Earlier in the summer I published some work for Horizons magazine; the periodical for the Institute of Outdoor Learning. As the journal comes only in paper copy, I present the unedited article here…
Rhyddian Knight explores how finding meaning through purposeful heritage crafts, storytelling and nature connection creates community and leads to a profound sense of fecundity.
‘Regeneration Volunteers’ have been supporting the wider work of Venture Scotland through ‘Working Parties’ at their remote bothy in Lochaber for the past seven years. Having had the privilege of facilitating this journey, I wish to note some emerging properties I feel would be of benefit to any practitioners involved in using themes of sustainability and land use as a developmental tool.
Our overall ‘ballpark strategy’ for the working parties was determined by researching the history, folklore and ecology of Glen Etive and through a consultation process in 2006; culminating in a map and report called : ‘Our Vision for the Bothy’. This report has been instrumental in jumpstarting projects as participants have felt an increased sense of ownership and, rather than reaching consensus and fine detail, has established ‘no objection’ on broad principles for regeneration.
Since that time, we have been engaged in a number of practical projects. Volunteers have built an outdoor kitchen from local timbers, clay sand and straw, restored dilapidated dry stone enclosures, created a tree nursery and garden for perennial edible plants, lime plastered our restored byre, planted trees, dug ditches, installed LED lighting and are ongoing with the installation of a water-filtration system and micro-hydroelectric project.
The approach is refreshingly simple. The leaders biannually review and plan their work, leadership style and the tasks which they feel have priority. Our working parties are led by 2 volunteer leaders and 2 volunteer support workers. The tasks themselves focus on encouraging biodiversity and meeting a human need-namely maintaining the bothy and creating outdoor learning resources. Both tasks focus on the regeneration of, what was, until the clearings of 1723:
‘…throughout its length and breadth, clothed with majestic Firs and spreading Oaks’1
If I were to frame the working party experience as a developmental pathway, I would say that engendering the twin impulses to tend the wild (support biodiversity) and engage in subsistence activity (meet human needs skilfully) is a social and ecological imperative for our own as well as our future generation.
Our clients- young people- making the transition from ‘participant’ to ‘supported volunteer’ during the 6 month ‘community ’ phase of the Venture Scotland programme. They are afforded the chance to hang out, practice new found skills and achieve something with a diverse mix of engaged ‘regeneration’ volunteers. These shared experiences go a long way towards finding meaning and friendships for all concerned.
On a less tangible level, I can intuit that the experience of tending the wild whilst engaging in subsistence activity provides a potent milieu for personal development. It is my assertion that these experiences afford our emerging young adults, (who have often had difficult formative experiences) the opportunity to work through some psychological territory not possible in the rigours of their home environments (or even modern degenerative culture in general). On the subject of stressed, or anxious parenting, Bill Plotkin tells us that:
‘Without challenges, children become afraid of risk, psychologically fragile, and anxious. This undermines their sense of identity and a sense of accomplishment… Through failure, we learn how to cope. By learning how to cope, we become adventuresome enough, later in life, to wander into the world in search of our souls.’2
As an outdoor leader, I must acknowledge that some young adults in my care, often still need the opportunity to learn the lessons of childhood concurrently with the lessons and social norms that our society demands of their age. [As outdoor practitioners we are well placed and privileged to teach the importance and freedoms associated with being self reliant and resilient adults].
The informal simple approach, offered by the Team Leaders, has led me to some interesting observations which I would like to share:
1. People meet on an equal footing to learn a skill, the utilisation of which is for the benefit of the wider community.
2. [When 1 is achieved] The praxis is palatable – for all the diverse backgrounds and life stages represented by the group and offers a positive milieu in which people can engage and relate with each other. This is an obvious reality- yet extremely difficult to achieve in other more formal learning environments.
3. As the projects tend to work with primary materials with a minimum degree of processing/refinement; the individuals often arrive at an aesthetic and useful result which brings an inherent sense of fulfilment. They, and the users of the resource that has been created, understand what the ‘things are’ and ‘what they are for’.
4. The potency of storytelling in creating and reconstructing meaning cannot be over-emphasized. Emphasis on personal or local myths, folk tales and recounting of previous group experiences has become a norm for the groups ‘downtime’ with tea breaks and evening fireside time becoming a platform for music and tales.
5. The sense of meaning engendered by a sense of ownership, telling/hearing stories AND working for the wider community has led to many young people to finding a genuine sense of purpose. On returning over time, these same young people now teach, demonstrate and role model skills and other associated aptitudes to new volunteers.
6. Prolonged involvement enthused with meaning and purpose has led not just to a deeper relationship with each other, but goes a long way toward establishing a deeper relationship with Kinlochetive.
7. Through this process, I have witnessed volunteers’ awareness of Heritage at the bothy move from a static, stylised picture of the past, to a vital, present force which spurs them to interaction and makes them aware of the precious gift of natural resources.
Setting up and experiencing learning environments such as this, to my mind at least, is a worthy ‘outdoor pursuit’ for us as practitioners. Based on these observations, It is now my firm belief that a Healthy culture, embedded in a relationship with land, for human and more than human ends; is another name for Living Heritage.
Reaping the harvest…
Jon Young, on a recent course with the UK based ‘Art of Mentoring’ made a distinction between genuine ‘nature connection’ and ‘nature experience’:
‘ There are three layers of listening. The first is the rather superficial form of nature experience. Second, nature connection is a social experience in and with nature, thirdly Deep nature Connection; this is what we are aiming for… it is about curiosity.’3
The Venture Scotland Journey is just beginning to programme in time to teach and practice the ‘Core Routines for Nature Connection’4 throughout its 12 month course. We recognise that a supportive nature connected organisation is a lot more helpful, fun and resilient than an unsupportive un-connected one.
Whilst we can support our young people in becoming connected to nature and themselves; knowing what the things of food, warmth, shelter and story are for. Whist we can hopefully model, albeit on a small scale what healthy community can feel like, all expeditions end with the inevitable….
We all transition back to our ‘normal’ lives. Participants and volunteers alike move back into the wider society, which does not necessarily model or support regenerative principles; often giving no validation whatsoever to the importance of Heritage to human health . The goal of transferring learning becomes a necessity if we are to serve both our participants and our society.
When faced with the seemingly impossible task of integrating a regenerative experience in the outdoors to the often pathologically adolescent marketplace of work and education, I give my clients some advice given to my own community:
“The most radical thing we can do is to slow down and develop meaningful relationships with each other” .5
It is my clear understanding that deep nature connection, modeled by leaders yet practiced by all, coupled with the informal mentoring which exists through regeneration work offers a real opportunity for creating a healthy, regenerative culture.
It is my sincere hope, that the Venture Scotland Journey can and will embody these principles and give participants the tools and certainty to remain aware, connected and curious in the clamour of the inner city. I hope that it also offers you, dear reader, some soul food for thought in informing your own programmes.
Note to Editor:
Kinlochetive bothy is the modern Gaelic name for the ‘shelter at the head of Loch Etive’, in Glen Etive, Lochaber on the North East border of Argyll, Scotland.
Rhyddian holds a BSc (Hons) in Outdoor Studies and has been cultivating in the field for the past eleven years. He works as Development Officer for Venture Scotland, a Charity working for socially excluded 16-30 year olds. He lives off grid with his green-fingered partner in Morayshire and works part time as a freelance canoe guide and Forest School practitioner. He remains a stalwart proponent of using natural building, wildcraft and the short ‘J’ in kithing culture.
1 Volume 7, New Statistical Accounts of Scotland.
2 P98 para 2. Plotkin, B Nature and the Human Soul- Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World. New World Library.
3 Authors course notes, Jon Young speaking at Art of Mentoring UK gathering, Marcassie Farm, 2011.
4 See young et al. Coyotes Guide to Connecting with Nature. 2010 edition Wilderness Awareness School.