Ecological Education: Use My Backyard

The front door of the family farmhouse, on the right, in 1961; on the left, as it looks today. The domestication of nature is temporary. [Aase Kert Jensen and Cordelia Kert Sønder]

Today, I cannot read tomorrow’s rain forecast by looking at the birds, as my grandfather could. Nor can I understand deep currents by observing the rough surface of the ocean, as my mother does. The capacity to read our surroundings has been vital for human survival since homo sapiens first began to domesticate the globe. But as industrialization and globalization decrease the need for such knowledge, human skills in reading nature have been largely lost, especially in highly technologized societies. I have no clue what the insects living under my garden staircase are up to. It’s time I spent more time in the backyard — even if I use technology to help get me there.

It’s time I spent more time in the backyard — even if I use technology to help get me there.

This lack of knowledge does more than impoverish our lives. It can be dangerous. Denmark is a maritime nation; ever since the Vikings dominated the seas one thousand years ago, the ocean has served as a gateway to the world from our little archipelago. Yet, as I write, it is only a few days since three young boys were rushed to the hospital because they did not know how to read the riptide. “Take your pleasures seriously,” said Charles Eames. We shouldn’t be afraid of the water, but nor should it be romanticized. Ecological education is a global necessity for human survival, but it is awareness of local phenomena that will keep us alive from one day to the next.

The writer George Monbiot observes that contemporary consumerist society prizes cultural over environmental literacy. He makes a case for the fundamental value of ecological education, arguing that we should be “placing ecology and Earth systems at the heart of learning, just as they are at the heart of life.”1George Monbiot, “Coronavirus shows us it’s time to rethink everything. Let’s start with education,” The Guardian (May 12, 2020).

Reading Monbiot has made me wonder how each of us can challenge what he calls our “collective failure.” One solution would be to learn more carefully from our elders. I have my mother’s knowledge to keep me safe at the seashore. As a child I learned that I must play only on the western side of the creek; on the eastern side, my mother warned, the current would drag me under — which is precisely what the three boys who nearly drowned did not know. Another solution is simply to step outside, into the backyard, and to observe those insects under the stairs. Such hyperlocal ecosystems can teach us much about ecosystems across the earth.

Use My Backyard might seem like a way for students to travel on the cheap, but hyperlocal ecosystems can teach us a great deal about ecosystems across the earth.

Lying in the grass in the backyard is simple, of course — and far safer than venturing into waters with unfamiliar tides. And so, as the COVID-19 pandemic closed international borders and my summer plans had to be reinvented, I decided to buy a tent, and to study the global ecosystem by sticking close to home. I also sought out the community known in Danish as Brug min Baghave, or Use My Backyard.

Use My Backyard is a free network comparable to Couchsurf; it was established as an informal Facebook-group in 2019. Just six weeks after its launch, the group had grown to 16,000 members; today there are more than 32,000. Participating hosts include young couples and retirees; the outdoor spaces on offer range from gardens measuring six meters square to large open fields. Pernille Kaas, founder of UMB, has explained the project to the public through appearances in national newspapers and television, and the concept has taken Danes by storm.2Mikkel Thuesen, “Denne sommer har tusindvis af danskere åbnet haven for fremmede: Er det ikke verdens mest naturlige ting at dele med hinanden?,” Politiken (July 24, 2019). Kaas appeared on Danish national network news, TV AVISEN, DR1 (June 12, 2019), and on a cable talk show, Aftenshowet, DR1 (June 18, 2019). Throughout this summer of pandemic, images of travelers enjoying a bonfire or sleeping under the stars have been shared for everyone to see.

Left: Overnat i en fremmed have (“Sleep in a stranger’s garden”), TV2, June 18, 2019. Right: Denne sommer har tusindvis af danskere åbnet haven for fremmede (“This summer thousands of Danes have opened their gardens to strangers”), Politiken, July 24, 2019. [Cordelia Kert Sønder]
Camping in an abandoned vacation home in Raageleje, Denmark, as recommended by a Use My Backyard host, July 2020. [Cordelia Kert Sønder]

Use My Backyard might seem like yet another way for students to travel on the cheap. But two centuries ago the polymathic Alexander von Humboldt found that within a water pond there exists a complete ecosystem, where communities of bacteria, algae, and insects depend on each other to support the whole — and just as a pond or a stretch of tidal zone comprises an ecosystem, a patch of backyard grass does too. We do not have to grasp the cycles of the whole world, nor travel into the deep wild forest to find nature. We can look upwards and connect with the birds like my grandfather, or we can look downwards, between the blades of grass, and be connected to the beetles dwelling there. We can observe life in the backyard, and (re)establish our ecological education.

Notes

  1. George Monbiot, “Coronavirus shows us it’s time to rethink everything. Let’s start with education,” The Guardian (May 12, 2020).
  2. Mikkel Thuesen, “Denne sommer har tusindvis af danskere åbnet haven for fremmede: Er det ikke verdens mest naturlige ting at dele med hinanden?,” Politiken (July 24, 2019). Kaas appeared on Danish national network news, TV AVISEN, DR1 (June 12, 2019), and on a cable talk show, Aftenshowet, DR1 (June 18, 2019).

About the Author

Cordelia Kert Sønder

Cordelia Kert Sønder holds a B.A. in Sustainable Architecture from Aarhus School of Architecture. She has worked at Studio Tomas Saraceno, and at Aarhus has served as the Chairman of the Student Council as well as coordinator of the Career Lab. For her B.A. thesis, she designed a Climate Lab and Observatory that enables meditative asceticism and a deepened contact with the self.