Academic journal article Australian Journal of Outdoor Education

What Can Environmental History Offer Outdoor Education Practitioners?

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Outdoor Education

What Can Environmental History Offer Outdoor Education Practitioners?

Article excerpt


The landscape can be seen as a site, a background or a focus for Outdoor Education. Whichever is the case for any particular event, there are strong connections between the practices of Outdoor Education and the land. These can be enhanced by incorporating environmental history into our knowledge, skills and actions. Australians in general have a very tentative grasp of those aspects of human/nature relationships that are about the role of time and human presence as manifested in the landscape. Some Outdoor Education practice actively discourages development of better understanding of these relationships through over- emphasis on wild or pristine places. This paper argues that we can not only enhance the experiences of our participants and minimise our impacts on the land, but also develop our political role in land use and management decisions through a stronger focus on environmental history as it can be seen in both 'every day' and 'wild' landscapes.

Outdoor Education and the landscape

For some Outdoor Education practitioners, the landscape is mainly a site offering particular opportunities, such as a cliff or a river. For others it is a background, offering generalised impressions, a pleasant, maybe a spectacular enhancement of their own physical presence. For others it is the conscious focus of some or all of their experiences, a powerful teaching and learning tool in its own right. In all three situations, the practices of Outdoor Education relate clearly and strongly to the land and to land management. At the very least, a group or repeated groups of users must have an impact on a place, and at most, a place has the actual or latent capacity to have a powerful impact on a group, or some of its members. This is the case whether or not the practitioner in charge of a particular event is aware of the full range of values, or the effects of their group's presence on the places they visit.

So as professionals using a finite resource, we have a lot to gain from being well informed and skilful in presenting the land and its story. The benefits of using such an approach can be gained by participants, by the profession, and by the land itself. Environmental history, applied either to the whole landscape or to particular sites, is a rich and varied tool, but not one that is often used in Outdoor Education. It is used by various ecotourism activities and national park interpretive programs, but outdoor educators usually only make passing use of environmental history when it appears in interpretive material and rarely incorporate it seriously into their programs.

Indeed, the idea of using historical knowledge in field experiences has hardly been mentioned in Outdoor Education journal articles or other forums. An experiential approach using history, sometimes on site, was outlined in The Journal of Experiential Education (Crew, Brown & Lackie, 1978) but this was a once only occasion for the topic. In the Australian Journal of Outdoor Education there is only brief acknowledgment that historical observation and cognitive knowledge about the settings for outdoor activities are possibly valuable. Examples include looking down on the cleared agricultural land of the Wimmera plains from Mount Arapiles and reflecting on topsoil loss (Martin, 1996, p. 8), or visiting an Aboriginal art site and reflecting on spiritual human/nature relationships (Nettleton, 1995, p. 9).

Yet Outdoor Education lends itself very well to historical approaches. Being field-based, Outdoor Education provides immediacy, stimulus and curiosity, and direct access to the landscape itself, the teaching material. These advantages could be used to gain more meaning and interest from the places we visit, as well as enabling a different perspective on our activities in them.

Discovering Monaro is one of the first and best environmental histories written about Australia. In researching it, Keith Hancock walked and talked his way over the Monaro Tableland and the Main Range (now Kosciuszko National Park), taking as his maxim the saying of historian R. …

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