Having worked in outdoor education in the UK and high school teaching in Australia, Stewart Monckton enjoys sharing his passion for living things with everyone – including his children.
Since leaving an active role in teaching a few years ago, Stewart continues to share his knowledge with his blog Paying Ready Attention, which has amassed quite a following of like-minded enthusiasts.
Wild discussed the motivation for his interests in a recent interview, where he delved into the concepts of wilderness versus ‘wildness’; the full transcript of which is provided below.
Can you tell us a little about your own experience with wilderness adventure? What’s your passion here, where did it begin and how has it developed?
I think that ‘wilderness’ may be a bit of a misnomer for much of what I have done – but, beyond that I have walked (and to a lesser extent climbed and paddled) throughout much of the UK and since my migration to Australia I have concentrated on bushwalking. Although the arrival of two children has meant that longer trips are a bit of a rarity these days.
I suppose my passion is for wildness, rather than wilderness. We can encounter wildness much more often than many people think: possums in the wisteria, tawny frogmouths on the power lines at night, flocks of corellas on the way to work. Each of these, if considered, is a reconnection to wildness – and this is where I think my passion lies.
The search for wilderness can take you ‘elsewhere’ – to higher mountains or more remote valleys – but in doing so we can lose sight of what is here, under our noses. And, on a different note, I think that if wilderness experiences are always something that happens elsewhere, we can forget that the local and the small are not only valuable but in need of protection.
I can’t help but think that this whole way of thinking flows from where I was born: Somerset in the UK, in a village that to the surprise of many had a coal mine. This was not a place to find wilderness – but you could find wildness. Kingfishers, badgers, foxes and owls at night. The return of spring swifts. Winter geese. All of this happened against the background of a small and man-made landscape – watching a pike dash from a reed bed to catch a small roach seems as wild an experience to me as watching a lion hunt an antelope.
Are you still involved in outdoor education in some way? Are you aware of any particular challenges outdoor educators are currently facing?
I think the formal outdoor education part of my career is over. Although, I like to think that there are two kids I know who are getting some pretty good experiential learning experiences along the way! Perhaps the major issue facing outdoor education these days is the need to find a balance between duty of care and the necessary sense of adventure needed to connect with kids.
High adrenaline adventure sports may capture the headlines – or get thousands of likes on YouTube – but building meaningful outdoor experiences is far more difficult. I really enjoyed journey-based programs in the past and I think that these have a great deal to offer young people.
What trips or experiences have you had recently? Anything of particular note?
I spent a month back in the UK last year. It was great to show my kids the places I grew up in. I think it was a real rite of passage kind of experience for me – a kind of acknowledgement of the value of childhood to my own children. We stayed in a splendid, old mill house at one time, and there were badgers in the garden that we could go and watch. That’s a pretty special thing to be able to share with your kids. I remember how excited I was as an adult when I first saw platypus, wombats and kangaroos, and there I was seeing a similar reaction from my kids.
You detail a number of these tales in your blog – why do you believe these stories garner interest from the public?
What I try to do on my blog is blend honest emotional response to the things I see with a bit of biology/landscape archaeology/ecology learning.
A number of people who read my blog have suggested that I have a decent turn of phrase, and that may be the case, but I also only write about things that interest me and I think that plays a more integral role in the quality of the work. All of my (our) experiences are mediated by what we have seen and done in the past and what I try to do is write about how things affect me. You can write about the biology or ecology of place, but that can turn into a textbook; or you can write about how you feel about a place, and that can very easily turn into self indulgence. My view of what is here is both important and paramount. What I hope I do is to combine both of these aspects, but at the same time to remember that there’s the high likelihood of being wrong about both!
Are there any long term trends in conservation or the way we interface with nature that you would identify? Is there inter-generational change or similar?
I think I may have alluded to this in the questions above – I am concerned that we are beginning to think the contact with nature – with the wild – is a a commodity that needs to be bought and that by definition occurs somewhere other than where we live. In other words, we don’t notice the parrots on the way to work, but we save for two years to go an a trip to Antarctica. Now, would I like to go to Antarctica? Yes I would, but if it was bought at the cost of noticing the day-to-day things around me, then perhaps not.
I think you can see this happening in the way that many of our National Parks remain remarkably quiet. Wilsons Prom in winter is an example. Or Uluru once you move away from the main car park. Then there was Freycinet this summer, where we walked on the beach with little but the sound of the waves for company. These remarkable places (although maybe not central Australia) seem to be absent from people’s plans.
It’s very easy to click ‘like’ on a campaign to protect National Parks – but what does this really mean if you have not sunk your toes into the sand or the soil of the place you wish to protect?
How can people best encourage their kids and grandchildren to get out and spend time in the bush?
The simple answer to this is to remember that you don’t have to go far for the bush to find you. It’s all too easy to present the ‘real bush’ as being off the beaten track – accessible only by four wheel drives or long two footed walks, but that does not seem to be the case. Watching a grebe fish in a local dam or watching a parrot twist and turn a gum nut on a street tree; these are the things that we need to value as much as an expedition off the beaten track, because they are things that people can do. If a connection with the bush is always about huge walks and near-death experiences in the desert is it any wonder that people think it may be a good idea to stay home and watch TV? Small steps. Small things. Moths on the fly-wire. Mantises on the front fence. These are the things we need to point out. These are the things that connect us to a wilder world.
What’s the next destination you hope to visit?
Well, my next destinations are the Bellarine Peninsula and Wilsons Prom – both long-term favourites of mine. However, I also have plans to visit a somewhat more exotic location at the end of the year: Lord Howe Island. Of course, while I do keep my eye on the local, I still find it very rewarding to head further afield on occasion.