Ashley Jay Brockwell, M.Biochem., M.Sc.
The world would be an easier place to navigate if it weren’t so full of people. Boring, perhaps; lonely, most definitely; but in many ways, less complicated.
With these words, I out myself as what might be termed ‘neurodiverse’. I’ve never been formally diagnosed with an autistic spectrum condition, but evidence suggests that if I went to the right specialists and answered the right questions, I probably could be. In any case, I freely confess that most of the time, I find humans challenging. Given the choice, I would be far happier with a few people and a lot of trees than with a lot of people and a few trees – or, as is more common in social situations, a lot of people and no trees at all.
Oops, I seem to have outed myself a second time. Talking to trees tends to be viewed as a serious mental disorder, as evidenced by the nervous way in which a fellow-participant in a retreat for faith leaders recently half-whispered, ‘I talk to trees’, in response to a question about self-care strategies in situations of extreme stress. The awkward half-laugh – did she really just say that in public? – rippled through the entire group.
Even those people who freely admit that they talk to trees are, in reality, generally talking at them. We’re all familiar with those so-called conversations in which one party takes over, barely even pausing for breath, much less listening to hear what the other has to say. And as for preferring trees to people…that’s so taboo that it doesn’t even have a word yet.
I Ecosiad ‘preferring trees to people’ – ugh, Ecosia, I love you, but your name just doesn’t convert to a verb as well as ‘Googled’ – and the first search result was a post by the Woodland Trust entitled ‘Where does mistletoe grow?’ This is a useful search result for someone who is fascinated by mistletoe, as I am, but not at all what I was looking for. Next I tried Bing, and up popped someone’s musings that ‘some people may have good reasons for preferring an artificial Christmas tree to the real thing’. Finally, in the interest of scientific curiosity, I used the dreaded Google, and got a newspaper article by George Monbiot (the UK’s only prominent journalist writing on ecological and ecosocial issues) about why British local councils prefer planting exotic trees instead of native ones.
I’m starting to wonder if I’m the only person who has ever outed themselves with this particular preference (which, before anyone gets the wrong idea, is not a new variety of sexual orientation: I’m talking purely platonic preference). Yet a quick survey of my friends, most of whom are admittedly neurodiverse too, suggests it’s a lot more common than most people might think.
The majority of ‘neurotypical’ humanity has, of course, little or no time for trees: they are generally assumed to be boring, irrelevant, and incapable of communication. Of course, any species that has no voice is viewed with suspicion, at best, or as a ‘resource’ that is more valuable when dead than when alive, at worst; but as a general rule, trees tend to fare worse than fluffy animals with big eyes.
Why are trees so under-appreciated? People ‘on the spectrum’, as we’re often called, are fond of rational thinking – like the character Mr Spock in Star Trek, who doesn’t experience emotions and bases his decisions on logic alone. We’re also inclined to look at issues from a wider perspective, zooming out to see the big picture rather than getting bogged down in messy and painful detail. From this viewpoint, preferring trees to people seems eminently sensible. Trees produce the oxygen that humans and all other animals need for survival: as comedian and philosopher Jim Bugg memorably puts it, they can ‘eat sunlight and poop out air’. (Humans, on the other hand, for all our technological advancements, are still producing carbon dioxide and methane). Trees don’t bully vulnerable members of their species until finally, losing faith in their own worth and tired of defending their right to exist, they take their own lives. Trees aren’t engaged in a constant process of regretting the past and worrying about the future. They don’t create weapons of mass destruction, invade other forests, or commit ecocide. Even the accusation that they’re unable to communicate, and hence unworthy of attention, has been refuted by recent scientific research into the complexities of the ‘Wood Wide Web’ – the interconnectivity between plants of different species, at the root level, through vast networks of mycorrhizal fungi.
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As inheritors of ‘Western’ intellectual traditions, we have grown so used to seeing humans as the centre of the world that we tend to forget that not all people share this view – and that those who don’t share it, such as Indigenous communities, have often been systematically eradicated or silenced. Yet in these difficult times, those of us who work as educators need to start asking ourselves difficult questions:
- What if, as the United Nations has recently warned, we only have twelve years left to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius and prevent catastrophic climate change?
- Could this mean that the young people in our classrooms today are the ‘last-chance generation’ – the only generation that still (just) has time to create social, political, economic, cultural and spiritual change on the scale necessary to avert disaster?
- If this is indeed the case, how will we respond? With a shrug of the shoulders and ‘business as usual’, or with a radical rethinking of the values, assumptions and prejudices that underlie our curriculum design and teaching methods?
- What can we do about the paradox that the very world-views which could still save the world – such as perceiving non-human species as our teachers and mentors, and accepting the validity of information obtained through altered states of consciousness – are still seen by curriculum designers as unbreakable taboos?
- How can we create spaces for dialogue with surviving Indigenous and other ‘non-Western’ communities, with a view to including their perspectives in the curriculum in meaningful ways, and validating their knowledges without furthering exploitation?
Educational researchers at Wageningen University jointly with colleagues from the ISSC-supported T-Learning Transformative Knowledge Network, have recently highlighted the importance of learning which is both transgressive (challenging cultural norms) and transformational (furthering social and ecological justice), which they term ‘T-learning’. To this, a third ‘T’ can be added: transdisciplinary. This ‘triple-T’ learning may be able, I would argue, to provide a theoretical foundation for the global education revolution that is so urgently and desperately needed.
According to the quantum physicist and philosopher Basarab Nicolescu, transdisciplinarity is not just about crossing the (imaginary) borders between different academic disciplines, or even between academia and ‘the real world’. Rather, a transdisciplinary process accepts the fundamental validity and equivalence of different ways of seeing the world, and aims to create a middle ground – a ‘zone of non-resistance’, as Nicolescu puts it – in which both/and logic is applied instead of either/or logic, thereby satisfying all parties. This ‘logic of the included middle’ is typically mediated in one of four ways: through art (in which we can also include design), culture, spirituality, or religion.
As an artist, or what I prefer to call an `artivist’ – a practitioner at the interface of art and activism, whose aim is to create work that provokes people into rethinking their assumptions and checking their privilege – this makes a great deal of sense to me. As Sacha Kagan, author of Art and Sustainability, has pointed out, art can create spaces for people to become ‘entrepreneurs in convention’ – looking at their beliefs, traditions and received wisdom through new eyes, and experimenting with ways to see and do things differently. Under my previous identity, I’ve already had fun playing with conventions: creating a working paper that uses traditional academic prose for just long enough to lull the reader into a false sense of security, before switching to visual art and poetry.
Through artivism, we can be both embedded in a system and capable of standing outside it, at the same time. We understand that it is possible (if not always easy) to base our decisions on logic and emotion; to value scientific evidence and personal experience; to accept the validity of knowledge and non-knowing, or Deep Mystery; to accept that categorisation can be useful in some circumstances and to know that ultimately, as a recent diversity and inclusion campaign by the Ad Council proclaimed, ‘Love has no labels’.
Far be it from me, of course, to suggest that I would be so selfish as to exploit trees for my own artistic advancement. No, indeed: I’m not that kind of a guy. What I’m looking for is a mutually satisfying conversation: an exchange of ideas, a sharing of experiences.
So I’ll meet you down by the biggest oak tree in the wood, by the light of the full moon, and let’s chat – the three of us – about curriculum design.
Ashley Jay Brockwell is an educator and consultant whose areas of expertise include project design and evaluation, sustainability, diversity and well-being. He was the founder and co-director of the Tanzanian NGO Aang Serian (‘House of Peace’), which established an intercultural education program recognised by the United Nations in 2003, and was a key member of the Values and Sustainability Research Group at the University of Brighton from 2010-2016. Ash is a co-author of more than 30 scientific publications and is currently finalising his PhD at Wageningen University and Research, with a thesis entitled ‘Measuring what matters? Exploring the use of values-based indicators in assessing Education for Sustainability’. His website can be found at www.greenspiralconsulting.com.
 See Nicolescu, B. (2010). Metholology of transdisciplinarity – levels of reality, logic of the included middle and complexity. Transdisciplinary Journal of Engineering and Science, 1(1), 19-38.