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: