by Marnie Muller
This piece was originally published in Perspectives in Bioregional Education, edited by Frank Traina and Susan Darley-Hill, North American Association for Environmental Education, copyright 1995.
Helping children get “located” in the universe is an important step in developing their understanding not only of how things fit together within a particular bioregion but within the cosmos as well. Muller emphasizes two aspects of the universe story essential to this understanding: space and time. She reviews teaching resources which develop a child’s sense of spatial relation from the smallest cell components to vast galaxies. Other resources which establish a time frame for development of the cosmos and its components are discussed. In painting this broad picture of place, she reminds teachers that the child’s own views and perspective must be nurtured.
At the bioregional level she reviews several activities which enhance a child’s appreciation of home within his or her bioregion. These activities and others which spring from a bioregional perspective represent interdisciplinary, “across-the-curriculum” learning at its best. Inquiry, research, and innovation go hand-in-hand with celebration and appreciation. Bioregional education encourages children to practice good citizenship and to acknowledge and assume responsibility.
Bioregional education is nested within the story of the universe. Once we begin to get a sense of the rich, complex story of how the universe itself began and continues to grow, we then look at our own bioregional homeplaces to see how the story is occurring there. To approach bioregional education, let’s first regard it in this wider context.
We’ll begin by “getting located” in the universe…both in terms of space and time. Then, as we come to a sense of the whole, we can focus on “getting located” in our particular bioregional homeplaces. Why is it so important to begin with the universe itself? Somehow within us is a hunger to know, or at least to have a sense of, the whole. Children even in their most elementary articulation ask Why?…and How? concerning their world, and they wonder Who? What? and Where? they are in relation to this world. By attempting to answer these questions, we help set their minds at ease and give them a sense of perspective. From the basis of this security, they can then proceed to say “aha” and “yes” to the particulars and details they learn along their educational pathways. In exploring the spatial as well as time developmental sense of the universe, we give children and ourselves a flexible framework to see how everything is related.
Let’s begin with “getting located” in space. One of the classic resources illustrating this concept is Kees Boeke’s exceptional book for children entitled Cosmic View: The Universe in Forty Jumps, from which evolved the book and film Powers of Ten. These resources portray the incredible journey of spatially comprehending our universe. The view begins by focusing on the individual person then incrementally “steps back” from the individual person out into space…so we can view our planet, our solar system, our galaxy, our galactic neighborhood (always focusing on the spot where the person is, as the center of the picture)…then zooms back down to the individual and goes into the micro dimensions of cells and molecules and DNA. Experiencing this, the child gets a sense of “O-o-h-h, so that’s where (who, what) I am in relation to stars and moon and oceans and bugs, and things even tinier” in an exhilarating way. I have shown, with success, the 9-minute version of Powers of Ten film to 3- and 4-year olds. It is brief enough to keep their interest, and fascinating enough for them to feel engaged.
Another teaching tool for getting a sense of the spatial dimension of the universe is Journeying Through the Solar System. Years ago, I had heard of a school in Pennsylvania that helped students experience a sense of the relative size of the planets of our solar system and their distance from one another. They had calculated if the sun were a certain diameter, what the size of the planets and what their distance from the sun would be. What a grand idea! I was working at the Savannah Science Museum at the time, so I calculated the model for Savannah. Working with a group of children, we figured if the sun were seven feet in diameter and was atop City Hall, how far we would have to travel on Bull Syreet before we came to Mercury, Venus, Earth, etc., and what their relative sizes would be. It was great fun. Earth, it turned out, was about the size of a quarter and was approximately a block away from the sun (City Hall). Later, when I moved to Asheville, North Carolina, I worked with other children to calculate a solar system model for that city. Starting with the sun at the city’s obelisk in the center of town, we traveled down Biltmore Avenue with our planet replicas to figure where each would go. I remember us all being amazed that Pluto, which was about the size of a dime, was located where the Blue Ridge Parkway passed over the road, five miles away!
These kinds of teaching tools help children develop a sense of the vastness of space in which we are located. Just spending time looking at the night sky and the constellations as well as our own Milky Way is an important part of this learning experience. Comprehending “You are here” in the suburbs of the Milky Way is quite a thrill. I remember my son coming home one day humming a familiar tune (Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.”). But, he said here are the new words. A classmate had rewritten the lyrics to read: “I was b-o-r-n in the Milky Way…” What a treat.
There are many more excellent resources cropping up, including science periodicals, computer programs, as well as television series, to illustrate the spatial dimension of the universe. But besides the visual, the academic, and the hands-on aspect of exploring the vastness of space, let us also be careful to cultivate the child’s own interior sense of awe of the universe. Somehow experiencing the vastness of space “out there” is reflected in the child’s own experiencing of the vastness within. There is a deep internal resonance with the spatial whole of the universe, within the psyche. This needs to be acknowledged and nourished as an integral aspect of the development of the child’s sense of identity with her/his world.
Now let us turn to the time-developmental dimension of the universe in terms of “getting located” in time. Nigel Calder’s Timescale is a remarkable resource, charting the organic development of the universe through time. First published in 1983, the book in a multi-dimensional way describes the universe’s and, in particular, the Earth’s history through time. It includes a graphic timescale in millions of years as well as a narrative. Another resource is the children’s book by Virginia Lee Burton entitled Life Story which spirals from the beginning of time through the Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic eras to the present day. (Though both of these resources are out of print, they are sometimes available at libraries.) An exceptional resource, recently published, is The Universe Story by Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme (Harper, 1992). This is a lyrical telling of the scientific and historical story of the universe and the Earth, emphasizing the time-developmental context.
Another important resource which focuses on the biological dimension of this time-developmental story of the universe and the Earth is Elisabet Sahtouris’ Gaia: The Human Journey from Chaos to Cosmos. Drawing from these resources, a group of educators (including myself) from Canada and the US are developing a kinesthetic learning model to allow children and adults to experience a “hands-on” sense of the time-developmental story of the universe and the Earth. Another excellent resource is Life on Earth Changes and So Do I—a curriculum resource book by Mardy Burgess which provides a dynamic, hands-on course of study for teaching the story of life from the single cell of 4 billion years ago to the present day.
Nurturing a sense of the time-developmental dimension of the universe helps the child understand how extraordinary the universe in which we live is. To discover that we are literally starstuff—that the elements which make up our bodies came into being at the explosion of the big bang…is awe-inspiring. To realize how indebted we are to chloroplasts and mitochondria for our own existence helps us see the integral link through time among all lifeforms. A time-developmental sense helps us see where we “fit in” to the timescale of the universe, and in particular to the timescale of our planet. Exploring geology, photosynthesis, dinosaurs and everything else has more meaning when viewed from this context.
Even the threat of species extinction, entropy, and destruction of rainforests can be understood more significantly when viewed from the time-developmental context. Thomas Berry speaks of how modern technology is actually shutting down the life support systems of the planet; biologically, chemically and physically. He laments that the Cenozoic era of the last 65 million years is being brought to a close. He suggests we have the choice to “dream” (with the Earth) of an Ecozoic era where humans acknowledge and are harmonious with the life support systems of the planet or we can continue to sink into a technozoic mode without regard for our wider context.
Absorbing a sense of the time-developmental context helps a child understand a sense of identity in relation to the whole process of life. The universe is growing, the Earth is growing, the child is growing…and somehow it is all in concert with each other. A symphony cannot be comprehended in just a spatial mode, it needs to be appreciated and experienced in a time-developmental mode. The same with the universe…just looking at the “right now” does not allow full appreciation…we have to “hear the notes” of the universe through time.
Now that we are getting located in space and time and developing a sense of the whole, let us “get located” in the ecological web of life of our own planet. Our existence is interwoven with the rest of the planetary life community through photosynthesis, the water cycle, the carbon cycle, the oxygen/carbon dioxide cycle, and other life cycles. In fact, our entire existence is a process of exchange. We literally live in our planet, not on it. And creatures with their own DNA and RNA live within us. Without them we could not “move a muscle, drum a finger, think a thought,” as Lewis Thomas suggests. Interdependence is the very fabric of our existence. There are many resources available for focusing on the ecological dimension of the planet. What is important to stress is our intimate connection with these processes.
Shifting from the planetary web of life, let us now (finally) “get located” in our own bioregion within the planet. As Thomas Berry suggests our planet is not a uniform, homogeneous global reality, but rather is a rich complex of highly differentiated bioregions forming the whole. “Each is coherent within itself and intimately related to the others.” We all live in a bioregion. What is your bioregion? Look around at the natural boundaries of where you live…in terms of watershed, geological formation, similarity of plants and animals, cultural history, etc. To answer these questions, you have to go beyond the local, to the regional, because it is here where you can observe whole ecosystems at play. Here is where the soft boundaries of your bioregion are delineated.
Now it gets interesting because your bioregion has its particular history in the time-developmental story of the Earth. And you get to explore that. What was going on in your bioregion at the time of the glaciers? What does the soil composition of the region tell you? What is the hydrological story of your bioregional homeplace, the geological story, the plant story, and on and on. The stories may not be fully written; they may be in fragments scattered throughout your region. They may, in part, be in the minds of elders of your region or in the Earth itself in your region. Bioregional history is participatory. Often, it is a treasure hunt for bioregional wisdom and lore, like the Foxfire series, where you go out and receive a bit of history here and a bit of history there. Keeping all this wisdom and these stories and information together with maps and other important aspects of your region is what is called a bioregional bundle. The bundle also contains animal migration patterns of your region, knowledge of the trees, and the seasons and cycles of the region, the history of the indigenous peoples of the region, and more.
In exploring our bioregional homeplaces, we come to realize that we are part of a bioregional life community that has been going on for hundreds of thousands of years. Members of this community are not just human…they are microbe and plant and mammal…all lifeforms…which weave together to create this particular bioregional existence. “Listening” becomes a big part of finding out about one’s bioregional homeplace. We are so used to hearing on just the human air waves that we block out a lot of rich, essential information and exchange. “Hearing the voices” of the region—of trees, of birds, of outcroppings, of river, of valley—is a vibrant sense we need to nurture once again.
Let’s look at some specific educational activities which can enhance one’s sense of bioregional homeplace:
The All Species Project
All Species projects began in the 1970’s as parades and festivals which gave voice to other species among humans. Since then, projects have taken place in San Francisco, Santa Fe, Vermont, North Carolina, Missouri, England, Australia, India, Japan and many other places. They in a celebratory way remind humans of their interdependence with the other species and suggest ways to live together harmoniously.
Successful as a school curriculum activity or as a community-wide pageant. All Species projects provide both children and adults with the opportunity to learn about and celebrate the myriad species with whom they co-exist. Some All Species projects emphasize the planetary community but others focus specifically on their bioregional community.
By focusing particularly on the bioregion, participants are able to discover a deeper sense of place and membership in the regional life community. All Species Projects can stretch over the period of a month or even a year, and usually culminate in an All Species Day event. During the time of preparation, participants choose a plant, animal, or other lifeform of the region that they feel close to, which they will represent at the celebration. They then find out about their creature: what is its habitat, characteristics, its ecological biosketch: how do/did the indigenous peoples of the region regard this creature; what are the regional songs, stories, and other lore concerning this creature; how long has this creature been in this region; what is its story in relation to the Earth story and the bioregion’s story?
Participants are encouraged to dream or daydream about their creature. They may watch the movements of their creature through observation or by way of film or video and are encouraged to mimic their creature or even create a dance reflecting the creature. Also the sounds of the creature are studied. People are encouraged to caw as a crow or sway as a willow or chatter as a jay.
Before the pageant, costumes and masks are designed and made. The mask-making is usually fun and full of ingenuity. Some masks are made out of found materials such as bark while others may be fashioned from wood or gourd, others from cloth, clay or papier-mache. Some paint their masks realistically while others superimpose images onto the mask of aspects that reflect the creature. For example, a trout mask may have a rushing stream pass across its face. Costumes may also use that motif…with clouds, for example, painted on a cape for Eagle. Displays and skits may be designed for sharing on the day of the celebration. Class projects may include murals, poems, dioramas, puppet shows, and storytelling. Games may be designed, such as food web games.
The All Species celebration begins with an All Species parade and throughout the day includes dramatic presentations, storytelling, booths, nature walks, and games. A special event that usually takes place is a Creature Congress. The Congress is a time when each person who is representing a species can speak for, or perform on behalf of, that species. During this time, species may also dialogue with each other in improvisational ways. They may speak of the beauty and gifts of the region, but they may also speak of the particular problems they as a species face, such as habitat destruction or loss of watering places. The Congress is a time for all the species of the region to convene and share a common vision of the bioregion they inhabit.
An All Species project is a way of reawakening ourselves to a rich, sensual, ecological perspective of our regional homeplace. It invites the participation of the “whole” person and encourages a sense of the sacredness of the particular place that we call “home.”
Ancient Mapping of the Bioregion
What did this particular place look like thousands of years ago? Artist Nancy Morita asked this question about San Francisco and with research and imagination drew a map of Ancient San Francisco. You can begin exploring, imagining, and mapping your own bioregion to discover what it looked like thousands of years ago and to draw the plants and animals that existed then. What parts were forested? How did the rivers flow?
Using Nigel Calder’s Timescale of the Earth, begin compiling a timescale for your particular bioregion. Ask what was going on in the bioregion during the Paleozoic Era, the Mesozoic era, the Cenozoic era. What creatures were living during those periods, what did the land look like, how did it shift? What geological events occurred during those times? When did humans begin living here, etc.
Seasons & Cycles Calendar of the Bioregion
Becoming aware of the underlying patterns of your bioregional homeplace, you begin to notice when trees come into flower, when animals mate, when birds migrate, when flowers bloom. In other words you become sensitive to the seasonal cycles of your homeplace. You know when to look towards the bluebirds’ arrival, when to anticipate the spring greens, etc. Ken Lassman of the Kansas Area Watershed has compiled an exquisite Seasons and Cycles Calendar for his bioregion. It is a wonderful, available prototype for any region to emulate!
Envisioning your bioregion in the Ecozoic era (the name given to the future period of human cooperation with nature) is an important practice to share together. How can human systems be in harmony with the natural systems of the region? What does your bioregion look like beyond a basic map? Begin developing a rich, complex, contemporary model of your bioregion showing the soil compositions of the region, the hydrological picture, the geological, the plant habitation, animal habitat and on and on, including wind patterns, temperature patterns, rainfall. Where are the best places to have human villages and settlements…why? How many people can inhabit this bioregion without diminishing its integrity? What are their energy needs, their water needs, agricultural needs? What lands are best suited for agriculture? What places are best as preserves…
We all develop a sense of our house, our neighborhood, our community—it is important to begin to cultivating a working sense of our bioregion.
“Sense of Place” Spatial Celebrations
Creating particular “spatial celebration” places for showing appreciation of the bioregion is a participatory and engaging art activity. Public parks, botanical gardens, and sculpture gardens can sometimes provide this sense. But it is exciting for groups to intentionally work with a site to reflect special qualities of the bioregion and to instill an appreciation for “sense of place.” For a number of years, artist Allan Gussow has been intentionally nurturing a sense of place through art. He writes:
“…by providing a touchstone for ritual and celebration, art can assist unfocused communities to identify themselves and become visible.” For example, in Oregon he helped orchestrate a site-related ceremonial project in which “25 students recreated the cycle of the salmon as it goes down the river backwards when it is born and ultimately returns to the same cul-de-sac where it was spawned; they waded down the river, created a hidden spawning place, traced grooves in the sand as symbolic of the journey of the salmon.” (ARTS magazine, March 1984)
Community artist Norma Bradley, here in Katuah where I live, creates spatial celebrations which she calls EarthQuilts. In working with a particular group, she guides them in designing and making their own EarthQuilt garden at their school, center, or community. Using a traditional or abstract quilt pattern as the “form”, native plants, stones, shrubs, etc. are the “fabric” of the artwork. Many diverse groups have participated in this wonderful art activity which is a focal point of cooperation, design, and celebration.
Why is bioregional education so important? Our bioregional homeplace provides the “stuff’ of our experiences. The lunar landscape would provide a different set of experiences if we were inhabitants there (as Thomas Berry suggests). Our bioregional homeplace provides the texture and fabric of our senses. It enriches our memory and our dreams. It is the wealth that we draw from, for our daily sustenance. It is our particular way of experiencing that we belong to a community. And it is through our bioregion we learn that our community is not just the human community—past and present—but rather it is the entire wider ecological life community of the region. In fact, the bioregion is the basis for experiencing a wider sense of self. We speak of the individual self, the family self, the social self, but Arne Naess insists that we acknowledge and honor the sense of the ecological self. It is the formal, public recognition that our identity is rooted in the wider ecological community.
As we come to experience and appreciate our bioregional homeplace, we begin to accept full responsibility for being a participant in this particular regional web of life. We begin asking questions. Where does my water come from? Where does my food come from? Where does my shelter come from? Am I fully appreciating these gifts? Am I using them wisely? Also, where do my wastes go? Do I need to produce as much waste as I do? How do I as an individual person “fit” into the ecological cycles of my bioregion? How does my family fit in? How does my neighborhood fit in? How does my larger human community fit in?
What can the life systems of my bioregion support in a healthy way? When does it reach overload? What about the other species of my bioregional community? Are they being displaced? What amount and quality of habitat do they need in order to remain viable members of this community here? Is adequate habitat being preserved in my bioregion? How many forests are being lost in my bioregion each year? Where are the trees going? What are they being used for? Is the quality of air, water, and soil suffering from the depletion? Who are the guardians of my bioregional homeplace?
Does the food I eat come from this region? Is it grown in a sustainable way? If it is imported, where does it come from? Is it stressing the capacity of another bioregion and its inhabitants to produce food for the inhabitants of my bioregion? How can we design our human settlements so they are an intentional part of the life systems of the region? Is the actual infrastructure responsive to the particular location in which it is located? Does the design take into account energy consumption, waste reduction, recycling? Is the design reflective of appropriate scale?
Does my human community’s infrastructure support the opportunity for right livelihood for all its inhabitants? Can each inhabitant provide for their family without interfering with the sacred life processes of the region? Can their children and their children’s children remain here with that opportunity? What is the optimum scale of self-governance for this region? Does the model of the Six Nations Confederacy given by the Peacemaker have relevance for our particular region? Does self-governance of the region take into consideration the rights of other inhabitants besides humans?
These are questions that arise when one begins to think bioregionally. The questioning becomes richer when more inhabitants ask them together as they envision a healthy, sustainable region. All ages are important in this “dreaming” process.
Bioregional education by its nature invites an interdisciplinary approach. It brings forth poetry, dance, song, drama, art, and other forms of expression celebrating the region. It also encourages investigation, research, tool development, and innovation. It sparks action such as habitat preservation and restoration.
Bioregional literacy is a form of education we cannot afford to do without. This kind of education brings forth citizenship participation and acknowledgment of responsibility in the bioregional life community. Some communities are developing regional charters, like the planet-wide U.N. Charter for Nature and other emerging documents. These charters formally acknowledge the rights of all species of a region to home, food, water, and habitat. They reflect a public acknowledgment that when we design human communities, it is our responsibility to design them with Nature.
At the heart of bioregional education is celebration and appreciation. Getting to know our bioregional homeplace brings forth this deeper sense of celebration and appreciation. It is a way of exploring our ecological as well as cultural heritage. Celebration can take the form of an All Species day or it may take a more quiet form, like a walk in the woods. Bioregional celebration grows out of a sense of community as well as communion with all the life of the region. It is the sense that we are all dwelling in this shared homeplace.
A bioregion is “walkable” and “knowable”…its scale is appropriate to our own physical proportions. We are always in an intimate relation to our bioregional homeplace. Its life systems of air, water, soil, and carbon pass in and through us each day. Knowing home is an integral aspect of knowing self. A talented dulcimer player who is a friend of mine once confided, “I don’t really play music, it plays me.” Perhaps, getting to know one’s bioregion is like that; perhaps it “plays” us as much as we “play” it. May we sing the bioregion as it sings us…
Getting Located: An Interdisciplinary Curriculum Weaving Together the Universe Story and the Bioregional Story. In process. Includes Journeying Through the Solar System, Bioregional Timescaling. Ancient Mapping. Ecozoic Modeling, and Celebration. Mamie Muller. Creative Education Associates. Katuah Bioregion.
Cosmic View: The Universe in Forty Jumps. Kecs Bocke. New York: J. Day Publishers, 1957.
Powers of Ten. Philip and Phylis Morrison and The Office of Charles and Ray Eames. Scientific American Library. 1982.
Timescale. Nigel Calder. New York: Viking Publishers. 1983.
Life Story. Virginia Lee Burton. New York: Houghton-Mifflin & Co. 1962.
Gaia: The Human Journey from Chaos to Cosmos. Elisabet Sahtouris. New York: Simon & Schuster/Pocket Books. 1989. New Leaf Distributors.
The Dream of the Earth. Thomas Berry. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books. 1988.
The Universe Story. Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme. Available Fall, 1992.
Life On Earth Changes and So Do I. Mardy Burgess. Classroom-ready curriculum. 300+ pages in 3-ring notebook.
All Species Packets. The All Species Project.
Heartland All Species Project Curriculum Ideas. Heartland All Species Project.
All of the Foxfire Books. New York: Anchor/ Doubleday.
Seasons & Cycles: Rhythms of Life in the Kansas River Watershed. Ken Lassman. Kansas Area Watershed Council.
Thinking Like A Mountain: Towards A Council of All Beings. John Seed. Joanna Macy, Pat Fleming, and Ame Naess. 1988. New Society Publishers.
Earth Wisdom. Dolores LaChapelle. Finn Hill Arts.
Home! A Bioregional Reader. Ed. Van Andrus et al. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers. 1990.
Basic Call to Consciousness. Edited by Akwesasne Notes. 1978. Reprinted 1991. Book Publishing Co.
Design With Nature. Ian McHarg. Garden City. NY: The Natural History Press. 1969.
Marnie Muller is an author and educator. She is founder and co-editor of Katuah Journal, a bioregional journal of the Southern Appalachians. In the 1980s, she served on the coordinating committee of the first and second North American Bioregional Congresses. She has taught many places, including the Black Mountain College Museum + Art Center, and designed the spiral walk installation at the Asheville School.