Bringing the Senses Back into Higher Education

Over the last two years, I have considered man’s relationship with the environment from any number of angles: ethics, politics, psychology, anthropology, history… I’ve adjusted and re-adjusted my ideas, pondered and dismissed concepts, discussed it all several times over with my fellow students, and in the end felt like I knew at least a little bit more than I had in the beginning. But something was missing. Between all the time spent bent over books and papers, where did actual, ‘real’ (if you believe in the existence of such a thing – several of my lecturers suggest to me that it doesn’t; think social constructivism), breathing nature come in?

I sometimes felt, pouring late over academic texts in the library or typing away at my laptop in an air-conditioned room, that the very nature I studied was slipping further and further away from me. Shouldn’t I be out there, exposing my theories to the wind and weather, socially constructed or otherwise? In short, I found it a pity that while my education stressed the need to form a more positive and respectful attitude towards ‘nature’, within the university context there was little opportunity to explore this relationship in practice.

pishwanton-craftbuilding_view_from_herbgarden - CopyWouldn’t it be good, I thought to myself, to spend a few days concentrating on how to relate to nature not through books, but through the senses, through creativity, storytelling and observation ? I chatted about my idea to Ali Newell, the university’s vice chaplain, and also a facilitator, sustainability champion and organiser par excellence all in one smiling, lovely person. Not somebody to let the minor difficulty of no funding and short timescales stand between herself and an idea she has taken a liking to, Ali convinced both EUSA and the Sustainability Office to chip in some money, added some of the Chaplaincy’s own events funding, and produced an experienced facilitator in the person of Roland Playle. She really is a miracle worker.

And so a group of us – twelve students from eight nations and five different schools – went to Pishwanton Wood one overcast February morning, accompanied by Ali and Roland as our facilitators. Situated in 60 acres of meadows, woodland and water, Pishwanton is an environmental education centre with roots in Goethean science and Steiner pedagogy. Both emphasize the role of bodily awareness, sensory experience, and the emotions in our dealings with nature– the very things that often seemed to take second place in academia.

The group with facilitator Roland Playle on the right.

The group with facilitator Roland Playle on the right.

After a short introductory session, Roland led us on a mindfulness walk around the grounds. Moving at half our normal pace, and then halfing that again, the exercise slowed the mind as well as the body, and sharpened our senses to the colours, sounds and textures of the world around us. It is really quite surprising how much there is to notice and take in, and how we ordinarily manage to rush past it on our way to more exciting experiences. It was a great way to help us fully arrive in Pishwanton and to firmly ground ourselves in the present.

Much of the first day revolved around our solo excursion – two hours of quiet time in nature, with only an intention for company. Solos are used a lot in outdoor education, and have long been used as  initiation rituals by tribal cultures around the world. Both Roland and Ali had gone on overnight solos as part of a Natural Change training course, and were keen for us to have a similar experience. Our own shorter format – and the fact that it was February – meant that we couldn’t have an overnight solo, but we definitely made the most of what we had!

Pishwanton group

The group outside one of Pishwanton’s beautiful eco-buildings.

Sitting in the same spot for two hours probably doesn’t sound like a promising route to deep personal insight, and before setting off, I wasn’t quite sure how the solo would be helpful. Roland and Ali phrased the whole exercise as an invitation rather than a task, which helped me to remain open and patient – even if I didn’t know what I was doing. We were encouraged to take an intention with us on the way, and then each of us was set off with a small ritual: standing in a half circle, each of us came forward in turn, circled a fireplace with their intention in mind, and then went out to find a spot for themselves on the Pishwanton grounds.

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Pishwanton sits within 60 acres of land; plenty of space for solitary time. My spot with the beeches is near the burn on the right.

It’s hard to describe the next two hours to anybody. I settled down under two huge beech trees standing beside a stream, and at first nothing much happened. For a long time. But when I started to accept that nothing much was happening, and stopped trying to think so hard, it became a really extraordinary experience. Suddenly, nature was taking centre stage, while I was the passive one. When you are quiet under a tree for a long time, the birds settle back in. The bugs come out of their hiding holes to crawl all over you. Squirrels appear on the branches. I couldn’t remember the last time I had been out amongst nature without ‘doing’ something or other – hiking, gardening, thinking. Usually, the outdoors are the idyllic backdrop to my own agenda. But all this time, whilst cars rush by in the distance and people go about their all-important business, nature is. It goes on existing whether we acknowledge it or not, the centre of its own universe. I can’t describe it any better than that; I’d advise you to sit under a tree for a long time.

After dinner, the group settled around the hearth fire, and we took turns to tell the story of our solo adventure. Not only were the stories incredibly diverse, but also very honest, often funny, and deeply personal. It is not often that I feel comfortable to share a very personal experience with a room full of people I have known for less than 24 hours. Apart from the solo itself, the way we related to one another as a group has stayed most strongly with me. Wonderfully, incredibly, we developed an open, trusting atmosphere amongst ourselves right from the start, and hearing each others’ experiences was a big part of the learning process. For our storytelling round, we used a practice called Deep Listening to reflect what we’d heard back to the storyteller. It means opening up to the other and acknowledging what they have to say without getting your own agenda or judgement in the way – and it really does make a difference.

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The second morning saw us lie in a circle around a pine tree, heads near the trunk and looking upward. Studying the tree for over an hour, we tried out different styles of observing and describing nature, from the decidedly scientific to the sensual. The same tree appeared very differently when preceived through the lens of numbers and measurements, or through the lens of colours, shapes and textures. Neither captures the tree in its entirety – an apt reminder that the compartmentalisation of academic disciplines doesn’t reflect reality. The unnatural rift between art and science is what Goethean science tries to bridge. But the exercise also made me wonder: how can we ever do nature justice with our language? / can our language/ the language we use ever do nature justice? Just how limiting are the prescritpions of academic method? As academics, we try to preserve forests, mountains or rivers, but do we even understand a single tree?

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But the workshop wasn’t just about quiet observation and reflection. On both days, we did some hands-on work on the land, felling birches to construct a natural fence from the trunk and branches. Not only was getting sweaty and dirty on a shared task a great bonding exercise for our group, it also helped us to reflect on an important aspect of our relationship with nature: as humans we will, as long as we live, use nature as a resource in one way or the other. How can we do so in a responsible way? Felling that tree, we felt respectful towards it, even grateful. My demands can mean the death of a tree, or even the death of a whole forest – how can we make this connection in everyday life?

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We rounded the second day off with an introduction to eco-psychology. A windswept, sunshiny hill overlooking the Lothians saw us enact different types of consciousness – egocentric, anthropocentric, biocentric, ecocentric. Using our combined bodies to create steadily larger, more encompassing circles, the practice prompted us to reflect on the need to find a balance between caring for the world, for ourselves, and for our loved ones. Ali found a beautful metaphor to capture our concern: ‘Sustaining oneself for the work of sustainability’. Without a doubt, spending time with like-minded and nourishing folk such as the Pishwanton group, and lovely, perceptive facilitators like Ali and Roland, qualifies as deeply sustaining.

It’s hard to believe that we spent less than 48 hours at Pishwanton – it was such a full, rewarding experience that it seemed to last much longer. Most importantly, it filled my readings in environmental philosophy and ecopsychpology with life and transformed abstract, cerebral ‘knowledge’ into understanding things on a much deeper level; something that has been fully experienced, lived through and internalised. Sensory experience and bodily engagement can be incredibly effective and engaging teachers, facilitating understanding relationship with the more-than-human world. I’m really grateful that we had this chance to explore the creative and sensory dimensions of knowledge, and I hope there will be many more opportnities to broaden students’ perspectives by taking them outside the classroom.

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To find out more about Goethean science, you can read this article by scholar and eco-psychologist Theodore Roszak.

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About francesca

Having just graduated from an MSc in Environment, Culture and Society, I now explore the world of ecopsychology, community transition initiatives, and creative environmental writing.
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