I’ve just returned from the American Horticultural Society’s National Children & Youth Garden Symposium. This year the conference was held on the Michigan State University campus in East Lansing. Nothing in my professional life has opened me up to more diverse ways of thinking and more opportunity than my involvement with AHS. Since 2008, I have been both an annual presenter as well as an attendee of the symposium and each year I have seen and heard things that have changed my way of thinking about education and the planet, as well as created an amazing network of friends and colleagues from all over the world who are doing great things to influence education and the planet. While I believe that AHS needs to collaborate more with other organizations and find new ways to bring in more youth to their cause, this event remains one of the most informative and inspirational conferences that I experience. Plus, I get to see some of the most beautiful flowers and plants in our country.
The wonderful keynote speakers I’ve seen at the symposium include the likes of Alice Waters, Jane Taylor, Sam Levin, Will Allen, and Jane Kirkland. These are visionary people doing real things for conservation, environmentalism, farming and Earth stewardship. This year I had the pleasure of hearing and meeting John Fraser, a conservation psychologist and director of The Institute for Learning Innovation in New York. ILI is a non-profit organization that supports free-choice learning institutions like museums, libraries, parks, and zoos. His TED-style presentation was wonderful and, THANK GOODNESS, did not include a power-point with a thousand bulleted lines to read (totally a topic for another post!) but, instead, was full of inspiring images from his field of research.
Fraser does all kinds of cool things at gardens and zoos and he is an activist in preserving these public spaces because his research shows how important they are to a community and how critical it is for human beings to have a relationship with the natural world. This fall, Fraser will publish the results of a thorough and diverse study on what happened when ILI initiated poetry installations in public places. Poetry! Are you ready to hear what that’s all about?
Fraser and his colleagues went around to a variety of public places and strategically installed lines from the authors in the canon of nature poetry… Wordsworth, Oliver, Whitman, Frost, and (one of my all time favorites) Dickinson, among others. They also pulled lyrical lines from children’s books writers whose work is nature inspired. The places they chose for the study were situated in all kinds of socioeconomic communities, in all kinds of ethnic and demographic settings, in all kinds of climates during all seasons. Once they’d chosen the spot, they watched it before the poetry installation as well as after so that they could determine what effect it had on the people in the environment. Did they notice it? Did they read it? Did it change how long they stood somewhere or what they looked at? Did it change how they related to other human beings? Did it change their overall feeling about their day at that place?
Well, I bet you already know where this is going.
There were many stories that Fraser related to prove his point that poetry, that beautiful, lyrical language, gives people real pause. It touches them in a place that their day to day living does not. It wakes them up, even if they don’t realize it–indeed, when asked if they’d read a poem in the park, many people who were observed doing so said they did not but then, after prodding, were able to produce, verbatim, a line of poetry that was in fact there. And, best of all, the results were the same no matter where the place was–city, rural, educated, working class, homogenous or diverse. As someone who has been banging the creativity drum for two decades now, I rejoice when the scientists bring forth real studies and real data to confirm what many of us know down deep in our hearts and souls.
My favorite story was that of a line of Sendak that was installed on the forward side of a small stairway in Central Park Zoo. The stairway connected one animal exhibit area to another and had nothing particularly remarkable about it except that it was flanked by trees. In general, parents and their children hurried up the stairway simply to get from point A to point B. Then, Sendak was added…
That very night in Max’s room a forest grew, and grew–and grew until his ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around…
I could talk about Sendak for the better part of a day and wax on about what an absolutely perfectly crafted book (and movie) Where The Wild Things Are is, but why don’t I just tell you what happened on those stairs. Adults, kids, parents, grandparents, couples–everyone–stopped. They read the words, they smiled, they read them aloud to their children or their companion and then…. they looked around. They looked up. They looked at the world around them instead of hurrying past it.
Poetry. It has the power to make us look out. Lyrical language. It inspires us to take notice of our world. Wow.
Ever since I joined Flickr, I have been compulsively taking pictures of everything I see. I will leave you with some of the best things I noticed last week, including a truck called The Cheesy Truck, which only sells grilled cheese sandwiches and more Chihuly glass than you could shake a stick at.
With airline travel prices all over the place these days, I opted to make a connecting flight from Columbus, Ohio to Detroit before I flew back into one of my home base airports, Philadelphia. I was up early to get through security and after a week of a conference I was pretty tired. As I made my way through the Detroit Airport, my mind was already racing through my busy week ahead and my own conference here in New Jersey and I was hurrying from one end of the airport to the farthest other end, lugging a bag that probably ought to have been checked. But, then, all of the sudden, I was in the McNamara Tunnel. Beautiful music floats through the air and gentle, transitioning LED lights change with the melody, blending through all the colors of the spectrum as we travelers glide along on the motorized beltways. I stopped. So did lots of other people. They pointed at the walls, they stood and looked around and up, they touched the person next to them and said, look! It was great.
I couldn’t help but think, this happens all day, every day! And, when the walls went to the most beautiful shade of cobalt blue, from every single person, from every single inch of the tunnel, you could hear a collective, ooooh!
It was like poetry.
TRY THIS WEEK: Look out. Notice what you are missing. Find poetry in the world around you.