We meander up the gravel path, through the evergreens, between the stands of alder. The shoulder of the hill rises toward the plateau, and we can see that soon we will emerge from the forest. We pass beneath the canopy of a vast cottonwood. Beside it, a small stream gurgles along its quiet course, descending toward the plain and the great river beyond.
I gaze down the path and watch the learners climb the hill. Most are in makeshift groups, chatting and sharing. A few are alone, ruminating, walking within their own thoughts but never far from others. At the base of the hill, just rounding the curve in the path that leads back to the deeper forest from where we’ve come, I see Jonah. As always, he’s at the back, taking his time, settling into this ancient and yet familiar environment. He pauses to touch the bark of a Douglas Fir tree. I have shown the learners the blackened streaks on the hide of this tree, the marks from a forest fire many years ago. We’ve talked about the resilience of the Douglas Fir, how these trees resist fire and even depend upon fire to spread their seeds. We’ve wondered about the wider implications of surviving fire, thriving in the wake of fire, and whether the Douglas Fir tree has lessons to teach us in the wake of challenging and combustible events in our own lives. As I watch Jonah, I think about his struggles with inter-generational and cultural trauma, his affinity for the most ancient and resilient trees, and the powerful metaphor of a gnarled and blackened trunk on a tree that is thriving, strong, and hundreds of years old.
I turn toward the crest of the trail and the clearing beyond. A woodpecker knocks, in the distance, and I smell the tang of a nearby cypress. I pass a grove of blackberry bushes, their fruit mostly gone as they ease through fall and prepare for winter. The forest canopy opens as I emerge into the clearing. I glimpse a sky with scudding clouds and flecks of cerulean, a ring of evergreens — fir, cedar, hemlock, spruce — and a wide field of grasses. I cross the clearing and head toward a break in the trees from where, in the far distance and across the rolling fields below, I can see a broad sweep of landscape and beyond it, the sea. In each of our journeys we’ve tried to glimpse the sea, to orient toward it even when we cannot see it, to think about directions and cardinality and the value of knowing where we are, where we are going.
At the beginning of the semester, when I ask learners to point in the direction of north, most cannot do so. They have not navigated across unfamiliar landscapes and they do not have the knowledge to orient themselves in nature (even with a phone). We talk about what this means, what it implies about our distance from our evolutionary heritage and environments, what it suggests about the value of learning to place oneself within a landscape. We talk about belonging and migration, about culture and land, about humans in the world. “The acknowledgment of heritage,” affirms Constantine Sandis (2014), “forms part of the ethics of remembering” ourselves, our communities, our histories. These are broad discussions, with complex emotional and existential roots (Ratcliffe 2008) and many possible pathways. I am always heartened by how many ideas and directions emerge from conversations inspired by ideas about direction.
Most of the group is here now, at the edge of the clearing. Some are looking across the open plateau with its long grasses and small copse of maple trees. Others are gazing toward the sea, in the distance, or at the crowns of nearby trees where often we see bald eagles, curious crows, or other avian sentinels. I notice Sara, who has been a consistent presence on these journeys but almost always silent. It common for participants to struggle with social anxiety or other challenges that make it difficult for them to speak up. Typically they feel safer as the semester progresses, and eventually they begin to share in discussions or talk with companions along the trails. But not Sara. She has been silent on each of more than a dozen outings, and I’ve begun to think that she will remain so until our class ends.
But I am wrong. Sara approaches me, pauses, then begins to speak quietly. She says that she has enjoyed these outings. They are relaxing, she says, and the group is welcoming. I notice that she is holding the small stone that she found on a riverbank during an outing several weeks ago. It was the object she chose when I asked the learners to find something in the landscape that called to them. And now she cradles the stone, runs her thumb across its textured granite, holds it as though it is an anchor to the world. Perhaps, for her, it is.
Then she leans in, lowers her voice almost to a whisper, and tells me that these weekly two-hour walks are the only times she leaves home. Sara’s words remind me, yet again, of the powerful and often hidden mental health dynamics at work in these groups. Learners are often grappling with anxiety, depression, or the legacy of trauma. Their lives are quiet and self-contained, their suffering silent. And yet, their experiences in these natural settings evoke moments of openness, of clarity, and perhaps of healing. The environment itself seems to provide solace and comfort, and their interactions with natural objects — trees, stones, leaves, water — seem to act as gentle guides in the development of self-awareness. The paths we follow, the metaphors we create, the objects we find: all of it combines in a kind of alchemy that helps learners deal with vulnerability, distress, and emotional difficulty. The landscape is a living guide, the forest a quiet companion.
Many scholars have explored the relationship between experiences in nature and improvements in mental and physical health. Forest bathing (Li 2018), biophilia (Arvay 2018; Wilson 1984), ecopsychology (Roszak 1995; Ratey 2014; Louv 2008; Williams 2017), ecospirituality (Beyer 2009; Butala 2005), and therapeutic landscape design (Marcus 2014) are all grounded in the well-established benefits of reconnecting with wild spaces. And while I have led groups in truly wild spaces — the Amazon rainforest, or the Great Bear Rainforest of British Columbia (McAllister 2014) — it has also been my experience that simple excursions in urban settings can work just as well. After all, Sara’s willingness to confront her agoraphobia — to simply get out of the house — and Jonah’s affinity with the Douglas Fir tree are both taking place in the context of modest excursions in city parks. Although the land around us merges into the surrounding forest, and the glade in which we’ve gathered has the resonance of an ancient, primordial place, we are not more than a 10-minute walk from the road. We can hear cars on the highway to the west. Farm fields crisscross one another all the way to the sea.
The powerful evolutionary heritage of modern humans — hundreds of thousands of years ranging across every kind of landscape (Lieberman 2014) — has left its mark. We respond to any kind of natural environment. We are built to roam and seek and find. And I am always surprised by the instinctive and metaphorical discoveries that nature encourages. Jonah’s tree and Sara’s stone are examples of nature’s inherent curatorial capacities. Natural environments seem to offer the right objects and experiences at the most appropriate times. It’s a common idea in ancient practices such as shamanism that nature responds to us (Beyer 2009; Butala 2005; Diamond 2012), is more aware than we tend to believe. Such ideas are anathema to the modern mind but, curiously, are now making their way back into modern discourse (Wohlleben 2016; Li 2018). Our knowledge about the complexities of our relationship to nature will no doubt increase, but I doubt we will ever fully understand the ways in which the natural world exerts its influence upon us — no matter how much we try to insulate ourselves from it.
Of course, the human instinct to find patterns and metaphors plays a significant role in the experience of finding meaningful objects in nature. Such pattern-seeking embodies deep cognitive and emotional processes that promote connections, integration, and wholism. As Jeremy Lent (2017) notes:
Nature is a complex, fractal environment in which it can be difficult to cleanly delineate individual parts and processes. Feelings of relationship and interconnection often emerge in powerfully emotional ways. For example, in activities that involve participants searching for objects to fulfill a specific purpose (to represent the self, for example, or a current life struggle), learners will often say that the objects found them. They assign to the objects a kind of agency. This is an ancient, normal, human response to the numinous capacities of the natural world. I do not find it helpful, in these situations, to talk about magical thinking. To do so would, in many scenarios, actually be harmful to learners who use words such as sacred and spiritual in describing their object discoveries. In a university setting there is sometimes pressure to be intellectual, narrowly rational, and dismissive — or at least deeply skeptical about — ideas held by ancient and traditional societies. At the same time, many modern people believe strongly in the sacredness of the natural world, in its capacity to guide and inform us, even to mentor us directly (Butala 2005; Beyer 2009). These beliefs are important aspects of personal identity; they are somewhat akin to religious beliefs, and, in my view, should be respected.
However these beliefs and interpersonal dynamics play themselves out, I am always struck by the extent of the emotional impact of natural environments, especially when those impacts are unexpected. On a previous visit to this glade, while we were gathered together and talking about our impressions of the landscape, one of the participants shared his amazement and wonder at seeing so many different kinds of trees. It seems he had not been fully aware that there are many kinds of trees, and his experience of this diversity activated a deep and numinous experience within him. Strong emotional reactions are common during these outings and their tenor matches what has been found in object activities in curated contexts such as museums (Latham 2007, 2013; Chatterjee 2008), in clinical practice (Camic, Brooker, and Neal 2011; Camic 2010; Thomson et al. 2017; Solway et al. 2015), and in education (Chatterjee and Hannan 2015; Roseman, Laird, and Schroeder Schreker 2016).
One of the consistently surprising aspects of these emotional reactions involves the ways in which learners discover pathways of learning and emotion that would not occur to me, as the instructor. I do not point out that there are many kinds of trees. I have my own ideas and topics of interest, and I pursue them. Today I’ve talked about the value of intentional experimentation, the nature of wonder, and our relationship to the past. The topics I choose are focused and specific. And yet, it is often the case that learners derive something completely unexpected from these experiences. They find their own pathways, follow their own insights, and satisfy their curiosities in a multitude of ways beyond what I can predict or provide. I ask myself, in these situations, who is the teacher? And I wonder, often, about the gap between this rangy, unpredictable learning — which can be profoundly meaningful for learners — and the structures of traditional educational we have built.
But here we are: this is an undergraduate class, at a traditional university. We have not spent time in a classroom since the first day of class. Instead we have roamed, every week, to parks and shorelines and forests all across the city. We have watched migrating birds and spawning salmon and the play of water across a vast tidal estuary. We’ve touched the rough bark of cedars and sequoias and the smooth hides of birch trees along an ancient riverbank. We’ve listened to the calls of black-capped chickadees, watched herons stalk prey in shallow pools, and followed the tracks of coyotes until they vanish in the underbrush.
Wherever we’ve gone, we’ve brought our university curriculum and have used nature to help us build upon it. My own background is in counseling, psychology, writing, and expressive arts therapy, and those fields lend themselves well to natural environments. But it’s also easy to see that with some practice, and with a spirit of creative inquiry, any field of study could benefit from exposure to natural environments and the objects within them. After all, nature was the only context for human inquiry until a couple of hundred years ago (Diamond 2012).
Working with Objects in Natural Environments
In two of my books (Laird 2001, 2003) I explored the challenges and rewards of craftsmanship in wood and stone. In my clinical mental health practice and in my work with learners in educational settings, I’ve consistently found that interactions with natural objects (wood and stone, in particular) enhance creativity, deepen empathy, and cultivate self-awareness. Object interactions involving the hand — touching, holding, shaping — tend to be the most powerfully evocative. This is not surprising, given the primary role of the hand in our evolution (Wilson 1999). In my work with university learners in nature, I encourage them to find objects in organic and unforced ways: finding shells on the beach, or seeing stones along a ridgeline, or selecting from a scattering of leaves at the base of a tree. I emphasize the value of happenstance and synchronicity, of finding objects almost by accident. Such practices typically involve surprising discoveries and unexpected insights, as others have found (Romano, McCay, and Boydell 2011; Camic, Brooker, and Neal 2011). The act of finding a meaningful object — without any prior notion of what it might look like, or where it might be found — can be a deeply immersive, engaging, and purposeful activity. As Paul Camic notes, in his research on the value of found objects (2010), such activities involve “the interaction of aesthetic, cognitive, emotive, mnemonic, ecological, and creative factors.”
Facilitating found object experiences requires an educational mindset that embraces unexpected, provisional, and surprising moments. Traditional educational activities tend to have intended outcomes articulated in advance and activities structured toward specific goals. The instructor has a clear idea of what they want students to learn. Conversely, my experience of object activities in nature has been that outcomes cannot be predicted or predetermined, and activities work best when goals (if any) are developed by the learner and not the instructor. For me, facilitating such experiences involves trusting the process, acknowledging that learners guide themselves purposefully if given the chance, and recognizing that the most important events of a given activity are usually those that I do not foresee.
I am often struck by the nature of this invisible and unpredictable learning. Recently, in one of my writing classes, we visited a local park that adjoins the Fraser River where it meets the sea. This river meanders through more than a thousand kilometres of mountain landscape, and in the spring the water level is high with snow-melt from glaciers. The trails within the park are packed with gravel, to assist with run-off during the season of high water, but when the rains are heavy the trails can flood. It was on one of these days — recent heavy rain, high river water — that we visited the park. The first stretch of trail was clear, but then we came around a bend and were halted by a large puddle. The water was as deep as our shins and much wider than anyone could have jumped. The puddle stretched all the way across the trail and into the dense underbrush. No way around, no easy way through.
We gathered around and talked about what to do. The learners did not want to return to the parking lot so soon; I did not want them trundling through a deep puddle. Most were wearing jeans and running shoes, and the puddle would surely have soaked them to the knees. (I’ve had to learn, over the years, that reminders and exhortations to undergraduates about proper outdoor clothing are not always effective.) We were at an impasse, literally. But then a curious thing happened: Andrea said that she could see a small log, on the far side of the puddle. The log might be light enough, she said, to drag into the puddle, and it might be high enough for us to walk across. And Andrea, alone among the entire group, was wearing high rubber boots.
During the several years that I had known Andrea, throughout the several classes she had attended, one theme kept emerging for her: finding healthy community. Like many young people, she was grappling with themes of belonging, relationship, and connection, searching for a community of safety and trust. I had tried to provide opportunities, in my classes, for Andrea to explore these themes, and I had felt that the results of my efforts were modest at best. Building healthy community is hard, especially for young people, especially now, in our age of digital distraction and seemingly endless distress.
But here she was: uniquely prepared, uniquely observant. She splashed across the puddle, hefted the log by one end, and dragged it into the puddle. The log was exactly the length of the puddle. It was slightly bent and came to rest with the bend arcing above the puddle at its deepest point. It was a perfectly placed pathway across the water.
But the log was not wide, and its bark was slippery with rain. The risk of injury was significant, and I voiced my concerns to the group. Even though the learners had signed a waiver for these outings, and even though they were adults (nominally, many of them), enforcing safety is an important aspect of my role. I do not wish to use my first-aid training on these outings.
Andrea volunteered to stand in the middle of the puddle and hold the hand of the first person to cross. Then, she suggested, the first person could station themselves on the far side and reach partway across to support the second person as Andrea brought them over. As we discussed the possibilities, it became clear that we could support each person — holding a hand, steadying a shoulder — and from both sides of the puddle. Andrea would be the central figure, holding on and handing off.
And it worked — even with Erol, a learner with a developmental mobility impairment. He edged slowly across, shuffling his feet, holding tight to Andrea’s supportive hand. Like many young people with mobility impairments, Erol had often been treated by those around him as fragile, delicate, damaged. He had fought hard to defy this treatment, was consistently resilient in responding to the physical challenges of our outings, and I was not surprised to see him forge steadily across the unsteady log.
While all this was going on — the sloshing and sliding, the holding and grabbing, the careful crossing — the learners were quiet, focused, attentive. They helped one another with mindful clarity. They were emotionally and cognitively engaged. They applied a variety of physical skills together and toward a common, improvised goal that was larger and more pressing than the individual goals of any participant. We crossed the log together, as one collective unit, finding multiple solutions to intricate physical problems without explicit leadership or guidance from me, their instructor.
I crossed last. Andrea grabbed my hand and helped steady me on the slick bark. As I nudged myself carefully to the other side, I wondered if any one of us would have been able to make our way across the log without help. It was too slippery, too precarious to do alone. But we did it, easily, without fuss or complaint. We continued along the path and through the park.
Later, as we talked about the experience, both Andrea and Erol spoke about the crossing as both a literal and metaphoric transition. Andrea felt — for the first time — that she was a valued and essential member of a community. She made a unique and important contribution. We made it across because of her. Erol, for his part, reflected upon his equality with others, his sense of strength and agility, his well-earned physical empowerment. No one treated him differently, and he did not need them to. He felt whole and well. These were new feelings for him, new and much welcomed.
I facilitate many object activities in nature that are more programmatic and structured than crossing a puddle. Besides, crossing a puddle is not an activity that I would think to design. While I do provide some instruction, in some activities — find an object, choose a location, make something — crossing a puddle is a challenge, and would be designed as a challenge exercise. I don’t generally like challenge exercises and I don’t use them much; their intended outcomes don’t match my preference for the unexpected and the provisional, for activities that encourage roaming and wandering rather than structure and fixed pathways. And so, we would not have undertaken this activity were it not for the log.
It was not me but the log — the conveniently located, spontaneously glimpsed, creatively used log — that enabled the activity of crossing the puddle. The object lent itself perfectly to our process, to the dynamics and complexities of our decisions, actions, and insights. The log made these things possible. It appeared out of nowhere, at just the right moment, and led us to our own discoveries.
This has been my consistent experience with found objects in nature. Beyond planning and curricular guidelines, beyond goals and learning outcomes and ideas about academic rigor, objects in nature reveal themselves in surprising and immensely helpful ways. They help facilitate what Csikszentmihalyi (1990) calls “the aesthetic encounter,” what Froggett and Trustram (2014) call “the aesthetic third,” and what Camic and his colleagues (2011) call “the third part of the triangle.” For these scholars, evocative objects serve as mediators between individuals and wider social or cultural domains: heritage and museum collections, in particular. Much of the work to study this phenomenon has, consequently, taken place in museums and heritage settings (Pye 2007). Nature, of course, is the context for our original cultural heritage and offers infinite possibilities for object interaction and evocation. Without fanfare, without provenance or prior curation, the log reveals itself to us, joins our activity, and invites us to build a structure — an aesthetic triangle that we can use to deepen our experiences as we cross the water.
Possibilities and Practicalities
Group facilitation is an immensely complex skill that requires much practice, experimentation, and self-reflection. It demands, of facilitators, a willingness to learn and grow, to confront biases and judgments, to work with a group of people rather than simply talk to them (as with a lecture). Facilitation is hard. Group participants, and groups themselves, are often tricky, intransigent, and conflictual. Group conflicts can be hidden or visible, straightforward or complex, and can simmer indefinitely. Perhaps the most difficult problems of humans are those in which conflicts between groups have persisted for hundreds or even thousands of years. Very few people outside of the mental health professions have training in group facilitation. Most who attempt facilitation without training encounter significant problems immediately. Conversely, some possess a natural affinity for facilitation and find ways of applying their skills of self-awareness and empathy in new ways.
Facilitating with objects adds another dimension of challenge: shaping conversations about object encounters, cultivating emotional trust and safety, emphasizing empathy, directing participants toward healthful pathways with their objects. And, of course, things can (and dependably do) go sideways: highly charged situations can emerge and become overwhelming for everyone involved. In university settings, the mental health of learners is not normally part of the curriculum; counseling programs exist for that purpose, and university faculty are not normally comfortable (nor should they be) in helping learners navigate mental health challenges. But facilitation — and facilitation with objects, especially — leads inexorably toward the inner life of learners, and mental health issues come tumbling out. Familiarity with these issues, and at least a basic understanding of how to facilitate them, is therefore the first and most important step in working with objects in the ways that I am describing.
Facilitating with objects outdoors adds yet another dimension of challenge. Training in group facilitation is mostly focused on indoor, private spaces (Kottler 2010). Consequently, even those who have facilitation training will encounter a variety of new challenges in the natural environment. Issues such as safety, equipment, transport, communications, weather, and a host of other factors contribute to the fluid and unpredictable quality of outdoor facilitation.
In this sense, if facilitation is like surfing — riding the wave of group engagement, shaping momentum and trajectory, finding focus and movement — then facilitation in nature, with objects, is like surfing while standing on one leg. It can be immensely fun, but it’s also complex and extremely challenging. I routinely find myself working with learners who are experiencing emotional overwhelm, crippling depression, or intrusive anxiety. I’ve had to contain learners in states of traumatic decompensation, overwhelm, dissociation, and freezing. I’ve had to deal with the panic attacks of three people, at the same time, on a mountainside, hours from any kind of help.
The skills to safely navigate situations such as these are not normally part of the toolkit of an instructor at a university. However, as nontraditional education becomes more popular, as experiential and object-based approaches become more widespread (Chatterjee and Hannan 2015), many people are learning to grapple safely with unexpected moments of emotional activation.
In my experience, a further challenge with facilitation outdoors involves the culture of academia and three widely accepted and persistent norms of the university environment: learning takes place in a classroom; learning must be predictable and repeatable; and learning is primarily an intellectual process that should not, ideally, involve emotions. Outdoor, object-based facilitation experiences tend to invert these norms: learning takes place outside; learning is unpredictable and unique to a given participant and moment; and learning is a deeply emotional process — which, ideally, also contains intellectual discoveries. The widespread discomfort with emotions — with feelings — that pervades academic and cultural contexts can be a significant hurdle for both instructors and learners seeking to work with objects in outdoor environments. As Antonio Damasio affirms, everyone is aware of the presence of feelings “but with few exceptions no one talks to them. They are not addressed by name.” And yet:
In some ways, outdoor facilitation at a university is a heretical activity. It’s easy for people to misunderstand its aims and goals and to make judgments that are not always informed by authentic curiosity or openness. This too is changing, as more educators find ways of breaking out of the classroom and finding fulfillment in facilitated activities. But for now, and as long as the traditional norms persist (Hargreaves 1994), those seeking to facilitate object experiences in natural environments must be prepared for raised eyebrows, at the very least, from academic colleagues.
For their part, learners are accustomed to classrooms and lectures and may, at first, be anxious or hesitant about outdoor experiences. Some do not wish to handle natural objects that have lain in the dirt or on the beach. A seemingly simple invitation to touch the bark of a tree may flummox or even repulse them. An increasing number of people (especially young people) are profoundly disconnected from nature (Louv 2008) and will try hard not to touch anything that they might perceive to be dirty — which, after all, is pretty much everything in nature. My experience in these situations is that I must go slow, be patient, and not push. Often the perspective of the learner shifts and interesting moments emerge.
Ultimately, it is impossible to cleanly delineate the objects of nature from the environments of nature. The environments themselves are made of objects, are vast, interconnected object spaces. In this sense, object activities can involve the land itself. For example, our intellectual curiosity about the evolutionary nature and value of touch and movement (O’Neill 2001; Marchand 2012) is made infinitely more urgent and immediate in the act of rock climbing, while grasping small holds, high above the ground, as the hand tires and the feet begin to slip. Such moments are visceral and instructive; they teach us, in direct and emotional ways, about the importance of our touch upon objects in the world.
Much of the recent research involving object interactions has taken place in museums (Chatterjee 2008), health care settings (Romano, McCay, and Boydell 2011; Solway et al. 2015), and educational institutions (Chatterjee and Hannan 2015). In such environments, a great deal of attention is devoted to physical safety. There is no need to be on the lookout for bears in a museum, hospital, or university campus. Conversely, outdoor environments are inherently dangerous. Risks and unseen dangers abound. Although learners enjoy gathering wood from the forest to symbolize personal challenges, and they are particularly keen to cast this wood into a fire, such fires can easily grow to be unmanageable. Although the thunderclap can inspire awe and wonder, being marooned outside, in the driving rain, while lightning crashes all around, is sure to rattle even the most stalwart of participants. For some, such an experience could precipitate a mental health crisis. Nature does not fade into the background to make way for facilitated object exercises. Nature asserts itself, makes it clear whose kingdom we inhabit. If the lighting strikes, it’s best to have a plan for safety and comfort, a way to enjoy the plangent displays of nature without incurring unnecessary physical or emotional risk.
There is always risk — and it is accompanied, naturally, by the potential of great rewards. During the autumn months, in British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest, along the shores of the salmon-spawning streams favored by grizzly bears, one sometimes finds peculiar objects: the heads of salmon with bite marks from wolves. These are intense and strange objects, and all the stories of the rainforest are contained within them. Stories about interconnected ecologies, wild creatures, and humans. Myths, dreams, and ancient tales. Stories of the ocean and its romance with the land. Stories of bears, wolves, whales, of eagles perched among trees that have stood since before the arrival of Columbus. Touching such an object, holding it, discovering its interwoven metaphors and messages, is to connect with all of nature, all of humanity, and with the wider world itself. This is the curation that nature provides, the heritage it offers. All our stories are discovered in the encounter with this one, archetypal object. It leads everywhere.
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