Ecology of the Ozarks: Framing a Critical Place Conscious Pedagogy through Ecological Literacy
By Cathie English
“Part of living well involves developing a sustainable relationship with the natural world in which one’s community is located. Understanding the biology of one’s region, how that biology connects to local industry and agriculture, and the consequent biological issues that impact one’s community is thus a fundamental aspect of the ability to live well.”
–Robert E. Brooke, Rural Voices: Place-Conscious Education and the Teaching of Writing
My first understanding of a critical place conscious pedagogy with an ecological lens began in 1997 when I was first introduced to the concept of place-based education in a Nebraska Writing Project Rural Summer Institute. I formed my place conscious pedagogy upon Haas and Nachtigal’s (1998) Place Value: An Educator’s Guide to Good Literature on Rural Lifeways, Environments, and Purposes of Education, a thin volume, but one rich in the idea of instilling five senses into our students: a sense of place or living well ecologically; a sense of connection, or living well spiritually; a sense of worth or living well economically; a sense of belonging or living well in community; and a sense of civic involvement or living well politically. Instilling all these senses is important, and as a secondary English teacher, I focused upon four of the senses with some success. I exposed students to place-conscious texts: we read and annotated and discussed the arguments or themes of writers like Wendell Berry (2003), Wes Jackson (1996), Paul Gruchow (1995), and Derek Owens (2001). My students grasped their senses of connection, worth, civic involvement and belonging through community literacy and ethnographic projects in a rural school in central Nebraska.
Despite my desire to emphasize how to live well ecologically, I never quite formulated the questions I needed to ask about how to instill a sense of place, or how I might move my students to grasp how crucial it was to sustain the soil, water, air, flora, and fauna of our locale. The current climate crisis has elicited a sense of urgency in me that has motivated me to further explore the questions of how we live well ecologically and instill a sense of place in our students. For the past eight years as an English/language arts (ELA) teacher educator, I have also asked myself, “How do I frame ecological literacy in our undergraduate and graduate students and how do I model this ecological literacy for pre-service and in-service ELA teachers so that they might enact ecological literacy in their future and present classrooms?”
Environmental educators have noted the difficulty of instilling a sense of place or teaching ecological literacy. Jo-Anne Ferreira (2019) states that over the past 50 years environmental education has not elicited the changes in human behavior that environmental educators had hoped to instill. She writes that educators need to shift their thinking and focus upon fashioning environmental citizens through immersion in nature, teaching environmental values, and focusing upon consumption practices and everyday impacts—ordinary experiences as common as washing dishes. She advocates for a sense of place meditation where learners “‘make the connection between the problems of the entire planet and this one special place they have begun to value. The more they get to know the place, the more they will respect and remember one small place of the natural systems of our permanent home: Earth’” (p. 326)
Ruyu Hung (2017) names a sense of ecological literacy, ecophilia, “which means the human affective and embodied bond with other living beings and the environs, e.g., nature and place” (p. 43). Hung believes that to be ecologically literate, one must be able to “read, write, and calculate, but also being able to ‘observe nature with insights, a merger of landscape and mindscape’” (p. 54). Kopnina and Saari (2019) raise the question about effective activism and engaged citizenship in environmental education and argue for the “need for reformed democracy and inclusive pluralism that recognizes the needs of nonhuman species, ecocentrism, and deep ecology” (p. 283). In a study of teachers’ levels of ecological citizenship, Karatekin (2019) found that although teachers’ environmental attitudes were fine-tuned, they had not participated in environmental activities, and he writes, “These results show us that ecological citizenship education should . . . increase the level of curiosity of individuals toward the environment and enable them to participate more in environmental activities” (p. 56).
My research of ecological literacy with both undergraduate and graduate students has revealed that many students have rarely been exposed to the concept of “ecology” throughout their K-12 or college or university experiences. During the summers of 2019 and 2020, I taught a summer intersession course, Place Conscious Reading and Writing: Ecology of the Ozarks, a mixed credit course that encompassed several principles of a critical place conscious pedagogy emphasizing inquiry into the ecology of a geographical place. In 2019, we took field trips to Hawksbill Crag in northwest Arkansas and the Missouri State Biological Field Station at Bull Shoals Lake; however, in Summer 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students conducted their own field trips to outdoor spaces of their choice. Except for Barbara Kingsolver’s ecologically focused Flight Behavior, and Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, an ecological literacy primer, I selected texts and excerpts that were based in the Ozarks, or written by Ozarkian writers focused upon ecological concepts: Sue Hubbell’s A Book of Bees: And How to Keep Them; Ken Carey’s Flat Rock Journal: A Day in the Ozarks Mountains; William B. Edgar, et al’s Living Ozarks: The Ecology and Culture of a Natural Place; Phillip Howerton’s The Literature of the Ozarks: An Anthology; Kenneth Smith’s The Buffalo River Handbook; Amy Wright Vollmar’s “Noland Hollow”; and Anthony Priest’s Yonder Mountain: An Ozarks Anthology.
To better understand how to frame a critical place conscious ecological literacy, I collected data from this course including student writing, final reflections, final projects, and a survey. The students enrolled in the course included those majoring in English education, literature, creative writing, professional and technical writing, interdisciplinary studies, philosophy, biology, and political science. Over half the students were graduate students. At the beginning of this course, to gain insight into their ecological literacy and awareness, I conducted a survey that included the following:
• Which type of school and community best represents your K-12 educational experience? (see Figure 1).
• Select any course work or field trip you may have experienced related to ecology in your K-12 educational experience (see Figure 2).
• Select any course work or field trip you may have experienced related to ecology in your higher education or college educational experience (see Figure 3).
• Describe your experience with any ecologically based course(s) throughout your K-16 (elementary, middle school, high school, and college) educational experience.
• Describe your experience with any ecologically based “enrichment” course(s) outside your K-16 (elementary, middle school, high school, and college) educational experience.
It surprised me that most of the students enrolled in the course were from urban locations. Teaching in the Ozarks, I expected many more students from surrounding smaller communities, who lived in rural or remote areas who would have participated in agriculture programs. I assumed many might have taken horticulture classes with an emphasis in ecological awareness or some form of conservation education. Most students were exposed to the concept of ecological literacy in science programs; in fact, in their K-12 educations, 94% had experienced some form of ecological literacy in their biology or botany courses. This experience dropped off in the college experiences, though, to 54%. My interpretation of that statistic is that most college students have a wider choice of courses in fulfilling their general education science requirements, so some didn’t take a biology course. What was striking to me is that 94% of students experienced some form of ecological literacy in English courses in college, but that may be because they included the current course in their responses. I wasn’t expecting 82% of the students to have experienced some form of ecological literacy in English classes in K-12, but when I considered that more than half the students were from urban school districts, it occurred to me that some of them may have chosen electives that focused upon eco-criticism or eco-feminism or had teachers who were ecologically minded citizens. Just under half of the students in their K-12 experience had been enrolled in either an ecology or environmental course, while just over half had those experiences in higher education. Only 11% of the students at both the K-12 and higher education levels had taken a sustainability course.
Because experiential learning is a vital component of ecological awareness, I asked the question about field trips. Wattchow and Brown (2011) argue that place can be a source of identity, that an interaction with a place constructs and reconstructs one’s identity. They write:
Outdoor places, like home places, have a vital role to play in the development and sustenance of identity. These places are always produced via a set of complex human-land interactions that is larger than the individual. Outdoor places need to be approached with a sense of humility: What happened here? Who has lived here? How have they lived? What seems to be happening to this place now—how is it changing? What is my role in that change? (71).
It was certainly encouraging to me that over three-fourths of the students had had some form of experiential learning through a field trip in their K-12 educations. Only 41% had some form of field trip as college students, and from my own experience coordinating field experiences for these students, I understand some of the obstacles, student transportation and safety as the main concerns. Before our trip to Hawksbill Crag, I met with our university’s legal counsel to craft a consent form because in April of 2018, a student from Briar Cliff University in Sioux City, Iowa, fell 100 feet to her death taking a selfie while on a field trip sponsored by the university. As faculty I was also responsible for coordinating student lodging, but that was simpler because of the field station where housing was provided. Field trips also require expert guides, and I was fortunate to have avid and expert hiker, Nancy Probstfeld from Reed Spring, Missouri, as our guide at Hawksbill Crag (and of whom one student wrote the following in a reflection of the trip): “Nancy was a great guide . . . she was clearly an expert on navigating the terrain and dealing with the differing seasons in the area, and I loved her sense of humor.” Dr. Janice Greene, professor of biology and director of the Bull Shoals Field Station, was our expert guide who shared knowledge about field research, Bull Shoals Lake, and ornithological expertise about native bird species.
In their response to the survey short answer question, “Describe your experience with any ecologically based course(s) throughout your K-16 (elementary, middle school, high school, and college) educational experience,” most students conveyed they had not had many formal experiences in the classroom with an ecological lens. One student wrote, “Aside from receiving a tree on Arbor Day 1981, none.” Others wrote of being in an ecology club and taking an environmental science class focused on nonfiction and research. Some wrote about field trips to Wilson’s Creek, the Springfield Conservation Nature Center, Fantastic Caverns, area farms, picnics, caves, caverns, streams, rivers, and woods. Some of these students noted there was no specific class at that time in their secondary schools; science class was their only exposure to ecological literacy. One student wrote, “I have loved science (environmental especially) since I was in the sixth grade. Science class was one of my favorites in school always.” The biology major/sustainability minor student noted that his or her entire schooling included ecologically based courses; they had taken field trips to Springfield Lake and the Watershed Center. They also did some volunteering for a class where they helped the local Springfield Community Gardens. Another student noted they had grown up in a completely rural area and that they and their peers were all farm kids whose parents ran their own greenhouses. Most students’ experiences in ecological literacy were limited, but not all. One student wrote the following:
I remember learning about watersheds and taking a trip to a nearby river when I was in Elementary school. My teacher taught us about the ecosystem of the river, and we did a lot of hands-on learning on that field trip. Later in my K-12 education I took a biology course, and we did several labs during the class. I did engage in the environment to some degree in my K-12 years . . . In college we did so much more with the environment. I took a Utopian criticism class where we traveled to a nearby intentional community and learned about their sustainable relationship with the environment . . . I also helped found a ‘Hiking Club’ at Missouri State-West Plains.
In their response to the survey short-answer question, “Describe your experience with any ecologically based “enrichment” course(s) outside your K-16 (elementary, middle school, high school, and college) educational experience,” just over half of the students commented that they had no enrichment classes outside of their K-16 experiences. One student wrote that while in middle and high school, they participated in science fairs and all their projects had to do with the environment. Several students noted their own personal engagements with the environment, noting they liked exploring places and going to museums or “creating a course for yourself” or going to many of the natural areas throughout the Ozarks. One student wrote, “. . . when I travel somewhere new, I . . . partake in a ‘mini-course’ where people who are familiar with an area or place share history and information about it . . . even if they are really just a snapshot of the place I am visiting or discovering.” Other students wrote about their immersion in nature because they grew up on farms. Two students had experienced ecology-based summer camps during middle school that included hikes, scuba diving, and environmental and sustainability courses taught through Disney University. One urban student had participated in creative writing workshops through The Writers Place, in Kansas City, Missouri. These workshops focused upon “place” and sometimes included walks on nature trails and local neighborhoods. Another student taught summer school for 2nd and 3rd graders, focused upon teaching sustainability.
Over the three-week intersession course, students were asked to complete a culminating project of their choice, depending upon their academic major. Both undergraduate and graduate English education students could choose to create a text set and rationale for teaching a unit focused upon ecological literacy. They were to provide a brief description of the texts they might use and an explanation of how these texts each help them address the specific needs of their students. They were also asked to craft a “launching lesson,” the initial lesson of their unit that serves as a hook for the entire unit. Creative writing or professional writing majors could choose to compose in one or more genre, including fiction, poetry, or creative non-fiction. Their writing could draw upon the writing during our field trips to Hawksbill Crag and the Bull Shoals Field Station. I asked them to consider what they might write from an ecological perspective. Literature students were guided to craft a literary analysis of one of the course texts, considering a theoretical perspective to focus upon as they crafted their analysis. Of course, any student in any major was free to select any of these options. In 2019, students chose widely from these options, e.g., literary analyses of novels and poems, a proposal, short stories, poetry, and text sets and rationales. However, in the summer of 2020, only one student wrote a literary analysis; most students wrote poetry or creative non-fiction. I attributed this to the pandemic and our online modality and one of our guest speakers on Zoom, poet Amy Wright Vollmar. Vollmar’s candid conversations about her poetry elicited many meaningful questions and responses and inspired poetry writing from students.
Writing about our place is an integral part of this Ecology of the Ozarks course. In 2019, students sat near the edges of Hawksbill Crag (but not too close as I admonished them) and observed the forest and skies and wrote in their journals. At Bull Shoals Field Station, we conducted a writing marathon which included movement from one place or space to another over several hours, culminating in a read aloud held at Kim’s BBQ Shack in Kirbyville, Missouri, not far from the field station. Participants consult with their writing group members and select one of their pieces from the marathon for the read-aloud. Over several years of writing marathon experiences, I have witnessed the phenomenon of poetry, that is, when writers are in nature, they have a predilection to write poetry. And our exposure to Bull Shoals Lake was no exception:
High Water on Bull Shoals Lake
Shimmering ripples of blueish-green and white,
gliding in unison, carrying debris,
wind and fate acting as its guide.
The driftwood, remnants of yesterday’s land,
Cast out and repurposed,
Finding its place on the glassy surface.
On the shore, displaced limbs and brush
lay scattered in piles,
now home to happy residents.
Morning slowly making an exit
Sun reaching its peak
Trees shadowing like a royal canopy
As beams make an appearance through branches and leaves
Close your eyes and listen
Let the call of nature fill your ears
Allow the birds to serenade you
For a free concert is always nice
Eliminate all distractions
Let yourself be pulled in
Nature has a way with NO words
You can say it’s like a picture
Listen for the whistle of the wind
As it carries your soul into the woods
Tomorrow you’ll be a new person
For you’ve been reborn by the wind
In 2020, because of COVID restrictions, we didn’t travel to Hawksbill Crag or Bull Shoals, but I requested that students conduct their own individualized field trips, where I suggested the following: hiking a trail, sitting in your backyard, tending your garden, strolling the Springfield Conservation Nature Center or Nathaniel Greene Park, visiting some other local or a state park, or kayaking a lake or stream. I asked them to think about what they observed and to keep a field guide where they could write or draw plants, flowers, or animals. I wanted to know what they learned about this landscape/geographical area. Once again, I wasn’t surprised to witness the poetry phenomenon on full display:
In My Own Backyard
Grass covers the ground
Like a bright green carpet
you want to rub your cheek against it.
Bright red male cardinal warns his mate
And bluejay antagonizes
Until a woodpecker interrupts the dispute
To drill for a snack.
Birds of all colors
Fly in and out of trees
The perfect habitat for their nests.
A moss covered stump sits nearby
Filled with purple wildflowers
A soft reminder
In death, grows new life.
Trees sprinkled here and there
Offering the perfect amount of shade
To the east, a garden
Bordered by wire fencing
And wooden boards.
It waits to be filled
With this year’s crops.
Chickens peck the ground at a nearby woodpile
Searching for bugs
From last night’s rain.
They fear no daytime predator
In their backyard oasis.
I ask students to write a reflection at the end of the course highlighting their experiences, as a means for me to rethink and revise my curriculum choices, to gain a better understanding of what I may have missed or points of oversight. All students wrote compelling reflections about the reading and writing and field trip experiences, but one student’s response stood out:
My experience with Place Conscious Reading and Writing was one that I will cherish not only as a means through which I learned about a particular region, but in that I have learned a new way to view and approach areas where I live and travel. This class has awakened in me a greater awareness of the spaces and places around me as well as a deeper curiosity and appreciation for landscapes and even ecosystems near and far. Learning about a region through the lens of its ecology was fascinating; it revealed a new angle to not only take in and learn about my surroundings, but also allowed me to discover more about myself in terms of my interests for readings and passions for writing.
This student’s response reflects the beginning of an ecological literacy I hope will continue for a lifetime—it will take our lifetimes and beyond to sustain the ecosystem of the Ozarks. This response echoes the words of David Orr (2005) about the importance of inhabiting a place:
The study of place has . . . a significance in reeducating people in the art of living well where they are. The distinction between inhabiting and residing is important here . . . A resident is a temporary occupant . . . The inhabitant, in contrast, ‘dwells’ in ‘an intimate, organic and mutually nurturing relationship with a place’. . . A place has a human history and a geologic past; it is part of an ecosystem with a variety of microsystems, it is a landscape with a particular flora and fauna. Its inhabitants are part of a social, economic, and political order. (p. 92)
Over the past nine years, I’ve come to dwell in this place, the Ozarks, and every day, I’m in awe of its unique ecosystem. I walk trails and take photos of native species, so I can learn their names and study their habits. I have come face to face with confused and panicked deer who are now being displaced due to increased subdivision development. I sit on the banks of Wilson Creek and listen to the water rush over the rocks and investigate the nature of these rocks to understand the geology of this place and how that knowledge can teach me about a place over a millennium. At night, I listen to the coyote and owl. David Orr, too, came to inhabit the Arkansas Ozarks when he created an environmental education center, Meadowcreek, where students could come and learn on the 1,500 acres. He writes of his own experience here that “opened the door to the different possibility that education ought, somehow, to be more of a dialogue requiring the capacity to listen to the wind, water, animals, sky, nighttime sounds, and what [indigenous people] once described as earthsong” (“Recollection,” p. 104).
My future investigation of ecological literacy will include what David Greenwood names “decolonization soul work” or a cosmological homecoming, something he believes is crucial in understanding of place as land and a necessary critique of settler colonialism (p. 371). Greenwood cites Lilburn who asks all of us to “learn more about who we are, where we came from, and why we are in this place. These are our origin stories; they are cosmic, geographical, cultural and political; they tell us what and where home is” (p. 375). Scott Russel Sanders writes that it took him half his lifetime to understand how to live a grounded life, searching and traveling to find his spiritual center. His epiphany was that he must be grounded in the “land itself, with its creeks and rivers, its weather, seasons, stone outcroppings, and all the plants and animals that share it. I cannot have a spiritual center without having a geographical one; I cannot live a grounded life without being grounded in a place” (pp.120-121).
How do I teach this kind of soul work when I have barely just begun to elicit a basic ecological literacy? I’m still a newcomer to the Ozarks. I’m still learning. For me, this kind of grounding work is the ecological literacy of translation. My goal will be to learn and teach an interpretative language of translation so my students will understand how to translate the earthsongs—the language of the lake, the crag, the creek, and the cave. Over the course of two summers, my students demonstrated a language of translation as poetry. Together, we will translate our own cosmological homecoming stories, and to “never live someone else’s story, but to live as well as we can, our own story of being and becoming, and to learn to give this story voice, in the presence of others, wherever we find ourselves” (Greenwood, p. 375).
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Dr. Cathie English teaches undergraduate and graduate English education courses at Missouri State University after a twenty-two year career in secondary English education. Her research focuses upon place conscious education with an emphasis in community literacy, teacher leadership, and composition theory and practice. Her work can be found in English Journal, Journal of Literacy Innovation, “Work Ethnographies” in Writing Suburban Citizenship: Place-Conscious Education and the Conundrum of Suburbia at Syracuse University Press, and “A Forever Student Navigating Higher Education: Reflections of a First-Generation Scholar” in Teacher Reflections on Transitioning from K-12 to Higher Education at IGI Global.