Sunday 25 November 2012

A Risky Business

[Just a few of the many dangers in life!] 

There are plenty of things in life that can kill us. Indeed, as Hank Willams sang, "I'll never get out of this world alive”. But that doesn’t stop us from pretending, imagining, planning and coddling ourselves into a nice safe life. It’s as though we can keep all danger, even death itself, at bay through meticulous planning.

Most days I walk in the bush behind our place. As I’ve described here before there is a seriously bad erosion gully just behind our house. Local walkers and mountain bikers have negotiated their way around and through it for many years. So I was rather taken aback when I wandered up one day to find danger signs installed, and the gully taped off with red and white warning tape. Suddenly there was a frisson of danger about this ordinary piece of bush!

[You have been warned! The new sign in our bush.] 

Aside from the fact that the tape has made access across the (now “officially” dangerous) gully a little more difficult, I have found myself avoiding the gully. It’s as though I now have an anxious parent hovering nervously over me. “Ooh be careful here dear… This looks nasty … Best go around it, you don’t want to trip over and hurt yourself.”

It’s silly. I’m a bushwalker with over forty years of experience. I’m still moderately fit and agile. And yet I find myself being unaccountably careful around this spot. What’s going on? I’ve come to see it as a tiny domestic example of what’s going on in the wider world. We’ve all become risk averse. We seem to look for metaphorical airbags against every possible eventuality.

It has effected our parenting styles in a huge way. Fearing that bad things happen out of doors, where “strangers” and “hazards” lurk, we have bred a generation that is more at home in front of a screen than in the bush; a cohort that thinks angry birds are found on screens not in trees. A recent report by the British National Trust* found that:

·      On average, Britain’s children watch more than 17 hours of television a week: up by 12% since 2007.

·      In addition British children are spending more than 20 hours a week online, mostly on social networking sites.

·      As children grow older, their ‘electronic addictions’ increase. Britain’s 11–15-year-olds spend about half their waking lives in front of a screen: 7.5 hours a day, an increase of 40% in a decade.

I think of Watership Down, Richard Adams’ influential fantasy fable from the 1970s. In his wonderful story about rabbits escaping disaster, the fleeing group of hungry, bedraggled rabbits is given help by another group of plump, sleek, calm rabbits. Briefly our heroes are tempted to settle down to this easy life, albeit that they would be caged. Only at the last minute do they realize that these rabbits are bred and fed for the (human) table.

Is it a huge stretch to see that we risk having a generation of children who are plump, sleek  and wired, but who don’t connect with the natural world? And unlike Watership Down’s caged rabbits, this generation doesn’t seem to be growing up calm. Just one example is that Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is increasing at disturbing rates. Obesity and serious allergies are among many other serious issues.

[Happy Play: as simple as throwing rocks in a creek] 

The good news is that there may be a “nature cure”, of sorts. Researchers have found that exposure to nature reduces symptoms of ADHD in children threefold compared with staying indoors. And exposure to the natural environment has also been found to reduce stress and aggressive behaviour in children, and give them a greater sense of self-worth.*

It’s possible that’s what I observe most days on my walk to work. The track down the rivulet passes beside our local school, and quite often there are children playing in the grounds. I hear them whoop and holler like chimpanzees, or chase one another fiercely, or kick footballs or talk animatedly. It is a happy sound, and not one that I’ve ever heard from children interacting with a screen.

[The "forbidden" gully, taped off for our safety.] 

My own hollering is more circumspect these days, and usually restricted to calling to our almost-deaf dog, Noo. But this week, on one of our pre-work rambles in the bush, I lost track of her briefly. When I found her she was heading through the “forbidden” erosion gully. When she ignored – or didn’t hear – my yells, I followed her into the gully. I stepped over the warning tape, back on the old familiar path across the gully. I realised I had a big grin on my face. Sometimes it feels good – even necessary – to take risks.


* from “Natural Childhood” by Stephen Moss (National Trust, 2012)

Sunday 18 November 2012

Letters to a Young Interpreter

[An address delivered to the Interpretation Australia (IA) National Conference in Melbourne, November 2012. It was in part fulfilment of the 2011 Georgie Waterman Award I received in Perth last November. 

According to IA, "heritage interpretation is a means of communicating ideas and feelings which help people understand more about themselves and their environment."] 

[An interpreter at work, Ubirr Rock, Northern Territory]
Just over a century ago, a 19 year old Austrian military cadet wrote a letter to renowned German language poet, Rainer Maria Rilke. The young man wanted advice on how he could become a great poet. The correspondence continued for nearly six years, and Rilke’s advice was later published as the volume “Letters to a Young Poet”.
In Rilke’s first letter to young Franz Kappus, he said this.

"There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple 'I must', then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse."

What if we altered the above situation, and the particular advice, and applied it to interpreters; to those who interpret our natural and cultural heritage? If we were asked to mentor a young interpreter, to offer advice on how someone at the start of their interpretive career should proceed, what is it that we would say? Given what you have learned, both obvious and profound, what might you say to help a novice interpreter who’s itching to set foot on the long and winding road to interpretive success?

That is the premise of my address. You, me, we all have found – or will find – ourselves in the position of advising someone who wants to be an interpreter. For us it’s more likely to come in the form of an email exchange, a snatched conversation, or a meeting over coffee, but the concept is the same. What would you put in your letters – or emails – to a young interpreter?

One of the crucial first thoughts I had was that our young interpreter should learn from others. I would suggest that they be a sponge; that they listen to, watch and learn from others who have been on the road longer. In the end I decided to apply that piece of advice to this address, i.e. to seek the wisdom of some of our interpretation elders.

[Interpreting military history, Rottnest Island, WA] 

So I approached the past winners of the Georgie Waterman Award, five interpreters whose long contribution to interpretive excellence has been recognised by Interpretation Australia. I asked each for one paragraph, around 100 words, containing one single, crucial lesson, reflection or piece of advice they would want to pass on to our young interpreter. I will share their wise and generous responses with you now.

Pamela Harmon-Price (Qld)

Pamela Harmon-Price’s advice can be distilled into four words: “Stick to the fundamentals.” She elaborates. “Don’t get caught up in the bells and whistles. Always try to marry the message and medium to your audience and you are more likely to make a difference to people’s experiences and the special places we value and want to protect.”
Pamela’s finely honed interpretive brevity comes into play again with one closing piece of advice. “And the personal touch always works magic.”

John Pastorelli (NSW)

John Pastorelli believes that interpretation “is the key to facilitating those experiences that become the stories we hold dear, the stories we keep within us long after the physical journey has ended.” It can aspire to become “the music in our hearts”, borrowing from William Wordsworth’s poem “The Solitary Reaper”, in which the poet observes a young woman working in a field.

Whate'er the theme, the Maiden sang 
As if her song could have no ending; 
I saw her singing at her work,             
And o'er the sickle bending;—           
I listen'd, motionless and still;            
And, as I mounted up the hill,
The music in my heart I bore,             
Long after it was heard no more.    
John suggests the young interpreter should learn to recognise “that deeper sense of connection, meaning and story within each of us. It happens all around us - it is the chat around a coffee table, the tears in the backrow of the cinema, the smiles and laughs over a beer at the pub, the solitude of a wilderness landscape. Interpretation reveals and makes personal the richness and meaning of life. Interpretation is home.”

Robin MacGillivray (NT)

Robin suggests that we “aim for heartfelt, authentic interpretation that presents a  variety of perspectives, including Indigenous voices, because Indigenous perspectives are vital - especially in Australia. Interpretation without them is incomplete.”

She suggests the young interpreter might achieve this by “researching the topic through those who know and care (interviews, writings, stories, art and music), and passing on the joys the topic gives.”

Robin warns that this will be complex, advising that we “build in the time and money . . . that is required to do the job well. Research the pitfalls and dance around them. The process and the product will be long lasting and beyond expectations. The experience for the audience will be surprising and memorial.”

Gil Field (WA)

For Gil Field there is one thing so central that he says it could well become his interpretive epitaph. “See things from your audience’s perspectives as much as seeing the things you want to communicate.”

To do this he suggests the young interpreter should do the following. “Ask what my audience wants (their perspective) as much as what they need (your perspective, your intent). Then ask what it will take for them to take the actions I want them to take? What is their mind set? What will persuade them to see it my way and to act accordingly? You need empathy with your audiences. You then need to talk in the language they will understand – their language, their mind set, their perspective. It is not that hard as we are all humans with more similarities than differences – particularly when we are visitors to parks. We are more complex when we are members of a local community.

So be the manager’s voice AND the audience’s ears.”

[Interpreting colonial heritage, Woolmers Estate, Tasmania] 

Cath Renwick (NSW)

For Cath one fundamental is to “involve people who know about lots of different things: communication; various sciences; heritage; design; free-choice learning - to simply ask for input/advice. It is amazing how often people are glad to consider one's question or challenge, and respond.”

Next comes the synthesis. “If you can, take in what's offered (even when it is a LOAD of red corrections on your finely edited copy!!) then work out what needs to be presented to engage, provoke thought, conversations, googling.”

“The bottom line is that ‘less is more’ when it comes to interpretive devices and ‘more is more’ when it comes to good research, community engagement, and evocative and accessible design.”

Of course, all interpretive projects should provide orientation, promote exploration and make meaning, but we should also strive to encourage participation and scaffold conversations to build meaningful partnerships.

While it’s difficult to distill all of that wisdom into a few words, there are some key words that our elders mention. These include some that we would hope and expect to find: audience, research, story, fundamentals and engagement … But I also notice some other words that we might consider left-field. Did you hear them: heart, music, dance, magic, joy, empathy? To me it is no surprise that our elders seek to involve art alongside science, heart as well as head. Isn’t this what Tilden meant when he called interpretation an art?

Please let me acknowledge and thank the “elders” for their generous insights. Also let me thank our one and only Georgie Waterman Encouragement Award winner, Jen Fry, my friend and colleague in Tasmania. It was her suggestion that led to me contact the elders.
But I turn now to my own few paragraphs of advice. I have cunningly allowed myself the advantage of having more that one paragraph. Still, I will try to be brief.

      * Gain first-hand experience of your subject. Get out there and look, touch, listen, feel and even smell, whether it’s a place, an artefact or an experience. You are doing this not so you can tell your audience everything you have learned, but because it will help you to appreciate, even to love, what you interpret. And when that subtly leaks out, your interpretation will be the better. 

* Read widely, starting with actually reading Tilden. Don’t let yourself succumb to what CS Lewis called “chronological snobbery”, where everything new is per se better than that which is old. Yes Freeman Tilden wrote “Interpreting Our Heritage” in 1957, and was dead before computers were part of our lives. But wisdom is wisdom. The longer I am an interpreter, the more I come to appreciate just how insightful Tilden was.

[Reading interpretive panels, Kakadu National Park, NT] 

* Feed your creative side. Take deliberate time out to do it. Whatever it is, whether painting, writing, cooking, playing an instrument, climbing a cliff or picking a line down a whitewater river, just do it. Even if you do it poorly, it presents you with other challenges that will nourish you and that part of your brain that interpretation can also tap into.

* Leave your ego at the door. You are a conduit, not the focus. This is easier said than done, because we do all have egos. We’re interpreters after all! And there is a place for your personality – a very important place. It adds a unique flavour and authenticity. But it is the spice, not the meal itself.

* Be generous, collaborate, willingly share what you know and the sources of your knowledge, with other interpreters. This is another aspect of the ego issue. If interpretation is about audiences gaining appreciation, and ultimately caring for that which is interpreted, then it doesn’t matter who played what role in getting it out there.

* Don’t rely on technology alone. By all means embrace what technology has to offer: I personally have found things like apps, blogs, podcasts and vodcasts powerful and helpful. But in and of themselves these are just media. To revert to an old 20th century acronym, it can be a case of GIGO (garbage in, garbage out). As Pamela and Cath have both reminded us, we need to get the fundamentals right first. Good content might then be enhanced by innovative technology.

[Wordless interpretation, Otago Museum, Dunedin, NZ] 

* And finally consider interpretation as a long game. Some of you may only be in the interpretive profession for a short time. But if you become a good interpreter, it is something that will stay with you for life, whatever your profession. Some time in the next few years, I will probably retire from my interpretive role with Tasmania Parks & Wildlife Service. But - and you may pity my friends and family - I fully expect that I will be interpreting until I draw my last breath.

And if it’s a long game, then we will need patience. Which brings me back to Rilke. Reading between the lines, it seems that the young poet’s letters to Rilke may have been displaying impatience. In Letter 3 Rilke responds with this advice. (Again I will change “poet” to “interpreter”.)

“Being an [interpreter] means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!”

Saturday 10 November 2012


[Blue gum blossom on the shores of Fortescue Bay, Tasmania]

Australians are a famously coastal people. 85% of us live within 50km of the ocean. We’re also notoriously irreverent. So when our national anthem celebrates our land being “girt by sea”, we’re more inclined to take the piss than hold our hands on our hearts.  The 1970s comedy The Aunty Jack Show, for instance, had a spoof anthem for the coastal city of Wollongong, rejoicing that it was “girt by sea on one side”.

I’m not sure that Germans have quite the same sense of the ridiculous, but I do love it that they have a single word for “girt by sea”, namely “meerumschlungen” (literally “sea-embraced”). It's a beautifully logical, Meccano-esque language. Need another word? Just bolt it on! I dare say that if I were to find myself surrounded by cheese, I could be "kaeseumschlungen".

Ambulatory rhythms have a way freeing the mind to play. That at least may explain my mind wandering into this linguistic territory during a walk out to Cape Hauy on the Tasman Peninsula. It is a classic coastal track that I had somehow missed in my thirty plus years of bushwalking in Tasmania. With a new, much-publicised track to the cape, and the Show Weekend weather finally turning friendly, it was time to try it.

[On the new track, looking towards Cape Hauy] 

The track first. While it has not yet settled into its environment, I must say there is a kind of Teutonic logic – not to mention beauty – to the new track. Close up the stonework is precise and artful, more Lego than Meccano, though in weathered earth tones rather than primary colours. And it looks ready to last the next millenium. Some re-routing has been done to avoid the steepest slopes and the boggiest sections, such that “dry boot standard” might almost be true of the 4.7km track.

But the walk is quickly about so much more than the track. We are very soon umschlungen, if not quite girt, by sea and wind; wildflowers and wings. To our left is Fortescue Bay, a wide, deep blue embayment, white-capped in the keen wind. And as we climb above the bay we are soon surrounded by wildflowers: boronia, banksia, pultenaea and pimelia, among others, all close to full bloom.

[Lemon boronia blossom along the track] 

The assault on the senses increases as we pass the track’s high point. From it Cape Hauy comes into view, looming straight ahead as a series of massive, slanted dolerite bluffs backed by the Tasman Sea. To our right is the next cape south: the prodigious Cape Pillar, with the mass of Tasman Island disguised behind it.

[On the track, with Cape Pillar behind] 

The whole coastline has the feel of a disputed frontier. Some think it may mark a torn edge of the former landmass of Gondwana. Indisputably its huge dolerite cliffs are the result of the igneous upwellings that occurred in the Jurassic (around 170 million year ago), and ructions that continued into the Cretaceous (around 85 mya), as Gondwana slowly broke into separate land masses.

I imagine the slow wrestle that led to this dolerite staying here when it could just as easily have “sailed off” to Antarctica, where matching dolerite is found today. As we near the final bluff, the wind and wuthering continue, like an echo of that struggle. Waves carry on the argument, pounding and foaming at the base of the vertiginous cliffs.

[Dolerite cliffs near Cape Hauy] 
But further out masses of short-tailed shearwaters, dark and low to the sea; and a few isolated gannets, broad-winged and angel white, move over the waters like more peaceful spirits. We walk into the lee of a bluff, and the wind drops, allowing us a quiet lunch with a priceless view. We’re as glad as we would be reaching any mountain summit, perhaps gladder. Few summits are quite as girt as this.