In our newsletter this year, we decided this year to focusing on how people are responding to this moment in history. There’s a lot of flux going on in big global systems and people are experiencing a lot of pain, fear, and uncertainty. I’ve felt a lot of inspiration watching the way you respond, but I’m not quite sure how to put it into world. So I wonder what intentions you’ve set, priorities you’ve made?
Tracey: Well you mention global systems, and I think the biggest thing for Brian and me when we’re walking out in the garden is that it’s a system. It’s an ecosystem. I think it’s important for me to look at the really big picture, which is what draws me out of the house and into the garden, with my camera, or my nature drawing notebook. If I’m working with children, we’ll start with the big picture - describing, noticing sounds and things - and then slowly move it down to what’s in your eye-view, and then focus on one small thing. And really become intrigued with it. Spend a minute or a half an hour drawing, taking photos, talking about. Maybe researching a little, finding out what the bug is, what it’s eating, what it’s doing.
I see all kinds of things when I’m out in the garden. I remember once I was sitting with you and we watched this weird looking blue many legged bug moving by, and it turned out to be some kind of wasp dragging a spider back to its lair. Those kind of things delight and fascinate me.
It’s important to me to really take the time to say “who is that?” or “I really want to take the time to get to know this creature.” It makes me feel like they’re part of my family after a while, and I feel a little protective of them. That’s what we’re trying to do in our garden. You can call it a backyard wildlife habitat or a pollinator garden or whatever, but mostly it’s a place where I’m inviting all the faeries in, whether they’re mammals or birds or bugs, they really need a safe place to be. And I feel safe out there too.
Marisa: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense to me. One thing I love about working in people’s gardens is that the pace of weeding keeps me slow, so I get to notice more.
I think there’s some piece of that question I didn’t hear an answer to. Something more about your intentions and priorities in creating this safe space for everything that wants to emerge. Wanting to engage in a different way, not just researching. Watching.
Younger people especially have experienced so much immediate gratification. They often haven’t learned the value of patience, or the value of boredom. And I mean boredom in the broadest sense, where you have nothing to do, so all possibilities are open, and you get choices. I work with a lot of younger kids, maybe middle school age, where they actually get really nervous about having free time. So we have to create lists of possibilities, like what could you do with time when you’ve already finished your homework or don’t have anything planned? And that fills me with real great sadness, because I had so much of that growing up. I had a lot of permission, I had a lot of freedom, I had a lot of outdoors to play in and explore. And I had parents who were interested but not hovering.
Marisa: Yeah, so there needs to be a lot of room for people to allow themselves to be playful. One of the things on your list, Wonder, I relate to more as a sensation or a feeling. I can’t always just conjure it up. Question, and interrogate, I can totally just conjure up. Just finish the worksheet.
Tracey: Yeah, well the wondering for me is that magical part where there are no right answers. It’s what grabs you and pulls you in and makes you want to investigate. Wonder pulls you into details and makes you want to ask better questions and come up with better solutions.
Marisa: I’m reminded of this pattern, like in rivers, that they widen and have some braiding (diverge), and then they converge again into one stream. Spending more time in that diverging area might be helpful.
Tracey: Right, because you might not know where you are, or where you’re going to end up.
Marisa: Another element of your work, switching focuses a little, is that you just got an article published in Pacific Horticulture magazine that you quoted me in. It focuses on gardening in parking strips. So I was curious how you chose that topic and why it matters to you.
Tracey: Well, as far as choosing the topic, I always feel like the topics choose me. You know, I went back to school about 6 years ago and got my masters in Biological Inquiry and Teaching. My focus was on urban ecosystems and nurturing biophilia. The whole idea of having a biodiverse backyard. And in my teaching, how can I broaden this and get it to more people. I realized there were many ways of being a teacher. I’m more of a mentor, I guide by giving possibilities to people or being a good example, rather than having a lot of information that I need to impart.
Pacific Horticulture has been really open to publishing my articles and it segues with what I’ve talked about in my blog, which is urban biodiversity and nurturing biophilia. Those are my big focuses for nurturing ecological stewardship and outdoor play.
The most recent article was the fourth that I’ve done, and it’s all about making urban wildlife corridors. That’s important to me not just for the creatures that inhabit them, but it gives neighbors the chance to have an everyday experience with nature. The pollinator parkways or gardens just attract so much. They not only are beautiful, but they take a lot of pesticide load off of what’s getting pulled into the sewers and off the street. You don’t have to maintain them with leaf blowers, which are one of my personal pet peeves. They create spaces for the creatures that are getting driven out by all of the development.
Tracey: Yeah, and in Seattle there are so many wide parking strips. In a lot of places they’re called hellstrips, they’re maybe full of rocks or weeds or they’re too far away from the house to be anything anyone wants to put much attention into. They might get driven on, and like you wrote about, they get abused in a lot of different ways. So by making them into spaces that look like gardens, whether they’re full of wildflowers or berries or vegetables or shrubs and trees, it just creates a whole different kind of space. I love walking around our neighborhood here on Capitol Hill because there’s a real diversity of parking strip gardens. Every one helps. It takes a little at a time, but it gives back instead of taking away.
Marisa: I heard you use the term “biophilia” and I was wondering if you could go into that a little more.
Tracey: Yeah, I like the sound of the word. Bio-Philia just means “love of life.” E.O. Wilson, the famous ant guy, talked about biophilia as being more of a spiritual connection that you would have with nature and a lot of people have kind of spectacular eye-opening experiences that might draw them in. I think of it more in the way of what happens with a child who is born with a natural sense of wonder and who is allowed to go out in their backyards and play. They just have a sense of rightness. I start thinking about that feeling you get when you just know you’re in the right spot, and you know you’re connected to everything, and the borders dissolve. People who’ve had that sense of biophilia, it changes how they approach everything. They don’t make decisions out of a sense of duty or what they’ve heard is right, but it comes from deep inside because they have a love and connection.
Marisa: Yeah, it’s been hard for me to figure out how to navigate this climate change issue, because there are a lot of solutions being promoted that don’t feel right to me. They feel really unrelated to me to that core sensation of “the world works”, and it has a system that it’s working in. So it’s hard for me to see that link when the solutions are really high-tech or involve a lot of modification to natural systems.
Tracey: Yeah, I think a lot of people don’t know how to really make good intuitive decisions. If they haven’t been allowed to have that freedom to know what’s ethically sound. An example I can give is when I was teaching elementary school I was seeing a lot of adult issues getting pushed further down into the curriculum. Where all of a sudden you have fourth graders being taught about endangered species, and the need for them to be concerned about pollution and runoff. A lot of these kids didn’t even have a connection to the park in their neighborhood. Instead of already loving to go outside and play and climb trees and catch turtles and frogs and get muddy, they were being concerned and crying and making posters about eagles whose eggshells were thinning. Not that these aren’t important issues, but as far as developmentally appropriate, these kids were being burdened with adult issues when they should have been encouraged to have a joyful and playful relationship.
Marisa: And in a way it problematizes them and their impact on the planet. Like, if you want to climb a tree are you hurting it? So there’s a way that even beyond just distracting from the potential to develop a relationship with nature, it actually diminishes the potential. It helps people construct their sense of identity as harmful.
Tracey: Yes, and they end up working from a place of guilt rather than a place of love. I think it just changes the way you approach things. When I research for articles, I try to find people who are making good decisions and coming up with good solutions or who have been role models for me. Even when I present some pretty hard statistics about what’s going on, I try to have an open hand to offer the information rather than be shaking a finger. So they can absorb it at the rate that works for them, and a little at a time. To say “Wow, that would be really lovely to turn our parking strip into something. I’d love to grow some herbs.” To start with that rather than saying you need to take out your whole lawn and stop using weed and feed and your dog’s going to get cancer and your kids are going to die. That’s not going to encourage anyone to join you.
People need information, and they’re only able to absorb what’s appropriate for them on their timeline. Everybody’s at different places in both their emotional and worldview growth to be able to take in certain things.
Marisa: I like how you’re looking at starting points, and the idea of an open hand rather than focusing on an end goal where we’re all perfect and living in harmony with nature. What are some of the ways you’ve seen that are most effective for people to start that process? What are some of the ways you’ve seen kids you’ve worked with join up with that spark?
Another great story is taking a group of kids to the zoo, with artists from another high school, these were 9th grade boys mostly, they just weren’t interested in doing the art part of the trip. I took them off and we were going to see the giraffes, who happened to be mating that day. It was eye-opening for everybody. Those kids were all so interested in what was going on. It was really fascinating and real life and awkward and funny. To be with 9th graders in a mixed group and there’s this sex going on. They all became really interested though, in giraffes, and what was going on at the zoo. It changes the way they approach things - they wanted to come back.
Marisa: What I got from that answer is that you just have to go out into the world and something will shock you into awareness. And just be open to it. There’s not this one particular method, just be out and it’ll come to you.
Tracey: Though I do know if you go walking with a pair of binoculars around your neck, you can guarantee you’ll be stopped by other birders.
Marisa: Yes, you can set yourself up to get more hints. My last question is about what is inspiring you lately? What are the pathways you’re starting on?
Tracey: Well, the big picture stuff is I’m really happy to see that there’s people pushing back against GMOs and there’s a lot of hope for real food labeling. There are a lot of younger people who are interested in doing farming in more old-fashioned ways. Getting away from using any kind of poisons or toxins. I like that because when you start talking about food and food systems and health in general, it’s a system. We’re all suffering from poor decisions that were made by our grandparents and parents generations, and it would be wonderful if in the next 10 years we can really have some wake-up calls.
That’s the really big picture. More locally, I’m excited to see more and more people who are putting up little signs that say “pollinator garden” or planting out their parking strips. Who are raking instead of using leaf blowers. And when I thank people who are doing that, they say “yeah, there are some cities who have outlawed these things!” It’s not just the noise, it’s all the other consequences.
When I use the word consequences, I think that’s the other part of it. If people start to take more responsibility for their small actions and responsibility or being willing to look at the consequences of the ages of making poor decisions. I’m a little bit hopeful. I don’t think it’s a huge movement yet, but I think there’s a really strong undercurrent, like you and your friends, who are just getting out there and letting people know that there are alternatives. The paradigm being offered isn’t the only one. There are lots of other ways to approach things. If you slow down and relax a little bit into what you’ve got in your own backyard you’ll feel a little better about how much you know your neighbors, human and plant.
Marisa: Yeah, and how much of nature is already going on. That it’s not as suppressed or hidden as we sometimes think of it as. Yesterday I was working in Wallingford and a racoon came and ate a chicken right in front of me, like it was shopping at the grocery store. It walked right into the coop, picked a chicken out, and killed it. That’s probably happening every day in Seattle. The natural cycles are not so far removed.
Tracey: Yep, all we have to do is open our eyes up and see them there.
Marisa: Is there anything else you want to say? Is there an invitation you’d like to cast out to people that read this?
Tracey: Go outside and play! And be open to possibilities.