Ecology, technology and learning: education for sustainability

This blog has always felt like a strange tangled mess. I’m only starting to value how important it is to me to have all of this cringe-worthy writing collected in one place. I started writing here because I was on a precipice — an unknown learning experience.

Here I am again, 19 years later.

I’m finally about to pursue a longing that has haunted me for at least 16 years. It’s something I have said many times in writing that I wouldn’t pursue. However, it kept pursuing me. The idea of it.

I start my PhD (Society and Culture) in 2024.

My plan is to use this space to reflect on my research over the forthcoming years. At the broadest level of explanation, my research spans three great curiosities of mine, particularly in those magical spaces when they converge: ecology, technology and learning.

All I know is that everything is interconnected. I know that somehow, there are strands related to the gentle way of learning design that has been mulling; the unobservable universe of learning; and even, way back, there is quiet design. There are also connections to where I have left big gaps of silence in between posts here, where there are no words to hyperlink to.

More to come as I start this new adventure in 2024…

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Book Review: Orbital by Samantha Harvey

Thank you to the publisher, Grove Atlantic via Net Galley, for an advanced reading copy of this literary fiction novel about Earth from space.

This book review is also published on NetGalley.

Samantha Harvey, Orbital, Grove Atlantic, 5 December 2023, 208 pp., ISBN 9780802161543.

Book cover Image of Orbital by Samantha Harvey with the book title and text overlaid on a colourful planets background.
Cover Image:

Orbital by Samantha Harvey is an astute and astounding perspective of Earth, told through the eyes, hearts and minds of four [fictional] astronauts (American, Japanese, British, Italian) and two cosmonauts (Russian) who live just above Earth in a space station. They observe and reflect on our strange and fascinating planet and our weird human propensity to nurture and simultaneously destroy everything excellent on Earth. Harvey’s capacity to contrast extremes makes for moving reading. When expressing the physical and mental toll of being in orbit on the human body or the interplay of the characters observing both natural and constructed planetary systems, there is turbulence and a deep gentleness too.

Stunning passages of landscape writing made me pause to re-read and contemplate the mind-boggling diversity of Earth’s geography with a new perspective. Whilst Orbital is a very human story, delving into the relationships of the astronauts and cosmonauts, this is also about our global mother, Mother Earth. Orbital can be seen from many perspectives: a sustainability warning, the shifting baselines of our views on our race of progress, or a story that can shift us into systems thinking.

Reading Orbital reminded me of an experience when using Google Earth to browse the internal technology of the International Space Station interior a few years ago. As I zoomed in on the crew’s storage area, I was surprised, amused and yet deeply heartened to find a hard copy atlas of the world stowed safely into the baggage. Something about that tangible atlas amidst such sophisticated technology shifted my perspective as Orbital has. To realise that we can still feel lost, even with everything in our sights.

Whether you are a cloud appreciator, a storm chaser, a yearning armchair geographer or just open to contemplating the wonder and woe of humans as earth shapers, Orbital is beautiful and profoundly thought-provoking in a way that may change you.

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Book Review: Mars Awakens by H M Waugh

There are some brilliant novels around that crossover between my favourite realms; sustainability and space. Although I am busy finishing up my Honours thesis on sustainability education (the reason my posts here have been scant in the last few years!), I feel a massive urge to share these books as widely as I can. A book from Australian author, H M Waugh, Mars Awakens has been one such book!

But, why space and sustainability?

I can’t fathom how much time has past to see that it was back in 2015 when I was asking myself whether the night sky/space are some our most overlooked resources for learning:

 …is the night sky one of our most complex and sophisticated thinking tools? It’s often visible with the naked eye, and, is free – but sometimes, strangely, overlooked? (An unlearning activity, Part 1)

I still wonder this, every time I read a sci-fi that has sustainability woven in. Thinking from the perspective of space always seems to provide a powerful narrative and a way of shifting perspectives, with the possibility of experiencing a paradigm shift about Earth.

Mars Awakens – a novel by H M Waugh

I’ve attempted to explain what on Earth (or Mars) I mean about space and sustainability, in my recent post about the novel Mars Awakens by H M Waugh, aimed at middle-grade readers. It’s one of the novels that I can see being fantastic for some of the philosophical and paradigm-shifting thinking with sustainability education.

This was an advanced reading copy, and my full review of this book is published at Reading Time.

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Learning design, the gentle way

What would a gentle learning design feel like?

Within the constant hecticness of learning design (or instructional design, educational design), we often need to take refuge from the fray, away from performative pressures and ever-scaling up in learning and teaching. In a world besieged by the fast and the loud, gentle learning design invites us to linger in a quieter, slower, more careful contemplation of our learning and teaching ways.

What would it look like if we give ourselves time to consider the possibilities inherent in the humble power of ‘gentleness’ and to explore how gentleness might be expressed in our existing educative practices?

Can we go gently into, and with, learning design?

Philosophy of gentle…

Gentle is a choice, a way. We are at liberty to invite it, offer it, preserve it, reveal it, and note its presence and absence in our higher education practices. 

Gentle is not one way, but multiple ways, because it supports learners and teachers to find their own way. It meets you where you are.

Gentle does not insist, but gives way. It leaves, and returns as needed. 

Gentle is not an opposing force, but works with and within the existing ways of systems of thoughts, practices and activities. It can be a perspective within that system. 

Gentle sways along a spectrum. It is the movement that ebbs and flows between extremes, the adaptive <>.

It is the structure in freedom, and the freedom in structure.

When the way itself is unclear, start with Gentle, and it will meet you half-way

Gentle is always only ever on the way. Gentle’s destination cannot be known in advance. As such it is friendly to slowness, waiting, partialness, uncertainty, mistakes, reversals, and changing one’s mind. 

Gentle reveals the way itself to be the destination, after all. As such, it has the quality of a gift. 

Nicci and Angela say:

We took a long time to come to this simple message. We thought alot and talked alot about what was important to us. We nearly ran a course. We nearly curated a bunch of resources. But the effort of constructing that seemed somehow to go against the grain of our intention. We thought – what is all this gentleness really about, for us? At heart, it is a philosophy – so we tried to find a few words for that. Thank you for reading it.

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Dark matter mystery: The crystal in a golden cave

It might seem strange to launch into a post about dark matter, having not written here for over a year?

To explain, it’s not because I have had nothing to write about. I’ve had another long episode of balance and neurological issues during 2021. There is confusion, speculation and debate amongst specialists about whether this is Meniere’s disease or something else. I’m caught in the middle of theories. I’m not ready to write about any of that yet. It hijacks my life for months at a time and I fight it each time. I’m not entirely comfortable with the not-knowing.

After ten years of mystery, I’m not hopeful of an explanation any time soon.

I’m also running out of the energy I use trying to hide constant disequilibrium. My brain is tired of keeping up the perception of uprightness. With this in mind, I’ve started to try to reveal it more to others. To accept it as part of me. Additionally, I can console myself by pondering that Earth’s jaunty tilt of 23 degrees is a vital attribute for life on this planet. Feeling the world always slightly off-kilter and defying straight lines of navigation is like experiencing a fundamental truth.

What I do seem to enjoy while all of this is going on, is is running full pelt into learning about topics that I am comfortable with not-knowing. In other words, the entire universe! Sorry everyone, I’m reading about dark matter again!

Dark matter.

It’s the invisible mass in our universe that we are striving to understand and make visible.

It is a concept of science (astrophysics and particle physics) that I jump into through popular science explanations for pure enjoyment.

While my journey of understanding has taken place over many years, I don’t document my learning, except in messy scrawled notebooks. I periodically mention dark matter on this blog, because it tends to surface in my writing and thinking (2016, 2017, 2018). Each time I explore, I try to delve a bit deeper and push my understanding. I read books and watch talks. Most recently, I caught up on Dark Matter: Crash Course Astronomy #44 [12 mins]. This is a great quick round-up if you are new to the idea of dark matter.

I think about the concept of dark matter in different ways. I try to grapple with the maths here and there. It is such a slow understanding for me to shift into mathematics. I don’t think that I will ever have the mathematical language to explain it, but I listen to those who do and can. I push my brain to its limits to understand.

Theories about dark matter are something I think about frequently. They are part of my inner wonder. Significantly, when I look at the night sky, I try to pay more attention to the dark. I try to expand my understanding of the science of Indigenous people who know that the dark parts of the sky are the areas that matter more, because there is more matter! I watch the rotation curves in the pattern of spiral galaxies that form on the surface of hot chocolate and wonder.

A hot cup of physics

I will keep asking dumb questions, even if I don’t always get answers:

Watching spiral galaxies forms in a cup

With attention to all of this, it seems that questions and clues about the invisible universe are all around us.

Ghosts in the dark

I also recently indulged in a Royal Society of Victoria talk The Universe and its Dark Materials [1 hour 20 mins] by Professor Alan Duffy. He explains some of the ways that we are looking for the ‘ghost’ that is dark matter. There is also a shorter 10-minute version if you can’t stretch to the longer video.

Some of the key concepts to understand about the evidence for dark matter seem to be gravitational lensing, rotation curves of spiral galaxies, modified gravity, cosmic microwave background, large scales structures, gamma-ray emissions and direct detection. I can get my head around most of these. I just stare at the equations, hoping that one day they will make sense.

A crystal in a cave

The Royal Society talk includes a mention of the very exciting direct detection experiment, SABRE (Sodium Iodide with Active Background Rejection Experiment). This project involves a spectacular underground lab site here in Australia. On an extremely simplistic level, the idea of SABRE is that over three years, this deep underground experiment is watching to see a crystal glow to observe dark matter. The Stawell Underground Dark Matter Lab is nearing completion. It should begin operation in 2022 and I will be following, even though I don’t understand even half of what they are doing down there.

I don’t know how anyone can stroll past the idea – a crystal shielded deep an old gold mine, that could detect the invisible mass in the universe! I find this story impossible to ignore!

A comet in the sky

This week, gazing through my astro-binoculars at the light of Comet Leonard that last passed us 80,000 years ago is another humble lesson. Certainly, the observable universe is astonishing as much as the unobservable universe is baffling.

We live in incredible times for understanding the universe through the most bonkers and compelling ideas in physics. Physics is thrilling and mind-boggling and I feel sorry that I am arriving late at this party. Hopefully it is never really too late fall under the enchantment of science.

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Book Review: Drowned Country by Emily Tesh

This review of Drowned Country by Emily Tesh was originally published on Netgalley with thanks to Tor for the advanced reading copy.

After surfacing from the spell of the related novella, Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh, I could not stop thinking about the opportunity to return to the leafy paths of Greenhollow Wood in Drowned Country. I have never been so eager to be lost in the woods.

Cover Image Drowned Country by Emily Tesh

Drowned Country is a story of epic love, and the complexity of the burden of love too. Set within an ancient mythic forest, every character seems to have an archetypal echo. Yet they battle with the boundaries of their power so entangled in human flaws. The deep love between Henry Silver and Tobias, both enigmas to each other, is not just their love story, but the timeless ever told tales of the wild man of the woods, green man stories and the kings and queens of fairy.

In Drowned Country, more of Greenhollow’s folklore is unearthed to readers, from supernatural dryads and demon lords to the human folklorists who have both kept and destroyed the history and stories of the forest. Perhaps the most fearsome power of all is Henry Silver’s mother, who despite being quite mortal, seems to have the most formidable control of all.

The seasonal cycle of dark and light in the forest and the recurring patterns of folklore and myth whirl the reader along with Henry Silver, Tobias and company, as they venture across the threshold of the wildwood into faery to find a missing girl, Maud Lindhurst. There are unforeseen and epic consequences. Although an expedition tale, I love the pace of this story that pauses for delightful dialogue and description of Greenhollow’s forest glades. It’s a tale told in the mystery of old forest-time, over aeons and day.

I could read so much more of Greenhollow Wood, and Tobias and Henry Silver. I hope that Drowned Country isn’t the last time the thorny thickets and brambles beckon readers through a gap and into this world of wild gods.

The forest of Greenhollow feels like a personality in itself, alive and interacting in the story. In this way Drowned Country reminds me of powerful mythopoetic stories of portal woods, such as Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock. Lovers of the likes of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust or Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke will particularly enjoy the dark brooding menace of fairy in this adventure beyond the mortal boundaries of Greenhollow Wood.

This review of Drowned Country by Emily Tesh was originally published on Netgalley with thanks to Tor for the advanced reading copy.

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An unexpected adventure in sustainable living

From mid-July to October, my life is temporarily shifting gear a bit. We were asked to use up excess leave at work. Usually, this leave would be preciously cached for school holidays. I’d use it to look after my children in the summer holidays or family trips to see our loved ones who are overseas. Things are of course very different in 2020.

Whilst I could usually easily fill the time with house chores, cooking, D.I.Y., reading novels and walks to wild places, I have also been facing a new health challenge since March this year. It means that I really don’t know how much physical work I’ll be capable of over the next few months. I’m immunocompromised and my physical abilities have fluctuated over the last few months. Things may get worse before they get better. I know it’s time to be serious about it and to properly respect my limits. I start a journey of seeing specialists next week and I have really no idea about what this will involve.

To tackle a period of uncertainty like this, I just need a plan. At the core is something to keep my mind engaged, with a bonus if my body will allow me to do anything practical.

Frugally hedonistic retro suburban sustainable living (!)

Mind-bending. I’m starting the University of Tasmania Diploma of Sustainable Living distance course.

Two particular books will also be my inspiration for the next few months:

  1. RetroSuburbia: The Downshifter’s Guide to a resilient future by David Holmgren
  2. The Art of Frugal Hedonism: a guide to spending less while enjoying everything more by Annie Raser-Rowland with Adam Grubb

I’ll be setting goals based on my learning experiences and aiming to write regularly to keep myself motivated and to share the learning adventure.

My steps may be small and slow, but I feel like I am taking new leaps into something I started a few years ago with the Living Smart sustainable living course and Geoff Lawton’s permaculture design certificate course.

Perhaps my focus will be mostly about how to take our current front-yard and back-yard farming approach just even further into the realms of permaculture and self-sustainability.

To me, this seems like a particularly basic but brilliant use of the most precious resource of all – time.

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A magical potting shed – The Burrow

Creating a magical potting shed

Back in February 2020, my husband converted the bespoke kid’s cubby house at the bottom of the garden into a roomier version that would be a potting shed for me. The kids had outgrown it and he achieved the transformation by dropping the floor height and cutting a larger door and patching up the floor.

I had never had my own shed before. I decorated the inside with things that I have had forever and leftover paint. I probably got slightly carried away, because The Burrow became something far more than I imagined.

The front of the potting shed showing a stone plaque of a green man and a handmade sign 'The Burrow'
A green man I’ve had for years from the UK. I made the sign from scrap wood

Potting sheds for practical magic

I didn’t imagine how important having a potting shed would be. I didn’t imagine loving a shed.

The front of the wooden potting shed showing a wooden door with a dragonfly knocker.
The door is recycled from an old house, split to form a barn door. The door handle from a different old door, the door knocker was a gift.

It is practical for gardening, because it makes seed keeping and sowing easier. I can now always find my tools and access things to keep my chickens happy.

Inside the potting shed with garden tools hooked onto spaces on the walls.
Places for some simple tools

But also, on another level, because I made it a place of whimsy, it’s just a quirky little space, a sanctuary where I can just have a cup of tea for five minutes. Where I feel connected to growing, the garden and permaculture thinking.

A few simple tools

I can fit regular small-scale seed sowing in more easily to life because it is an organised space. The kids have used the potting shed too, planting radishes and drawing art for inside it.

A panoramic photograph of the wooden bench in the shed.
Practicality – a potting bench with storage underneath

There is just something about it that feels…otherworldly. Looking at it, and stepping inside is strangely comforting. It’s real magic.

Reusing and upcycling

What I loved about this project was that we reused and recycled what we could. We bought the minimum items needed where we could not source second hand. My husband found an incredible old door for sale nearby and converted it into a half-opening barn door.

A photo of the potting shed with evening sun lighting the door.
Evening sun on the beautiful reclaimed door

Inspiration for “The Burrow”

Our chicken coop is called “The Bothy” so I needed a name for my potting shed. It felt right to call my potting shed “The Burrow” – a name borrowed from the Harry Potter series.

The window of the potting shed looking out to a young lemon tree.
The southern window, peeking out to the lemon tree

“The Burrow” potting shed is inspired by the quirky Weasley family home in the Harry Potter novels with a twist of Newt Scamander’s shed from Fantastic Beasts (alas, without the suitcase entry!). It’s also a bit of a Hobbity place somehow and a bit Beatrix Potter.

All fantastic worlds collide in my head, and my shed!

Looking in through the window, with cobwebs and a solar light inside.
Solar lights in a jar for a little light inside, cobwebbed windows encouraged
A leaf-shaped plate with the words of W B Yeats inscribed "The world is full of magic things patiently waiting for our sense to grow sharper".
A quirky plate with a quote from my favourite poet, W.B. Yeats
“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”
Seeds organised in old shoe boxes, flower presses
Saved Black hollyhock seeds with a bit of imagination and a broken but beloved mug.
An insect hotel made from bamboo sticks, attached to the outside of the potting shed.
Open to all fantastic mini-beasts – the insect hotel
A Beatrix Potter window decal.
Mixing in a bit of a Beatrix Potter

I used anything I had in the house – like a teapot that I loved but being clumsy, I had dropped it and broken the handle. Perfect for a bit of fun in the potting shed…

Mr Todd in a teapot. Peter Rabbit is on the shelf below.

Gardening like farmer, farming like a gardener

With a green man keeping a watchful eye on the outside of the burrow, it seemed right to have one on the inside. Who better than the source of inspiration for all my gardening adventures in Australia, but Costa Georgiadis!

I had a magazine page (from Earth Garden magazine) that I had stuck onto an old baking tray with a quote from Costa Georgiadis…

“And at the end of the day, it’s all about gardening like a farmer and farming like a gardener”

Costa Georgiadis
The potting shed wall with a portrait of Costa Georgiadis by Adelaide artists Joan and Rose.
A magazine page (Earth Garden) stuck onto an old baking tray
with a quote from Costa Georgiadis…

My brother and sister in law know I am a Costa Georgiadis fan and had bought me this beautiful art by local artist Joan and Rose. It just felt right to have Costa as a green man in the potting shed and I’m fairly sure it’s why the chickens love visiting the shed so much.

I had an epiphany learning how to build soil through his series ‘Costa’s Garden Odyssey’. Having Costa as the Southern Hemisphere green man of the inside of my potting shed seems right and I hope he doesn’t mind.

The potting shed wall with a portrait of Costa Georgiadis by Adelaide artists Joan and Rose.
Beautiful art by local artist Joan and Rose.

On a sunny day I can brew water for tea in my Sun Rocket solar camping kettle. The potting trolley (“Any plants from the trolley?”) was our second child’s baby change table, which my husband converted into a moveable potting table.

A Sun Rocket solar kettle outside the potting shed.
Sun Rocket solar camping kettle and the potting trolley.
A chicken sitting on the open barn door of the potting shed.
The chickens know that there is a chamber of secrets – a tasty cache of sunflower seeds inside.
Looking out from the potting shed in autumn.
Late autumn from inside the potting shed – the plum tree just losing its leaves
The Burrow, nestled at the bottom of the garden.
Our block is 874m2.

During the project, I kept a Potting Shed Pinterest board with images that were inspiration for the inside.

I hope sharing this modest little potting shed, “The Burrow” will give some of you some inspiration to pursue your own idea of a little magical upcycled potting shed.

You never know when you might need a little space for some spells of green magic in your life.

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The turn of the year

Although months later than usual, today I did one of my favourite annual rituals of taking a yield of beautifully scented wood from the Vitex agnus-castus known along the ages as Chaste Tree, Abraham’s Balm, Monk’s pepper amongst other mysterious names.

History of The Chaste Tree

Chaste Tree has an ancient history, with its use referenced in literature and poetry. It is still used today in herbal medicine practices.

In a medieval poem The Floure and the Leafe which was written anonymously in Middle English, a beautiful lady in white wears a crown of Vitex agnus:

“On her head, of leves fresh and grene,
So wele wrought, and so mervelously,
That it was a noble sight to sene.
Some of laurer, and some ful pleasantly
Had chapelets of woodbind, and sadly
Some of Agnus castus were also
Chapelets fresh. 

According to its effect on the human body, if Chaucer’s characters for example, had ingested this herb more, let’s just say that The Canterbury Tales would certainly have less rudey-bits and rumpy-pumpy! This herb could have saved me from SO MUCH blushing as a Medieval Literature student when having to read Chaucer aloud!

Harvesting Vitex agnus

I have written about this annual task before because of how seasonal the task feels as a ritual. I only began to value it in this way, as a recurring seasonal task after spending six months with my head in a permaculture course. I discovered that the actual yield is not about measuring the yield of wood…which is quite small.

It’s more about connection to the cycle of seasons. Thinking about the ancient history of this tree, valued enough to be in poem and story. A sensory trigger from the feel and scent of the beautiful wood.

You can cut Vitex down to ground level and you can grow it as a single trunk tree or shrub.

The Wood

What I love about this task is the scent of this wood. It is really unique and hard to describe. It reminds me of patchouli wood perhaps mixed with pine but far more distinct. When dried it retains its scent and burns sweetly.

The Floure

Stunning blooms of Vitex agnus

The white spikes of summer flowers are very similar to Buddleia and attract many butterflies, bees and hover flies. I’ve observed that native Australian blue-banded bees seem to find the white flowers fascinating, even though their preference is for blue hues.

Vitex agnus is just one of those quiet plants that I don’t see often, but is a special, brilliant and appreciated part of my small permaculture inspired garden.

Removing spindly flower tops

The start of a little scented stick pile which becomes a small armful.

The first phase, now ready for each branch to be taken.

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sharing wild spells of magic found in nature, books, stories, backyard farming, ecology, permaculture


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