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Archive for December, 2014

I had the opportunity recently to introduce my three-months-old great granddaughter, Zoe, to my garden, access to which is through a fairly densely stocked fernery. I had no idea how Zoe would react. Most of her waking hours during her visit were spent wooing a parade of doting adults with smiles, chuckles, cute noises and much arm and leg activity.

In the fernery, her behaviour was very different. No smiling or vocalising, no arm raising or leg kicking – just sitting quietly in my arms with eyes steadily fixed on the plants.IMG_0352 cropped She was content to hold her little body in this posture for well over five minutes while I moved slowly along the fernery and around the garden. There was virtually no head turning in search of another interest. Her behaviour was the same when I repeated the exercise the following day.

Exactly what was claiming Zoe’s attention is not clear. It may simply have been the novelty of the change from indoor to outdoor scenery or the patterns made by the filtered sunlight. But there was something about the steadiness and persistence of her gaze to indicate that the plants themselves were the focus of her interest.

I suspect that Zoe was displaying her biophilia – her innate predisposition to find plants (along with other living things) intrinsically interesting. According to the biophilia concept, humans are born with both a desire to connect with nature and the mental “skills” and preferences to act on that desire.

But this does not mean that, when she is older, Zoe will be in a rush to touch and taste leaves and other parts of plants. Results from a series of experiments conducted by Yale University researchers, Annie Wertz and Karen Wynn, indicate that infants are inherently wary about exploring plants manually. They are not afraid of, or uninterested in, plants, just cautious about handling them.

This finding does not run counter to the biophilia concept. Quite the contrary – it helps us appreciate what a nuanced concept it is. Many plants have thorns, spikes, hairs, oils and toxins that can be dangerous, even deadly, to humans. The human brain has responded to these “ancestral dangers” by evolving protective mechanisms that prompt the kind of caution observed by Wertz and Wynn. These mechanisms are as much part of the biophilia package as is the predisposition to “like” nature.

And there is even more to the story. In a separate series of experiments, the same two researchers found evidence that the instinctive reluctance of infants to touch plants is offset by an innate ability to learn rapidly from others how to respond appropriately to plants. Wertz and Wynn had infants (8 and 18 months of age) watch an adult take and eat food (an item of dried fruit) from a real plant as well as from a similar looking artificial plant and an object made roughly to look like the real plant.  Although the behaviour of the adult was identical in all trials, the infants learned significantly faster to take food from the plant. It seems that this is something their brains were selectively primed to do.

learning_about_environment Infants display a similar kind of selective and rapid social learning in relation to other well-known “ancestral threats” – snakes and spiders.

I am looking forward to many more opportunities to watch Zoe discover the natural world. She is a fortunate little girl as she lives in a semi-rural area with plants and animals all around. If the findings of numerous research studies are anything to go by, growing up in such an environment will advantage her in all sorts of ways.

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My friend and loyal follower of Our Green Genes, Kate Rotherham is a writer based in north-east Victoria.  Her fiction has been published in magazines, literary journals and anthologies, including The Best Australian Stories.  ShKate's kids having a marshmallow bakee has been a social worker, a public servant in Thailand, an Outward Bound instructor, and she once walked from Canberra to Melbourne.  Kate writes in a small timber loft, finding inspiration in rural life and the curious wonderings of her four hilarious children (photos of whom have enlivened many of my posts).

Kate shares her perceptions of rural community life, a way of life which she and husband Roo have very mindfully chosen for themselves and their children. It is interesting to read Kate’s observations along with Richard Louv’s recent article, Restoring Peace: Six Ways Nature in Our Lives Can Reduce the Violence in Our World.  Most of Louv’s six ways have to do with relationships and community – “greater biodiversity in cities can increase social and family bonding”, for example. 

Gentle as they are, Kate’s reflections are a call to action. They remind us that improving and safeguarding community life – with the help of nature and otherwise – has to be a priority for our times. This is especially so for those of us who are locked into an urban existence.   

Thank you, Les, for inviting me to take over your little corner of the internet.

One hot, sticky afternoon in Grade 1, the permanently cheerful Miss Kidson rolled an enormous length of butchers paper across our classroom floor.   There was a road drawn up the middle, and both sides of the street were single story buildings, each neatly labelled; Newsagency, Butcher, Post Office, Hospital, Fire Station, School, Bank, Library. There was a ripple of shared wonder as we took it all in. ‘This,’ beamed Miss Kidson, ‘is a community’.

I loved the concept immediately.  I rolled the word around in my mouth, trying to get it right.  I was a little kid in a big city.  I had no idea where the fire station or the hospital was, they were somewhere ‘out there’ in a great sprawling metropolitan mystery. I craved this neat, ordered place where everything was lined up in one cute little street.

Each day, in small groups of four, we gathered around it. Our task was to tear up little pieces of coloured crepe paper, scrunch them into a ball and, using our pear-shaped pots of glue, stick them onto the shops and buildings. The Fire Station needed to be red, definitely.  The sky had to be blue, and the road black. Everything else was up for grabs as long as it could be negotiated within the realms of six-year-old diplomacy.   For weeks, in that last hot hour of the day, we lay quietly on the carpet, carefully creating a community.

yackandandah-002

A Travel Victoria photo

I now live in a rural setting, and my closest town is ten kilometres away, nestled in the hills.   The main street is wide and tree-lined, with deep paved gutters. There are no traffic lights or roundabouts. It is exactly as if that poster leapt off the paper and came to life, in three glorious dimensions. There really is a butcher, a hairdresser, a newsagent, a café, a bakery, a fire station, a bank, and a school. There’s also a historical society, a Tourism

Photo from Yackandandah's official website

Photo from Yackandandah’s official website

Information, an Op Shop, and other shops selling everything from antiques to boutique clothing. My adult self loves the real life version just as much as my six year old self loved the paper version.

But charming streets alone do not a community make. For me, it’s the intangibles that cement community.  The friendships and the networks, the various groups and the causes they promote, the volunteers, the celebrations, the coming together, the shared experiences and the very real connections.  It’s knowing people in a true sense; their strengths, their families and their passions.  It’s also about allowing yourself to be known.  Perhaps the ‘Cheers’ theme song puts it best – ‘sometimes it’s nice to go, where everybody knows your name’.

My community organises an annual folk festival, there’s a thriving arts organisation, endless sporting options, film nights, a local radio station and newspaper. There are groups for readers, bike riders, dramatists, even circus skills classes.  There’s a community garden, as well as a food swap initiative where residents share their extra produce. Sociologists would be tripping over themselves trying to analyse our ‘social capital’ which would fall somewhere on the scale between ‘extraordinary’ and ‘unbelievable’. Traffic and parking issues are non-existent here, yet excellent medical services and fantastic kindergarten, primary, secondary and tertiary education are all within a 30 minute radius.

When terrible things happen, and they do, our community takes a collective hit.  We stagger backwards and gasp for air.  Suddenly it is not a stranger’s face in the newspaper, but one of our own.  We know them because our lives are a constant tangle of interaction, at school gates, in doctors’ waiting rooms and in supermarket aisles. This is life in a small rural community, and sometimes it hurts. In empty days of desperate soul-crushing grief we visit, we cook, we talk and we hug.  We try and find a path through the senseless injustice of it all together.

I love the idea of town planners integrating nature into dense city living, maximising the value of every tree and making every blade of grass count. But where I live we don’t have to ration out our greenery.  Here, nature play with children is as simple as an afternoon splashing in the local creek, or sitting quietly to watch an echidna waddle across the back paddock. There is a deep richness and quality to country life that I wish city folks, swamped with harried crazy-busy lives and impossible mortgages, would stop to consider.KBa

As I walk down High Street, my little ones skipping ahead and behind me, we pass the newsagent, the bakery and the bank, stopping frequently to talk with friends.   And I smile realising I am now part of the community I started looking for a long time ago, when I first stuck a red blob of crepe paper on the Fire Station.

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