Friday, 7 February 2014

Death of the Naturalists?






Mick Conway, who works as an environmental educator, reflects on the ‘Poet and the Piper’ performance at the Millennium Forum and environmental education! Mick is well known to the children and families attending both our nursery and Ballysally nursery as he interacts with our children in the Roe Valley country park regularly.  He is inspiring and informative and we love working with him.
He shared this press release with me and has given permission for its inclusion on our school blog.

I was fortunate to get a ticket for ‘The Poet and the Piper’ during the recent ‘Fleadh Cheoil’ in Derry’s Millennium Forum part of the City of Culture celebrations.  The whole audience was obviously moved by the performances of Liam O'Flynn, the piper and Seamus Heaney , the poet.  They made it clear that they were only the latest exponents of a long tradition stretching back millennia.  I am sure everyone in the audience had their own perspective.  What struck me, as someone involved in environmental education, was the extent to which they both relied on an intimate connection with nature.
Liam O’Flynn’s first piece on the uilleann pipes was inspired by the Blasket Islands.  Liam O’Flynn’s music was able to briefly transport the audience to a cabin on those islands with the wind and rain doing its worst outside.  He later played a piece on the tin whistle based on an area closer to Derry, ‘Slieve Gallion Braes’, which refers to exile and the potatoes rotting in the fields during the Famine.

Seamus Heaney read some of his translations of earlier Irish poetry as well as old favourites such as ‘Digging’.  I lost count of the number of birds he mentioned not just the bittern in ‘An Bónnan Buí’ but  also the crane, the thrush and black bird in two different poems.  The art of O’Flynn and Heaney grew out of a closeness to nature and agriculture.

Heaney especially draws his inspiration from his rural childhood.  From where will the artists of the next generation draw their inspiration?  Not from the natural world, if a recent report is to be believed.  Published in 2012 by the National Trust ‘Natural Childhood’ draws attention to what it calls ‘nature deficit disorder’.  The report points out that lives of children have changed dramatically in recent years.  Whereas in the past children spent their time outdoors, their bedrooms are now entertainment hubs where technology reigns.  Children watch up to 17 hours of TV per week and spend 20 hours a week on line.  In1971 80% of children walked to school the figure is now less than 10%.

Fears of increased traffic and exaggerated emphasis on ‘stranger danger’ means that children are virtually under house arrest confined to a very small ‘radius of activity’ around their home.  The most obvious consequence of this sedentary lifestyle is to be seen in children’s health.  One in three children is obese.  Mental health problems seem to be on the increase.  Children are being deprived of their  independence to assess dangers both social and physical.  Their problem solving capacities are diminished through sheer lack of experiences.  Their contact with the natural world is not at first hand but is mediated via the TV.

Nostalgia is a very poor measure of past realities but I am sure many people of my age remember with some accuracy a different sort of childhood.  I was brought up as far as one can imagine from the rural idyll in the industrial heartland of Tyneside.  My immediate surroundings were of endless rows of terraced houses stretching from the shipyards to the coal mines.  It was’ hard up north’ but it was more fun for children than it is today.  Perhaps as reaction to these surroundings which were so urban and industrialised I was drawn to the things natural.  By the age of nine my ‘radius of activity’ was three miles or more.  Along with my friends we used the manicured local parks but preferred the areas of industrial wasteland.  We climbed trees, jumped (heavily polluted) streams , built non-floating Kon-Tiki rafts on ponds of water pumped from mine workings and stole birds eggs.  Our contact with the natural world was haphazard but at least it was real.

The ‘Natural Childhood ‘ report helps to draw our attention to a problem of which we are all aware.  Finding answers are more difficult.  I have spent the last fifteen years involved in environmental education based at Roe Valley Country Park in Limavady.  On a day to day basis I am involved with introducing children to the natural world.  Helping address the problems highlighted in the ‘Natural Childhood’ report is my particular job but I believe that all adults have a responsibility to bring up children the best way possible.

Contact with nature is not automatic in the world of today.  Many parents, grandparents and teachers make the effort to develop an appreciation of the natural world.  Roe Valley Country Park, the Bay Road paths, the walk to Father Hegarty’s Rock  in Buncrana and the shore path in Moville are some of the few local places where walking in a natural environment is possible in a traffic free situation.  They are simple but invaluable assets used by people of all ages.  All children should be encouraged to grow things.  Many schools now have wildlife and vegetable gardens.  At the same time our practical knowledge of the native wildlife is very scant.  We rely too much on David Attenborough and his exotic programmes about wildlife far away.  This is couch potato nature study.  How many of us know about the wildlife on our doorstep.  Do we know the birds in our garden?  Could we recognise a dozen wild flowers?  Do we know the difference between an oak and ash?  

The trends outlined by the report are long standing.  We cannot turn the clock back.  Child rearing practices will not change radically over night.  We have all been losing contact with the natural world at least since the industrial revolution.  We all rely on and benefit from technology…  At the same time to cut ourselves off more and more from the natural world is to make ourselves less human.  The ‘ City of Culture’ and the ‘Fleadh Cheoil’ mean more than entertainment.  Culture and tradition as exemplified by ‘the poet and the piper’ allow us to reflect on where we stand and where we are going. 

No comments:

Post a Comment