Adolescence should be considered a time for adventures. Whether that is true, or not, it is clearly a time packed with its own fair share of explosive energy. It doesn’t appear to be viewed culturally as much more than a tumultuous period between the adorableness of childhood and the respectfulness of adulthood. This period of life is time often observed as needing to be navigated as quickly and safely as possible, usually within the confines of academia, where questions of personal identity are explored within known routines of study, and where youth are posited solidly on a safe road toward college and future career paths.
Our take after working closely with adolescents for 30 years now, is that youth need much more than just another four years of the educational trance, where life goes by mostly unexamined and unexplored. College in many ways becomes the institutional replacement for family, and, although rewarding and highly valuable within its own right, the independence, freedom, and encounters to be had there don’t offer the kind of unstructured opportunities where youth encounter the more full world and hear their own voice within it. Youth today need a spot of time where they can celebrate walking the edge and awaken a step further along the path to where they discover the personal genius that lies within each and every one of them. In the past, there was an instead culturally sanctioned and mythologically imbued time, that called us to redirect this restless energy that has so characterized youth throughout the ages and funnels those energies toward seeing with new eyes what the birth-rite quest of the adolescent journey should indeed be about.
Think about it for a moment. What questions did you have about life when you were 18? Can you remember any urge to get up and walk away from the routine? A time when you went for a real walk – a true Quest – out into the beckoning world, and actually took time and not your phone. Did you encounter this time, a time when your eyes and mind were open, as a magical time; a time graced by the realm of Faire, where wonder and magic met you along the road to life’s high adventure?
What is it that inspires you?
What do you want to do with this one glorious life?
These were the two questions that we posed to our group of high school seniors and juniors before setting out to walk and explore the Lake District of England as part of an annual immersive off-campus elective at our high school. Our goal for this elective was to liberate our students (and ourselves) from the classroom, daily schedules, and non-stop activity of the school year, offering them a chance to slow down, hear their own voice and, in doing so, possibly find direction for their own lives. The location we chose to explore was England’s famed Lake District and the connection to the children’s book author, Beatrix Potter.
Inspired at an early age with the spirit of the natural world, time in nature, observing, drawing, and imagining the realm of Fairie, the young Beatrix forged a lasting connection to life and a deeper understanding and appreciation of it. Having found herself then quite by chance, or luck, placed within a childhood upbringing where solitude, nature, walking, and being socially barred from educational institutions by virtue of being female, served the unlocking of her unique creative genius; creating a world of imagination that gave life to some of the world’s most unforgettable characters. Part of her gift was in being able to pursue her interests as well as the time to develop them. She was destined to become a woman very much ahead of her times, personifying what has come to be considered in our times, the environmentally conscious and responsible citizen. She later used her “Peter Rabbit” fortune to safeguard and preserve the land that became almost an extension of her, setting aside over 26 working farms, and donating upon her death over 4,500 acres of land to the National Trust – what would become the emerging nucleus of the Lakes District National Park.
The theme for our study thus became “Pottering About: From Inspiration to Action” and what we found in the Lake District, both in the life of Beatrix Potter and in our adventures through the countryside, was the new inspiration for ourselves as teachers and for the youth in our care. And a little magic as well! As most of our group was six weeks away from high school graduation, these questions were particularly timely and relevant to what was on their minds.
Pottering About evolved into a specific style of travel for us, characterized by getting to know at an intimate level the places people call home, or those places that we travel to make those appreciations of home felt more deeply. It is very much in line with and akin to the “Slow” movement, slow food, slow schools, slow travel, and just plain slow living. The guiding principles, or hallmarks, to proper Pottering, may thus be stated as 1) immersions into nature, 2) time richness, 3) being “unschooled,” and 4) life at 3 mph. All of it based upon a more relaxed rhythm where one is allowed the luxury of time – time without borders – to delve deeply into the phenomena of nature with eyes of wonder. It is a way of journeying, of going on adventures, being time rich and breaking away from all that has placed boundaries of thought around and within us. Constraints of time, deadlines, quotas, and “results” are held at bay, and a more relaxed space envelops the journey’s participant where an actively engaged mind meets the delightful wonders of any given day, time, or place. Beatrix Potter – the woman who delighted the world with her magical, and near mythical, stories of nature’s enchantment – defined and deepened this term for us when she relocated from suburban London to the Lake District and found herself gifted with this opportunity to discover in this way, not only a “sense of place”, but a “sense of self”.
We see this as the very heart or essence of journeying. Being on an adventure, wherever one travels to, for it fosters an attentive mind within the moment, where one is in that moment as opposed to being of it, or caught in the swirling constraints often imposed by our social times where life is lived in the fast lane. We travel much more humanely when moving at 3 mph as Rebecca Solnit tells us in her seminal book Wanderlust: A History of Walking. In this, she addresses the reality of our culture living in a series of interiors. The picture, or structure, of the day that she vividly paints is that of going from our homes, to our cars, to our offices or schools, to our cars again, and to a myriad of other places where we pass our days engaged in an activity. We transport ourselves to these activities, or events, via multiple means of conveyances to maximize time, and efficiently orchestrate our journeys through space to where we participate in those events and activities that give our days meaning. Yet, it is to the point where we find ourselves mostly inside or within structured areas (or interiors) and seldom connected to these places where the events occur; or what we often refer to as “home” territory, because we never really pass through those spaces such as one would if walking. It reminds us of those dot diagrams you’d do as a kid where once you connect all the dots on a page, a picture then emerges to the delight of our senses. We have all these “dots” or events within the days of our lives, but the picture, or story, connecting them into any meaningful whole never materializes. It is difficult to generate a sense of a place when the context within which that sense must sit in null and void. Kind of like a quantum world experience where we just appear and disappear into events never having to transcribe a line of time through space.
Pottering About is a way of walking and journeying, which changes the way you think, literally. Neuroscientists now know from research that idleness frees the brain and provides for more creativity and inspiration. In an article in Scientific American, Ferris Jabr reports on the study of Mary Helen Immordino-Yang of the University of Southern California and her co-authors on the Default Mode Network (DMN). Jabr says that the researchers “argue that when we are resting the brain is anything but idle and that, far from being purposeless or unproductive, downtime is, in fact, essential to mental processes that affirm our identities, develop our understanding of human behavior and instill an internal code of ethics – processes that depend on the DMN.” As teachers, we didn’t set out to necessarily put this type of research to the test with our students. Rather in our overall years of teaching and leading youth on walking adventures, we recognized what visionaries like Henry David Thoreau already knew, that when our students were allowed time to slow down and “wander aimlessly”, this often led to new insights for themselves and a feeling that they were in charge of their own lives. For juniors and seniors about to step out of the safety net of family and high school, this seems particularly necessary to finding one’s private road in life.
Allowing for a more relaxed rhythm to experience the landscape, and not having an end product in mind, is not the typical experience for most high school students. Walking, travel and time in Nature lend themselves well, but Pottering About doesn’t necessarily mean the journeyer needs to go far. We walked a short loop around the village of Grasmere and Rydal Water where William Wordsworth, the Lake District poet, walked daily, yet that simple route lent itself most adequately to producing some of the worlds greatest poetry. He didn’t refer to his daily wanderings as Pottering About, yet he did reveal that his “aimless as a cloud” walks through the Lakes District created the experience or inspirational creative opening within which he called a “spot of time” moment, where the ways being described were crucial to unlocking his creative genius. As we walked through areas of the Lake District that were favorites of Beatrix Potter we couldn’t help but appreciate all the more what she accomplished during her life in nature. Beatrix not only created some of the most popular children’s books of all time (with timeless characters), she also became a keen scientific observer whose artwork included not only Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny but more than 400 fungi water colored paintings that to this day are considered some of the best mycological illustrations to be done ever. Although Beatrix, along with, and above and beyond such an impressive body of scientific illustration, put forth to the British Botanical Society a scientific theory concerning the symbiotic nature of Lichens (50 years ahead of the theories time), she was rejected due to the singular fact of being female, and never having been formally schooled. Thankfully, she did in 1997, receive posthumously an official apology from the Linnaean Society for her treatment yet she remarked upon her lack of formal schooling with gratitude for, as she was often want to say, ”I was never sent to school, thank goodness, as it would have rubbed off some of the originality”.
As we wandered the country footpaths where Beatrix and her husband William Heelis once rambled and explored the natural beauty spots preserved by her efforts to save a countryside and its traditional ways of life, our students recognized a life well lived and were inspired by it to the point where they began to imagine their own futures. The guiding questions of “what inspires me, and what do I want to do with the life I have been given” began to take on a living process within them. We watched as our students relaxed into the questions and began to be touched by the landscape and each other. For many it was a very moving experience, feeling touched deeply in ways they couldn’t yet explain. “I don’t know how,” one young woman told us, “but I know I am a different person.” Upon our return to school, another student found herself crying and she told us she wasn’t sad, only changed and somehow reborn and renewed. For adolescents taking charge of their own futures, this time to wander in nature and to imagine their life seems vital to themselves and the world. Albert Einstein is often quoted saying, “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used to create them,” and our thought, as educators, is that we are in dire need of new thinking, and new solutions enabling us to recognize the necessity of being true citizens of the Earth. Slowing down and becoming part of nature offers up one way to open us to these new possibilities. During that time while she was following her early passion for artistic and scientific work, Beatrix Potter also kept a diary written in secret code, which insured her of a place within herself that remained safe, private, and untainted by the exterior world, family traditions, or cultural taboos. When discovered upon her death, it took a leading code breaker 7 years to decipher. Time, imagination, and originality helped her to connect to nature as well as herself. Youth, through all the ages, have needed, and continue to need, the same gifts to help decipher their own journey and to ultimately tell their personal stories.
Pottering About has become for us, as educators, about a particular approach to education as well. And one that could be of excellent service to those within its care who are looking for a far different rhythm than what the current industrial model of education has to offer with its fast-tracked pace along corridors devoid of any contact with nature. The modern factory, or industrial, model is patterned after bells and whistles going off at set times with discrete tasks of subject matter and learning ascribed to those time periods. An endless series of content based, test-driven fast food for the soul that, as an educational approach, is all too quickly becoming, and creating, a malnourished generation of youth in respect to their body, soul, and spirit. The creative spirit and the awakening of that spirit within youth are seldom sensed and is rarely realized, to the great disservice of youth as well as to the futures that beckon and call them forward.
In the past, and to some extent today, the inspiration for life emanated from and out of our cultural mythology. Myths are the language of the spirit, being clues to our most profound human possibilities. As such they are likewise intimations of what awaits the sojourner who hears the call to life’s adventure. The Hero or Heroine’s journey requires us that we harken to that call. For Beatrix Potter, that call was from the land she came to love and through which she created not only a unique sense of place but also a unique sense of herself. Our youth today deserve no less, and a fair share of that magical time we call Pottering About can bring them a sense of themselves, and of their times, which is all too quickly becoming “senseless” within these virtual times.