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A Pedagogy of Place

Chapter 1

Personal Narratives: A Place to Start

This chapter aims to highlight important formative experiences of the authors, Brian and Mike, which have raised professional questions about the purposes and practices of outdoor education. It strives to give the reader enough insight into our backgrounds in outdoor education and about some of our preferences and biases. Place, and our senses of it, is inevitably personal and subjective. As we mentioned in the introduction, place results from interaction between the geophysical reality of a location, cultural values and practices, and individual experience and interpretation of those experiences. So, why start with the personal?

We feel that telling these stories is important. It indicates our intention to take seriously the connection of lived experiences with reflection upon the role of outdoor places in peoples’ lives, and with the creation of a written text about those experiences. We do not write as disembodied academics sitting in our offices abstractly disengaged from daily life. We want to demonstrate that our own outdoor education, through work and recreation, has shaped our writing of this book. The following narratives signal that context and personal and professional histories matter. Professional issues, questions and paradoxes arise for all of us. What we are suggesting is the need to reflect critically on these issues to ascertain how they interact with our ideas and beliefs, in this case, about place-responsive outdoor education. This kind of auto-ethnographic work can reveal much about ourselves and our profession. It begins to break down the false dichotomy, which often occurs in western societies, between personal and professional life. We have all, no doubt, heard sayings such as: ‘Don’t allow the job to impact on your home life,’ or, ‘Don’t bring your personal issues to work’. Yet, place and place education inevitably deeply intertwines the two in a way that, we argue, is much more natural and realistic. So, let us begin. We start with Brian’s narrative.

Man contemplating setting out in his canoe

“Professional issues, questions and paradoxes arise for all of us.”

Brian’s story

The following four short, personal stories – ‘The smell of woodsmoke / the sound of the sea’, ‘Franklin River story’, ‘The river dreams’, and ‘Place-responsive pedagogies: Early attempts’ – aim to provide enough detail to enable you to judge the intentions and background that I bring to this book. I hope that they will also assist you in reflecting on the significance of your own life history and how the places where you have lived and worked influence your beliefs and practices as an outdoor educator or guide.

The smell of woodsmoke, the sound of the sea

I was lucky enough to have the kind of free-range childhood that seems unthinkable these days. My father was a teacher and later a principal in the South Australian education department. This meant that I, along with my mother, older brother and sister, would be relocated every three to four years to another school posting. As Dad gained increasingly senior positions we gradually moved from the far west coast of South Australia (where I was born in the south coast fishing town of Port Lincoln), to the Flinders Ranges in the north, and then the mid-north town of Riverton. By the time I was in the final years of primary school we had moved to Blackwood, a suburb of the state capital in the Adelaide hills, where my father had taken up the principal’s position at the local secondary school. We lived in a house with large windows that seemed to let a lot of the outside world in. Gum trees, flowering plants and the chattering birds of the hills surrounded the family home throughout my years of schooling and undergraduate studies.

Due to the influence of my mother’s parents we were caravaners. Every school holiday would see us packing the van and hitting the road. Most often we would be returning to campgrounds that we knew well, either in the Flinders Ranges in the north, or along the South Australian coast. With grandparents and cousins in their caravans the extended family would set up a base at Port Vincent on the Yorke Peninsula, or at Port Elliot on the south coast. The vans and annexes served two purposes. They were our home away from home, as familiar to us children as the houses we had left behind in suburbia, and they served as a base for many day expeditions spent driving, walking, picnicking and generally exploring the surrounding countryside and coastline.

For much of that time we, the children, were left to amuse ourselves. This meant a lot of time swimming, fishing, reading, writing, drawing and playing improvised games or sport on the beach. If possible, my older brother David and I would cook breakfast over a small campfire – eggs and bacon, toast and sweet billy tea. There is a very particular smell to the woodsmoke given off by those small fires of eucalypt twigs and leaves. It lodges itself in deep memory. Not only does it conjure memories of childhood activities, it is highly evocative of the places themselves.

I feel this phenomenon is also true of the sounds that were ever present on those formative camping experiences. We had a beachfront campsite on Horseshoe Bay for six weeks every summer, in the small south coast township of Port Elliot. The sound of the surf and the squawking sea gulls has called to me ever since, and these annual camping trips are, no doubt, the source of my love for the south coast of Australia. The ozone smell of the ocean, the pungent rotting seaweed, the sound of waves, wind and current, the feel of sand beneath bare feet, or the crystal hardness of the granite boulders along the coast; all of these combined to form a world of sensual saturation. A young child’s flesh and mind soaks it up like a sponge.

My father’s teaching specialities were in the humanities and my mother was an artist and art teacher. So both our house and the caravan were always full of books, writing pads, pencils, pastels, paints and sheets of white cartridge paper. I never had to look very far to find a book of Australian poetry or a novel by Ivan Southall or Colin Thiele. It was Thiele’s many stories about children my own age at the time, and the various adventures they had growing up in regional South Australia, that resonated with me most. It was so easy for me to put myself into the shoes of his characters for I’d already experienced the same landscapes where many of the stories were set. A feature of much of the fictional literature of Australia is that local landscapes are often presented as characters, equal in status to the human characters, rather than as a mere backdrop against which the human drama unfolds. The land’s character may be a malevolent one, such as in Thiele’s story of summer bushfire in February Dragon (1965), or it may be that the landscape is presented as a friend and provides companionship, as it does to the young lad in Thiele’s best known novel, Storm Boy (1963): ‘When Storm-Boy went walking along the beach, or over the sandhills, or in the sanctuary, the birds were not afraid. They knew he was a friend’ (p. 17).

My association with these familiar places remained stable right through my schooling and undergraduate studies. Significant life experience research (Palmer et al. 1999; Tanner 1980) into the formative experiences of environmental educators indicates that many of the elements present in my own childhood (family interest, regular visits to a ‘natural’ place, access to ‘environmental’ literature) are all key indicators in the development of an interest in environmental education and activism.

My interest in sports saw me complete a teaching degree in physical education at the South Australian College of Advanced Education. It was while studying this degree program that I had my first encounter with more formalised outdoor education. Lynton ‘Daisy’ Day ran a two-year sequence of electives in outdoor pursuits. Bushwalking, sailing, sea kayaking, canoeing, rock-climbing and skiing were all taught with a strong skill-base and leadership orientation. There were also units of study in conservation and national parks. As a part of one of these units I distinctly recall Daisy giving a lecture-slide show about the Franklin River, an expedition he had completed the previous summer. The Franklin is a remote, wilderness river in south-west Tasmania that, at the time, was under threat of being dammed by the state’s Hydro Electric Commission. I was captivated by both the river and the possibility that it may be lost in the rush towards economic development.

Franklin River story

After graduation in the early 1980s I moved interstate, far away from the familiarity of home, to take up a teaching position in the Gippsland region of Victoria. I ran many outdoor programs in the mountains and countryside surrounding the schools where I worked. These included bushwalking and cross-country skiing trips, geography camps and other outdoor field trips. Through these years I was climbing, walking, skiing and paddling a lot, not just for work, but in almost every spare moment I could find. But I will focus here on one particular experience. The following story highlights my earliest recollection of an inner conflict and confusion about my experience of outdoor places. This experience had a compelling mixture of danger, fear, politics and the way that wilderness images may be presented and manipulated.

I had only been kayaking for a few years when I first paddled the Franklin River with my brother and a small group of friends, at the end of my first full year working as a teacher. The Franklin River trip varies between eight and 16 days depending on how long you have to wait for floodwaters to recede if there is heavy rain. The river is steep-sided, remote, and has many difficult rapids. The Franklin had been saved from being dammed under the voracious development imperatives of Tasmania’s Hydro Electric Commission only months earlier on July 1, 1983, as a result of a decision in the High Court of Australia. The High Court ruled that Bob Hawke’s Federal Labor government’s legislation to protect the region on the basis that it had been listed as ‘world heritage’ overrode state legislation to build the dam. Many argued that Hawke’s Labor government had won office on the back of the ‘green vote’ at the 1982 federal election, and that this victory for the environment was attributable to the Tasmanian Wilderness Society who ran a well-orchestrated anti-dam campaign and the thousands of ‘blockaders’ who impeded construction of the dam through non-violent protest. The Franklin River campaign marked a profound shift in public opinion in relation to preservation of wilderness in Australia
(R. Brown 2004).

Most of our expedition party had prepared themselves for this remote, wild river trip by training in their one-person rubber rafts in the surf at the local beach! There is a sense on a long wilderness journey that every traveller is exploring a wild place for the first time. We had a rudimentary set of river-notes produced by the Tasmanian Wilderness Society. The notes, compiled by wilderness campaigners Bob Brown and Fred Duncan (1980), provided little knowledge of the river’s history. We gleaned no insights into the indigenous inhabitants, or what the lives of the early timber-cutting ‘piners’ who worked the lower reaches of the river might have been like. We did not even know who had made the first descent of the river. Perhaps this absence, or erasure, of historical knowledge was an important ingredient in the quality of our wilderness adventure at that particular time. We had been lured by the river’s endangered status and the prospect of adventure.

Rafting on the Franklin is one of the world’s great outdoor adventures. It requires you to be fit, adventurous and self-reliant in the bush … Rafters should be aware that the remoteness of the area – so much a part of its attraction – means help in the event of an emergency can be several days distant. If an accident occurs in the Middle Franklin gorges, or if floodwaters force a retreat from this area, considerable bushwalking skill and endurance would be required before civilisation is reached. (Brown and Duncan 1980, 3–4)

The sun shone and the river levels stayed low on that first 11-day trip and we completed the expedition without significant incident. The closest we came to harm was in the streets of Strahan, the small west coast town where paddlers finished their journey. We were easily spotted as a group of ‘greenies’ from the river, and copped some abuse from pro-dam locals. The community of Strahan had split along pro-development or pro-preservation lines, with the latter still in the minority.

Two years later I returned to run a commercial rafting expedition and experienced a very different river. On this 16-day expedition it rained for 15 days. On the other day, it snowed! We encountered high floods and were trapped in campsites for several days. We lost and later recovered one of the rafts. In the Great Ravine section of the river, we completed high and risky portages around long sections of boulder-choked rapids that were too dangerous to paddle. The trip involved exposure to many risks and there was an element of good fortune in our survival. It is one of the few experiences of working with people in my care in the outdoors that left me with bad dreams for some years to follow. Here, perhaps, beneath the wilderness ideals that were broadcast as a political slogan ‘to save the river’ – the quiet solitude, the pristine remoteness, the evocative renaming of river features, and the stories of reconnection to the natural world – was a more visceral or embodied wild experience. Here was intuition and fear, movement as habituated reaction, and I found hauntingly dark and swirling water sliding beneath the popular images of Australia’s most celebrated wilderness river. It was a stark lesson about the ‘nature’ and ‘place’ of river experiences and added a layer of complexity and ambiguity to the sunny adventure of my first encounter.

My combined Franklin River experiences left me with an inner tension, a conflict between the romantic images of a pristine river and the harsh realities of losing control to a wild river in flood. Coming home from the river the second time, I would carry an image of the magnificent wild river, like a wilderness template, with me to other places and into my teaching. Yet in my body, my flesh, I also sensed that I carried something else: an embodied feeling of a wild force I struggled to articulate. It was knowledge of something deeper, something darker.

The river dreams

Not long after the second Franklin River expedition Katrina, my wife, and I left Australia so that I could study for a Master of Education degree at the University of Calgary in Canada. I majored in experiential education and outdoor pursuits and was introduced to new and very different ideas and outdoor places. I studied under the mentorship of Bill March, a renowned mountaineer, writer and deep thinker about the need for adventure in modern life. I became familiar with the emerging professional discourses of experiential education and adventure education, and with the history of the North American preservation movement. I read John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra (1911) while backpacking in the Rockies, Henry David Thoreau’s classic Walden (1854) while watching the Canada geese foraging along the banks of the Bow River, and Aldo Leopold’s (1987) A Sand County Almanac as the winter snows built their layers, like sedimentary stone, on the window sill of our university apartment. This introduction to the genre of North American nature writing provided inspirational although, romantic, transcendental and ecological interpretations of the outdoor experience.

When we returned to Australia in 1990 I took up a position with the Department of Outdoor Education lecturing in environmental studies and outdoor education at La Trobe University’s Bendigo campus in central Victoria. During my time in Bendigo the department offered two degree programs, a three-year Bachelor of Arts (Outdoor Education) and a one-year Graduate Diploma of Outdoor Education, and had developed a distinctive approach that might best be described as critical outdoor environmental education. Many members of the department are well published and we have drawn upon some of their work in this book. As a new staff member I had several academic units to teach and a heavy fieldwork load and considered myself to be an all-rounder in outdoors. The gaps in staffing saw me become the coordinator of paddling programs and I spent most of my time in the field, on and around many of the rivers of south-eastern Australia. All students in both programs completed flat-water canoeing instruction and a journey on a section of the River Murray. Groups of students from the Bachelor of Arts degree could also take a paddling elective sequence, which mainly involved white-water kayaking, in the last two years of their degree.

When I started at La Trobe University, Bendigo, I inherited a fleet of plastic kayaks and a much worn set of poorly designed, semi-enclosed plastic canoes. Among the canoes, however, were two even older and much repaired, traditional-style fibreglass open canoes (often called Canadian canoes). I began experimenting with paddling techniques in these craft. In Australia the open canoe was considered an anachronism, and a dangerous one at that, as there had been several notable fatalities in school groups attempting open-water crossings using these type of craft. The practical push for adventure with controllable risk seemed to include a desire for the newer, ‘unbreakable’ plastic kayaks. Canoes tended to be either fully decked competition-style craft for the elite paddler, or cheaply built and poorly designed craft for the average member of the public or school groups. These canoes were considered only suitable for flat-water instruction or perhaps a modest journey on a sheltered inland waterway.

The degree courses espoused philosophical values and ideals not dissimilar to those I had been reading in Thoreau, Muir and Leopold’s writings. Yet some of these concepts did not seem to be well matched to an outdoor practice of encountering the slow-moving inland waters in the fleet of cumbersome and uncomfortable canoes, nor the faster and more violent rivers of the mountains in the plastic kayaks. I began to recognise significant gaps between outdoor education theory, or at least the literature that it frequently drew upon, particularly in relation to the presentation of environmental values, and the way that I was practicing outdoor education in the field.

I continued to develop my self-taught solo canoeing skills, based largely on the series of photographs in Bill Mason’s book The Path of the Paddle (1984) and was delighted to discover a well-articulated philosophy of canoe travel in Mason’s sequel, Song of the Paddle (1988). I also began a search for a fibreglass canoe mould with more aesthetic lines than the fleet of craft I had access to in the equipment shed. It took nearly two years to find what I was after, a canoe mould with lines similar to that of a Chestnut Prospector. I wanted a boat that could be paddled solo and double and was large enough to carry a decent load, but still small enough to be agile and a joy to paddle. The fibreglass hulls that I built using the mould were finished with gunwales, seats, thwarts and decks made from timbers and fittings bought from the local hardware store. I used the tools my grandfather had left me and the rudimentary skills I found I somehow remembered from the many informal woodworking lessons he gave me in his backyard shed. After a summer of canoe building we had a sleek new fleet of canoes for the program. They opened up many new possibilities. All students were then taught to paddle solo, with a range of traditional (Canadian) techniques. Fifteen years later I am still trying to perfect the single-handed cross-bow draw and the silent Indian hunting strokes.

I developed a five-day canoe journey for students along a stretch of the River Murray, which was about an hour’s drive north of Bendigo. The Murray and Darling Rivers combine to form one of the most important river catchments in Australia. The Murray-Darling Basin covers more than a million square kilometres, one-seventh the surface area of the Australian continent, and is the country’s most significant source of agricultural production. There is almost no section of these waterways that could be called a wilderness. Instead there is a complex and rich history of Aboriginal occupation, European exploration, colonisation and environmental modification. The Murray is known simply as ‘the River’ by those who live within its catchment and the section we paddled most often followed the meandering path it took through the Barmah State Forest. I was aware that ancestors on my father’s side of the family had pioneered a family farm on the banks of the River Murray far downstream, and that my father had lived on the farm as a boy. We’d even had a couple of caravanning holidays to the River during my childhood. But my sense of connection to the river landscape at that stage was more immediate and to do with the programs I was running at Latrobe rather than intergenerational and historical. Even so, I felt an almost immediate affinity with the River. I developed a strong sense of attachment to the Barmah during my time at Latrobe. This was to be heightened even further years later when I completed a descent of the River from headwaters to the sea and told that story through a book of poems, drafted along the way, titled The Song of the Wounded River (2010).

During my years at Latrobe I completed about twenty-five journeys with students along the Barmah section of the river (roughly between the townships of Tocumwal to Echuca) and developed an affinity for the river and red gum forest which extends across almost 30,000 hectares of natural floodplain, the result of a geological uplift known as the Cadell Tilt Block. An extensive network of anabranches leave and return to the river and in times of high water they flood the forest completely, triggering its regeneration. The canoe journeys began by driving to the old timber-milling site of Morgan’s Mill. We would arrive at night so that students would first get to know the River through the slivers of moonlight reflecting from its surface and its gentle sounds in the darkness. As students awoke on the first morning the River would slowly materialise in the dawn light – first a silvery thread, then an emerging scene in the heavy, fragrant eucalyptus air.

These canoe trips attempted to shake off some of the conventions of the normal outdoor education experience. No tents were taken and students shared their shelter under a large tarpaulin or slept around the campfire embers if the weather was fine, or made a simple shelter for themselves out of a groundsheet and a canoe. Camp stoves were left behind and cooking was done on red gum campfires using the plentiful fallen timber. Students were also required to purchase food locally and prepare it communally. Food purchased had to have minimal processing and no individual food was brought along. If students wanted bread it would have to be baked in camp ovens on the fire (three to four loaves would be needed for the group each day, requiring two to three hours of preparation). Perhaps, like David Orr (1992), we were trying to rediscover the ‘art of living well in place’ (p. 126).

Part of the experience included drifting slowly along sections of the river either solo or with a partner in a canoe. At other times multiple canoes would be tied together to form a raft and I would introduce stories of how, despite appearances, the Barmah was heavily modified landscape and a fiercely contested place. The indigenous Yorta Yorta peoples of the area had entered a native title claim for the region at the time and the media was being used by timber cutters, cattle graziers, bee keepers, horseback tour operators and to a lesser extent by recreators, to voice their own allegiances and perceived rights of access to the forest and the River.

I will admit that I was experimenting with these programs somewhat, in the best sense I hope, striving to find a balance between crafting an outdoor experience that elicited an emotional response from participants and one that also encouraged them to learn something about the River’s history, its current environmental challenges and its possible future. The ecological and economic future of Australia is very much reliant on a healthy Murray-Darling basin, which in current times of sustained low inflows and the over-allocation of water for irrigation is far from the case. While the Barmah trips continued, I also coordinated and taught many other aspects of the paddling program in a more conventional skill and leadership training style. Many other faster-flowing rivers were utilised and an emphasis on skill development and safety was often paramount.

Re-reading my old journals and writings I wonder about aspects of the student experiences of river places that I was inattentive to at the time. Did they experience the Murray as simultaneously beautiful and ecologically damaged? Did students take on board the culturally contested nature of the places that they were experiencing – their history, politics and economics? How much was the romanticism, transcendentalism and wilderness ideology of the nature writing I had begun to read while studying in Canada and was still using in my teaching shaping my interpretations, and those of my students, of the river places we encountered? How much did the ideas that we carted to the rivers that we paddled influence our experiences?

At this time I was beginning to reflect more seriously and critically on the connections that existed between people, place and pedagogy. Using Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There (1987 edition) as a guide and a teaching text, I sensed the importance of combining both a rational story of the experience (as often found in historical, geographical and ecological accounts of places, as well as in students’ own retelling of events in essays and field trip logs) with a more poetic sensibility. Leopold’s seminal contribution to the development of environmental ethics, his eloquent modelling of descriptive prose for outdoor encounters, and his analysis of much that is taken for granted in the outdoor experience, continues to raise questions for both students and myself about the ecological integrity of human values and actions.

Leopold’s book, first published posthumously in 1949, is presented in three distinct sections. In the first part of the book Leopold describes in intricate and intimate detail his observations of nature made on weekend visits to on his farm property in the derelict sand counties of Wisconsin. In the second section, he recounts a number of stories and insights about nature experiences gathered through a range of outdoor journeys. In the final section, Leopold draws his professional conclusions on topics such as ecological consciousness, land as community, the role and value of perception, wilderness and recreation and, famously, the land ethic. Leopold’s poetic and allegorical style makes his writing both readable and searchingly provocative. Daniel Berthold-Bond (2000), reflecting on the lasting legacy of Leopold’s writing as a bioregional poetics, suggests that his ‘essays attempt to “rebuild … what we are losing elsewhere,” which is precisely a love and respect for place’ (p. 20).

Subsequently both students and I often wrote and shared poetic and reflective responses to those experiences. I had begun to develop an interest in the different possibilities for students (and myself) in representing the character and nature of their outdoor experiences. During these years at Bendigo I employed one of the pedagogic practices I had experienced as a postgraduate student at the University of Calgary in a subject taught by Dr Jean Clandinin. At the end of the sequence of paddling experiences, I asked each student to write me a letter that reflected on some personally significant learning discoveries or issues that arose as a result of their paddling and river experiences. The letters were not an assessment task and I wrote back to each student. They provided highly useful insights into the complexity of student experiences. Reading them and responding to them at the time provided important feedback about student experiences and responses to the various paddling programs.

But the greatest value of the letters for me as a young academic was the questions they posed about the ‘match’ or ‘mismatch’ of outdoor education theory and practice and, of course, about the strengths and failings of my own teaching. Students from the same trip would tell dramatically different stories of their river experiences. These ranged from fear to exaltation, accelerated or stalled learning, and they presented anecdotes that seemed to portray either a connection or ambivalence to the river. Similarly, it was possible to interpret from the letters how individual students would respond very differently from one paddling or river experience to another. In 1997 one student proffered:

The best trips I’ve been on during the duration of the course have been canoeing up and down rivers where there’s no pressure to perform. Perhaps kayaking allows one to become intimate with a river in a different way than canoeing does, but I find that I don’t have much of a chance to take in my surroundings like I do when I’m in a canoe.

Sometimes successes on the river were retold in such detail that it was possible to interpret many aspects of the experience: risk taking, skill development, peer pressure and, perhaps, the thrill of success.

There we were at the top of the Amphitheatre [a long and difficult rapid] on the Mitchell [River], stories of carnage from the other group still fresh in our minds. But we weren’t going to become better paddlers by portaging around: in fact you were going to gain nothing more than a lot of ‘shit hang’ from the rest of the group. So we checked our lines, we prepared for carnage, we were quite prepared to swim most of this one … and we had a deadest crack! … And we there we were coming backwards through a monster hole, water up to our waists, but we kept upright and worked our way into the top eddy … Then came the last section, a small drop and sweeping bend. It doesn’t look as hard as the rest, but many a great paddler has come unstuck here … We watched a couple of boats go down, pounding into the rock on the far bank, a couple of swims. Then we went, adrenaline flowing, we could do this … and we did … We were the best paddlers in the world!

Another student recalled the vivid memory of a cold dawn paddle on the Murray River. Leaving camp in the dark before the other students, he experienced the gradual awakening of the river, yet wondered what the experience might mean if he could not capture it in words.

The problem that I’ve been contemplating revolves around the fact that because I can’t define the good in what I feel, I find I can’t therefore trust in it. I’ve stumbled across a range of experiences that have felt intrinsically special. In reflection though, doubt creeps in, undermining their importance, leaving me hollow inside.

Another student wrote eloquently about her emotional response to the experience, yet also worried about what would happen if it became necessary to neatly articulate her encounter with the river.

It can be like being with somebody you love – overwhelming, intense and moving. The sun and wind on my skin, my senses alive and alert and aware, when my mind is at peace or racing, my breath catching in my throat with fear or exultation, or flowing easily, when my heart beats steadily or pounds furiously, when my chest tightens with emotion I cannot express and I feel I might explode with the enormity of my feelings, when I am brought to tears by the ecstasy and beauty of a place, of just being there, of experiencing it, of sharing it or keeping to myself. I don’t know what these feelings symbolise or mean. In many ways I am afraid I might destroy them by analysing them and reducing them to words.

Even this small sample of examples from the letters begins to indicate the array of responses that students were expressing in relation to these paddling programs on Victorian rivers. Different river places and different styles of paddling seemed to result in dramatically different student responses. The thrill and fear of the whitewater rapid seemed so utterly different to the calm reflections evoked on the Murray River journeys. Yet my own experience at that time was of a continuity of experience from the river in its headwaters to the river meandering across its floodplain. What could explain such clear differences between one student and another, one place and another, and between my experience and interpretation of rivers and that of many of the students? Was it even possible to plan for some of these highly subjective and emotive encounters between participants and the outdoor places I was working, and how should they be considered educative?

While I was still wrestling with pedagogic approaches to teaching paddling that might better accommodate the range of responses I was reading in the letters, I took up a position at Monash University, in Victoria’s Gippsland region, late in 1998. I had previously lived in Gippsland early in my secondary school teaching career and was happy to return to its greener, moister hills on the southern flanks of the Great Dividing Range. The Bachelor of Sport and Outdoor Recreation / Bachelor of Education (BSOR/BEd) double-degree program I and colleagues developed at Monash University provided opportunities to contribute to the establishment of a tertiary program for physical and outdoor education teachers, and to teach in a more diverse range of subjects, activities and environments.

Place-responsive pedagogies: Early attempts

The Monash program soon expanded to include a suite of undergraduate degrees, postgraduate supervision opportunities, and a stronger emphasis on research. I commenced my doctoral candidature early in 2000 while continuing to write new study units for the program as the first group of students progressed through the degree. My reading and research focus had progressively highlighted ‘sense of place’ and ‘place experiences’ as a potential alternative experiential and theoretical foundation for outdoor education. Like the Canadian, James Raffan (1992), I was beginning to accept that ‘land’ (or ‘river’ or ‘coast’) could be a teacher in its own right, and that there seemed a good fit, potentially at least, between ‘place’ and the experiential pedagogies of outdoor education. This research led me into the multi-disciplinary scholarship that has developed around the theme of place – from phenomenological philosophy to human geography and to cultural studies of identity and land in Australia. It also led me back to fiction and poetry, literature that seemed capable of capturing a sense of the highly subjective quality of encounters between people and Australian places. It has made me reconsider the educative power of interactions between place, experience and reflection in outdoor education practice. Some of this research is presented as one of the case studies later in the book.

My teaching focus was wider at Monash, encompassing both sport and outdoor recreation subject offerings, and also teaching methods subjects in outdoor education. We had a strong sequence of undergraduate units in outdoor education and utilised outdoor places in the Gippsland region to program camps and journeys. Mike Brown joined the academic team for some years during this crucial establishment phase of the program. There has been an emphasis among colleagues at Monash to develop a local pedagogy for the outdoor places we were working with students – a process that remains ongoing. At the same time we remained committed to students experiencing what we have called Expeditionary Learning (a term I have seen used elsewhere), where they travel to locations that appear remote from the campus. On almost all of these outdoor education program experiences I have encouraged, and usually required, students to learn not only the outdoor travel skills required for safe participation, and knowledge about outdoor leadership, programming and risk management, but about the place we would be experiencing. Each place we go to is presented to students as a place rich in natural and cultural meanings. Assessment work requires students to research, interpret and present an understanding of the place through their own encounters.

Sometimes this can still feel like a bit of a struggle, even a disheartening one. A number of our undergraduate students anticipate novelty and excitement on field trips, and are attracted to programs like the Monash course, at least in part I’m sure, by the cultural images of sport and outdoor activity that they are exposed to on a daily basis in the media. It is hard sometimes to motivate these students to be interested in subtle things going on in the landscape, like shifting tides, the first arrivals of birds from the annual northern or southern migrations, a historical narrative from the area, or the fading marks of aboriginal occupation or early European settlement. But I feel it is a struggle worth continuing. I keep searching for pedagogical strategies that provide students with the opportunity to get past the popular image of outdoor activities and a romantic view of nature, so that they can gain a deeper understanding of, and feeling for, the place.

On both a personal and professional level the move to Monash has given me the opportunity to reconnect with the southern Australian coastline in a deeply meaningful way. I have now done more than twenty, week-long programs in the Nooramunga Marine Reserve region and feel the beginnings of a strong affinity with this area. I miss its tides, wind and shifting sands when I’m away from it. As I begin to learn more of its history and ecology I feel as though it is slowly revealing itself to me. I feel this at both the embodied and intellectual levels, a mix that it I do not feel it possible or even necessary to disentangle.

Mike’s story

Note: The first draft of this chapter was written while sitting at the desk of the late Michael King1 at his former home overlooking the Wharekawa Inlet at Opoutere on the Coromandel Peninsula. The property now belongs to The University of Waikato and is available as a retreat for staff to write and complete research projects.

On the bookshelf in the room is a collection of works authored by Michael. One, Being Pakeha Now, features a photo of Michael superimposed over the view that I can see from the house. Glancing up from my computer I can take in the vista that includes the inlet, sandspit and the ocean beyond. Being able to use this property to write arouses mixed feelings. On one hand it is a privilege, on the other it is tinged with a sense of sadness that the original owners are no longer here. In 1990 I purchased an earlier version of Michael’s book Being Pakeha which proved to be influential in how I thought about my place, as a descendent of European immigrants, in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Themes of belonging and identity, which were discussed at length in the book, have developed greater resonance for me in recent years. It is through my current teaching and researching position at The University of Waikato that I am able to utilise the King House. Prior to my appointment at Waikato I had spent several years as an instructor at Outward Bound in the Marlborough Sounds. There were a number of reasons why I found myself at Outward Bound, but not least amongst them was a desire to return home.

‘Return home’. In 1998 I left New Zealand on a yacht for a six-month cruise in the Pacific. In late 2004 I returned. Somehow six months had become six years. On the return leg of the original voyage I had stopped over in Brisbane to avoid the cyclone season and turned a six-month brief stop-over into what appeared to be permanent move. Three-and-a-half years were spent at The University of Queensland completing postgraduate studies and two-and-a-half years researching and lecturing at Monash University in Victoria. I was employed and had established a home but something did not quite feel right. It was difficult to define this sense of unease as I had lived overseas before for extended periods. In a somewhat serendipitous conversation with a colleague I was asked if I had read a book by the New Zealand author Geoff Park, Ngā Uruora: The Groves of Life (1995). Park’s book examines the intersection between history and ecology, with a particular focus on the effects of colonisation and the ensuing ecological devastation wrought on New Zealand’s lowland areas. I vividly remember the following phrase, ‘a sense of place is a fundamental human need’ (p. 320). Those words resonated deeply. Obviously during my time in Australia I knew where I was geographically. Having made the voyage to Australia I knew I could navigate, so the question was not one of spatial location but of belonging – Australia (for all its good qualities) was not my place.

I am a Pākehā2 New Zealander, this is my home, my place in the world. My understanding of being Pākehā has evolved over time and through my involvement with, and engagement in, New Zealand’s peoples, culture(s), history, landscape, and briefly glimpsing my family’s roots in Scotland. This brings me back to King’s Being Pakeha which I first purchased when I was teaching at a school in Auckland. This book has had an enduring influence. I remember taking it with me in late 1990 as I headed off on my big OE.3 I’m not altogether sure why I took this book when all my belongings had to fit in a backpack. Not surprisingly it got lost, or left with someone along the way. I have subsequently replaced it with the newer edition, Being Pakeha Now.

So I now find myself sitting in Michael King’s former home surrounded by his works writing a book on place and outdoor education theory and practice. Unsurprisingly these topics intersect with King’s interest in identity and belonging. In the next room I can hear the rapid tapping of fingers on a keyboard (he obviously uses two fingers rather than my feeble attempts with one). It’s that ex-colleague who pointed me in the direction of Geoff Park’s book and ultimately home. I’m not sure if Brian has regretted recommending Ngā Uruora or was secretly pleased not to have to put up with my hassling every Monday morning when his footy team lost. I suspect he merely advanced the inevitable: it is hard to deny Park’s call to locate oneself in a place which meets a ‘fundamental human need’ – knowing where and who one is.

In academic books and journals we are often required to regulate our writing to conform to various guidelines; be they matters of referencing style, word length, or the need to rigorously substantiate assertions with research findings. As a consequence the motivations and biases of the writer become largely hidden though they can never be completely removed. An underlying theme of this book is the importance of the social, cultural, historical and geographical dimensions of lived experience. We are who we are because of where we are and the experiences we have had. The meaning(s) we give to events, possessions (our cars, homes etc), places and people are bound to situation and context. No matter how strongly we try to present an image of objectivity and rationality we cannot escape the futility of such an endeavour.

As a reader you have every right to wonder why Brian and I may seem to have headed off on a tangent of personal storytelling so early in the book. Why, you may ask, have they chosen to write about place and outdoor education? Surely, you might add, outdoor education is fine as it is, why the need for change? In this chapter we have the opportunity to partially fill in some gaps to explain how we arrived at the decision to detail our case for a renewal of outdoor education. The case we make here should not be interpreted as a final destination nor something that won’t be modified in the future. Similarly we would anticipate that readers of the book who feel compelled to make changes to their own outdoor education philosophy and practice, would adapt rather than adopt much of what we have to say. That is a crucial part of our argument. Local conditions, local histories and community values will play a significant role in any place-responsive program. Part of the purpose for this chapter is also to signal to each reader the importance of reflecting upon their own history, or narrative if you like, and how it is influential and formative in the professional decisions that they might make.

Influence of the sea

My youth was spent in the middle-class, predominantly Pākehā, suburb of Pakuranga, Auckland. From my room I could look out over the Tāmaki River and see boats travelling up and down the waterway out to the Hauraki Gulf. I attended a local boys’ school, competed successfully at provincial level in athletics, performed adequately academically and participated in sea scouts and church youth group activities. Nothing special or unusual except for the fact that, for many years of my secondary schooling, instead of a front lawn we had a big grey, partially-completed boat. I’m sure it caused the neighbours no end of concern when it arrived and towered over the house. You could actually step off the deck of the boat onto our roof.

My father had an engineering business and had decided to build a steel launch. The hull and cabins were completed at Dad’s factory and we finished it off in the front yard. So my teenage years were spent painting and assisting Dad to finish the boat. It was a fantastic way to share time with my father and learn invaluable skills. My father is a highly skilled tradesman, a fitter and turner who worked with fine tolerances. I, however, would invariably break a saw blade, mount something out of square or lose nuts and bolts into the deepest recesses of the hull. Fortunately for society I didn’t become a car mechanic or a surgeon.

My sailing career had actually started a lot earlier. I had my first boat at about the age of five. It was built out of an old machinery packing case Dad brought home from work and was fitted with a broomstick for a mast and a bed sheet for a sail. It was loaded on to a neighbour’s trailer and taken to the beach along with the other kids ‘boats’. We carried them to the low tide mark and I proudly sat in it until the tide rose and flowed through the boat. It was an inauspicious start to my sailing career.

Several years later Dad and a couple of friends decided to build a number of 12-foot sailing dinghies. One of the family’s homes became the boat yard and the three men and various kids would gather on Saturdays to work on the construction of these two-person plywood yachts. I don’t remember helping out too much but I do remember playing war games in the backyard. Maybe it was more helpful if four or five hyperactive boys kept out of the way. Hulls completed it was time to finish each boat off individually at the respective owners’ homes. I learnt to sail, soon became sick of being the crew, and persuaded Mum and Dad to let me buy my own boat, a small single-handed boat known as a Starling.

Sometime during this period we were invited out onto larger boats of various family friends, a neighbour’s launch or another friend’s yacht. Dad seemed keen to jump at any opportunity to get out on the harbour. He had grown up in Dunedin and his first experience of Auckland had been in the navy as part of compulsory military training. Those experiences in the Hauraki Gulf were sufficiently powerful and positive for him to transfer north with his company some years later. After a few years of caravanning and sailing dinghies Dad had a motor boat designed which he built slowly over a number of years. Eventually the ‘ark’ moved off the front lawn and into the water. Throughout this period I can remember visiting people with boats in various stages of construction. There must have been some sort of informal network into which you were invited to visit other people’s projects or follies. Some, I’m sure, never made it to the water, the fun was in the dreaming and the building. There would be long discussions about the intricacies of CQR anchors compared to Danforths, or some other obscure marine topic.

I remember quite clearly visiting a couple, who had become friends with one of Dad’s work colleagues, on their yacht at Half Moon Bay Marina. He was Hungarian and she was French. They were based in Canada and sailed the world on their yacht. Their poodle would respond to instructions in both French and English. If you asked it if it would rather be dead or married it would roll over on its back and lie very still resulting in much laughter. I remember sitting in the cabin listening wide-eyed to stories of how one of the boats’ owners had fled Hungary during the 1956 revolution and the freedom of the cruising life. I looked at their charts of far-flung islands and imagined what an adventurous life they led. I wanted this adventure for myself. For the next few years books by the Hiscocks (a famous cruising couple) were high on my Christmas and birthday wish list.

In retrospect these early experiences were laying down a foundation of possibilities, dreams and practical skills that, though I didn’t know it at the time, were to prove important in later years. I’m not sure that I have an innate love of the sea but I was immersed in stories and the culture and history surrounding seafaring. Every morning when I opened my curtains I looked at the sea and I would walk to school along the edge of the estuary. If I was in the right classroom I could look out over the boats swinging on their moorings.

My university years were spent at Otago University in the southern city of Dunedin. Boating was restricted to holiday breaks back in Auckland or whitewater paddling with friends during term time. This was a time of youthful bravado and endless enthusiasm for the next adventure. I hung out with a group of paddlers who were always working out how to buy the latest kayak or planning the next trip away. It was a period of pushing boundaries and living in the moment, we were young and bullet-proof, or so we thought.

In late 1990 I set off on my OE. During this time I worked for Outward Bound Scotland (OBS) at Loch Eil and the Ocean Youth Club (OYC), a sail-training charity whose head office was in Gosport in Hampshire. In Scotland I had the opportunity to kayak and sail with groups of students on Loch Eil and Loch Linnie. Camping with students near the ruins of castles was very different to cruising the Hauraki Gulf in New Zealand. From OBS I took a position with OYC and progressed from mate to skipper. The club was established to provide opportunities for young people from all sections of society to be integrated in a small community aboard a purpose-built vessel.

The club operated ten 70 foot yachts around the British Isles and provided me with a unique opportunity to master the intricacies of seamanship. The skippers were a bunch of unique characters from a variety of backgrounds, but one thing linked them, their high standard of seamanship. Imagine turning a 72-foot yacht in an estuary only 90-feet wide; drop the anchor just enough to drag on the muddy sea bed and then hoist the mizzen (small sail on a second mast near the back of the boat) to ‘weather cock’ the boat and turn it on a dime. All this was done without fuss and bother and usually performed by a group of teenagers from somewhere like Newcastle. It was an incredibly steep learning curve from the relatively benign, deep, traffic-free waters of home.

Learning to navigate the shifting sands and strong tidal streams of the Thames estuary, locking in and out of marinas in the Netherlands, drying out against a pier in places with large tidal ranges, sailing across the Bay of Biscay, crossing the English Channel, operating in heavy fog within submarine exercise areas, dealing with armed Royal Marines boarding the vessel, were all part of a rapid and thorough apprenticeship in the art and craft of handling a large vessel with a novice crew (14–18 year olds). It was torrid and exhausting work albeit with plenty of laughter and some very satisfying moments. A strong northerly bringing snow and steep waves in the Irish sea isn’t most people’s idea of fun … and it wasn’t mine after a couple of years either. Long hours, a constant stream of novice crews each week and missing my new wife eventually took the gloss off being at sea.

We spent the first year of our married life in Suffolk, on the east coast of England. Grey skies, changeable weather and less than rewarding jobs meant a decision to set up home in New Zealand wasn’t difficult. Samantha had visited New Zealand on travels several years earlier and, apart from leaving behind family, wasn’t at all fazed by travelling half way across the world to begin a new life. I don’t recall any great sense of a ‘pull home’ at this time – it was mostly a desire to leave another grey United Kingdom winter behind. We arrived back in New Zealand in 1994 and began the ‘yuppie’ phase: two incomes, no kids, and professional jobs. In the following three years we sailed extensively around the Hauraki Gulf and ended up with a 38-foot steel cruising yacht of our own. We spent about a year getting the boat ready with 101 jobs to do (some of which were still not done after the voyage) and left New Zealand in 1998 for Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu and Australia. The idea was to summer over in Australia and return via New Caledonia during the next cruising season. The space and time provided while cruising gave us an opportunity to think about future work options. I didn’t fancy going back to sports administration so took the opportunity to begin postgraduate study. So began six years in Australia, a marriage break-up and the sale of the boat.

Apart from sailing with students at Outward Bound New Zealand my sea-based activities have recently been restricted to sea kayaking. Yet the pull of the sea is still strong. Recently boating magazines have been falling off the shelf into my supermarket trolley and I find myself looking in the classified section at the boats for sale. I suspect another yacht isn’t far away. The images and memories that are alluring include being tucked up in the corner of a bay at anchor, swimming off the back of the boat, or the smell of bacon and eggs wafting across the water at breakfast time. The desire for a long ocean passage is no longer there. Rather it’s the sense of being ‘placed’ in the familiar, in the bays and islands of the Hauraki Gulf – places that reverberate with meaning and significance.

Mature appreciation or am I just getting old?

I now live in the small landlocked town of Cambridge, a twenty minute drive from the university. The closest ocean is just over an hour’s drive east or west but I have the Waikato River running through town whenever I need a dose of water. I am enjoying discovering the river and sharing time on it with my students as part of their fieldwork.

I no longer have a great desire to sail offshore. Thoughts of cruising closer to home, revisiting the places that are etched in my memory, and sharing the delights of boating with my partner and her children are far more appealing. The lure of the sea and the desire to participate in other outdoor activities is still there. However, how I engage in them has changed over time and in some ways reflects my changing perspectives of outdoor education. Gone are the days of trying to prove myself in the outdoors by kayaking over a technical drop, scaring myself witless on a poorly protected rock climb, or crossing oceans. Perhaps I am getting old (well I know I’m getting older) or maybe it is a realisation that the thrill of personal risk-taking is inconsequential compared to larger issues facing society. Issues such as ecological degradation, educating in a manner which promotes pride in mastery, authentic choices and decision-making, connecting learners with their community and understanding who they are is more challenging, and possibly more beneficial in the long term, than providing quick fix fun activities in the outdoors.

The things that used to drive me and provide a buzz have changed. Taking my time, understanding my companions, and thinking about the educational significance of what it is I’m trying to achieve are the new challenges. How do I introduce new students, or for that matter friends and their children, to the outdoors? Do I push them outside their comfort zone so that they will learn? Do I make sure they are completely worn out at the end of the day so that they realise that they are capable of more than they imagine? How do you engender a love for the outdoors in the young? I’m sure there are many parents and grandparents who instinctively know the answer (just go to any wharf and watch the intergenerational transmission of knowledge through fishing). I am particularly interested in the education in outdoor education, for I fear it is overlooked in many courses that have a heavy focus on skill acquisition and adventure. There are many good providers of skill training and the acquisition of skills and the pleasure in competent performance is to be celebrated. But what is that skill and competence for? Is it merely to develop a sense of individual achievement or give a person the skills to lead an active, outdoor life (important as these things may be)? Can, or should, outdoor education experiences be about more than this?

As a young practitioner I would have claimed that outdoor education consisted of a series of activities or perhaps, in more contemplative mood, I might have suggested it was a teaching methodology involving reflection on experience. Yet I now find that simple descriptions and formulaic approaches fail to do justice to the complexity of life, nor do they help in answering the question about what constitutes a meaningful life.

I frequently think back on working with students at Monash University (on the ropes course, for example). I sometimes felt like I was looking through a window at an image of myself at their age – gung-ho and keen to be seen as the outdoor guru. What always amused me was the manner in which many of the students would, after the first session, purchase their own equipment. They did this in spite of the university having its own store of near-new equipment that they could freely access. On the second or third session the ‘arms race’ was in full swing: who had the latest helmet, most colourful harness, most gear clanging on their gear loops (much of it irrelevant), and who had the biggest rescue knife? They, like many of us, had contracted the virus of outdoor consumerism, a bug that led invariably to the incurable condition of ‘gear freak-itis’. Technology and the look of being a real outdoor instructor had subsumed the role of the educator. I sometimes ponder what image outdoor educators convey to their students, with their rescue kit, technical jargon and well-practiced banter? Sometimes this image seems to be saying: ‘This is risky business – but look at me I’m kitted out for scaling cliffs and rescuing you from certain calamity!’

Where once I would have uncritically bought into this discourse, I am now a little more circumspect. What message does this send about power and knowledge? About who knows best? How egalitarian is our profession? The focus on technical competence is based on certain notions of how people learn, the necessity for risk, and creating an image of otherness. But is this what outdoor education should be about? These are questions we hope to discuss and stimulate reflection on in this book.

Although neither Michael King nor Geoff Park were necessarily concerned with outdoor education pedagogy their insights into the importance of connections to land and belonging have enriched my understanding at both a personal and a professional level. I’m not entirely sure why I took King’s book overseas with me all those years ago, or why Park’s simple statement that ‘place is a fundamental human need’ triggered a series of events that sees me sitting here now. Perhaps part of the answer lies in King’s later statement that ‘The most profound satisfactions are to be found in living a life in accord with the natural world, exercising the human capacity for friendship and altruism, engaging in creative and purposeful activity, and allegiance to one’s origins’ (1999, 240). I have been drawn home because of a realisation that who I am is intimately connected to where I am – something which Māori, and other indigenous peoples, have never forgotten. The waters of the Hauraki Gulf, the motion of a boat at anchor, and the contours of the land are not only embedded in my memory, they form part of who I am.

The outdoor environment, the land and seascape of my home provide more than a background to action, be it kayaking, mountain bike or sailing. Viewing the outdoors as merely a site for activity overlooks the historical, cultural, ecological particularities that make a place what it is. It also diminishes opportunities to connect with place(s) and display care and empathy. An adventure ethos, with a focus on activities risks consuming and commodifying places as spaces that are irrelevant except for the resource that they offer (e.g. rapid, climbing crag, peak to bag). In so doing it limits opportunities for people to understand who they are in relation to place and how changes to places impact on individuals and communities. Part of what we are advocating is a localised, modest approach to educating in the outdoors. Understanding what is available locally takes time and effort and requires responsiveness to place and people. In an effort to promote that approach we feel it has been important in this chapter to locate who we are and how we got to be here.


So now you know a little more about each of us as the authors of this book. You might be thinking that, given our backgrounds, it’s a bit ironic or even hypocritical that we are suggesting that outdoor educators should place less emphasis on adventure and focus on something else. If so, good. It shows that you are already critiquing the argument we are presenting. But we hope you will bear with us. We are not suggesting that outdoor educators need to abandon all of the ideas, ideals and practices that have brought us to where we are today – a robust, professional and vital part of a young person’s overall education. But we are suggesting that it is necessary to adapt to the changing needs of learners and the communities and places where they live and learn. Rather than becoming entrenched within a set of beliefs and practices that have, in many instances, been imported from abroad, we are advocating careful reflection on local conditions and opportunities. We are encouraging a considered pedagogic exploration of both new and renewed versions of practice. This involves a kind of light-footedness – an ability to tread lightly on the local land and in the local community. It involves a willingness to ‘sniff the winds of change’ in our changing world, and to react. To do this requires educators to have a genuine interest in the places where they live and work. Such an approach might involve giving up on some of the grander visions of outdoor education, and accepting a more humble path ahead. This begins, we feel, in a critical appraisal of some of the philosophical and pedagogic foundations that outdoor educators may hold most dear. For, as we hope to show, much of this bedrock of our profession may well be very shaky ground.

Cite this chapter as: Wattchow, Brian and Brown, Mike. 2011. ‘Personal Narratives: A Place to Start’, in A Pedagogy of Place: Outdoor Education for a Changing World, Wattchow, Brian and Brown, Mike. Melbourne: Monash University Publishing. pp. 1–25.

© Copyright 2011
All rights reserved. Apart from any uses permitted by Australia’s Copyright Act 1968, no part of this book may be reproduced by any process without prior written permission from the copyright owners. Inquiries should be directed to the publisher, Monash University Publishing.

A Pedagogy of Place

   by Brian Wattchow and Mike Brown