By Mark Stemen
What happens when a professor takes the notion of restoration as ritual seriously and tries it out with his class?
I am a professor at California State University, Chico where I have been teaching environmental studies for the past fifteen years. I will have anywhere between 90 to 130 students each semester running through my general education classes, where they learn all the things one ought to know about the current state of the environment. Class can get pretty depressing. To counter the gloom, I seek to create courses where students can step out of the darkness of the classroom and do something positive in their community. One such course, focused on civic engagement, uses student elections to change campus culture. In the case of my course on ecology and restoration, I created a class that uses rituals to restore people’s relationship to the land as well as the landscape.
In 2001, I was given the opportunity to be the Field Manager for a 93-acre ecological preserve on an old mining quarry located south of Chico, CA in Butte Creek Canyon. At the same time, I inherited a Caltrans-funded restoration project to plant 1000 trees on the preserve. The project was a form of compensation, or mitigation, for cutting down some oak trees as Caltrans widened the nearby highway. I had planted trees with students before, and I knew it was a very positive experience for all involved. Planting trees on the preserve became the principal restoration activity of the class, an activity I eventually ritualized.
The first iterations of the restoration course had nothing to do with rituals. Even as I began to incorporate them into class material, there was little method to my madness. Rather, the restoration rituals developed organically as the students and I applied ideas from course readings to a specific spot on the landscape. At the same time, we wrestled with the very concept of restoration and the preceding environmental damage or alteration it implies, a reality that made ritualizing the restoration effort seem not only effective but necessary to change the way people treat the landscapes they inhabit.
I selected Paul Gobster and Bruce Hull’s, Restoring Nature: Perspectives from the Social Sciences and Humanities as my primary text for the course. Gobster and Hull center their work on the Chicago restoration controversy of the mid-1990s in hopes of “enlighten[ing] the philosophical and conceptual issues underlying the source of the conflicts behind restored landscapes.” At the heart of the dispute lay different conceptions of “restoration”. For the biologists, restoration meant returning the landscape to “pre-contact conditions” by removing exotic plant species and replacing them with natives. The divisions outlined in the texts again played out among my students: some saw nature as what was lost; others saw it as what was alive now. Still others saw it as what it could be, with a little help. So contested was the definition of nature that students soon feared using the “n-word,” as it came to be known, in class at all.