Trans-Disciplinary Conversations on Peatlands

A UCC Research IRC Funded Project #LoveIrishResearch


An interdisciplinary Workshop on Creative Approaches to Education for Environmental Understanding and Responsibility

Irish Research Council Creative Connection Scheme
18-19 October 2019 – The Glucksman, Cork

Co-hosted by Dr. Maureen O’Connor, University College Cork and The Glucksman Gallery

I was delighted recently to present at a 2-day workshop on how the arts in Ireland can creatively assist educators to connect students to critical ecosystems in peatlands, wetlands, bogs.

I was asked to speak at a round-table discussion on ‘Environmental Understanding’ and share how ‘creative participation can support science education’, and reflect on ‘how do we enable people to actively learn about peatlands? How do we communicate the need for responsible actions?’

Dr. Nessa Cronin, Irish Studies and Moore Institute, NUIG, led this panel (and I was delighted to also share this panel with Aotearoa New Zealand Professor, Dr Huhana Smith and NUIG peatlands cultural researcher, Kate Flood, among others, and to also present the creative work for Drummin bog with Carlow Drummin Bog lead artist Jules Michael.

For the round-table discussion, we were asked to share three main points for about 5 mins. As I was to contribute a short essay for an upcoming art publication on the Carlow Drummin Bog, project, I decided to write a short essay around three key points as my contribution to round-table discussion. Jules organised a slide-show of photos of the creative work about Drummin Bog that she has organised with three local schools, to play behind me as I was speaking (you can see these images here on the Drummin website).

‘Competent’ wisdom for wetlands in uncertain times

Cathy Fitzgerald, PhD

for the Carlow An Fraughan Drummin Bog Schools Project. Presented at the Irish Research Council seminar ‘A Revolution in How We Live’; 17 October 2019, Glucksman Gallery, UCC.

“We’re all going to have to do something to help our land, our country itself,” Wendell Berry tells me.
“We have to find a way to pay it what we owe it.
And what we owe it, of course, is our love.
“We owe it our competent love.”

Interview with author, poet, farm-philosopher Wendell Berry [1]

Our current way of knowing life is creating a catastrophe! To protect our precious wetlands, we may rush to teach practical things about why such critical ecosystems: that store more carbon than forests; that are a valuable habitat for wildlife, and which improve water quality and limit flooding, should be restored. Such practical knowledge is crucial for communities across Ireland and elsewhere. Yet other competencies to care for our environments, other species and ourselves, are needed for these uncertain times.

The Ecological Emergency demands a revolution in Western culture

If we have been listening to children chant in recent marches we often hear the slogan shouted: “System change, not climate change!” There is perhaps growing awareness that the eco-social emergency is the result of a profound crisis in Western modern culture. 

Yet, too often we engage narrowly with the symptoms of the unfolding catastrophe: climate breakdown, pollution, degraded land, ravaged wetlands, water and air, wildlife collapse, ocean heating and acidification, disruption of geo-chemical cycles, the increasing numbers of climate refugees. These realities all need urgent attention but we are little informed of the monumental task ahead to regenerate our culture entirely so our living enhances life.

As environmental writer, social justice advocate, Naomi Klein argues brilliantly in This Changes Everything, everything HAS to change! [2] Since our culture educates to prioritise economic production but grossly sidelines the well-being of the living world and other peoples, along with diminishing our personal potential, the modern education system must radically change. 

Arts-based environmental education fosters ecoliteracy and agency amidst radical uncertainty

We urgently need to re-weave caring for the living world, others and ourselves into every area of our learning. To reimagine how to live well with the world, will require Earth-aligned creativity as never before.

Our education, therefore, must impart an ecological worldview. All students must acquire a fundamental understanding of ecological wellbeing as the basis for their futures and for a just, vibrant and more beautiful world for all beings.

What do I mean by this? The ecological imperative asks us to expand our care beyond human issues and the possessive individualism that has been celebrated in the arts for too long [3]. Put simply, teaching and creating for an ecological way of being in the world asks us to consider more: is this activity good for me, for others, for the environment?[4]

Arts-based environmental learning, well advanced in Finland[5] and developing here in Ireland, as in the small Carlow Drummin Bog An Fraughan three schools project (Michael, 2019[6]), will help our young people to translate what is special about their particular wetland experience to themselves and the wider community. 

For times of increasing anxiety, arts-based environmental learning that holds space for sharing can also provide a supportive means to process the destructiveness of this age, to counter overwhelming despair and apathy that affect our young people and ourselves.[7] 

Most importantly, arts-based environmental learning, through eco-social art practices [8] affords many ways of knowing the world beyond the scientific and can equip young people with much-needed open-mindedness and open-ended-ness to develop the skillful, inclusive agency for living well with others, in a rapidly changing world.[9]  Prof. Jan van Boeckel describes this type of education as ‘the pedagogy of the light in their eyes’.[10] It opens young people’s attention to interact with passion and empathy for others and the world. Artist Jules Michael, who led the An Fraughan project, and myself, saw the newfound delight, pride and community goodwill for little Drummin Bog, following the three school art projects [11]. There were immediate requests for more eco-social art activities! (We are already planning to have a Carlow-based composer and musician, Carole Nelson work next with the schools). 

Still, in teaching creative practices to impart an ecological worldview, how do we manage all the various lived experience, creative activities and expertise needed for understanding and acting well in the world for ourselves, other species and their habitats? How do we understand how arts-based environmental learning works?

Action Research provides a roadmap for arts-based environmental learning

My research confirms that action research identifies a cycle of five critical method stages (Reason et al, 2009) in effective eco-social art practices (Fitzgerald, 2018).
Fig. 1 Action research identifies the main aim, the practical challenges, the many ways of knowing (experiential, creative, theoretical and practical), the participatory, democratic collective form of arts-based environmental learning for community change [12].

Recent studies advance that action research (well known in the health and education sectors and applied to explain social art practice, and eco-social art practice [13]) provides an accessible framework to show how ecoliteracy and agency for change arises from collective, creative learning gathered from many ways of knowing our places. Studies also explain the value of creative practices in action research, how artful activity can engagingly translate, collate and present, the experiential qualities of a special place, like a small overlooked and degraded wetland, to others (Reason and Seeley cited in 14). Action research confirms why art, with science and other knowing can move people to change, that science’s facts and figures can’t achieve alone. [15]

Most importantly, studies confirm action research ‘helps to move people away from linear cause-and-effect thinking into a cyclical, ecological mode’ [16], toward dialogue and broader values to live by, that are more capable for uncertain futures. Action research, as demonstrated for Drummin bog, explains how to do arts-based environmental learning well. As a guiding framework action research isn’t prescriptive, but it explains why arts-based environmental learning, through eco-social art practices, can foster the magical, creative and caring competencies that the world so crucially needs [17]. I started with Wendell Berry’s urgent call for ‘competent love – I’ll end with Peter Gabriel’s (2010) song that reminds us:

The Book of Love [… is]
full of charts and facts and figures,
[but also has] instructions for dancing […], 

The Book of Love has music in it […]

and was written very long ago,[and]

 it’s full of flowers […]


See images of the An Fraughan 3 school Carlow Drummin bog project here https://drumminbog.com/2019/06/12/an-frachan-school-exhibition-drummin-bog-carlow/


[1] Hope Reese, ‘A champion of the unplugged, earth-conscious life, Wendell Berry is still ahead of us’, Vox, October 9, 2019, [online] https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/10/2/20862854/wendell-berry-climate-change-port-royal-michael-pollan?fbclid=IwAR0TbTz9FvneGO43ypQZmPw3cAfxWWyuh8BwA7fXFkBnn4EWu34W3heIdz8 [Accessed 15 October 2019).

[2] Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, 2014, Kindle edition.

[3] Iain Biggs, ‘Five Notes on Thinking Through ‘Ensemble Practices’’, ClimateCultures – creative conversations for the Anthropocene, 2019, [online] [accessed 15 September, 2019]

[4] M.P. Tinajero, “Ethical Grounds: The Aesthetic Actions of Soil,” in Art, Theory and Practice in the Anthropocene, ed. Julie Reiss (Wilmington, DE: Vernon Press, 2019), 97. 

[5] Jan van Boeckel, ‘The world is breathing me’: Introduction to Artizein. Artizein: Arts & Teaching Journal, 2017, 2(2), Article 2.

[6] Jan Van Boeckel, January: CEMUS Opening Lecture: “A pedagogy of the light in the eyes” Being present in the present to what presents itself. An address on fostering attention through arts-based open-ended approaches in an age of ecological emergency, social unravelling and radical uncertainty. Hambergsalen, Geocentrum, Uppsala, Sweden. Viewable online [accessed 15 October 2019]/

[7, 8, 9, 10] Ibid.

[11] Jules Michael, ‘An Fraughan – eco-social art practices involving the children of the national schools of St. Brendan’s, Drummond, Scoil Moling, Glynn, and St. Michaels, Newtown and Drummin Bog, St. Mullins, Co. Carlow, March- May 2019’, [project an exhibition poster] [see https://drumminbog.com/2019/06/12/an-frachan-school-exhibition-drummin-bog-carlow/]

[12] Peter Reason et al., 2009, In: Insider Voices: Human dimensions of low carbon technology. Note: Prof. Peter Reason was co-editor of key SAGE Handbooks on action research (Reason and Bradbury, 2001, 2006, 2008), former director of the UK Centre for Action Research in Professional Practice (CARPP) and co-founder of the MSc in Responsibility and Business Practice. I was particularly fortunate that his colleague,the late Dr Chris Seeley saw me present my developing transversal practice and research at the 2012 ‘The Home and the World’art & ecology creative summit in Devon, see http://artdotearth.org/the-home-theworld/.Much of her research is available at http://www.wildmargins.com/Home.html

[13] Cathy Fitzgerald, The Hollywood Forest Story – Living Well with a Forest to explain eco-social art practices using a Guattari Ecosophy – Action Research Framework, 2018, [ebook, print-on-demand book]; available from https://hollywoodforest.com/about/the-hollywood-forest-story-ebook-itunes/

[14] Cathy Fitzgerald, The Hollywood Forest Story – Living Well with a Forest to explain eco-social art practices using a Guattari Ecosophy – Action Research Framework, 2018, [PhD thesis], available from https://hollywoodforest.com/about/the-hollywood-forest-story-ebook-itunes/

[15] George Lakoff, ‘Why it Matters How We Frame the Environment’, Environmental Communication, 4:1, 70-81, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17524030903529749 [accessed 17 October, 2019].

[16] 12.

[17] 14.

[18] Peter Gabriel, ‘The Book of Love’, (2010) written by The Magnetic Fields’ -Warren Davis, George Malone, Charles Patrick, itspetergabriel (on behalf of Real World) and other music agencies.

Some photos from the 2-day symposium

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