We have always shared our cities with nature—from magpies and remnant bushland to the fish in urban rivers. Yet in spite of this, and a long tradition of nature study and environmental education in Australia, fears that city children are alienated from nature have intensified in recent years.
Using interviews and works from environmental advocates, Associate Professor Andrea Gaynor explores the changing role of urban nature in Australian children's experiences and education from the mid-1960s to the 1990s.
Andrea Gaynor is the 2019 National Library of Australia Fellow supported in memory of Averill Edwards.
Image: Andrea Gaynor
Fellowship Presentation: The Wild Next Door
*Speakers: Marie-Louise Ayres (M), Andrea Gaynor (A)
*Location: National Library of Australia
M: Good evening and welcome to the National Library of Australia. I’m Marie-Louise Ayres, the Director General of the Library. Before we begin I acknowledge and celebrate and the first Australians on whose traditional lands we meet and particularly in NAIDOC Week pay my respects to the elders of the Ngunawal and Ngambri people past and present and thank them for the generosity that they have shown in recent years as we aim to understand the parts of their culture that is held here in this collection.
It’s my great pleasure to introduce Associate Professor Andrea Gaynor who is one of five fellows currently with us so it’s a full house in the fellowships room at the moment who have braved a Canberra winter, who are thriving on a Canberra winter to pursue their research into what is an incredibly diverse range of topics. For regular attendees you’ll have heard how important the fellowships are to the Library. As caretakers of a vast collection of materials, artefacts and history we acknowledge and embrace our duty to make it accessible and available to the public. Scholars, researchers, artists and the community all bring new perspectives and take away new knowledge when they use a collection and events like tonight’s give us all just a little chance to share in very diverse discoveries.
For this we thank our many supporters of the fellowships program. As you may be aware Andrea’s fellowship is supported by the family of our dear former colleague, Avril Edwards. I’m delighted that Avril’s sister, Juliana, is with us this evening to discover how the fellowship has supported Andrea’s research. Now time and space is a wonderful gift for a researcher and on behalf of the Library I’d like to thank Avril’s family for their support and generosity because this has allowed Andrea to travel to Canberra from Perth where she lectures in Australian history at the University of Western Australia.
As an environmental historian Andrea has successfully merged lifelong interests in literature, the environment and social justice. Since completing her PhD in 2001 Andrea has been challenging what is often an historical focus on a sense of nature as something remote and out there by exploring our encounters with urban environments. This is very appropriate to do in Canberra, I think, at the moment.
In addition to her research with a range of organisations including the West Australian Department of Parks and Wildlife, Western Power and World Wildlife Foundation Australia she has collaborated with colleagues across the arts and sciences disciplines and is an active member of a number of environmental history groups.
Like many of our fellows Andrea’s work contributes to a wider agenda in which she seeks to understand the relationships between people and nature over time in modern cities. With the natural environment shrinking and changing her research becomes even more critical as it ultimately aims to inform current urban greening, conservation, restoration projects and policy and all of the intersections that are around people and environments.
Now when I saw Andrea’s application coming through the Fellowships Advisory Committee I was immediately intrigued because I was one of those many people who reflected on hearing things all the time about children not playing outside anymore and thinking back to my own very free-range childhood and even the things that we’re now hearing about schools intentionally reintroducing risk into playgrounds, about all those Scandinavian preschools where tiny tots are outside all of the time all days of the year. So I think there’s something in the wind at the moment about how we feel about children and urban environments, natural environments in particular and I hope that we’re going to hear tonight that while our engagement with nature may be changing it still exists and the antecedents for some of the things that Andrea’s interested in now go back in time.
Andrea’s really interested in the changing perspectives on the value of urban nature for children. To gain insight into this area she’s been investigating a really wide range of the Library’s collection. Papers including those of writer, filmmaker and conservationist, Vincent Serventy, naturalist, photographer and writer, Densey Clyne, naturalist, author and teacher, Alan Reid. She’s also been very busy seeking out what is quite rare in all archival collections around the world and that is children’s voices, whether they’re in our print collection or in archival collections and along the way she’s been using maps and other materials to understand children’s ongoing interaction with nature. So please welcome Andrea to tell us about her research.
A: Thanks very much for that warm welcome, Marie-Louise. I’d also like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people as the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet today, to acknowledge that they never ceded sovereignty and to pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging. I’d also like to warmly welcome those people who are listening online.
In 2005 American author, Richard Louv, published Last Child in the Woods, a book describing how American children were spending less time in nature with dire consequences for their health and wellbeing. This lack of contact with the natural world was leading to what Louv termed nature deficit disorder involving negative moods, behavioural problems and reduced attention spans. A follow-up book details the benefits of vitamin N or vitamin nature. Louv subsequently established a US-based children and nature network with a catchcry no child left inside, building on the no child left behind program of the Bush administration.
In Australia Louv’s book and related work has spawned a range of initiatives from adventure playgrounds and bush schools to a nature play network with branches in each state and territory. While it’s hard to see the downside of such initiatives it strikes me that the movement is lacking in historical context beyond a generalised narrative about the decline of nature and children’s access to it. Now there is of course a great deal of truth in that story, studies in the US and UK have shown that as children’s urban independence – have shown that urban children’s independence and freedom to roam including within wild places has been dramatically reduced within just three to four generations.
In Australia which has been urbanising rapidly over the same period the contrast is probably even more dramatic. Certainly the National Library’s holdings of school and local histories provide abundant evidence that Australian children had greater freedom to roam and greater outdoor time even 20 years ago than now. Research in sociology and geography tells us that the causes of the change are multidimensional including the increase in car traffic, parental anxiety and the increase in scheduled activities out of school time.
However as an environmental historian I come to the issue with different questions and perspectives. Fears about the loss of natural childhood occur of course in a wider historical context and cultural geographer, Affrica Taylor, has shown how this kind of anxiety goes back at least to 18th century French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. So for more than 300 years Western societies have been periodically declaring the innocence of natural childhood to be threatened, usually by new forms of communication so for Rousseau it was books.
Now Taylor makes a compelling argument for the problematic nature of a romantic conceptualisation of the special relationship between children and nature. She shows how this nature’s child [conceit] 10:05, although very cute, has unhelpfully reproduced a nature culture divide, the fantasy that there are separate human and cultural – I mean and natural worlds, and that this kind of discourse romanticises and essentialises children as well. She argues that rather than focusing on knowing about nature or even knowing in nature we should be working at knowing with nature.
So this evening I want to take this kind of insight into the past, to look at how different generations of children in urban and urbanising areas in Australia have related to the natural world and also the consequences of these changing relations including those produced within formal education. I also want to consider how this can help us in thinking about and maybe even planning for children in nature in cities of the future. Although I’ll be focusing on the second half of the 20th century I can’t help but sneak a look back to the first half to put those later developments in context. It’s the historian’s curse, right?
So Australia was an urban nation from early in its settler history. By 1911 most settler Australians, of which there were 58%, lived in urban areas with fully 38% living in capital cities so this meant that settler children were living in the city – most settler children were living in the city, growing up without the imagined rigour or risks of daily contact with the bush.
Now cities at this time were commonly seen as sites of moral and physical degeneration and there was widespread agreement that country life was more healthy, moral and productive than city life. However in spite of the ubiquitous imagery of grey laneways and delinquent urchins we shouldn’t imagine that city children had no opportunities for everyday intimate contact with wild nature. Depending on their location there were often wild areas that for one reason or another were not subject to urban development, places that were too swampy, too steep, too inaccessible because they lay between railway and tram networks. Places that weren’t sufficiently cheap nature, to use Jason More’s term. Then there were the places that were reserved or subject to speculation around human future use.
In spite of efforts to tame and subdue it wildness remains throughout the urban landscape in the form of birds, tees, ants, frogs, possums, foxes and snakes as well as the more elemental wildness of fires and floods. I love this image here of children canoeing on a flooded street in Jolimont in Perth.
So children’s interactions with this wildness were shaped not only by the forms it took but also by the children’s race, gender and class which constrained their movements in expected behaviour in different ways. Settler boys, for example, often being granted more freedom to roam than girls.
Urban nature was also part of nature study which was introduced into at least some Australian schools around the turn of the century. It was part of a broader educational reform movement known as new education, a progressive education agenda in the Anglo world revolving around capacity-building and citizenship rather than rote learning.
So nature study sought to cultivate a deep understanding and appreciation of the natural world through personal contacts and experience. Experience was extremely important. It was a reaction against what was perceived to be a narrow, impersonal and abstracted teaching of science in particular.
So historian, Thomas Dunlap, links the rise of nature study to the nostalgia for rural life associated with urbanisation and industrialisation. There were certainly fears even in the early 20th century that city children wouldn’t know where their food came from or the names for birds and trees. So we think of these kinds of anxieties as very recent but in fact they have a long tradition and we’re involved in these early nature study initiatives.
As American nature study advocate, Liberty Hyde Bailey, put it, and he was the author of this influential book, in city or country or on the sea nature is the surrounding condition, it is the universal environment. So nature study could be undertaken in cities and this was one of its strengths, was its adaptability.
So advocates like Bailey placed faith in contact with common nearby nature to restore an emotional and moral as well intellectual connection with what they understood as the natural world. Nature study would enable greater harmony with nature and by implication sort of foster and encourage a conservation orientation among the children.
Now the first major nature study textbook in Australia produced by John Albert Leach in 1922 defined nature study concisely as, quote, a process whereby common things and events acquire a meaning. So the meaning of apples for example was to do with the scattering of seeds. Common things also acquired meaning through naming and a key aim of Leach’s approach was to ensure that children acquired a vocabulary of nature, essential for them to be able to bring nature into their social worlds. So this is a page out of Leach’s book where you can see everything is carefully identified and also sketched in a rather lovely way.
Though occupying only an hour a week Leach had high hopes for the subject, it would produce ideal imperial and national citizens, self-educating them with superior powers of observation and reasoning. It would provide education for leisure, particularly for the working class because, as Leach put it, individuals with a love for bird, flower and open fields shunned street corners. So a very particular idea of nature and where it’s found here and who should be engaging in its study.
In light of what Leach calls the increasing, quote, strain and tension of city life – remember this is 1922 – it would also, quote, relieve tension by enticing city dwellers to the country, Leach wrote. The weekend habit is already a feature of modern life. Hundreds of city toilers and professional men pay weekend with visits to the country. Back to nature is their cry. So here are some of them, possibly also a city woman in the foreground there picnicking at Royal National Park near Sydney in 1925.
But already you can see in 1922 we come across what’s one of the enduring tensions within nature study between the ideal that nature can be found everywhere and the notion that real nature can only be found with the assistance of a train or increasingly an automobile.
Another nature study textbook published in Sydney in 1934 took the idea of nature everywhere to extremes. Here wildness could be found and curiosity cultivated in the most unlikely places. So we see they looked at the incinerator which attracted a particular kind of visitor, animals, birds, dogs and the chief among insects being the fly. The one I like the best though is the jockey or redback spider which may be bred out by placing the egg balls in a glass jar so this really tells us something about different approaches to risk between the 1930s and the contemporary age. I can’t imagine any schools these days breeding redback spiders in a jar even should it be fitted with a screwcap lid.
So nature study presupposed a conventional settler relationship with nature involving separation between human domestic and natural worlds although they are blurred in the school ground in this case. But for some children urban bushland was home. This was the case for some families evicted from their homes during the great depression, for example, who lived in camps in remnant bushland, in parks along rivers and beside wetlands or at the urban fringe, and the Aboriginal people encamped in such places on a longer-term basis. Work by Denise Cook, Heather Goodall and Allison Cadzow provides insights into the often precarious lives of Aboriginal people including children living in bushland camps and near rivers in Perth and Sydney respectively.
While some middleclass parents and white parents and teachers saw their children as too removed from nature Aboriginal children’s increased access to the urban wild nature was a corollary of inadequate housing and widespread discrimination and of course it did nothing to structurally remediate the situation although it did provide opportunity for a form of escape from those conditions and also for indigenous people to pass on cultural knowledge.
Formal nature studies in this period rarely mentioned Aboriginal people. Perhaps in passing a discussion of nardoo or bogong moths might indicate that these were valued indigenous foods however this was generally done in a way that suggested that these practices were lost traditions. As such nature study is also a settler discourse that worked to marginalise Aboriginal people and knowledge, at best overlooking settler privilege and the illegitimacy of claims to Aboriginal country. It’s only much later in the 1990s to 2000s that Aboriginal knowledge and understandings are valued within environmental education which as I’ll discuss is kind of the successor to nature study.
Now another branch of nature-orientated activity for children spanning the 20th century involved the Gould League. Now the Gould League was instigated by a Victorian state school teacher, Jessie McMichael, who in 1908 suggested that a society should be formed similar to the Junior [Ordiwan] 19:24 Society of America in order to arouse Victorian children’s interest in birds. The idea took root and at a meeting that involved representatives from the Education Department, the Royal Australian Ornithologists’ Union and prominent naturalists in Victoria the League was established.
Its aims were to build up a community that would from personal experience – again emphasising experience – fully recognise the economic as well as the aesthetic value of birds and so would voluntarily protect them. Children joined by paying a penny and taking a pledge to protect native birds and not collect their eggs and also prevent others from injuring native birds and destroying their eggs.
So it was launched on the first bird day in Australia, 29th of October 1909. It enrolled 25,000 members in its first year and they would have received a certificate, something like this. So it grew very quickly. Gould Leagues were subsequently established in other states. By the end of 1952 the membership of the Victorian League alone stood at over 300,000 and mostly children.
In 1948 the Victorian League inaugurated an annual magazine, The Bird Lover and I just love this cover from 1951 which really sets the tone for the early issues’ interest in very mundane, very everyday kind of nature. So here we have the noble Silver Gum. Running through to 1971 The Bird Lover tapped into schoolchildren’s flourishing interest in birds, encouraged by enthusiastic teachers in a range of city and country schools. I should add here that it wasn’t widespread across Victoria, not all schools were Gould League members or enthusiasts and it tended to flourish most where you had an individual teacher who really worked on it and developed it with the students.
But I want to argue here that the Gould League was different to conventional nature study. Although it was framed in similar ways and much of its literature was conventional natural history among its diverse practices were habits of observation and accommodation that encouraged children to collectively and individually develop sustained, ongoing and intimate relationships with local birds. The first few issues of The Bird Lover are dominated by contributions from adults but increasingly the pages feature contributions from child members of the League so these form part of those rare and revealing insights that Marie-Louise referred to earlier.
Some of these were most likely submitted for publication at the behest of teachers ‘though many are notes and observations from the bird clubs that children ran, usually by themselves and at their schools. They included drawings and paintings, observations, essays and poems as well as reports on League meetings and excursions.
Now children’s contributions in the late 1940s and early 1950s tend to be quite descriptive accounts of bird behaviour, an exercise in empathy that might involve implicit comparison between bird and human habits. For example in 1951 B Eye, Camberwell South described the process by which a white-plumed honeyeater and pallid cuckoo came to sit together on the clothesline as foster parent and youngster. They were quite non-judgemental about the activities of the cuckoo.
Others reveal the sensory intimacy of close observation. For example in 1952 when the Dandenong Primary School Bird Club wrote that, quote, six swallows were seen near the cow bales. We could hear their beaks snap as they swooped down and caught flies and other insects. Isn’t that lovely?
Now you’re probably wondering why I’m talking about Dandenong when at this time it wasn’t in any real sense urban but a small country town just south-east of Melbourne and this is because it’s an excellent case study in the engulfment of a rural area by the spreading suburbs and at the same time The Bird Lover provides scant but important evidence of how that was experienced, that process of engulfment was experienced by children writing about the more than human world. So for those who aren’t familiar with the geography of Melbourne Dandenong is the red point down on the southeast there.
In 1945 it looked like this, it was a small centre in which farmland was just a few streets from the middle of town. A somewhat deforested creek meanders around the south and east of the settlement so that’s Dandenong Creek running through there and that’s the centre of Dandenong city or Dandenong town as it was then. In December 1952 we can see the advancing suburbanisation of Noble Park to the northeast here and we also have a flavour of at least some parts of the creek from this souvenir booklet from the 1950s. So from the air it looks like it’s quite sparse but in fact it did provide sufficient habitat vegetation for a range of birds and for kinds of discovery by children and others.
While I wasn’t able to locate any aerial photographs from the 1960s this real estate poster from around 1961 gives a feel for the anticipated transformation. So you can see there it’s promoting the certainty of big profits for present buyers because the population is spreading. This is an area that is about to become urban so you can buy now and capitalise on the rising values of your block. By 1975 Dandenong had all but been engulfed by Melbourne so we can see the contrast between the 1950s and the 1970s, it’s a really quite rapid process of change.
So let’s go back though to the 1950s. At this time children from Dandenong submitted observations and studies for publication in The Bird Lover and one of these was a 1957 study of spur-winged plovers by two of the grade 3’s club’s chief observers, Linton Hayes and Noel Mitchell. It begins, down near my home by Hammond Road are many spur-winged plovers. I’ve been watching them for the last month. The next observation is, today I was very close to the quarry where they live. This quarry is really a rubbish tip and the plovers live in the rough, pebbly ground around it. Unperturbed by this less than bucolic habitat the young authors then go on to describe the nesting habits of the plovers and how they feed, raise and protect their young.
The following year The Bird Lover featured two observations – two pages of observations, rather, from the grade 4 bird club at Dandenong so the same cohort of children which included more on the plovers as well as albino starlings, kookaburras, gold finches, scarlet honeyeaters, redcap robins, mistletoe birds, swallows, yellow robins, brush bottle birds and mudlarks. Most were recorded in a spirit of scientific inquiry ‘though attachment creeps in. For example in Kevin Brown’s reflection on the gold finches, I love to hear their twittering as they fly among the tall thistles. Thistles, mind you. Another item noted that in Dandenong there is a caged bird club and the members of the Gould League are not going to join it. It is cruel to have caged birds and they should be set free. So they had very definite ideas about these things.
The wild birds are understood as part of the local community. The two scarlet honeyeaters are seen on a grevillea in Ronald Street, the redcap robin in a low bush at the back of our place, the mudlarks in school grounds and the mistletoe birds down the park. While there are threats from cuckoos and butcher birds to flooding these are seen as part of great cycles of life and death. Just a few years later however things start to change.
In 1959 there’s still an acceptance that people and nature coexist in relation to each other or with each other. One observation from that year starts, down near the Hines factory I often see blue herons standing in the swampy ground, and finished, the herons walk very stately in the factory grounds, perhaps they are copying the Hines aristocrats, the factory’s marching girls.
One student notes the yellow-breasted robin’s resourcefulness in using pieces of newspaper in its nest. But among the usual non-judgemental observations of the local kookaburras, starlings and seagulls was this story apparently from the whole 4A class at Dandenong State School. I actually truncated the story for purposes of time but they basically talk about how a farmer established a sanctuary on his land but it was now being encroached upon by suburban development. It finishes, we notice that bird life is getting scarce as the land is being used for houses. We could well do with a sanctuary. Why should we have to go to Healesville to see our birds?
Many of the observations from subsequent years continued to reflect a spirit of scientific inquiry in which bird behaviour is observed and its meaning speculated upon. Increasingly however the observations are not from the local district but further afield, starting with we went for a drive. There is gradually increasing awareness of ecological deterioration. In 1964 Jennifer Leach, then attending St Mary’s Primary School in Dandenong, wrote a feature on the rufous whistler, concluding with a sense of loss amid the everyday suburban landscape. I quote, as the housing spreads we have to go further into the gullies to hear the rufous whistler but this year I saw one on an acacia by the banks of the Dandenong Creek behind the football ground. So this is a pertinent observation. In the context of urbanisation birds are generally categorised as urban exploiters, urban adapters or urban avoiders and the rufous whistler is indeed an urban avoider.
So among at least some of the children there was an awareness of the consequences of urbanisation and a sense of sadness and anger at the loss of famliars, our birds, ‘though this had alongside an ongoing interest, even delight in the local birds that remained, be they kookaburras, starlings or white-plumed honeyeaters. There were also more observations from places further afield, from holiday houses, from visits to country relatives or just drives to nearby national parks or nature reserves. The increasing mobility, while providing opportunities to see different species, could not compensate I think for the loss of local birds with which to develop close and sustained relationships.
While an awareness of the effect of pesticides on bird life becomes evident in the 1960s what we now recognise as environmentalist perspectives emerge forcefully, indeed quite dramatically in the 1970s. The foreword to the 1971 Bird Lover, and I’ve just changed the scene here to the 1975 overhead, described how in the face of urban expansion it’s important to maintain, quote, quiet country places not only for the bird life but for our own health. So here nature is located firmly in the country, not in the city.
Now this volume includes student contributions on DDT and on pollution. One particularly apocalyptic piece came from Alan Thompson, a student from an industrial suburb in Melbourne’s west, envisaging a future in which air pollution led to the demise of bird life. He wrote, scattered bodies covered the stinking streets and while you were staggering drunkenly you were loosely attempting to dodge dead animals. A very vivid apocalyptic imagination of a future.
In the same issue the St Gerard’s Dandenong North Bird Club reported that they were studying the birds on their school ground, and planting trees so doing local work but they also suggested that members could go to church or park, Dandenong Creek or Frankston, quote, to get photos of where birds live and that parents would be able to drive five or six children from all upper grades to these places to get photographs.
So in the space of fewer than two decades the imagination and experience of nature for Dandenong children had been ruptured. Once an enduring local otherness it was increasingly objectified with local nature seen as lost or vulnerable and value increasingly placed in more remote unsullied places. Alongside these changes however relationships with the nonhuman urban adapters continued.
Now over this period Dandenong was a solidly working class Labor-voting place so it’s interesting to contrast the experiences and perceptions of Dandenong children with those of the Hawthorn Junior Field Naturalists’ Club. Based in Melbourne’s established middle ring north-eastern suburbs the origins of the club date back to 1943 when it was established as a subgroup of the Victorian Field Naturalists. The National Library holds a near complete set of the Hawthorn Junior’s newsletter, The Junior Naturalist, from its first issue in 1965 to 1997 and the publication subsequently continued and is now online after the Hawthorn Juniors became the Melbourne Juniors.
In the 1960s the Hawthorn Juniors met every second Friday of the month. The youngest member was three years old but most – the most numerous and active members were in their early to mid-teens. Most came from the middleclass eastern suburbs. From 1968 the Juniors chaired the meetings and throughout this period they were responsible for organising all of the content for the newsletter and compiling and producing it.
Now I don’t have time tonight unfortunately to talk about the Hawthorn Juniors in detail but a survey of their newsletters reveals as in Dandenong an emerging emphasis on finding nature outside the city. From the increasing role of camps outside the metropolitan area to reports from individual children on family holidays in distant and iconic nature tourism destinations. However the newsletters also reveal, as in Dandenong, an ongoing parallel interest in and engagement with nearby nature through shortrange excursions and local observations.
So while the Hawthorn Juniors are more outward-looking and mobile, like the Dandenong children they keep turning back to local nature too. As urban populations grew some of this local nature was increasingly threatened by development but from the 1970s Australian suburbanites were becoming more self-reflexively aware of the value of nearby nature. We find abundant evidence for this in the collections of the National Library and in particular the papers of Vincent Serventy.
Serventy was a high-profile naturalist, educator and author originally from Western Australia who moved to Sydney and became somewhat of a hub for environmental causes and policies from the 1970s. His papers, which run to more than 66m, are a treasure trove of information on all things environmental and include correspondence and subject folders so you can imagine my delight when I came across this one entitled, Wild City, Conservation, The Future.
They show that from the early 1980s in Sydney at least there was a flourishing of interest in urban wildlife, bushland conservation and open space protection pursued by a range of organisations from the Total Environment Centre to the National Trust of New South Wales and manifold Friends of groups and I have to say I love that terminology of friends of a particular piece of bushland and the kind of cross-nature culture relationships that it implies.
They show that – sorry, Serventy’s papers also shed light on high-profile conflicts over urban bushland and wetland from Kelly’s Bush in Hunter’s Hill on Sydney’s north shore to the various clashes around the Beeliar Wetlands in the southern suburbs of Perth. In almost every case arguments were made that urban bushland should be preserved for children’s education and recreation and often today they are indeed used in this way. I think it’s important to recognise that the urban bushland estate in Australian cities has by and large been hard won.
Another prominent Australian who valued urban wild places, from unkempt backyards to bushland reserves was Densey Clyne who recently passed away at the age of 96. Born in 1922 in Wales Clyne migrated to New Zealand at the age of three and then Newcastle in Australia at the age of 10. An autodidact she received very little formal schooling. She began nature writing as a teenager and was published in the children’s pages of national newspapers, winning small awards. She later had a column in The Sydney Morning Herald on observations of suburban nature which were later turned into these two books, Wildlife in the Suburbs in 1982 and More Wildlife in the Suburbs in 1984.
So Clyne was really a pioneering figure in the – what’s become a flourishing genre of nature in your backyard-type publications. The National Library carries many of Clyne’s publications including works for children such as these from the Nature City, series of 1982 and these from Densey Clyne’s Small World series of the mid-1990s, both suitable for sort of mid-primary children that combine her text with her macrophotography.
Now the writing is very personal including the first person to describe Clyne’s own wildlife encounters ‘though plants and nonhuman animals are placed at the centre of these stories and readers inhabit their worlds. Clyne uses humour to create a sociability with nature and her insistence on introducing special terms meant that children could, at least in theory, draw the particular features and habits of nonhumans into their own social worlds. Clyne famously developed macrophotography techniques and used them on small animals, mostly spiders and insects but also frogs, reptiles and carnivorous plants and these enabled us to fully appreciate the remarkable difference of the small wildlife around us. Having seen images like these children wouldn’t look at spiders in quite the same way again.
In an increasingly visual age such images, both still and on television, arguably changed the way we looked at and regarded these more diminutive members of the more than human world. Having learned to look closely Clyne insisted on framing the world as one of ubiquitous life in which humans were but one part. Through her intimate work with small creatures she came to regard herself as, quote, a spokesperson and often apologist for the butterfly and the other insects and small creatures that share their planet with us.
In 1975 Clyne teamed up with cinematographer Jim Frasier to produce documentaries and the team was soon working with David Attenborough on his ground-breaking Life on Earth series. Clyne’s correspondence with Attenborough, undertaken sporadically between 1979 and 2014, is preserved in her papers at the National Library. While Clyne’s work was rarely overtly conservationist, in a letter written to Attenborough in 1980 Clyne revealed her belief that the conservation message is best written in the language of love. She felt that vivid and personal contact with nature would produce a change in attitudes resulting in the uptake of conservation values. Importantly, Clyne believed that these experiences could happen anywhere as she wrote in the opening lines of her introduction to Wildlife in the Suburbs. One thing I’ve learned is that you don’t have to go to exotic places to be excited and delighted by nature.
So how then did this kind of perspective relate to what was going on in the formal education sphere? The 1970s saw a transition from nature study to environmental education in the wake of the growing recognition of planetary crisis. In 1970 a small group of scientists convened a conference on education in the environmental crisis under the auspices of the Australian Academy of Science. Distinguished geneticist and Chair of the Australian National Committee for the International Biological Program, Sir Otto Frankel, noted that although some of the organising committee at first regarded the conference title as somewhat alarmist, quote, a truly critical state has been reached and alarm is becoming worldwide. This is 1970.
Schools were in a position of special responsibility to promote widespread understanding of our predicament and Stephen Boyden who was then head of the Urban Biology Group at ANU set out a list of matters to which environmental education should immediately attend. These included an awareness of the current serious threats to the wellbeing and survival of the species.
A flurry of activity on the environmental education scene followed. For example environmental education was recognised as a priority area for the Curriculum Development Centre established by Whitlam in 1973. There was movement internationally too. In 1974 the UNESCO UNEP International Environmental Education program was established and it began producing ideas and material that could then be taken up and adapted for different national contexts and local contexts.
Annette Greenall’s 1978 Environmental Education Teachers’ Handbook, one of the first Australian guides to appear, was explicitly directed at building an environmental consciousness to help address the increasing dismay and disillusionment at the sense of the environment so it was intended to be a positive kind of response to the feelings that were expressed for example by Alan Thompson in that early 1970s issue of The Bird Lover.
A central idea is that children would be involved and empowered in problem-solving through a multidisciplinary approach. The texts retained the old commitment of nature study to outdoor learning and we see one of the first forms of recognition I found that – about the threat posed to experience by television. However this kind of environmental education differed from nature study and seeking to engage children with the environment as I said of interrelated ecosystems and resources with man, and it was very much man in this time, at the centre. The more than human world is kind of externalised as an object on which we do problem-solving work. There’s little sense here of nature as a living world that we’re always in – kind of in tangled relation with.
But as always there was diversity in approaches to environmental education. For example there was more continuity with some facets of the old nature study regime in the 2001 New South Wales environmental education policy for schools which declared that, environmental education also has a spiritual focus, emphasising an emotional and sensitised response from people not only in their appreciation of the wonders of the natural world but making them feel at one with the environment.
Also like nature study however, environmental education for many years continued to lend weight to settler identity and denial of Aboriginal sovereignty. It also failed to tackle the problem of how society distributes environmental goods and risks or harm, that is, environmental justice.
What of the Gould League? In Victoria the League moved away from its focus on birds, shortening its name in 1967 to Gould League rather than Gould League of Bird Lovers to reflect a broader nature-based education agenda. By the 1970s it became a leader in the production of environmental education materials and Alan Reid’s papers here at the Library are an absolute treasure trove of late 20th century nature-based education ideas and material.
Echoing Stephen Boyden’s opening of the Australian Academy of Science conference or comments during the Australian Academy of Science conference the theme of the League’s publication in the 1970s was survival and included a range of urban-orientated survival themed materials encouraging urban children to engage and also delight in the local and everyday nature around them.
In the 1990s the emphasis within the League shifted again to sustainability. Ironically however the sustainability of the organisation itself was at stake. When government funding was withdrawn the future was looking bleak. It was bailed out quite surprisingly by a New South Wales Landcare organisation which reinvested in the operation. The Victorian League now continues to offer opportunities for school excursions and incursions. When the Department of Sustainability and Environment in Victoria closed the Toolangi Forest Discovery Centre and education program the Gould League took them over. Its current programs encouragingly include wildscape habitat and food gardening programs at disadvantaged schools with funding from the Department of Education.
In Western Australia, which followed a similar trajectory to Victoria until the 2000s, things are not looking so bright. After withdrawal of state government funding the Gould League in Western Australia has launched a crowdfunding campaign to help keep its Herdsman Lake Wildlife Centre open and support its environmental and indigenous education programs. The neo-Liberal agenda of rolling back state support for community organisations has undoubtedly diminished the capacity of such groups to do work that is arguably more important today than ever.
So in conclusion there’s so much more to say, there’s so many rich resources here and so much that I’ve seen and thought about and worked on but as we plough headlong into climate breakdown and the sixth great extinction we must face the crisis with humility, knowing that many committed people have done excellent work over generations to provide Australian urban kids with opportunities to situate themselves one way or another in a more than human world.
So this evening I’ve really touched on four different although overlapping historical possibilities for the role of urban nature in children’s education and experience. Most straightforwardly perhaps there's learning about nature then there’s education and experience in nature so this is what perhaps many of you would have experienced as children yourselves and certainly what Louv and the nature play movement is very occupied with now, the idea of being in nature for learning. Then there’s education and experience for nature so education and other forms of experience in order to produce a kind of conservation or environmentalist orientation. Finally education and experience with nature which is a more relational-type approach, acknowledging that there’s no external nature or at least experiencing that kind of interrelationship rather than separation. So I’d argue that there’s value in each of these.
In terms of learning about nature well this has been a principal objective of nature study and environmental education with informal school curricula and also of nature-based organisations like the Gould League. Science of course is a very important way of knowing about the world and to the extent that nature study and environmental education has fostered scientists who have helped us understand the needs and vulnerabilities of nonhuman nature and the human effects on it, that is of course a good thing.
This kind of learning has often been about more than science, though. Nature study in particular was ideally conducted across different learning domains including the study of literature and art although I think the evidence suggests that in many schools it defaulted to a kind of science curriculum.
This approach has also maintained concepts in terms that we humans need to bring nature into our social worlds. There’s a direct relationship between our vocabulary and our ability to both collectively and individually have ideas about things. This kind of objective is being pursued in the UK by Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris’ collaboration on The Lost Words which is a response to the Oxford Junior Dictionary’s removal of a wide range of nature-related words from that dictionary in 2007. They became the lost words.
Here in Australia, and with a more urban focus, we have a similar initiative run by a group of Melbourne-based scientists, the little things that run the city which very encouragingly includes an indigenous element. You can see here that the darkling beetle is given its indigenous name and they collaborated with the traditional owners of Melbourne in identifying these terms and incorporating this knowledge so I think that’s a kind of model collaboration there.
Then we have education and experience in nature which is the focus of Louv and the nature play movement. So the nature study movement emphasised the importance of experience in nature. Indeed there’s often a not so hidden subtext in nature study works that the whole thing is just a pretext to get out of the classroom. The science seems to be showing that this approach is indeed beneficial and indeed it doesn’t matter so much what is being done as long as it’s being done outdoors.
Now framing of the benefits of nature for humans in medical terms as Louv does with his concept of nature deficit disorder is obviously strategically useful. It’s hard for people to say no to health, to good health. However in the long run and in today’s neoliberal context it risks the further objectification and indeed commercialisation of the nonhuman world in order to develop human-centred spaces that fulfil the criteria for a dose of nature. There’s a contradiction here also in that a pattern of instrumental use-orientated approaches to nature has been an essential precondition of its overexploitation. It’s what has led us to the present crisis in many ways.
We also need to recognise that children’s access to nature has not historically addressed the disadvantage faced by Aboriginal communities and other marginalised groups although it has perhaps ameliorated it somewhat. More generally we could argue that all education and experience is in nature, there is no externalised nature devoid of culture so what is it then that makes us bundle up certain organisms and spaces, call them natural and pursue them? It’s now more than 20 years since environmental historian, William Cronon, elaborated, The Trouble with Wilderness. Cronon controversially argued that the concept of wilderness is a threat because it denies its own history, it encourages us to escape rather than work to find solutions to environmental problems, it reproduces the human nature divide and overlooks indigenous occupation and land management and nature knowledge and it makes us inclined to dismiss everyday local nature in favour of the grand sweeping landscapes of wilderness.
Over the period I’ve looked at we see some evidence of this increasing turn to wilderness or at least nature further afield, more dramatic, less humanised among those most concerned with the environment although curiously this has occurred in parallel with an increasing impetus towards caring for local, often somewhat battered and beleaguered urban environments.
So I think one takeaway message from tonight’s talk is that we need to fully abandon the cult of wilderness and the pursuit of novelty but seize those remote places valued over everyday social ones. We need to look after and extend hospitable places for nearby urban nature and properly support and value that work.
Nature – now I want to deal with 3 and 4, the education and experience for and with nature together because I think they’re very closely related. So nature study and environmental education have always had conservation and environmental responsibility as part of their respective goals so they’re for nature and they’ve pursued them in part through learning about nature and learning in it. It’s gratifying to see environmental education in Australia also finally starting to engage with indigenous perspectives and acknowledge their importance.
Now those who are calling for a return to nature study and intimate engagement with nature within school curricula need to recognise that while necessary it’s not sufficient for a more sustainable future. But in the pages of The Bird Lover and the other treasures held within the National Library we also see the possibility and potential rewards of experience with nature, the development of close and sustained relationships with the nonhuman wild others whose worlds we share.
I’d like to finish by thanking very much the National Library and the family of Avril Edwards and Juliana’s here today as Marie-Louise said. I’d like to also thank my fellow fellows, we’ve formed quite a group down there, we have great discussions and I think having several fellows in residence at once really amplifies the benefit of the fellowship program because we all really enjoy hearing about each other’s ideas and contributing to them. Also Emily Gallagher, Bernadette Hinze, Catriona Anderson and Paul Tranter and thank you to all of you for coming along. I look forward to your questions.
M: Thanks so much, Andrea, that was a wonderful – you just don’t know what’s in our collections, they’re wild things themselves that you’ve been exploring so – we definitely do have some time for questions. I’ll just remind you that if you want to ask a question please do put your hand up so that people who are actually listening online can hear your question so yes.
Au: Thank you. I found your presentation fascinating as a teacher now in English. I really like the idea of trying to incorporate nature into my classroom and am endeavouring to do more of that. Did you find though a lot of what you were talking about was younger students? I teach at a girls’ high school and I was wondering was there anything that came from the older students because technically they are still children even though they’re not the young ones.
A: Yeah, very good question. A lot of it was orientated towards primary school which I think fits with Taylor’s idea about the nature child. The more child you are, the smaller you are, the more natural you’re seen as being and the more natural your childhood should be and you become gradually socialised into a more humanised-type frame. That said, there were contributions in The Bird Lover from high school children, not as many as from the junior school children. The children who were involved in the Hawthorn Naturalist Club were high school children or there were - many of them were high school children, I think. Certainly environmental education splits between primary and high school. In the era of environmental education it becomes more formal and technical and certainly there is high school curriculum – like the national curriculum as you would be aware has a sustainability focus but it’s a cross-domain one and it’d be interesting to speak with you actually about how that goes because I suspect it gets lost.
I think there’s been a strong and completely laudable interdisciplinary orientation in a lot of this material going right back to the early days of nature study where they envisaged that it would be across the curriculum that nature study would be developed. So Bailey for example talks about the importance of working with real specimens and he says at one point, if I can’t have a real bobolink then I’d rather have the poem because that expresses the essence of the bobolink better than a drawing or a scale model.
But I think this has also made it quite difficult to incorporate it into the curriculum because if it’s everywhere it can very easily be nowhere and I think that has probably often been what’s happened. Sorry, that was a slightly rambling answer to your question there but – yeah.
Au: Thank you. I briefly remember being Vice Captain of my local Gould League when I was at primary school so just to say they were in the ACT. But look, my comment was just I think there’s some really interesting areas in this that can be actually dealt with about Canberra’s urban design history that is really quite unique to Australian urban design. Picking up on your first point about the learnings from your work that relate to design for urban spaces there’s a really rich area of study and interest around the way that the Canberra suburban landscapes were designed so that a child could have this very intimate connection with the bush and I mean certainly that was my experience. So in my own organisation we look at that too in our programming at Canberra Museum and Gallery and historic places but I’d – just to say that there’s a lot of interesting work from the NCDC in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s that I’ve seen that actually transcribes this into design practice.
A: Thanks very much for that. Yes, we’ve certainly discovered this while living in Canberra with my own research subjects here, little one and slightly bigger one. So that would be a terrific sort of case study to incorporate into my broader research agenda which is around people and urban wild nature in Australian cities more generally. Melbourne is a big focus there because of the way in which they’re trying to – they’ve got very active rewilding programs. I’m interested in Perth because unlike Melbourne it wasn’t so much of a greenfield – or a brownfield city so it’s been built largely on bushland rather than on agricultural land.
But Canberra would be an interesting case study again because of its later development in an era in which people had different attitudes towards or ideas about the environment or nature. Contrasting them and maybe even doing something to contrast outcomes among children in Canberra as opposed to different suburbs of Melbourne and Perth would form a really interesting historical study perhaps in collaboration with an actual educationalist scholar, maybe planner as well. It could be a really interesting interdisciplinary project. Thank you.
Au: Hi Andrea, thank you for your presentation. I just had a question. You mentioned at the start about structured activities and unstructured play and I was just wondering in those earlier references that you were talking about in the Gould League, whether you heard that voice of unstructured play coming through when kids were talking about where they went and where they hung out and if you could notice any changes when they were talking about driving to places or doing things. Was that a voice that was coming through or change?
A: It’s very difficult to get to those unstructured play experiences certainly outside of memoir so there are school magazines that – or school histories rather in which students, past students reflect on their childhoods and their play outside of school hours. But it’s something that they tend not to write much about whereas it’s the more directed kinds of engagement that you get through the formal education stuff and through the Gould League material. So I guess there are far more sources in the education domain than in the unstructured play domain. That’s really quite hard to get to. I have found some evidence of that. But I think in the case of the Gould League there’s a bit of crossover so the Gould League, the children are setting up clubs in the schools and they’re running their clubs and it’s so cute, you get minutes of the meetings that they hold where they pass a motion to go and ask the Principal if they can go and put a bird bath in the school grounds.
Yeah, it’s lovely to see them so organised and motivated. But I think that some of them are also – they decide to really take it on and it’s something that they do and it bleeds into their leisure time in a way and sometimes that then feeds back into what they write directly to The Bird Lover, directly to the Gould League or in their school time. So I think there is a little bit of crossover but much of the unstructured play stuff is really quite elusive.
Au: There’s a recent book called The New Wild, I think it’s Fred Pearce. Are you familiar with that?
Au: Okay so it’s not written about Australia, presumably he’s American and I have it in my pile, I haven’t read it yet but what he’s saying is if – I’m just wondering, it’s actually a question about attitudes to feral species and how that’s changed or how that’s influencing particularly now I guess I’m interested. He’s saying if they adapt really well, if they mix well and don’t cause problems then we should just accept that but he’s really looking - like that’s not something I see being talked about in Australia but it’s more if they’re doing well let’s like start appreciating the pigeons and things, not – yeah.
A: Yeah, that’s a really interesting one and I guess that’s part of what I was trying to say about the 1950s. It’s a lot more ecologically innocent in a way so if – students do write about pigeons, they write about all kinds of things. They write about starlings. I come from a state where we still shoot starlings at the border so I was quite surprised to see that they were treated with such acceptance, it was seen as okay to love these outside birds as well, these interlopers. It’s with the environmentalism of the 1970s that those species become persona non grata and are not accepted as readily.
It’s difficult insofar as say the rainbow lorikeets in Western Australia, they do take the habitat of the local birds but what are you going to do? What are you going to do about it? You can’t take them back, you can’t kick the kookaburras and the rainbow lorikeets out. They’re there so this is the new nature, this is the nature of the anthropocene we live in. I think that we need to be strategic about trying to ensure that there is sufficient habitat, that there’s space for the more beleaguered species as well. I’m not saying we should give up on blackberry eradication in certain places however in some places blackberries have been shown to be protective habitat for some native animals.
So we are starting to rethink the feral native kind of division and the values that we place on that and question why we value certain species over others and whether - our thinking about something’s feral or exotic therefore it’s bad, something’s good. I mean after all most of us have come from elsewhere, we’ve got cultures from elsewhere, the most introduced animals in Australia are sheep. We’re not questioning their right to belong but they’ve probably done a lot more damage than a lot of the animals we call so-called ferals.
M: Okay well I think we’ve run out of questions but I’m going to take a moment to say I'm sure that if there was a long-term study of the quality of children who grew up in Canberra bush would be better, okay? But listen, thank you very much for a wonderful talk tonight, Andrea, and I hope that you’ll be able to join us afterwards for further talk up in the lobby and refreshments. I hope you’ll also be able to come along to our next talk on the 17th of July when Dr Ashley Barnwell will be telling us about her research in our amazing collection of self-published family histories in search of secrets. So I think that will be a good one as well but please join me in thanking Andrea for a fantastic talk tonight so –
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