Thursday, September 13, 2007

The River Sparkles

This is a photo of the river sparkling. What appears to be sky above the trees is actually the river beneath the mangroves, with the sun dazzling up the water under the trees. The sun catches the gentle ripples but the camera can only capture the static image. Imagine, the light is actually dancing on the surface.

A feeling of exuberance pervades the river valley. Rainbow lorikeets chatter loudly above, the magpies' carrolling echoes sweetly over the water, while the tree ducks sit atop their favourite branches and quack 'growlily', as they gaze at an old retired greyhound racing in circles in the open field having a marvllous time. Backwards and forwards, charging around and around his owner; it's a gala performance of joy.

The river is a wonderful place for restoration - for person, dog (and other animals) and habitat. So while the riverbank awaits its restoration and removal of a zillion noxious weeds, from lantana to prickly pear, from asparagus twiner to brambles, from the emerging spiked thistles and more, the place itself provides a restorative atmosphere for its visitors, human and other than human.

It's not surprising (to me at least) that recent research shows that people prefer greened environments to built environments. For example, Hartig and Staats (2006) comment that 'North American and European adults tend to prefer scenes of unthreatening natural environments over scenes of ordinary urban environments without natural features'.

I wondered if such a conclusion was obvious but then, a few days ago in the blog, I cited research on urban American children who preferred shopping malls and manicured parks over woods and other wildish places (Bixler, Floyd and Hammet, 2002; Bixler and Floyd, 1997).

It seems odd to me that research into the restorative capacity of natural habitats for humans often bears little relationship to the issue of environmental care and action. There is a documented relationship between the health and wellbeing of humans and the health and wellbeing of ecosystems (e.g. Albrecht, 2005; Ecohealth Journal).

So with this in mind, notions of reciprocal relationship, eco-mindfulness and a restoration ethos could well be included as significant variables in research into aspects of the human-nature relationship. If nature offers a place for human restoration, could we humans then offer to restore its degraded habitats? Could restorative experiences in nature lead to nature restoration?

I ask this because yesterday the World Conservation Union released its latest RED LIST of endangered species. It is a lamentable tale. Globally 16,306 species are threatened with extinction - 188 more than last year. And for the first time on the list species of coral and coral reefs are cited as emperilled through the impacts of El Niño and global warming.

Julia Marton-Lefèvre, Director General of the World Conservation Union (IUCN) made this urgent plea to the world community:

'This year’s IUCN Red List shows that the invaluable efforts made so far to protect species are not enough. The rate of biodiversity loss is increasing and we need to act now to significantly reduce it and stave off this global extinction crisis. This can be done, but only with a concerted effort by all levels of society.'

There are now 41,415 species on the IUCN Red List. 'We are facing an extinction crisis,' says the IUCN. '99 percent of species at risk are because of human activities.' Gorillas and orangutans, vultures and crocodiles, parrots and river dolphins and many many more. One in four mammals.

Special places like the river valley can offer a haven from this awareness. The terrible knowledge does not disappear altogether, there is too much local ecological damage for that, but exuberance masks the devastation. My heart breaks then soars. Restorative places like the river are precious.


Albrecht GA, 2005, ''Solastalgia': A New Concept in Health and Identity,' PAN: Philosophy Activism Nature, 41-55.
Bixler RD and MF Floyd, 1997, 'Nature is Scary, Disgusting, and Uncomfortable,' Environment and Behavior, 29, 4, 443-446.
Bixler RD, MF Floyd and WE Hammitt, 2002, 'Environmental Socialization,' Environment and Behavior, 34, 6, 795-818.
Hartig T and H Staats, 2004, 'Linking Preference for Environments with their Restorative Quality,'
Hartig T and H Staats, 2006, 'The Need for Psychological Restoration as a Determinant of Environmental Preferences,' Journal of Environmental Psychology, 26, 3, 215-226.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

River Places

'Place is what takes me out of myself, out of the limited scope of human activity ... A sense of place is a way of embracing humanity among all of its neighbors. It is an entry into the larger world' (Robert Michael Pyle interviewed in Pearson, 1996).

This comment from Robert Michael Pyle underlines the intertwining themes of this blog, that there is something larger, such as the complex interworkings of the ecosystem and something other - our neighbours be they animal, plant or river. This assumption threads an animistic perception of the cosmos with what ecophilosopher David Abram calls a 'sensorial empathy' with the living earth.

By this he means the engagement with all our senses, a heightened awareness of nature through taste, touch, smell, hearing and feeling which brings us into a deep empathetic moment, one that, through the body's responsiveness to the natural world, can stimulate or awaken a sense of responsibility for the earth.

I watched today as joggers, locked into their electronica, zipped past the jewelled blue wrens singing in the day, and perhaps too were oblivious to a magical happening taking place beneath the bushes along the riverbank.

The Brush Turkey has built a huge mound of earth and leaves, a nestling place for eggs. Father Turkey, resplendent with his bright yellow wattle and bright red headdress, was carefully watching over this ecological incubator. His mound is about 2 metres round and almost a metre high. Very grand. The decaying foliage generates heat and keeps the eggs a constant temperature of around 33C. Add more dirt and leaves when it gets cold. Slough them off when it gets warmer. Father Turkey has prime responsibility of this site and needs to keep predators at bay.

Being witness to such wondrous events links me more deeply to the movements of this river-place. Each day there is more to see and more to learn. David Abram (1995:314) suggests such places offer 'vital sources of nourishment'. Separated from such places, we not only lose access to those 'vital sources of nourishment' but also perhaps we lose a sense of who we are. Who we are as nature as well as human is paved over within a high density urban habitat, swelling traffic and an increasingly internalised and indoor lifestyle.

The other evening, at a different river place, I watched joggers and exercisers encased behind glass at the local gym. No one was out running along the river bank or walking their dogs. No one was simply out for an evening stroll. It was a warm still night and the river was glorious as the urban lights twinkled their reflection on the water.

Abram David, 1995, 'The Ecology of Magic,' in Theodore Roszak, Mary E. Gomes & Alan D. Kanner, eds., Ecopsychology. Restoring the Earth. Healing the Mind, San Francisco, Sierra Club.
Abram David, 1998, 'Trust Your Senses,' Resurgence, 187, Mar./Apr., 13-15.
Abram David, 2004, 'Earth Stories.' Resurgence, 222,
Pearson Michael, 1996, 'Robert Michael Pyle,' In John Elder, ed., American Nature Writers, Volume 2, 733-39, New York, Charles Scribner's Sons.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

In Place

How do we get to know place unless we submerge ourselves in it?

People's ecological concern is related to their affinity to both nature and places (Kals, Schumacher and Montada, 1999). They immerse themselves in special places, get to know particular beauty-spots in the outdoors environment, sink their hands into the soil while gardening, dive deep into the sea's blueness and find love.

Affinity, atunement, allurement, love. Nature unearths these emotions. We are attracted and through this attraction comes attachment and care.

'Place attachment' is the scholarly term to describe this sense of connectedness with natural and wild placesl. Kyle et al (2004:439) term this feeling 'the phenomena of human-place bonding'. As we bond with place, as we develop an emotional or 'affective component' in our relationship with special places, we begin to value those places. Kyle et al say this has important implications for resource management as: 'An understanding of these bonds and the meanings that gird them, provides insight on why stakeholders value particular settings.'

In their discussion of the concept of place attachment, Kyle et al outline that an individual's response to natural settings is 'not determined by the attributes of the setting per se' (p.441), and they mention trees, rivers and mountains. They say that the places an individual prefers are those which they/we have experienced previously. For example, they cite a study by Bixler, Floyd and Hammett (2002) who found that children who had previously experience of wild places, were more competent in those places and preferred them.

In contrast, in an earlier study quirkily titled ‘Nature is Scary, Disgusting and Uncomfortable’, Bixler and Floyd (1997) found that these days, urban children in America are more likely to fear wild nature. The researchers documented how children raised in urban areas are afraid of being in the woods; they are scared of wildlife, insects and spiders; they are disgusted by the dirtiness of the outdoors; and they don’t like experiencing extremes of weather. Instead they prefer their adventures in the tame and predictable city, in manicured parks and shopping malls.

As children begin to lose contact with the natural world, they replace it with indoor experiences which are often linked to car travel, where adults use their cars to ferry children to and fro. This keeps children dependent on adults, not to mention the added environmental consequences that go with increased car use and the lack of physical exercise.

The inspirational nature writer and seed saver Gary Paul Nabhan (Nabhan and Trimble, 1994:85) comments that the numbers of children who have ‘frequent exposure to wildlands and to other undomesticated species is smaller than ever before in human history’. He laments this decline saying (citing Pyle, 1992) that it is an ‘extinction of experience’. Nabhan continues:

'While many children may visit zoos, watch nature films, or cuddle with pets and stuffed animals, their responses to other species have become more “politically correct” but less grounded in their own visceral experiences' (p.86).

The river in Brisbane provides a haven, not only for birds and animals, but for children and adults to develop place attachment, curiosity about the natural world and ecological processes, and a desire to engage with and protect such places. Merging with the flow of the river can provide myriad experiences, touch the sensual affective side, evoke a sense of wellbeing as well as a sense of care - and spark our own visceral experiences.

Bixler RD and MF Floyd, 1997, 'Nature is Scary, Disgusting and Uncomfortable,' Environment and Behavior, 29, 4, 443-467.
Bixler RD, MF Floyd and WE Hammett, 2002, 'Environmental Socialization: Quantitative Tests of Childhood Play Hypothesis,' Environment and Behavior, 34, 795-818.
Kals E, D Schumacher and L Montada, 1999, 'Emotional Affinity toward Nature as a Motivational Basis to Protect Nature,' Environment and Behavior, 31, 2, 178-202.
Kyle GT, AJ Mowen, and M Tarrant, 2004, 'Linking Place Preference with Place Meaning: An Examination of the Relationship between Place Motivation and Place Attachment,' Journal of Environmental Psychology, 24, 439-454.
Nabhan GP and S Trimble, 1994, The Geography of Childhood. Why Children Need Wild Places. Boston: Beacon Press.
Pyle RM, 1992, 'Intimate Relations and the Extinction of Experience,' Left Bank, 2, 61-69.