To Know Is to Cherish? Learning from Swedish Environmental Education

By Jensen, Ebba Lisberg | Our Schools, Our Selves, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

To Know Is to Cherish? Learning from Swedish Environmental Education


Jensen, Ebba Lisberg, Our Schools, Our Selves


Sweden has a long history of using nature as a means for pedagogical ends. In fact, the founding father of modern botany, Carl Linneaus (1707-1778), knighted as Carl von Linné, was not only a groundbreaking scientist in the 18th century, he was also known to be one of the most fascinating outdoor teachers. His pedagogy seems to have been simple - he walked the gardens and fields in and around Uppsala and talked to his herd of disciples about what he saw. Linneaus made a career out of the fact that he did not only know an enormous number of species, particularly flowers, but he was also extremely observant and an excellent storyteller. This shows in a fascinating way in his written "journeys", reports of long travels all over Sweden. These are, with modernised language, well worth reading today.

Linneaus lived during the days of the Enlightenment, when knowledge went from being the truth as told by the Church, to something new and fresh, something to be investigated and invented. Ideas central to modern science, such as thorough description of facts, methods of investigation, and the replicability of experiments, emerged in these days. And though Linneaus would not qualify as a modern scientist, a central trait in his work was simply to open his eyes and see - and then to think critically. In his "journeys," or journey reports, he presents information about provincial goods such as timber, medicinal herbs and the best methods of agriculture, (to serve the national economy), but how he often reflects on local and traditional practices, and uses of local flora and fauna. Sometimes his observations are admiring, and sometimes very criti- cal. He believed in tradi- tional knowledge and the possibility to make use of it, as when he states "if peas are cultivated, no further fertilisation is needed, the peas' stems themselves fertilise the soil". He knows nothing about nitrogen and bacteria, reporting solely on the function. But he is a scientist: he wants proof. In his "Skânska resa" (1749) (Journey to Skâne in southern Sweden), he is very sceptical about the use of a witching stick to find water or metal. He hides his purse under some grass in a meadow as a blind test. The witcher wants to search for it in one direction, but Linné claims another. Eventually, nobody can find the purse and a slight panic occurs, when all the money seems to be gone. When the witcher finally is allowed to search following the signals from his branch, he soon finds the purse in a completely different part of the meadow. I had to believe what I saw, wrote Linneaus, but he was not really convinced about the witching sticks anyway.

Linneaus also formed theories about the constitution of people: He did not primarily believe in race (his days were before the institutionalised racism that was so crucial to large-scale slavery), but presented the idea that food formed the body and temperament of people, so that the Sami, who traditionally ate mostly fish, reindeer milk and a little meat, were short and lean, quick and mobile, while people in the agricultural parts of Sweden, who consumed bread, porridge, beer and peas often grew strong, but heavy and slow.

Local people in 18th century Sweden probably knew a lot more about nature than the average Swede (or modern person anyway) does today; that is, local people had practical knowledge focused on utility. It was crucial in pre-industrial times to be able to "read" nature. Children learnt early where to graze the cattle to obtain the best milk and the fattest calves. They also learned if some species would harm the herd or decrease milk production. Boys and girls, often a little under-nourished, roamed forests and meadows to find sweet tastes in leaves or sap. Women needed to know what species could be eaten in early spring, when food was scarce and the children started to look pale and hungry. Men needed to know what kind of tree was useful for axes, for skis, for wagons etc etc. Knowledge about nature, or ecological literacy, was simply part of survival. …

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