When pedagogies and root problems collide

*Extension of Common Worlds microblog post, What happens when pedagogies and root problems collide? (posted on March 29, 2019 at http://commonworlds.net/what-happens-when-pedagogies-and-root-problems-collide/ ) by Sherri-Lynn Yazbeck, Ildikó Danis, and Narda Nelson

Our early childhood centre borders a small urban forest commonly known as Haro Woods.  ‘Well-treed’, over-grown, and heavily eroded, the forest hosts an array of creatures including fir and arbutus trees, English ivy, Oceanspray, holly, black-tailed deer, forest bees, owls, and slugs.  More than 14,000 years of past, present and ongoing relations with Lkwungen-speaking peoples populate this place too.  We’ve been walking, crawling, visiting the forest with children for many years and in this time have come to know Haro Woods as ‘contested space’, assumed to be forgotten by local government officials and therefore a site for infrastructure expansions (i.e., sewage tank holding site, surrounding street upgrades) and a proposed BMX bike jump facility.  We frequent the forest in the midst of change, knowing that we are one of many bodies and interests this forest continues to attract.   

Haro Woods

What happens when our root problems and pedagogies collide? 

Recent changes in this place remind us that, as Natasha Myers (2016) suggests, “the here we experience now is a different here than when these trees were young.  They have been growing slower and more imperceptibly than the city has grown around them” (9:20).  The here we experience is beautiful but fraught with a growing sense of urgency over troubling inheritances for now and future generations of trees and children alike.  Amid these challenges, we have been learning to notice lively forest assemblages in new ways.  As new realities unfold in the understory, children story the cutblock with charcoal, dance tree stories into life, and speculate together about what trees might be sensing amid the changes we feel too. 

Storying change
Cutblock art

We’ve taken them for granted, not fully realizing our connections until now.  Not until faced with their loss does a new and uncomfortable ‘relational awakeness’ (van Dooren & Rose, 2016) with trees emerge.  Walking past, climbing, touching their bark for years, we realize they have touched us too.

4 yr old: When my kid grows, she will come to Centre 4 – maybe – and my teacher will bring him to Haro Woods – maybe – and then this log will be dirt. (January 19, 2018)

Sadness, outrage, and fascination ripple through the centre as trees “older than my Grandma” quickly get taken down.  A section of urban forest has been cleared for sewage attenuation tanks while a grassy field sits empty nearby.

An educator and children gather near the clearing zone, looking closely at the tangle of stumps heaped behind orange fencing.

Sherri-Lynn: Look at the ivy!  It’s still living on the tree that’s been cut down. Do you remember, why were the trees cut down?

Child: For bikes?

Child: I know! Sewer. I can smell it! (holds nose)

Child (plugs nose in response): Yeah. Yuck! Disgusting!  Me too!  I can smell it.

Sherri-Lynn: Yes, that’s right.  What IS sewer?  What are you smelling?

Child: Poop?

Sherri-Lynn:  Yes, it comes from us.  We make this smell and we are not disgusting!  We all make poop, we all use the toilets at the centre and in our homes.  I know you pooped yesterday, right?

Children look at each other with big eyes holding noses, making yuck-smell-faces.

Sherri-Lynn:  We all make waste, our bodies do.  All creatures do and it goes somewhere.  Ours can’t keep going in the ocean.  There are pipes in the forest and they’re going to put tanks for the sewage to come here under the ground.  Then big trucks will come and suck out what can’t travel through the pipes and transport it somewhere else.  It makes me sad they cut down the trees but I guess they had to do something somewhere?  (Field notes, March 14, 2019)

This is Progress.  Climate policy ‘in action’ and so, it seems, anything goes.  After years of protesting these particular forest changes (while advocating for others) the reality of what has been done hangs heavy in the air.

Climate policy in action

Eleven more trees are cut along the street to make space for sidewalks, bike lanes and infrastructure upgrades despite letters, calls to the mayor, petitions, discussions with project engineers, Tweets, and a street-art protest. 

A child sits working with the light table, a Douglas Fir cone, a few branch rounds cut from a decaying Arbutus tree and a small wooden person.  Reflecting on trees recently cut across the street from the centre.

“Just trunks, ready for bikes.”

Child [to himself, out loud]: Vrrrrr Vrrrr. Time to cut the trees we need a way for bikes. Vrrrr Vrrrr (pulling pieces off of the Douglas Fir cone and spreading them across the light table).  Let’s make them smaller for the chipper and maybe firewood.  All done! Bye trees we will miss you. Just trunks, ready for bikes. (Field notes, February 28, 2019)

In navigating the new physical and emotional terrain of cut trees and forest change we remember Deborah Bird Rose’s (2013) words “[w]e observe this destruction, and we experience it” (p. 5).  We are learning to think and respond with trees as teachers and loss as a guide, and it is in this new awakening we ask ourselves what engaging with place-based pedagogy on Lkwungen territory means.  We wonder how we can continually attune ourselves to trees in moments of practice as lively, sentient beings with their own matters of concern and complex place relations?  Children, educators and researchers alike are not innocent in these stories but rather we are implicated in these acts, these places we live, these places we consume. Trees—bike jumps—sewage attenuation tanks—sidewalks—bike lanes—infrastructure—cut trees.  We are inseparably entangled and interconnected.  We try to stretch understandings of what it means to be humans as deeply interconnected, as of the world, by drawing on the work of Natasha Myers (2016) and her desire to do ‘otherwise’ with the vegetal ones in the world:

I’m learning to do ecology otherwise to expand and extend this all-too-human sensorium in order to find ways to pay attention to what matters to the land. “What matters to the land?” (You might even protest.)  To whom might we address this question?  And, if there was a response would we be able to send and make sense of it? What is becoming clear is that stepping into these questions requires disrupting consensual and hegemonic notions of the senses, sentience and sense-making. A rupture in Western norms of sense-making leaves us in a generative space.  The space of not knowing.  Perhaps it is time to reach towards the unknowable, the imperceptible…[to] trouble human notions of subjectivity… What do the trees know?  If we learned to listen, what stories could they tell?

Meyers, 2016, 10.20

What does it mean to be touched by a tree? 

What would trees say about our root problem? 

How do we make space for “relational awakeness” (van Dooren & Rose, 2016) in urgent times?

What does it mean to take loss as a pedagogical guide?

Bearing witness


Myers, N. (Karen Eliot, YouTube) (December 27, 2016). Ungrid-able ecologies: Becoming sensor in sentient worlds (TSPEC4 Keynote) [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ssGSKDBIDUE

Rose, D.B. (2013). Slowly ~ Writing into the Anthropocene, TEXT, 20, 1-14.

van Dooren, T., & Rose, D.B. (2016). Lively ethnography: Storying animist worlds,Environmental Humanities, 8(1), 77-94.