Exploring Connections to Nature through Aboriginal Art – a book review


 “An opening twelve love stories about art.”

Authored by Stephanie Radok 2012; Published by Wakefield Press 2012 Kent Town, South Australia. ISBN 978 1 74305 041 5 (pbk.)

“Maybe some of us are made quite simply from the earth of one place, we taste strongly of one thing and belong to it. But most of us are made from many substances……. “ (Stephanie Radok pg ix)

This is a book that would appear on face value to be a book about art, however, it doesn’t take you many pages to discover that it is far more than that and that Stephanie Radok is surely  “made of many substances” ! These layers are revealed as she leads us on a journey through the seasons in the suburbs of Adelaide with herself and her dog. She thoughtfully and poetically shares her reflections on what it means to ‘belong’, what it means to be part of the natural world and what role art has to play in this relationship.  “… Art that draws our attention to the earth underlines the importance of the relationship between humans and nature. ….The correspondences between leaves and hands, trees and lungs, flowers and sex organs, affirm connection…..” (pg. 29)

As an art critic of Aboriginal Art for over 20 years Stephanie humbly speaks about emotions, experiences,  life and connections as these are what the art work has taught her about being human. She says: “What may be usefully learned .. may not be intricate facts or …indeed ..an inferiority complex  of being less spiritual or less connected  but rather … general principles and approaches to living.”  (pg4). She describes the way in which learning through art can be a participatory and experiential process as opposed to simply a passive, aesthetic interpretation: “ it is possible to respond to them (Aboriginal art) on an experiential level, joining your own experience of the earth , your knowledge about weather, land forms, plants , animals and life, to your experience of art, your acquaintance with and response to paint and patterns, texture, colour , drawing and surfaces. …the works also ask viewers to draw on what they already know about the world. “ (pg 96). This book itself does just that, I felt it drawing me in and asking me to reflect on what it means to be connected to the natural world.  It also had me thinking and searching my own experiences to find answers to her questions about being in wide open spaces  in the outback: “….liberation of the spirit, splendid forms – how are these things connected to wide open spaces? If the space is not thought of as empty, does that make it more or less spiritual..? Is such a space one in which you expand both metaphorically and actually as you feel your equivalence or kinship with cloud, rock and tree?” (pg 39)

This book is not written for just artists or even arty types, it is a book for those who ponder deep questions about life and belonging and nature.  It is a useful companion to practitioners and facilitators who provide the opportunity for people  to re-discover their place in the natural world and “to know which bit of the earth they come from” (pg 28).

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Connecting to land through collaborative ephemeral art, story and song

I had the pleasure today of attending a workshop hosted by Victorian Child and Nature Connection at the Royal Botanic Gardens (RBG) in Melbourne with the likes of three inspirational Aboriginal artists: William Barton, one of Australia’s leading didgeridoo players, Delmae Barton, Dreamtime opera singer, and Glenn Romanis, sculptor and visual artist. The reason for gathering – to explore the processes of connection, creation and collaboration to share the bond we feel to country.

IMG_2920Beginning with a smoking ceremony involving the burning of  leaves from the Wattle, Cherry Ballart and River Red Gum we were welcomed to the gardens, a traditional meeting place for the people of the Kulin Nation. The beat of our clapsticks and stamping of our feet developed a collective energy and feeling of group belonging that grew stronger as our morning of experiential activities unfolded.

The group divided and those of us who stayed on the oak lawns were mesmerised by the incredibly intricate sounds of Will’s Didgeridoo that captured the antics of a cheeky young kangaroo chasing its Will and Delmaemother through the bush. This morphed into a kind of rap beat with the equally cheeky humour of Will’s commentary mixed in between. The groups humble and somewhat embarrassing attempts at mimicking the sounds that this man could produce Didgeridoo or no Didgeridoo, only highlighted the immense connection he has to music and nature.

Next up was Will’s mother Delmae, a physically tiny woman with a soft voice that was hard to hear over that of the noisy crows, parrots and the wind in the trees. She stood up, closed her eyes, took a deep breath and delivered a strong and masterfully improvised operatic composition. Her son Will accompanied her with the Didgeridoo and when I closed my eyes I was swept on their journey through creeks up mountains and across the land.

IMG_2922After a short break we were in the hands of artist Glenn Romanis, a very humble and genuine person. This man has produced some beautiful sculptures that if you live in Melbourne you may well have seen, there are near 100 of them that he has made. He explained how his work interprets people’s stories about a place or their experiences; some are installed permanently and some are ephemeral. I was particularly struck by the use of petrified wood inlaid  into stone (link) he told me that if he doesn’t know how to do something he just ‘works it out’.

Glenn brought us to a space beneath a huge River Red Gum of some 400 years of age and ephemeral artinvited us as a group to tell a story with found natural objects inspired by that tree and the place. We were the second group to take on this task for the morning, so the first decision to be made was whether we added to the sculpture that the other group had made before us or started our own piece from scratch. The decision was to build on what lay in front of us which to me looked like leaves, to others a canoe and to some a woman’s platypuswomb. We agreed that our story would involve the 5 different Wurrundjeri clans coming together by boat on the old path of the Yarra River and our scene would include those animals that inhabited the area. The result was platypus, turtles, eel, fish and Bunjil the eagle Bunjilwhich I was involved in creating with 4 or 5 others. We came back together as one group and shared our different aspects of the story and what it represented.   There was some spontaneous ‘performance art’ – the dance of the swans, inspired by the entrance of two of the curious birds .

interpretive danceThe final closure of the day came in the form of a song that was composed in Will’s native language. He had the whole group find the right key on his didgeridoo, settled us into an accompanying tone and then with Delmae sang a hauntingly beautiful song over laid on top of our collective voices. With eyes closed you could feel the vibration of voice and at times didgeridoo resonating and connecting us together and with the land about which the song was written.

This was an inspiring morning; the coming together of people, land and story with an overlying hope of more people both children and adults experiencing connection to nature  and place like we felt today.

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2012 -2013: Roots take hold, the first blooms appear and a sense of anticipation preceeds the first crop of fruit!

In 2009 a seed of an idea planted in my mind and sprouted a few roots. In 2012, the conditions changed, the environment was right and these roots finally took hold. The first bold, brave shoot went up,  the first buds appeared and so began my professional life as HumaNature Connect!  I would like to indulge if I may in a bit of reflection on the last 3 months that have been and the new year that is to come before I sign off for a well earned Christmas break, if I do say so myself.

The first flowers bloom

On September 10th 2012 – HumaNature Connect became a DSCF3546reality and kicked off with a workshop collaboratively facilitated for the Australian Association for Bush Adventure Therapy – Victoria group.  I guess they  found it  beneficial  and engaging as we were invited to present a longer and more comprehensive workshop at their annual National Forum in 2013: Widening the Lens

IMG_2165October 2nd: Conference presentations seemed to be the theme with another  very successful workshop  presented for approximately 40 people at the Australian Association of Environmental Education Conference – Creating Our Next Courageous steps (click for accompanying paper: Exploring Connections to Nature through a process of Experiential and Arts Based Inquiry ).

Preparing personal stories by The Nest representing  Bunjil's eggOctober 21st saw  the inaugural Creatively Connecting to Nature Network event at Darebin Parklands. A very passionate group of educators from primary and Secondary Schools as well as CERES and the Port Phillip Eco Centre gathered to share stories about how and why we have come to be passionate about connecting to nature and creatively facilitating this for others. This hands on experience involved a walk around the park that followed the Aboriginal Spiritual Trail with creative reflection taking place at each stop. We finally ended up with small presentations Reflecting on personal journeys of our journeys  in the form of song/movement, found objects, sketches, feel and spoken story. This took place by The Nest, an awesome new sculpture that represents Bunjil the creator’s egg. The metaphor was a fitting place to discuss the vision and passion that will bring the Network alive starting  again early in 2013.

The first crop of fruit begins to ripen:

November and December: Phew…. what a few months this has been, I have some exciting programs on the drawing board for 2013, combining canoeing and creative expression, and a retreat as well as series of professional development workshops.

mountain biking I am now heading for some restorative time in nature at Aldinga Beach in Adelaide and riding my mountain bike in Victoria’s High Country yeehaa!

I want to thank everyone for their inspiration and support and  I wish you all the best for Christmas and the New Year.

See you in 2013!

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What do you think; Is connecting to nature important or just hippy talk ?

We are familiar with the idea that people are spending less and less time in nature but more alarmingly to me is  the lack of conscious awareness about the link between spending time in nature and sustainability.

In Australia, there is a lot of talk about sustainability and the new National Curriculum for schools includes sustainability as a cross cutting theme. The curriculum framework has three components:

• Sustainability action process
• Knowledge of ecological and human systems
• Repertoires of practice.

What about the stuff that comes before these things?! Before the action and before knowledge, before innovation i.e. the experience of nature, noticing the small things and valuing the connection.  How can we imagine sustainability and how to approach it when we aren’t even sure about the thing that we are trying to sustain?

We know that emotional connections with nature increase actions that are pro sustainability. Emotional connections come through direct experience. It stands to reason then that we should be placing equal value into spending regular and quality time interacting with the natural world and talking about its value in conversation with each other and to our kids as we do to topics such as saving water, recycling plastics..

What do you think? Is this important?

To answer this question, lets imagine some scenarios that might happen if we stop teaching and demonstrating to each other including our kids the value of being in nature……

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Human – nature interfaces; a learning journey

This blog post is a rewrite of an older post from late last year, why? because I realised that the ideas within in it have grown and grown in my mind ever since.  It is also an illustration of how meaning making occurs over time, it is experiential learning in action. So hear goes…..

Have you ever had that experience of bumping into somebody repeatedly to the point where you think… ” I’m supposed to know this person!? Or have you ever had that similar experience where someone tells you something and you think…” I know absolutely nothing about that but why does it keep coming up?” Then a couple of days, maybe a couple of weeks., years go by and it comes up again and again…….Well, this is a story of that experience.

My insect ‘resting place’ created out of clay

‘Pam’, mentioned some time ago, maybe a year, maybe more that she was interested in the interface at which gardens meet the native vegetation or bush areas. What happens in that space? how do they meet?  how are they managed?  I had never thought about it but it was an intriguing question.

Some time later I was at a clay workshop and the facilitator spoke about her ‘totem poles’ as being resting places for small insects in the garden, a place that is an interface between nature and humans. A small light flickered…interface..hmm… there is that word again.

Since then the idea of the human and nature interface keeps coming up.  Whether by accident or subconscious design it is appearing in my photographs, clay and art.

What I choose to see is the way that the ‘man made’ component is serving the natural object by highlighting its beauty and revealing it as the special thing it is. If only this was the case in every human-nature interaction!

It is this thought that has taken on a new depth for me in the last years. Why do human beings treat nature with contempt? Why is their a void of empathy at the interface between humans and nature ? Why is there an interface at all, aren’t we part of the natural world? These are the sorts of questions that Ecopsychology seeks to answer but I discovered more recently that there are other lenses through which to explore this human- nature interface.

Recently I presented at the Australian Bush Adventure Therapy Conference, I listened to a key note by Dr Stuart Hill, a Social Ecologist. This man has a fascinating background; he was an ecologist in the first instance, who studied “bat shit” and its whole associated ecology in a cave in some far flung country. He then recognised that human social systems function in similar ways to ecological systems and thus to solve complex problems in our personal lives and in our broader society we can look to ecological systems for answers. He describes this with the analogy of soil, hidden under the surface of gardens and roads…

“Too often it is ‘the bits that we don’t see’, and are unaware of, that enable most systems to function.  Yet society tends to focus just on the most attractive visible bits, neglects the rest, and is frequently surprised by the increasingly common expressions of system breakdown.  This may be recognized at every level, from the individual to the biosphere, and from the local to the global.  Examples of soil within terrestrial ecosystems and the subconscious within the human mind, and the complex interrelationships between them, are used here to illustrate this.” (Stuart Hill – Underground Ecosystems and the Subconscious: Their Neglect and Potential to Save Us)

Stuart Hill is not the first person to look at personal and social transformation through this lens. There are many practitioners and researchers under the name of  Social Ecology, Human Ecology, Ecopsychology, Systems Theorists and others; all who are looking at the  dynamics that occur in the interface  between society, environment and culture as a means to find ways to reach sustainability.

So, there it is again – interface – Do ideas find us or do we find them ? Perhaps this is a discussion for another day, in the mean time  here is an activity for further thought: make some paper frames of different sizes by  taking several pieces of paper and cut out a square of a different sizes in each piece. Then  go outside and place them over the points at which the man made world and natural world meet (like in my art work picture above). Look into the squares what do you see in these interfaces? how is it structured? how are things positioned ? are all human – nature interfaces the same? which ones are representative of your values? which ones are representative of society as a whole? how could they be more desirable? how does this change happen?

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The language of my soul!

I will let this experience speak for itself !

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Creatively Connecting to Nature Network

If you work in the ‘helping, education or caring’ professions then you probably introduce a lot of joy and good energy into other people’s lives. How often do you do this for yourself? If you are like me then probably not often enough. On an airplane before take-off they tell us that .. “in the event of a loss in cabin pressure a mask will drop down….put it on yourself before helping children and others”, or something to that effect. This is sound advice, don’t you think?

The Creatively Connecting to Nature Network gives you the opportunity to do something that nourishes yourself. It will allow you to benefit from the creative and nature-connecting goodness that you facilitate for others! Lets face it, it’s probably part of the reason why you do the work that you do. There is however a distinct difference between being on the delivery vs the receiving end; This is a space for sharing, exploring, relaxing and being.



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New beginnings

Welcome to the HumaNature Connect blog. I’m excited about launching this new venture and unleashing my passion for all things nature based and creative! I also look forward to sharing inspiring stories ‘from the field’ about the way that creativity and nature are providing a sense of meaning, wellness and belonging to the people I encounter.

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