In the lap of nature

Chintan Girish Modi

What does the environmental studies curriculum in your school look like? Is it built around nurturing a bond with trees, animals, birds, and other life forms? Are students merely fed facts about greenhouse gases, ozone layer depletion, glacial melting, and soil erosion? Do they have opportunities to explore the outdoors, and participate in action-based projects? Is environmental studies a stand-alone subject, or is it woven into all the subjects taught?

In 2021, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) released an important open access publication titled Learn for our planet: A global review of how environmental issues are integrated in education. This document attempts to capture how biodiversity, climate change, sustainable development, and other environmental issues are reflected in the current education policies and curricula of 46 UN member states.

Through this study based on national curriculum frameworks and inputs from educators, the UNESCO learnt that “there is a continued focus on learning about climate and other environmental issues, as opposed to also developing the socio-emotional and action competences central for environmental and climate action.” Several respondents also revealed the absence of environment-related content in teacher training programmes.

While you may currently not be in a position to drive change at the national or international level, what can you do in your own school or classroom if you are dissatisfied with the environmental studies curriculum? The UNESCO notes that “holistic curriculum and pedagogy that engages across cognitive, socio-emotional, and action dimensions is critical for developing learners that are knowledgeable, competent, hopeful, and engaged.”

Lofty goals become more easily attainable when we renew our own connection with the subject we teach; our joy and enthusiasm can be felt by our students. If you are looking for a resource that might catalyse such an experience for you, consider reading forester and author Peter Wohlleben’s book The Heartbeat of Trees: Embracing our Ancient Bond with Forests and Nature. It has been translated from German into English by Jane Billinghurst.

This book will revitalize your spirit if you have been despairing about the severed connection between humans and nature. Wohlleben thinks that people today rarely see natural phenomena with a sense of wonder “not because our senses have atrophied…rather because of a strange philosophical and scientific worldview that erects unnecessary barriers between us and our fellow life-forms. Over here we have people, and over there we have nature.”

Do you agree? I do, to a large extent, because of the horrific manner in which human beings have plundered forests in the name of development. We exploit only when we fail to see interconnectedness and interdependence. We consider ourselves the pinnacle of evolution, so a sense of arrogance has set in. We think of other species largely in terms of what we can get from them, and we try to maximize our gains. We act without respect or responsibility.

Wohlleben’s book will hopefully change our blinkered view, and also our relationship with forests and nature at large. He is passionate about calling out humans for the destruction that we have caused but the book is far from being just a rant that runs into 264 pages. The author focuses on unravelling mysteries by posing simple questions and then answering them. He has a delightful writing style, which makes complex scientific concepts accessible.

The Heartbeat of Trees: Embracing our Ancient Bond with Forests and Nature
Author: Peter Wohlleben
Translator: Jane Billinghurst
Publisher: Viking
Year of publication: 2021
Price: Rs. 599
Pages: 264

If you grow tomato plants at home, and are curious about how they feel when they are stroked, Wohlleben clarifies that stroking them for a few minutes each day slows their upward growth and they divert their energy into growing thicker stems. “This, however, is not the plant saying it loves you, too, but rather the plant reacting to what it likely experiences as a breeze blowing by, because the wind elicits a similar response,” he writes.

As you turn the pages, you will find answers to a number of fascinating questions such as: Why do humans see the forest as green? How do trees communicate among themselves? What can spiders teach us about the electric fields that surround trees? How do fish detect the Earth’s magnetic field? Why can dogs sniff out many things much better than humans? How do trees disinfect their surroundings? Can plants differentiate types of music?

The author’s answers are based on either his observations in the forest or on the various scientific research studies that he has mentioned in the book. He names all the researchers and their institutional affiliations, so people can look them up. He also ensures that the information is not overwhelming; just enough to spark off curiosity, and satiate it to some extent, without getting into finer technical details that might be of value only to experts.

Wohlleben is critical of how sometimes forestry plays into the hands of powerful people who have no qualms about damaging the environment for immediate economic gains. They are not keen on seeing the big picture. He also seems aware that people cannot be shamed into being more prudent about the ways in which they use resources from nature. A smarter approach perhaps is to help them connect with nature so that they feel part of it.

This is best done at a young age but adults need to learn how to do it. The author writes, “On family outings, parents often caution their children to be quiet so as not to disturb the animals. That is, however, completely unnecessary. When animals hear people making noise, instead of getting stressed, they relax, because they realize right away that noisy people have no intention of hunting them. Hunters, after all, are silent when stalking their prey.”

Wohlleben shares that, when he facilitates tours for children, he asks them to yell as loudly as they can. The ones who are shy become less self-conscious during this exercise. According to him, this noise also calms down the animals in the forest because they are reassured that their human visitors are not threats. Besides, he tells children that they can get as dirty as they like because parents usually tend to make a fuss when clothes have dirt stains on them.

Sometimes, parents are worried because children might eat their lunch in the forest with dirty fingers. The author writes, “Is what we find on the forest floor really dirt? Of course not. It’s mineral-based soil combined with bits of humus – neither of which is poisonous or unhygienic.” He urges parents to join their children in digging around. Would you like to try this when you accompany students on a nature trail after the COVID-19 pandemic is over?

Wohlleben writes, “Children are wonderful teachers because they have no inhibitions about getting close to nature. If we manage to enjoy the forest as much as they do, perhaps that will help reinforce our tie to nature, which has become slightly worn of late.” When we feel connected, we will not need any external push to wake up and take swift action to reduce our carbon footprint. The motivation to conserve and coexist will come from within.

The reviewer is a Mumbai-based writer who enjoys hugging trees, watching sunsets, and listening to the sound of raindrops. He can be reached at [email protected].

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