Getting Outside: Notes on an Elementary Bioregional Education

by Jim Dodge

Shasta Bioregion

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.

Dodge’s simple message to educators is to drop pencil and paper, close the book on second-hand, “indoor” nature lessons, and head outside to feel, see, and taste all the elements of the real world. (Originally printed in Raise the Stakes The Planet Drum Review. Vol. 23: p.10)

According to the old-line alchemists, the path of learning is marked by increasingly dense thickets of complexity to crack through, steeper mountains to climb, colder rivers to swim. The path, which is not linear, wends something like this: the senses gather information; the intellect sifts, integrates, and extends the information into knowledge; knowledge is transformed through the heart into understanding; and, with the experienced application of soul/imagination/spirit, understanding is refined into wisdom. Wisdom, understanding, and most of all knowledge are far beyond the purview of these elementary notes, not to mention my grasp.

Bioregionalism, deep ecology, and other “radical environmental” notions are basically pantheism dressed up for school and taking some science classes. I don’t mean that disparagingly. If you accept the pantheist precept that everything from starfish to star is imbued with spirit (or even admit the possibility), and adopt the ancient view—now called ecology—that humans are part and parcel of natural cycles and chains, that our lives are inextricably linked to other beings, to natural processes, and to the larger figures of regulation (like solar income and gravity), it seems reasonable that you might question the prevailing cultural/political religious values that allow the destruction of natural systems, and that you might even take it personally. Of course, values are learned, and since learning starts with information, the best way to inform yourself about the natural world—the nature of Nature—is to get out in it and draw your own conclusions.

I mean “get outside” in the dirt-simple sense of open the door and go. Twentieth century American culture has been dominated by industrialism, which has generally moved to work (“jobs”) inside buildings and lately turned homes into electronic entertainment centers. Simultaneously, the prevailing religious belief—Christianity—has demonized the natural world and its urges, set humans apart as a special creation, viewed the planet as dominion instead of domicile, and located paradise in Heaven rather than on Earth, thus available by transcendence rather than by immanence, by dying rather than by living, leaving rather than remaining. We twentieth century industrial humans spend too much sheltered time, part of it looking at dot patterns on screens and listening to disembodied voices through chunks of plastic stuck in our ears. Indeed, many of us have become essentially burrowing animals, holed up and hunkered down in what we assume is the safety of our individual space—which, if you’ve ever land-surfed a large earthquake or hauled ass away from an erupting volcano, is a stunningly vulnerable assumption. Naturally enough, an elementary bioregional education requires literally getting out in the elements where you live, out in the rain, wind, snow, and the heat of it, the loam and mud and rock, the ponds, streams, rivers, ocean, getting wet, dirty, blown, and burned—attending, as completely as you can, the astonishing welter, weave and tangle of associations that compose life: mine, yours, alders, and mayflies.

I find four compelling pedagogical benefits in getting outside, the first of which is sheer pleasure. Just as discipline falters without honest desire, learning flounders if it doesn’t deliver some basic satisfactions. These creaturely pleasures, to cite Carlo Rossi, include “light, air, the joy of having a body, the voluptuousness of looking.” The best modes of transport are walking, crawling, and standing still. (Crawling is a much neglected mode; for a spirited introduction, see Gary Snyder’s “Crawling” in Tree Rings, the Yuba Watershed Institute’s journal. Thoreau’s “Walking” remains an excellent guide to the art of that movement. And if you think radical environmentalism was invented in the 1970’s, consider Thoreau’s first sentence from that essay: “I wish to speak for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness…to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than as a member of society.”) Some of the better advice I’ve received—not that I’m an able practitioner—is shut your mouth, empty your mind, and open your senses, which I suppose is just a version of what a young man from British Columbia told me he’d discovered about walking in the woods: “The more I put between me and the land, the less I sense it.” John Muir explored the Sierras with little more than a heavy coat, its pockets full of hardtack. And while it may not be your idea of pleasurable edification, there are those who find walking a few miles naked in a Pacific coast rainstorm the pinnacle of moral instruction.

Getting outdoors also offers the opulent opportunity to practice the First and Last principle of Learning: Pay Attention. As most of us learn by surviving the lessons, paying attention is an exacting practice. Many consider it the art of consciousness, and liken it to dancing, often with thousands of partners at once, often to different songs. To wildly simplify, paying attention requires complete awareness in the here and now, beginning with the senses but immediately involving a dynamic perception of the connections among things, the transactions and transformations, flows, cycles and centerless mysteries. Paying attention is not the only way to avoid fatal or damaging mistakes, but also the primary gesture of respect for what sustains us.

When we get outside and pay proper attention to the natural world, we’re immediately rewarded with a heartfelt understanding of both our ignorance and our relative insignificance in the grand course of existence. Such humility is the most fertile state of mind for learning, and the best temper for teaching.

The final benefit of getting outside is the quality of information. As an old western homily has it, “The closer you get to the source, the less likely someone’s crapped upstream.” As I’ve noted elsewhere, high-quality information is direct, resonant, and durable. If you seek an authoritative source on whether Stellar jays are imbued with spirit, go out and look for yourself. The quality of our intelligence ultimately depends on the quality of information, and in this purported age of information, far too much is programmed and screened for us, and comes from fewer sources. The Information Superhighway is a fitting metaphor for what seems to be coming, a prospect as exciting as rush hour in L.A. When they can program the information directly available on a starry night in the Klamath mountains, when they can communicate the nuances of breeze and capture the shifting intensity of the azalea’s fragrance, I’d still prefer the original.

For bioregional education, there are two other senses of “getting outside” that bear mention. The first is getting outside the perceptual sets imposed by a culture inimical to nature, the screens and blinders of inbuilt assumptions and implicit values—like the hegemony of reason over imagination, or the “right” to own land. The second is getting outside the self, especially the egocentric models advanced by modern psychology with their cramped notions of identity.

When the bell rings for school, please hurry to leave your seats and walk out the door.

Jim Dodge (born 1945) is an American novelist and poet whose works combine themes of folklore and fantasy, set in a timeless present. He has published three novels—FupNot Fade Away, and Stone Junction—and a collection of poetry and prose, Rain on the River.

Dodge was born in 1945 and grew up as an Air Force brat. As an adult he spent many years living on an almost self-sufficient commune in West Sonoma County, California. He has had many jobs, including apple picker, carpet layer, teacher, professional gambler, shepherd, woodcutter, and environmental restorer. He received his Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing/Poetry from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop in 1969. He has been the director of the Creative Writing program in the English Department at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California since 1995. He lives in Manila, California with his wife and son.

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