Academic journal article Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education

Decolonising Encounters with the Murray River: Building Place Responsive Outdoor Education

Academic journal article Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education

Decolonising Encounters with the Murray River: Building Place Responsive Outdoor Education

Article excerpt

Abstract

How Australians experience a place such as the Murray River has been extensively shaped by our colonial heritage. Colonial notions of how the river ought to behave and be utilised have contributed to the transformation of the river physically, ecologically and culturally. Colonisation has also left behind an intellectual legacy in the way Australians conceptualise 'nature.' At a practical level, outdoor education experiences of the Murray that do not make reference to the particulars of the place, such as the current declining ecological health of the Murray, might well be read as an act of colonisation. In order to decolonise encounters with places, I suggest that outdoor education pedagogy develop experiences that are place specific and responsive. In this critical reflection on practice, I draw on student encounters with the Murray River to highlight ways of placing personal experiential learning into a broader cultural context in order to counter colonial understandings of 'nature' and foster deeper awareness of our relationships with the river and the land.

Introduction

For the last few years I have been developing outdoor education experiences in a tertiary setting that seek to connect students with the Murray River (or parts of it), and the socio-ecological understandings that have shaped its declining health. The undergraduate students I work with typically go on to become educators in outdoor, environmental or community education or with natural resource management agencies. In the subject 'River Environments' we explore different sections of the Murray using both canoes and walking as modes of travel1. Our canoe journeys down the river are focused on seeing the multiple ways people utilize, understand and impact on the Murray. On these journeys we travel enough distance to see different aspects of the Murray but not too far that the focus becomes the activity of canoeing (that is, we use canoes to see the river, not canoe the river for the sake of the activity). While I teach students how to be safe and comfortable in the outdoors, I primarily focus on ways of seeing or observing the surrounding world and how people, including ourselves, might relate to and understand it. We typically spend time watching birds, exploring billabongs or get off the river to wander in the forest. As part of each experience, which are usually 3 or 4 days long, I ask students to reflect on their encounters with the river, and how the experience has shaped their learning and understanding of the state of the Murray.

I have generated these experiences out of a desire to connect students with the Murray in emotional and physical ways, but also to build awareness of the health of the river that is shaped by structural aspects of our culture. This is framed by my concern that outdoor education experiences that do not refer to the particulars of a place run the risk of perpetuating the Western and colonial intellectual tradition of assuming all places are empty of history, both natural and cultural. While the devastating impact colonialism has had on the Australian environment has been well documented (see for example Bolton, 1992; Lines, 1991), little attention appears to have been devoted in outdoor education to the intellectual legacy this has left behind. In this paper I wish to share some of the material I have encountered in my endeavour to develop place sensitive and responsive experiences that challenge colonial understandings of 'nature' and place in Australia. This paper, therefore, is part discussion of the colonial legacy we are faced with in Australia in developing place-responsive education, and part voice of the students who have been involved in these experiences. Students' accounts of the river, placed in a broader cultural context of how the river is conceptualised, provide me with hope that placesensitive and responsive education can provide an alternative to colonial understandings of nature. …

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