OF PLACE AND EDUCATION
From High Winterages to Haute Cuisine in the Blink of an Eye
By DAVID SOBEL
David Sobel is a regular essayist and contributing editor of Community Works Journal and is a Senior Faculty in the Education Department at Antioch University New England. He also coordinates Antioch's new Nature-based Early Childhood program. Through his writing, speaking, and teaching, Through his writing, speaking, and teaching, David plays a major role in what has become a national movement promoting place-based education, an approach that has blossomed—from studying biology in the school yard to creating mapping businesses, and other neighborhood services. Each is an exercise in changing the way students learn about the environment and their place in it. David advocates using students' home turf to study topics and issues related to sustainability, not just ecology but also local history, culture, and the economy. David is the author of a number of books including Children’s Special Places and Beyond Ecophobia.This article was originally published by Burren Insight magazine.
In August 2012, the Burrenbeo Trust, an Irish landscape and cultural preservation non-profit, organized the symposium ‘From Apathy to Empathy –Reconnecting People and Place.’
This unique event brought together leading national and international thinkers and practitioners who specialize in the theme of place-based learning. Place-based learning encourages the use of the local environment as a learning resource. It immerses individuals in local heritage, culture and landscape, encouraging them to become more aware of their place.
The symposium featured a combination of keynote lectures at the Burren College of Art in Ballyvaughan, themed workshops in venues across the beautiful village of Kinvara and site-based workshops in the stunning Burren landscape. Questions explored during the event included: What are the benefits, for people and places, of place-based learning? What is best practice worldwide in engaging and inspiring people with regard to their place? And how can the Burren, Ireland’s ultimate outdoor classroom, be better utilized and developed as a learning landscape?
Jen Kramer and I attended the symposium. I offered the opening talk and both Jen and I provided workshops that engaged participants in the history and ecology of the Burren, one of the few glaciated, limestone landscapes in Europe. Prior to and during the symposium, we hiked, caved and biked this compelling landscape. For the annual publication of the Burrenbeo Trust, I provided the following essay.
"That’s the loop to do, right there,” Brendan Dunford stabbed the map with his forefinger. “That’ll get you up high, give you a good taste of the Burren.” Really, it was a feast rather than just a taste.
Jen and I wanted the quintessential Burren bike ride, something that got us up in the high winterages, close to the sky, away from the tourist buses. We started just east of Carron, where the road diverges—one lane continuing east down across the turlough and then up and over the ridge towards Boston. The other heading north, past the Burren Perfumery rising through farms and along the flanks of Gortaclare Mountain and Slievecarran.
As soon as we passed the lane into the Perfumery, the road felt lost and lonely, reminiscent of the moors in Devon where I have tramped many miles. Passing through a farm in Doonmoor (Keep the Burren Fracking Free!), we switch-backed gently higher to the crest of the ridge. Here we tasted the first dish of our Burren feast, that sense of high mountain, sub-alpine exhilaration even though we were at an altitude of only about 250 meters. It’s a unique aspect of the Burren to be able to get that way-up-high feeling with comparatively little effort or elevation gain.
Swooping down the far side toward Slievecarran, we stopped at an abandoned cottage, only the barn still in use for farming equipment storage. We shuffled through the broken glass and wall board, imagined a family of 8 or 10 packed into two small bedrooms, huddled around the meager heat from a peat fire, tired after the senseless work of constructing a famine road. This living historical record of recent history and the raft of ancient artifacts of portal tombs, towers, ringforts, abbeys and fire rings is another unique Burren feature. It’s as if all of Irish history was boiled down and concentrated into an historical gumbo-- so near at hand and yet reaching so far back into history.
At the bottom of the hill, we turned right, towards the church site at Glencoulumbkille. We rode along a narrow tunneled lane, thick with hawthorne thickets on either side, lined with little tucked-away farms with rubber-booted children and ponies. This was an intimate landscape, the antithesis of the windswept and wide open pavement summits, the secret-around-every corner-and-in-every-cleft Burren. We’d experienced this the day before on a walk to Temple Cronan with Brendan and his two young boys. We delved into the grykes of the pavement to find compact pastures of wildflowers. From tiny potholes in the pavement, we picked up whole miniature gardens intact—soil, roots, primrose, wild thyme, bloody cranesbill. These little potholes were a microcosm of the sweeping rich and rocky pavement meadows--just the way the Burren is a microcosm of the ecology and history of much of Ireland. Strolling pasture lanes we came to another treasure—a holy well of limestone-filtered water. Do you remember treasure balls from your childhood where you unraveled a ball of continuous ribbon and as you unraveled you’d come upon a series of tiny toys?
At the Glencoulombkill corner we turned right for the cardio portion of our ride. Like the Alpe d’Huez climb, but oh so much easier, maybe eight or nine short hairpins rather than twenty-one long ones, but just as satisfying. Then the long swoopy plunge down to the turlough below and back past our starting point to a well-deserved repast at the Burren Perfumery. From the windy winterages to haute cuisine in the blink of an eye. The carrot-ginger soup, fresh mesclun, apple raspberry juice, tart cheddar on toast represented the distinctive flavors of each part of the ride. After lunch we watched children on a patch of pavement adjacent to the Perfumery—the gryked pavement is a giant natural hopscotch board. The pavement is perfectly fractured to create a wide range of challenges from tiny little hops to long risky leaps. It reminded me of Burrenbeo’s Wild Child exploration days that give parents and children the opportunity to roam and play freely in this family-friendly landscape. This just “beo-ing” in the landscape is an integral part of developing the sense of place that in turn becomes the foundation for stewardship behavior later in life.
At the end of the day we sat outside at Carron’s Pub and had pints of Guinness and Smithwick’s. Looking across the valley we could see different soil types and depths represented in the differentiated flora. We could trace centuries-old boundary lines running perpendicular to the hill in the old walls. Here a dolmen, there a rock fort, there a recently reclaimed field through the efforts of the Burren Farming for Conservation program. So exciting to see ecological preservation and sustainable agriculture working hand-in-hand, and so unlike many of the ranchers vs. environmentalists battles in the western United States.
A few days later we munched out way through the Kinvara Farmer’s Market—vivid carrots and heirloom tomatoes, hand-made pretzels, German sausages, a panoply of cheeses. I was even tricked into tasting, and liking, an odd-flavored cheddar that was made from goat’s milk—goat cheese has always been a personal gustatory challenge. The market was another microcosm--the bounty of the Burren all gathered together in one place—and it illustrates a different way of thinking about schools.
Schools, in Ireland and in the United States, have progressively become isolated from their surrounding landscapes and communities. Children learn that the nearby is mundane and insignificant; what’s faraway is glamorous and important. Instead, especially in the primary years, education should be rooted in what’s local and unique about their places. These local places and traditions—the dolmens of the Burren, the rich flora, the farming heritage—can be windows into the wider world of history, science and agriculture. Moreover, writing and math are more engaging when you’re writing a story about yesterday’s stream adventure or solving a real problem about shopping at the local market. Our high winterages bike ride and our tasting tour of the Kinvara Farmer’s Market provided a feast for the senses and for the mind. Similarly, the Burren has the potential to serve as an educational feast for the young hearts and minds of Galway and Clare children. And for the wider world as well.
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