Cultivating Interdependence between Land and People

How can people living in Britain today be supported to relearn interdependence with land? What is the role of humans as keystone species in landscapes? What does ‘indigeneity’ mean to different communities with different histories of relationship with land? And how do we ‘relearn’ practices of dwelling in and with land?

This project starts from a recognition that human separability from land and other species can be seen as one of the primary causes of our climate, ecological, mental and physical health crisis. The researchers will build upon the idea that the myth of human isolation and independence from land and other beings is a lynchpin of extractivist and exploitative behaviours. While scientists and governments focus attention on political and technological solutions to climate change, some argue that it is only by changing the story that humans tell of their place in the world and the land that a new regenerative culture can be grown. They argue, in essence, that creating liveable worlds is a question of relationality, beliefs and cosmology as much as engineering and politics – a relationality that enables us to come ‘down to earth’.

In the light of these observations a new wave of educational practices is emerging that aims to reweave human relationships with land and more than human beings. Leadership in this area draws on Indigenous educational practices in north America, Australia and New Zealand. What we know less about at present, however, is what a practice of exploring Indigeneity and relationship with land might look like in the Britain – a country responsible for deracinating and killing Indigenous populations around the world and whose own population has long been forcibly separated from land. Given that the UK government has just launched a new climate education strategy that places relationship with ‘nature’ at the heart of its priorities, this can be seen as an urgent priority from policy perspectives.

What will the project involve? 

This project will bring together biologists, systems thinkers and educators with land activists, farmers and conservationists to explore the question ‘how can people living in Britain today be supported to relearn interdependence with land?’. This question invites exploration from multiple disciplinary perspectives. From a biological frame, we might ask ‘what is the role of humans as keystone species in landscapes’; from a cultural and historical perspective, we might ask ‘what ‘indigeneity’ means to different communities with different histories of relationship with land’; from an educational perspective, it is not yet clear ‘how to ‘relearn’ practices of dwelling in and with land’. These, and others, are the issues the researchers will explore in this interdisciplinary and co-produced project, which will be based in the 160-acre land restoration project Woven Earth.

Woven Earth is located in the Derbyshire Dales, on top of a hill, surrounded by woodland, where an innovative and experimental approach to restoration is being pioneered that aims to restore the landscape and the communities within it as one entity. Through engaging the local community in imaging future landscapes and their place within them through community assemblies and informal conversation around their monthly campfires, the centre is becoming a restoration hub for the Midlands, a place where people come to experience and learn restoration in all its forms whilst actively participating in the landscape as an ecological human.

The project will take the form of a partnership between Woven Earth and the University of Bristol which will comprise two strands of activity:

First, over 10 months the researchers will bring together a group of land activists, educators, ecologists, farmers, conservationists, artists and therapists to experiment with practices and theories of ‘relearning interdependence’ with land in a way that restores landscapes and the people connected with them. They will explore four questions:

  • How does our collective and individual histories influence our view of the world and the farm?
  • If there were no constraints, what could we be?
  • How is this grounded in reality?
  • How do we capture, communicate and evolve ‘Relearning Indigeneity’

These workshops will involve a range of specialists to engage with the core group at different stages over the 10 months. These will include:

  • Education researchers and specialists – Michael Bonnett (Oxford University), Alison Oldfield (Bristol University).
  • Specialists in rewilding, conservation and ecology – Dave Savage, Ian Rappel.
  • Productive systems experts (farming, forestry) – Caroline Aitken, Wilderculture, PFLA, Martin Crawford, Russ Carrington, Jay Abrahams, Wakelyns, Fred Price.
  • Experts in Nature connection, Health and wellbeing – Rosemary Blenkinsop, Alistair Hayhurst, Miles Richardson (Derby).
  • Historians, Storytellers and Land Activists – Gail Bradbrook, Black to nature, Land in our Name, Tom Hirons.

To support this inquiry they will also conduct a literature review of relevant related projects and research and conduct a small-scale observation of the practices of the Woven Earth team as a way of situating the project both within the wider research and connecting to ongoing land-based practice.

Who are the team and what do they bring?

  • Keri Facer (Social Sciences and Law, University of Bristol) specialises in formal and informal educational practices oriented towards engaging with fundamental future-facing challenges. She is a Trustee of the Black Mountains College, a new college specialising in arts, ecology and systems change in the Welsh national park.
  • Rob Owen (Woven Earth/Holistic Restoration) has a multidisciplinary academic background including Zoology, Psychology and Earth System Science. He has worked in farming and social enterprise exploring how natural systems regulate themselves. Alongside his academic thinking Rob has worked in agriculture and forestry over the past decade. In the past two years these threads have come togetherin his work with Miriam at Holistic Restoration.
  • Miriam MacDonald (Woven Earth/Holistic Restoration) has a background in ecology and conservation and has spent over 10 years working in alternative agriculture. She is author of  ‘Emergent: Rewilding Nature, Regenerating food and healing the world, from which the process of Holistic Restoration was born and which led her to co-found Holistic Restoration LLP with Rob Owen.
  • Katherine Wall (Project Facilitator, Resist + Renew) is a Bristol PhD student working on land and race and an expert process facilitator. They have run workshops on facilitation, campaign organising, community organising, anti-oppression, burnout/regenerative activism, group dynamics and group culture work. Hey have worked with groups such as Black and Green Project, Reclaim the Power, Climate Strikers, Extinction Rebellion, Bristol Community Land Trust, People and Planet, Friends of the Earth and New Economy Organisers Network
  • Anne Marie Culhane is an artist whose practice involves initiating, catalysing, and designing creative and eco-arts projects, events and performances and working as an activist and educator. This includes residencies, commissions, eco-activism, education and artist-led projects work across and between disciplines. Their work takes place mostly in outdoor spaces: orchards, community centres, parks, farms, the street, by or on rivers and sometimes in galleries and museums and is framed within the context of a global climate and ecological emergency. Anne Marie Culhane’s Website.
  • Jo Slater is a landscape artist and arts and sustainability specialist. Their work is predominantly about landscape, weather, people, light and the character in a place. They are also a graphic designer and have taught art at most levels including secondary school, at St Ives School of Painting, at foundation level, in community art, privately, and for adult education. Jo Slater’s Website.

What is to come?

The project hopes to achieve:

  • A design for how to develop the Woven Earth farm in a way that enables humans and land to live well together. This can be understood as an educational approach, but because of the interdependence between humans and land, this can also be understood as the approach to land management, rewilding and regeneration.
  • A live record of the project as it develops. They will document their work in two ways: first, through a process of creative co-making between participants that will emerge from the facilitated workshops in which we will use arts practice as a form of boundary object to negotiate between different disciplinary perspectives; second, they will produce an account of each workshop on the project blog, sharing ongoing observations.
  • A draft journal paper. The development of this design will, they hope, have implications for educational design for a range of other organisations that are working on the question of relearning interdependence – for example, the Ecoversities network and the Black Mountains college. It will also have implications for the development of educational programmes in fields such as biology and sustainability in mainstream universities like Bristol.
  • An online seminar that will be open to anyone interested in this topic.

As the project progresses, the researchers will review the opportunity to bid for further funding.