Developing an Ecological Identity
By Carol McGill
The following article is adapted from the forward to my doctoral dissertation, Ecoliteracy & the Narratives of Ecological Discourse (2016).
Whereness” is crucial to human identity. Without whereness neither language, person, nor thought would commence. All the fundamental imagery of the world would be impossible without landscape. The human journey, the search for meaning, would be inconceivable. Landscape is then a condition of the possibility of everything. Without landscape there would be no where. Without a where there could be no thing (O’Donohue, 2010, p.129).
The guiding force behind my doctoral dissertation is the concept of “whereness or place,” for it is that notion which anchors me to my life and to my work. Place has shaped my belief system and in particular my ecological identity – that part of me that is grounded in place and in the language of place.
From an early age, I was aware that place is an integral part of who I am. I spent many Sundays in the Dublin Mountains with my family; my siblings and I would run free and play, collecting pebbles from the bottom of streams and anything else we could find. It would not be unusual for me to bring some unfortunate creatures, especially frogs, home. My father took me with him when he picked blackberries and we would come home with sacks full to the brim. My mum would boil them in large pots with mountains of sugar and we would devour them between slices of bread for days until they were gone. I remember going only once to the movies as a child, never ever eating out in a restaurant, and always being outside. Outside was where all the children on my street would play for hours on end, roaming our neighborhood, exploring, climbing trees, causing mischief, and playing in the dirt. This is how I spent my childhood.
My story begins well before I could remember, when my ancestors, the Celts, were already perhaps shaping my destiny. Their own belonging and affinity to nature is what sustained and anchored them at their deepest core. John O’Donohue (2004) speaks of this “Celtic Circle of Belonging” (p. 3) and the ideas of nature as nourisher, “presence, and companion” (p. 3) to the Celtic people. His own Celtic heritage informs his theories of what sustains our existence in this world and centers them firmly on the elements of nature and the interactions among and between them. He speaks of the ways in which landscape absorbs “the tone and texture…” (O’Donohue, 2010, p. 141) of the earth and then holds and preserves those memories. Defined by my heritage and the collective memories of my people and place, I too became part of this Celtic circle of belonging.
A sense of belonging was always important to me. It guided me as a young child and still guides me today as an adult; it began in my grandparents’ garden. As a young child, I remember spending time in their large plot in the community garden behind their house, which was originally a war garden shared by all the neighbors. I have fond memories of shelling peas from the garden into a large bowl and the feeling of belonging that I associated with it. I remember catching Pinkeens in the tiny stream by my grandmother’s house with a fishing net in one hand and a jar in the other and being allowed to keep the little minnows, tadpoles and any other creature that found its way into the jar. I explored this untamed neighborhood with my siblings. It was a much freer time and nobody heeded us as we explored. These early experiences shaped the concept of place for me as a guiding principle in my life and framed my sense of place and my ecological identity.
As a preteen, I was introduced to The Irish Council against Blood Sports and I became involved with them for a time, raising awareness of the cruelty of blood sports – hare coursing and fox hunting. It was through this work that I understood for the first time the difference between catching rabbits for food, as my uncles sometimes did, and catching them for sport, and that realization has shaped my views on hunting for sport. My sisters and I were members of Irish Girl Guides, another guiding force of my childhood. It was there we learned to enjoy a more structured sense of nature through hiking, hill climbing, and the communal sense of well-being that went hand in hand with the outdoors. School was another place that also fostered a love of nature. As students, we enjoyed frequent nature walks and took trips to outdoor venues – The Botanical Gardens and the wild Burren area in the West of Ireland. In primary school, we studied nature and knew the names of local trees, leaves, plants, and animals – in both English and Irish. In high school, I was involved in orienteering – a team race in the woods and mountains, using a map and a compass to navigate the landscape. Nature was an integral part of our lives in a way that is sadly no longer part of the general educational experience.
It is not surprising then that as an adult, the natural world is my primary point of reference. I still situate myself in or near natural landscapes that feel familiar and comfortable to me and that hold significance in my life, and I find time to walk or be in nature every day. I am grounded by the flight of the geese, the changing seasons, and the dependable cycle of nature.
As a parent I have tried to pass that same love to my child with a firm grounding in and a connection to nature. We spent a lot of time in nature: planting flowers and vegetables in the garden, walking in the woods or on the local beaches with the family dogs and exploring the outdoors. We would look for spider webs that caught the sun on a dewy morning and which were usually occupied by a large spider and his unfortunate prey, we explored under rocks and hedges, examined insects and named the birds in our garden. We also named the trees in the woods and checked out hollow trees to see if the fictional little fur family was home. Members of that fur family were characters in Margaret Wise Brown’s (1946) oddly beautiful children’s book, Little Fur Family. It is the story of a family of little fur animals who live in a tree in the woods. Every day their little fur child is allowed out from dawn to dusk to explore the wild wood where he lives. Brown’s descriptions of nature are simple and beautiful. No detail is missed right down to the little fur child’s grass allergy. He explores nature – carefully observing his surroundings: the fish in the river, the bugs in the grass, and other little fur creatures who cross his path. He is gentle, and while he handles each animal, he never harms them. He observes them and puts them right back where they belong. He stays outside all day in nature only turning to go home when the sun begins to set. This book was a family favorite and still sits on our bookshelf.
As a teacher, I have also tried to encourage my students to seek out nature. I have taken my middle school students on field trips to the New York Botanical Garden where we spent the day exploring the connections among science, nature, and language. At the end of the day, we use our group and individual notes to create poetry. In my work with college students, we visit the last vestiges of The Hempstead Plains and write in our nature journals. We explore topics that focus on local environmental issues and spend time researching, writing, and speaking critically about those issues. I encourage them to continue this work after our course ends. I am currently working with a group of teachers and college students to create a sustainable habitat in our school courtyard. And so the work continues.
Today, my notion of the state of nature is less romantic. I have a better understanding of the tensions that exist among those who view the natural world as an unlimited resource for human consumption, those who would like to maintain it in its natural state, and those who understand the balance between the two and who try to live in a sustainable way that causes the least harm to the environment. Even the most well-meaning among us is guilty of contributing in some small way to our current ecological crises and therefore we all need to be more mindful in our daily practices and in balancing our needs and wants. This is also something I tried to be mindful of and question as I planned this type of study. Do I live in a way that is consistent with my research? What do I positively contribute to the natural world? Do my daily actions support my theories about nature?
The world is a different place than it was fifty years ago when I roamed freely and explored. Today, threats both perceived and real hamper this generation’s ability to engage in the same way with the natural world. As a result of this, we have in many ways become separated from our natural origins. Orr (1992), in his book Ecological literacy: Education and the transition to a postmodern world, explains that place has become a nebulous term, and that human beings “to a great extent are de-placed people for whom our immediate places are no longer sources of food, water, livelihood, energy, materials, friends, recreation, or sacred inspiration” (p. 126).
For these reasons, it is even more critical that children have the opportunity to develop an ecological identity as they are the generation that the future of our planet rests upon. Thankfully, there is an upswing in the idea of reconnecting with nature both in urban and suburban areas (Bartlett, 2005; Richard Louv, 2005, 2008) which makes me hopeful as these activities “restore a sense of place and foster a deeply meaningful renewal of relations with the earth” (Bartlett, p.1). I am deeply hopeful.