there’s something bigger that we are simply a part of. That’s why we must take respite from time to time and make space for raw, untamed nature in order to sustain our reverence for the wild and our insatiable curiosity.
Hayley recently completed the 2013-2014 One Year in Transition course. Here’s a short film about that course, in which she appears.