Ways of knowing: or Islands for Thoreauvians

Skomer: Flagstaff outcrop

“I know artists whose medium is Life itself, and who express the inexpressible without brush, pencil, chisel or guitar. They neither paint nor dance. Their medium is Being. Whatever their hand touches has increased Life. They SEE and don’t have to draw. They are the artists of being alive.” (Frederick Franck, 1973)

1  Need for transcendental values

2 The Thoreauvians

3  Curricula of the heart

4  The Skomer Statement on Environmental Education

5  Epilogue

1  Need for transcendental values

Our present ecological crisis is the greatest man-made disaster this planet has ever faced. The truth is that humankind has created and continues to endorse an all-consuming industrial system which is effectively unstoppable and will run on until it runs out. A central but rarely addressed aspect of this crisis is our forgetfulness of the transcendental view of creation and how this affects our caring relationship to the environment. Transcendentalism describes a very simple idea. People have knowledge about themselves and the world around them that “transcends” or goes beyond what they can see, hear, taste, touch or feel.  This knowledge comes through intuition and imagination not through logic or the senses. People can trust themselves to be their own authority on what is right for humans to thrive.   A transcendentalist is a person who accepts these free thinking ideas not as religious beliefs but as a way of understanding human relationships with other creatures and the material world as a central feature of self education.  

There is a pressing need to articulate a transcendental response to the ecological crisis. This is vital and necessary if we are to treat the world as a living whole.  It calls for responses to environmental issues that include spiritual awareness and/or practice. The principles of spiritual ecology are simple.  In order to resolve such environmental issues as depletion of species, global warming, and over-consumption of natural resources, humanity must examine and reassess its underlying attitudes and beliefs about the earth.  We have spiritual as well as physical responsibilities toward the planet to share its resources evenly between ourselves and other creatures that we value. Thus, ecological renewal and sustainability necessarily depends upon spiritual awareness to generate an attitude of responsibility.  We need a form of transcendental ecology in education that blends the language of science with the language of poetry.  The aim should be to transform natural events, objects, and process into vital, significant, and beautiful outcomes that bring together humanity, Earth and the cosmos in a magnificent holistic view. Cultures which foster great achievement need transcendental values, such as truth, beauty and virtue, to be a live presence in the culture; such that great artists and scientific thinkers compete to come closer to the ideal.  Modern transcendentalism is a complex 19th century response to the democratisation of American life, to the rise of science and the technology, of the new industrialism. It was a literary and political movement in the that flourished from the mid-1830s to the late 1850s in eastern Massachusetts.   It redefined the relation of humankind to nature and to each other. What the transcendentalists were opposed to was the rational, scientific approaches to nature which encouraged the objectification and unthinking exploitation of the natural world. The transcendentalists saw nature as something to be enjoyed first and to studied second. They revered nature in a divine sense. It was not subordinate to them, but instead nature was the other part of a symbiotic relationship that takes the bigness of self and dissolves it,.

The publication of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay ‘Nature’ in 1836 is often taken to be the moment when transcendentalism became a major cultural movement.  The transcendentalists urged individuals to find their relation to the universe. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, two of the most well-known transcendentalists, sought this relation in solitude amidst nature and in their writing.

2 The Thoreauvians

Thoreau was the ecological evangelist in the transcendental movement, which promoted meditation on connections between nature and humanity.  Though best known as a literary figure, Henry Thoreau showed a lasting interest in science. He read widely in the scientific literature of his day and published one of the first scholarly discussions on the process of forest succession. In fact, some historians rate Thoreau as one of the founders of the modern science of ecology. At the same time, Thoreau often lamented science’s tendency to kill poetry. Scientific writings coupled with his own careful observations often revealed life to him, but in other ways rendered nature lifeless. Modern-day Thoreauvians are also aware that science has largely become a tool for increased unthinking consumption, rather than for the appreciation and protection of wild nature, particular regarding the vital ecosystem services it provides for humanity.  Thoreau was aware of the cost to nature.  “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run”.

Thoreau’s brand of transcendentalism was spread by his writings and it first signalled its presence in Wales through two books.  In order of publication these were ‘Dream Island; a record of  the simple life’ published in 1930 by Ronald Lockley and ‘Island of Skomer’, edited by Lockley and his brother in law, John Buxton, published in 1950.

Lockley acknowledged his deep debt to Thoreau in ‘Dream Island, which is an account of how in 1927, together with his wife Doris, Lockley moved onto the tiny Welsh island of Skokholm, off the south west tip of Pembrokeshire.  He says he read Thoreau very thoroughly and was so impressed that his thoughts and actions were for many years influenced by his example of living a domestic life integrated with nature.  Just one mile long, the island had been occupied  intermittently by a mainland tenant, who Lockley replaced as the long term leaseholder.   

These are the opening paragraphs of Dream Island’.

“To dwell alone with birds and flowers in some remote place where they were plentiful and undisturbed was an ambition early cherished in school days: as soon as I began to look at, and watch, and so finally to love nature.

This desire became my daily dream as I grew up.  In turn I envied the Swiss Family Robinson, the Coral Islanders and Robinson Crusoe.  I wished intensely to become a Crusoe.  My day-dreams led me on wondrous expeditions alone in an open boat, and landed me on isolated bird-islands, where I dwell my hermit-life in complete happiness.  I built my little hut, kept my goats and my garden, and spent my days in watching and taming birds”.

The magnetism of islands took hold of Lockley in his boyhood and his first Thoreauvian project as a young man was to make a lake with a small island to attract birds and other wildlife.  It is interesting to compare this sentiment with the following ‘island entry’ in Thoreau’s Journal of 1851.

“One afternoon in the fall Nov 21st 1 saw Fair Pond with its island & meadow between the island & the shore, a strip of perfectly smooth water in the lee of the island & two hawks sailing over it—(and something more I saw which cannot easily be described which made me say to myself that it the landscape could not be improved.) I did not see how it could be improved. Yet I do not know what these things can be; (for) I begin to see such objects only when I leave off understanding them—and afterwards remember that I did not appreciate them before. But I get no further than this. How adapted these forms & colors to our eyes, a meadow & its islands. What are these things? Yet the hawks & the ducks keep so aloof, & nature is so reserved! We are made to love the river & the meadow as the wind (is made) to ripple the water”.

An earlier poetical response to Thoreau had been made in 1888 by William Butler Yeats.   Yeat’s poem, ”The Lake Isle of Innisfree, ” is based directly on Thoreau’s writing. When Yeats was a child, his father read Thoreau’s book ‘Walden; or Life in the Woods’ to him.  This book was an account of Thoreau’s withdrawal from society in 1845.  He spent more than two years  building a simple cabin at Walden Pond seeking  a deep and true relation to life.:  

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life”.

Thoreau studied the natural world as well as the effects it has upon the human’s state of mind. He discovered that simplicity in the physical aspects of life brings depth to our mind, carries our soul to its fullest potential, and causes our imagination to be uplifted in such a way as to change our lives. Like his mentor, Emerson, Thoreau recognized that, in nature, mean egotism vanishes and primitive needs do not arise. In his chapter on economics he reveals the first premise of his philosophy: that economic life has to be reduced to its bare essentials. He saw in the simplicity of life a major condition of the achievement of a natural relation between man and nature:

“I do believe in simplicity. It is astonishing as well as sad, how many trivial affairs even the wisest man thinks he must attend to in a day; how singular an affair he thinks he must omit. So simplify the problem of life, distinguish the necessary and the real. Probe the earth to see where your main roots are”.

Thoreau claimed that when man aligned his life with material possession, he wasted his time with unnecessary activities which would impede him from maintaining a deep relation to nature. Like Emerson, therefore, he saw in nature a mystical as well as indispensable significance for the individual’s life. Hence, he propagated a close observation of the natural world and, in particular, of the various interrelations between animals, plants and birds. Thoreau himself filled numerous pages with the most detailed observation of the natural phenomena and processes which were displayed in front of his eyes during his stay in the woods. He illustrates the cyclical course of the seasons, giving each observation his personal note of impression. The most abundant and delightful portrayal is devoted to the spring. Here his rejoicing in the majesty of nature as well as in the harmony of renewal is most evident.

“At length the sun’s rays have attained the right angle, and warm winds blow up mist and rain and melt the snowbanks, and the sun, dispersing the mist, smiles on a checkered landscape of russet and white smoking with incense, through which the traveller picks his way from islet to islet, cheered by the music of a thousand tinkling rills and rivulets whose veins are filled with the blood of winter which they are bearing off”.

For Thoreau, being wholly involved in nature, perceiving it with all his senses is a state of generous interchange which can only be experienced through intuition. In order to partake in nature this way we must let go of our thoughts because they tend to separate us from nature: “With thinking we may be beside ourselves in a sane sense. […] We are not wholly involved in Nature. I may be either the driftwood in the stream, or Indra in the sky looking down on it To establish an intimate relation to nature, the human needs to detach himself from his observant position and surrender himself to the respect due to the very source of his being. In this state of mind the individual is able to achieve a balanced and thoughtful happiness.

Yeats was so attracted to Thoreau’s transcendental ideas that he decided to try to imitate him him by crossing the Irish Lough Gill at night and visiting an uninhabited island known as Innisfree.  He would observe the wildlife and birds.  To him, this was a paradise which never left his imagination.  The tranquil, hypnotic hexameters of the poem recreate the rhythmic pulse of the tide. The simple imagery of the quiet life the speaker longs to lead, as he enumerates each of its qualities, lulls the reader into his idyllic fantasy.  The penultimate line jolts the speaker—and the reader—back into the reality of his drab urban existence: “While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey.” The final line—“I hear it in the deep heart’s core”—is a crucial statement for Yeats, not only in this poem but also in his career as a whole. The implication that the truths of the “deep heart’s core” are essential to life is one that would preoccupy Yeats for the rest of his career as a poet; the struggle to remain true to the deep heart’s core may be thought of as Yeats’s primary undertaking as a poet.

Lockley’s book, ‘Island of Skomer’, was the eventual outcome of a meeting of the West Wales Field Society in 1945, immediately after the end of the 2nd World War.  The Society was Lockley’s brain child established to manage all wild and uninhabited islands in West Wales, to protect them and to make use of them for field studies. Now the owner of Skomer had offered to allow the Society to make a field survey and the Society made two momentous decisions, not only to mount and fund such a survey but also to re-establish the Bird Observatory on Skokholm. Thus it was that the two islands became Welsh outposts for Thoreauvians in April 1946, and they have continued to serve this purpose to the present day.

Winifred Bowman an amateur artist who agreed to join the Skomer field party as the volunteer cook/ housekeeper, wrote the following account of her short stay on the island

`…. the lovely things are the easiest to remember. Masses of daffodils and narcissi blew about in the sunlight before the door, and the cliffs were washed with pink and white of thrift and campion, and primroses waited shyly beneath the curling bracken. I remember the liquid cry of the curlew, the lovely blue of the sea, and the fantastic colours of the distant cliffs, the heavenly hour or two in the afternoon when I could creep away from food and people and relax in a sunny corner out of the wind, doing nothing, thinking of nothing. And who could forget the evenings when we all gathered round the table in the lamplight, the enchanting calling of the roll of all the birds seen or likely to be seen on the island, the occasional flare-ups between expert and amateur, the excitement of a new discovery, and after-wards the slow and accurate talk round the driftwood fire, when these monosyllabic, shy bird-watchers spoke of other islands, set in other seas, of far-off countries, and the familiar stretches of the English countryside?

`One could extend the catalogue of beauties indefinitely, the truth of the matter was that Skomer was our University where skill marched with endeavour, and beauty flowered by the way. Not only did we master our own individual unfamiliar duties but we acquired and shared a knowledge of birds, beasts and flowers (of fish too, for I must not forget the marine biologists) and above all of human beings, distinguishing in a new and unique milieu the old characteristics of strength and eccentricity, meanness and generosity, stupidity and humour, the whole wisdom and folly of mankind. `It was a grand three weeks, and all the weeks that followed must have been grand too, except that they perhaps lacked the fine frenzy of our initial endeavour, and, as it turned out, the brilliant sunlight that shone over Skomer in April 1946?

3  Curricula of the heart

Winifred Bowman, in finding non material answers to why she was so attracted to Skomer, was seeing Skomer with her heart, just as Yeats saw, subconsciously, the attractions of the Isle of Innisfree and Thoreau his Walden.  It is no accident that these responses to environment involved contact with islands.

For Thoreau,  ‘An island always pleases my imagination; even the smallest, as a small continent and integral part of the globe’.  

Islands are good for transcendental Thoreauvian thinking because they are ‘small continents’, manageable totalities in themselves.They are ‘integral parts of the globe’ yet cut off with their own individuality in relation to origins and the diverse ways they play variations on the same themes of humankind’s impact.  In these respects, both Skomer and Skokholm are dominated by rocks, rabbits and seabirds and offer contact with wildness in an outdoor classroom.  They lead a self teaching visitor through Thoreau’s extended mystical mind set in an attempt to discover how to live with the guidance and observance of Nature, cherishing Nature and its elements.  Thoreau’s ways of knowing begin with a heartfelt feeling for objects, which may or may not then be subject to scientific investigation.  His scientific endeavours supplement the need to understand his fellow creatures.  He valued acquaintance with plants, animals and their topography, whether or not he had scientific knowledge about them.

He says  

“I…   wanted to know my neighbors, if possible, — to get a little nearer to them. I soon found myself observing when plants first blossomed and leafed, and I followed it up early and late, far and near, several years in succession, running to different sides of the town and into the neighboring towns, often between twenty and thirty miles in a day. I often visited a particular plant four or five miles distant, half a dozen times within a fortnight, that I might know exactly when it opened, beside attending to a great many others in different directions.

The main topographical element on Skokholm is Old Red Sandstone about 400 million years old. It is a fragment of a common mainland geological system.  It makes the island photogenically colourful but not mysterious with respect to its origin.  Skomer, in contrast, is  composed almost entirely of volcanic and related rocks with exposures, arranged in jagged parallel  lines, remnants of the youngest major volcanic episode in the southern part of the Britain. The entire volcanic area stretches east-west for about 43 Km with Skomer forming only part of this major unique geological field.  Once it was magma squeezed out onto the seabed during the early Silurian period (443- 416 million years ago).   A  small number of the lava beds were once pyroclastic in nature, formed by fluidized masses of rock fragments and gases flung out violently at great speed.  In more recent Ice Age times isolated rocks originating in the northern mainland have been dropped onto the surface by glacial flows. Compared with Skokholm, Skomer is a darker place but physically more diverse. Across the island, remains of boulder-built boundaries, neat stone walls and the footings of round houses can be seen showing how the island was extensively farmed by small communities in Iron Age and Romano-British times between 2,000-2,500 years ago. A prominent standing stone and other possible megaliths, suggest far earlier human occupation dating back to the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age.

Rabbits have adapted to life on both islands since the Norman conquerors of  Pembrokeshire decided to use them as rabbit farms. Rabbits now dominate the surface appearance of both islands due to their intensive burrowing and dominance of the few botanical species they do not eat.  In this respect, the rabbits are gardeners; digging, scraping and manuring the soil, endlessly recycling botanical nutrients.  

The first recorded use of Skomer for Thoreauvian thinking was in 1890s when the island was visited by the Cardiff Naturalists’ Society.  To these urban visitors the sights and sounds of the island were as exotic as the Galapagos.  The party gave it the nickname Golgotha because of the large number of rabbit and bird skulls that littered the island. The topics covered in their report of the visit  ranged from the first thoughts about the local vole being a new undescribed species to farm labourers sleeping squalidly three to a bed.  

The first true Thoreauvians to live on Skomer were the ‘Two Rays’ who set up a temporary home in ‘the rabbit catcher’s hut’ sited in the old stack yard of the farm.  Ray Howard Jones was a painter poet and her partner, Ray Moore, a photographer.  True to Thoreau they made their furniture from driftwood, burned peat for fuel and recorded their feelings in heartfelt art works in a complex blending with their surroundings of  land, sea and sky.  A collection of Ray Howard Jones’ poems, entitled ‘Heart of the Rock’ was published in 1993, three years before her death.  She believed Skomer’s rocky outcrops and sea cliffs were a wake-up call to the spirit.  By touching these ancient lava beds one was short circuiting planetary history via an imaginary portal  to the deep well of cosmic energy before life began. This is an example of the geological rhetoric familiar to Thoreau’s time. Rock outcrops were  “relics” of nature’s past “pages” in the archives of the planet, texts that could relate wondrous histories from deep time.  Thoreau often thought about ancient poems and wisdom texts as “fossil truths”.  In this respect, Thoreau was heavily influenced by Indian spiritual thought.  Most readers think of Thoreau’s Oriental themes as incidental, whereas actually they are at the heart of his life and writings.

Year by year Skomer is a repetitive scenic experience; an unchanging rocky treeless habit.  But careful observation reveals subtle microcosmic shifts in the pattern of bare soil, dead grass and plant succession related in very complex ways to the upsurge and decline in rabbit numbers and changes in local weather and climate.  The long chequered history of Skomer is written in the outcropping rocks poking through a thin cover of low commonplace vegetation, home to densely packed burrowing rabbits and seabirds.  This landscape is now being explored by high resolution aerial survey and satellite technology which opens up the whole island as a unified geological and ecological system with a surface expressing millennia of human low input occupations.  

Google satellite image of the west end of Skomer showing parallel outcrops running east to west

4  The Skomer Statement on Environmental Education

In 1959 Skomer was declared a national nature reserve.  The first move to develop the island as an educational resource were  made in the 1970s by Prof. Denis Bellamy, head of the zoology department at Cardiff University, then a college of the University of Wales. By arrangement with the Nature Conservancy Council small groups of second year students were allocated personal projects on the island to fill gaps in knowledge about the island’s ecology and its management issues.  The projects were carried out on the island during a two week stay.  Similar courses were arranged on Skokholm.  The Skomer courses were initially based in the ‘Rabbit Catchers Hut’ at the farm.  It was during the first of these courses that the issue of the place of environmental studies in the university’s science degree system were raised.  

There is no doubt that students locked onto the island, driven on a personal self learning journey released for the first time in their educational experience.   From their group discussions the students composed the following Skomer Declaration on Environmental Education”

“Environmental education should be adopted by the university as a cross-curricular subject centred on managing natural resources to ensure equal shares of renewable resources are available for future generations.  This should be attained through wise management to make improvements in the quality of life and assistance to ensure the transfer of conservation know how to the developing world.  The acronym S.K.O.M.E.R has been adopted  to summarise the students’ understanding of Thoreau’s educational  philosophy as ‘sustainability knowledge organised to manage the environment responsibly”.

Environmentalism was in the air and in 1972 the principles of the UN Stockholm Conference on the Environment were published.  Five years later, the categories of environmental education objectives from the Tbilisi Declaration (1977), the outcome of the world’s first intergovernmental conference on environmental education, were adopted as guidelines for the Skomer work.

Awareness—to help social groups and individuals acquire an awareness and sensitivity to the total environment and its allied problems.

Knowledge—to help social groups and individuals gain a variety of experience in, and acquire a basic understanding of, the environment and its associated problems.

Attitudes—to help social groups and individuals acquire a set of values and feelings of concern for the environment, and the motivation for actively participating in environmental improvement and protection.

Skills—to help social groups and individuals acquire the skills for identifying and solving environmental problems.

Participation—to provide social groups and individuals with an opportunity to be actively involved at all levels in working toward resolution of environmental problems.

The students’ Skomer Declaration was the basis for developing the subject called Environmental Studies by the Science Faculty of the University at Cardiff.  The subject was offered as half of a two subject BSc general honours degree,   All departments of the faculty, from archeology  to zoology, committed to the introduction of environmental studies as an interdepartmental subject,   

In the early 1980s it had became the model for the creation of the subject called natural economy launched by the Cambridge University Local Examination Syndicate as part of its international GCSE.  

The Skomer declaration continued to be developed in Cardiff with funds from the educational directorate of the European Union,  It is currently available as a cross curricular framework called cultural ecology developed and promoted by International Conservation On Line.  Hundreds of people register for the cultural ecology blog each week and the home site and its satellites receive one to two million unique hits per year.

Environmental Studies, natural economy and cultural ecology  are cross curricular science based customisable knowledge frameworks that also allow a ‘sense of heart’ to enter ecology.  The latter is the most obvious evidence of a commitment to holistic education.  It primarily implies the importance of a holistic approach to include life governed by the subconscious,  

The subconscious which is let loose on Skomer is that part of the mind of which one is not fully aware but which influences one’s actions and feelings   It fronts a philosophy of education based on the premise that each person finds identity, meaning, and purpose in life through connections to the community, to the natural world, and to humanitarian values such as compassion and peace and beauty. Holistic education aims to call forth from people an intrinsic reverence for life and a passionate love of learning.  ‘Heart’ encompasses feeling, knowing, loving, and is our access to one another. It is also the deep well of our full human meaning to be educated in the practice of self-knowledge. It also presents an understanding of the requirements of participation and the necessity for that possibility to be realised through democratic association. For the transcendentalists a curriculum of  the heart is shorthand for an education that encourages deep personal and societal change.  The medium of change is to be enclosed in a semi wild landscape that encourages self inspired learning which produces a change in personal values from liking things to loving things.

Cultural ecology is an educational framework to build a personal body of knowledge which chimes with UNESCO’s four types of education.  These were set out in a report by the ‘International Commission on Education for the Twenty-First Century’ chaired by Jacques Delors in 1996. The pillars underline the very breadth and depth of Thoreau’s vision of education within and beyond schooling.  

They are:

  • learning to know,
  • learning to do,
  • learning to live together,
  • and learning to be.  

Although they can be defined separately, the pillars form an integrated whole and should ideally be present in all pedagogical encounters and the curriculum as a unified entity. The Four Pillars are programmatic and can be summed up as follows:

‘Learning to know’ lays the foundations of learning throughout life. This pillar refers to the basic knowledge that we need to be able to understand our environment and to live in dignity. It is also about arousing curiosity, allowing us to experience the pleasures of research and discovery. It faces us with the challenge of combining a sufficiently broad education with the in-depth investigation of selected subjects. Learning to know implies learning how to learn by developing one’s concentration, memory skills and ability to think.

‘Learning to do’ refers to the acquisition of practical skills, but also to an aptitude for teamwork and initiative, and a readiness to take risks. As such, this pillar is about the competence of putting what we have learned into practice so as to act creatively on our environment. A variety of situations, often unforeseeable, is bound to arise. Learning to do enables us to turn our knowledge into effective innovations

‘Learning to live together is the pillar that the UNESCO Commission emphasises more than any other. It refers first of all to developing an understanding of others through dialogue leading to empathy, respect, and appreciation. Yet if we are to understand others, we must first know ourselves. ‘Learning to live together’ is also about recognizing our growing interdependence,  experiencing shared purposes, and about implementing common projects and a joint future. Only then will it be possible to manage the inevitable conflicts in a peaceful way.

‘Learning to be’ is founded on the fundamental principle that education needs to contribute to the all-round development of each individual. This pillar deals with the broadening of care for each aspect of the personality. It deals with giving us the freedom of thought, feeling, and imagination that we need to act more independently, with more insight, more critically, and more responsibly. The end of education is to discover and open the talents which are hidden like a treasure within every person. As a means of personality training, education should be a highly individualized process and at the same time an interactive social experience. By speaking of learning to know rather than of knowing, UNESCO indicates that this is a never-ending process that is both personal and shared. Education is not only about know-what, but also about know-why, know-how and know-what for.

Learners are not called to merely become experts in their field, but also co-workers in knowledge production processes and managers of meaningful, responsible and sustainable development.

These ideas and themes on holistic education may be elaborated through a chronological examination of Thoreau’s works. For example, a study by Clair Hockley in 2013 envisioned a Thoreauvian education presented in the words and the voice Thoreau himself may have used. The picture that she presents;

…. is a school that strives to equip its students for life. Perhaps at the heart of the matter is the realization that each student has a life that only he or she can live. Others may walk alongside for a time but each person must learn to live his or her own life. It is in this sense that each life is in essence a life of solitude. A Thoreauvian school would encourage living that life to the fullest, in the pursuit of one’s own dreams and passions. A Thoreauvian school would endeavour to equip the student for such a life”.

Thoreauvian ways of knowing about the existence and value of knowledge are not to delve deeper into anatomy, but to enjoy a plant or animal in its proper place. Not to dissect their flowers, but to go to see when they flower, allowing them to show themselves at their best.  Here,  is revealed an ambiguity in the word ‘to know.’ It can mean personal acquaintance with something or someone. Or it can mean possessing a correct picture of the structure and true information of the history of a physical thing. This more rigorous knowledge can be pursued ever more deeply to know more and more about less and less.  Yet anyone can.engage in a meeting of things in their careful observations of the surroundings.  Thoreau asserts there are two ways of knowing.  There is the existence and value of particular detailed knowledge; and the existence and value of acquaintance, irrespective of knowledge.  This distinction is exemplified by the following extract from ‘Island of Skomer’ in which the reader makes acquaintance with its ‘cliff gardens’

The rock-walls were covered with lichens, especially Usnea sp. whose greenish-grey beard-like strands quite disguise the true colour of the basalt. These delightful cliff-gardens of Skomer were the frequent resort of observers who sought to escape for a while from the blustering south-westerly gales; the ornithologist who wandered there in the spring found himself looking up at the grey rock face where gull, raven, chough, peregrine falcon and fulmar petrel patrolled; and below him the sheer cliffs were filled with the cries and flighting of nesting kittiwakes, guillemots and razorbills. The spongy turf itself contained the burrows of puffin and shearwater, although the entrances to these underground nests were partly or wholly concealed by the vigorous growth of the plant community. These ledges, too, had been discovered by the cattle which in 1946 were pastured on Skomer; and their owner had great difficulty in preventing the descent of the beasts to this shelter and rich grazing. He had experienced several losses due to the heavy animals slipping or jostling each other when turning on the unfenced edges of the precipice. The effect of the trampling and dunging by the cattle was plain in the virile growth of the vegetation; the nitrogen content had been increased in a soil already well supplied with seabird guano, and with the moisture and humus provided by layers of decaying vegetation laid down each winter. Another cliff plant association is to be found between the extremes.

5  Epilogue

What has become of the Bellamy vision of Skomer as a place for operating a residential Thoreauvian curriculum.  The last groups of Cardiff students passed through the islands over 30 years ago and Skomer is now mass marketed as part of the local tourist industry. There is a regular boat service for up to 250 visitors per day and accommodation for an assortment of full time staff,  self-catering visitors,  weekly volunteers and research workers.  Once the last day visitor has left the island you could be socialising with more than twenty people who remain.  Inevitably, Skomer has become a money earning institution and the mainland education system is still assiduously imparting detailed knowledge from within out of date subject silos.

Five decades ago the Thoreauvian population of Skomer was seldom more than ten.  The boat service was unreliable and communication with the mainland was by a radio telephone, but only in an emergency!  You went to Skomer for the long run, anticipating being marooned for days beyond the time of your booking.

There is a growing mood of pessimism regarding the failure of environmental education to grip the syllabus to significantly change human behaviour towards one-planet living. Yet, the future of humankind and other life forms is grim. The ultimate Thoreauvian environment is the Galapagos archipelago as Darwin first saw it. At the latest count it has lost twelve of its thirteen coral reefs to climate change.  The endemic giant ‘daisy tree’ is on the verge of extinction.  Its habitat, which is some of the most fertile soils across the Islands, has been turned into agricultural land to meet the needs of a population that has grown three times faster than on the Ecuadorian mainland..  

A vigorous  promoter of this attitude of disenchantment with the lack of applications of environmental education to live sustainably is Paul Kingsnorth.  Faced with lack of progress towards sustainable lifestyles we kick the issue into the long grass.   

We might tell ourselves that The People are ignorant of the Facts and if we enlighten them they will Act.  We might believe that the right treaty has yet to be signed, or the right technology has yet to be found, or that the problem is not too much growth and science and progress but too little of it.  Or we might choose believe that a Movement is needed to expose the lies being told to the People by the Bad Men in Power who are preventing The People from doing the rising up they will all want to do when they learn The Truth”.

The truth is that Thoreauvians have to accept that self-sufficiency comes packaged with literary romance, which supports sustaining human civilization at the comfort level that the world’s rich people feel is their right.  

We can leave the last words to Emerson, Thoreau’s mentor.  He warns against forgetting that we “share the cause”  of nature by being overly preoccupied with the institutions we have made,  Of this obsession, Emerson writes he is “ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions”. Nonetheless, Emerson recognizes that we must live in the world that we have created, and he advises that we “keep with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude,” which is found in nature, even while “in the midst of the crowd”.  We, continue to dream that wind farms, tidal turbines and other renewable technologies will allow them/us to carry on with two percent economic growth as usual, for ever

Skomer: Outcrop portals into the subconscious

6  Internet references

Towards a transcendental ecology

Learning patterns and landscapes

Visions of the American Transcendentalists

Curricula of the heart



Science and system

Thoreau and knowing

Transcendental thinking

Cultural ecology

Skomer: mindmap

Skomer: campfire mediation

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