Impact of Outdoor Learning
Dave Scourfield - Outdoor Education Advisers Panel (OEAP) Chair
The Tables Turned
I have a vivid memory of killing a butterfly. I must have been 7 or 8; certainly old enough to know better. I like to think now that I was trying to catch it, but I probably wasn’t. It was only when this beautiful creature fell to the ground that I realised what I had just done.
How much this early experience has moulded by future thinking I cannot say, but for me participation in adventure activities has never been particularly about rushes of adrenaline, nor performance at a high level (I wish), it has simply been about getting out into the beauty of nature. As I ponder my next words, I think back to this morning’s early dog walk through the bluebell woods near my house, and I feel as content as I would should this morning’s activity have been kayak surfing at Watergate Bay.
For this reason it seems difficult to pick a single experience to share; I could equally describe the likely locations where I’ll find a sparrowhawk hunting in ‘my’ woods, where the badger sett is, when the deer last went by (yesterday, I think) or simply that there seem to be loads of nuthatches about at the moment (didn’t they used to be rare?)
However a particularly powerful experience for me was one that combined some of my key ingredients - a beautiful environment, a journey, a new encounter and good company. Mull has a special attraction for me, as I’m sure it does for many people, and I’ve been visiting for many years now.
Each time is different and I’ve been lucky enough to see a range of wildlife over the course of years, but on this occasion I had two close encounters which were both ‘firsts’ for me at the time – and both happened within a short space of time.
I had set off with a friend from Fionnphort on the SW tip of Mull, kayaking out to Staffa (Fingal’s Cave, Mendelssohn, puffins, tourists) before heading out to the Treshnish Isles, as I had done many times before and have done many times since. The history of Cairn na Burgh Mòr and Cairn na Burgh Beag, the two northernmost islands making up the Treshnish archipelago, captures my imagination – and that, together with the beautiful wild flowers that have taken over residence in the spring make this a very easy place to linger and a very hard place to leave.
However, leave we did. First Lunga (more puffins, and if you choose to land most of which will be happy to inspect at close quarters what you’re getting out for lunch), and then on to Bac Mòr, the Duchman’s Cap, via a narrow passage around a stack where we were greeted by many overfed Shags who, to coin a phrase, noisily ‘fell with style’ into the depths below us to escape our presence. After hauling our boats out onto a small break in the precipitous slopes of Bac Mòr, we were shortly joined by a big fin.
I’d seen basking shark fins before, from various cliffs around the UK, but at this point I had never seen one right in front of me, barely 20 feet away. My paddling partner, originating from Devon and to whom, it appeared, this had happened before, coaxed me back into my boat for a closer encounter. At the time I remember thinking that it appeared to be a more unusual experience for someone that hails out of landlocked Ramsbottom. Big fish are basking sharks, a good way longer than a sea kayak with a mouth wider than the Mersey Tunnel, or so it seemed. I felt very exposed; a long way out in a small boat and in the company of a very big fish. It’s funny what that can do to your balance.
The encounter lasted maybe 10 or 15 minutes – at the same time both fleeting seconds and a lifetime rolled into one. We eventually parted company and my companion and I struck out for Iona. By this time the wind had dropped to nothing and the sea had acquired that fantastic silky emerald of a flat calm. On we paddled, inspired by our encounter and accompanied by occasional porpoises breaking the surface with their lazy arching. Our voices seemed to carry across the water in the silence – and then we were joined by another.
This ‘voice’ was the deep resonant breath of a Minke whale surfacing. I had seen a Minke once before, from the deck of the ferry returning from Norway. This time I suddenly became acutely aware that I was floating above a different world, an alien environment, and one that is inhabited by creatures far more powerful than I, and for whom this was home. I was a very insignificant piece of flotsam drifting through their domain, fragile as a butterfly. Despite this there appeared to be only a mutual sense of gentle inquisitiveness between us.
I reflected with shame on my youthful actions towards that butterfly. I reflected on the damage that we as humans do to the marine ecosystem, and that it would be very understandable if this inhabitant took exception to my presence. But it didn’t.
It has confirmed my conviction that we cannot teach young people to respect and love the natural environment from afar. It is not a lesson in a classroom to be taught. We need to immerse our young people in the natural environment so that they feel it for themselves as the guardians of the natural world into the future. Or as Wordsworth would have it ‘Come forth into the light of things, Let nature be your teacher.’