Witnessing natureculture encounters

There is an element of performativity to witnessing…Practices of witnessing perform worldings that interrupt what is considered important…in everyday life (Nxumalo, 2016, p. 3).

Children’s inquiries with Tar Branch Creek, a creek that borders their school have often returned to the question of the waste that accumulates within and alongside the creek, especially after a heavy rain. A question that has emerged and re-emerged from children’s encounters with creek-waste assemblages, is where is the waste coming from?

Several theories about this question have been put forward by the children; including things flushed down the toilet – becoming sewage – becoming waste at the creek. Several children discuss the possibilities of trash being thrown from car windows or being carried down with the flow of water. Their theories include that these items are discarded by neighbours whose homes share a border with the creek. Today one child points to the example of a lawnmower that has been discarded close to the water.

On this particular cloudy day, as part of the ongoing investigation of creek-waste flows, we decided to follow the creek upstream with the children beyond the boundaries of the school. We asked the students to pay close attention and to practice ‘close noticing’ as we walked. Even before we left the school area, some children noticed different animal tracks along the creek; some that they said were deer tracks, and others they thought were raccoon tracks.

The entanglements of nature and culture were particularly noticeable as we walked (and ran). We held hands to cross the human-made street that is built over the water flow and impacts how the creek travels as well. We stopped to notice a space alongside the road we crossed, where there were several discarded beverage containers along with fast food waste. Children were uncertain if this was the place where the trash in the creek was coming from, so we continued.

The tunnels underneath the streets also beckoned to the children. Some stood nearby cautiously looking in and noticing how the water flowed out and pooled into the surrounding enclosures while others rushed into the darkness playing with how their voices echoed back from the concrete walls. Several children noticed the difference in this area from the school-creek-forest area.

Our embodied, multisensory noticing also attended to the algae growing out of concrete pathway that had been created for the creek.

S:    Squishy, I like it, it feels bouncy

L:  It’s trapping the trash; L theorizes the collaborative workings of concrete-algae-water-trash 

W: It’s making the water smell yucky

I  find myself struggling with set ideas of waste management, a urge to clear ‘our’ creek. Also, changing my language and how I speak about the natural world that leaves room for response-ability and not ownership. I have been reflecting on how the children have talked about how ‘the trees are listening’, quieting their voices to a whisper. S.A.  turning around with a ‘Hey, what do you want’ as a tree branch brushed his back as if it tapped him deliberately. Additionally, several of the children have recently given male and female forms to the things around us after studying nouns in Spanish and their grammatical gender.Children seem to have a general idea of the creek that we usually explore and the area upstream being separate. Given that the landscape is drastically different, I also catch myself referring to one side from the other. I am taking pause to think about how I frame my language when discussing the creek with the children. I am reminded by two things that stood out to me in discussing our inquiry with educators in Victoria, British Columbia:

“the waste lives in the forest too.”
“If we are paying so much attention to the garbage, what are we missing?”

Although it pains my heart to see so much waste and byproducts of overconsumption in our natural landscapes I try to stay mindful to these ideas.

Our visit with the creek this week illustrated the many species who are in relationship with Tar Branch creek and her flows. The creek continues to nurture life. Plants, algae, fish, and more persist amidst the trash and concrete. Many species are entangled with this creek and today children and educators were able to witness these entanglements. With this knowledge about how the creek is responding to changes in how it flows (concrete walls, tunnels) and waste, I am troubled to find ways to be a “good” neighbor to the creek while recognizing the creek’s agency in responding and adapting to human actions.

I am struck by the contradictions of this place – a stunning waterfall at the entrance to one of the tunnels; clear water at parts of the creek where some children and educators spot small fish; plastic bags and a myriad of other discarded waste throughout our walk. I remain unsure how to respond to the waste with the children… without falling back on neoliberal ‘waste management’; ‘out-of-sight’ techniques (Zahara & Hird, 2015), especially as I think of the complex microbial ‘intra-actions’ that are happening as creek-waste-algae-microbes meet…What is our response-ability here; even as we are unevenly implicated in this waste landscape?

“Response-ability is not solely or simply the taking up of responsibility (which precedes being)…but also labouring the iterative (re)opening of responsiveness toward the potentiality of perceiving and differently enacting possibilities and problematics within the distributive relations that we inherit and that constitute our being and becoming” (Higgins, 2017, p. 90)

With this knowledge about the multiplicities of creek movements and flows in relationship with concrete pathways, tunnels, waste, algae, fish…..and more, how might children respond to the accumulation of waste in relationship with the creek and it’s more-than-human relations?

How might our  practices unsettle…unsettle recurring descriptors of everyday [outdoor encounters] in relation to innocent, anthropocentric and colonizing understandings that fit neatly into normative quality practice identifiers such as ‘belonging’, ‘ownership’, ‘discovery’, ‘learning about’ and ‘free exploration’ of an untouched natural environment” (Nxumalo, 2016).