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Sustainability education as constituted within constellations of local places

Within the larger Gippsland region, sustainability activities were found to be shaped by, and shaping of, constellations of local places in which the schools are situated. Heyfield Public School offers an example of how sustainability education is grounded in its local community and surrounding places. The township of Heyfield is a small rural village located 200 kilometres east of Melbourne on the edge of the Victorian High Country. In close proximity to large areas of forest, the town developed as a service centre for the timber industry. When asked about their sustainability projects the teachers explained: 'Heyfield's a timber town, so we have done quite a lot with the timber industry and, also with the sustainability area, because the wetlands here were built over a decade [ago]'. One of the teachers remembered when the school children went down and planted the first lot of trees at the wetland when it was re-established over twenty years ago. Throughout the conversation the teachers talked about these two aspects of the place: its history as a timber town and the wetlands as a place of sustainability teaching and learning.

We've gone on excursions to the mills where they've contacted us and helped us arrange where we've gone to the green mill and had a look at how they bring the timber down from the mountains and what the process is at the green mill, and then to the dry mill. So, we've done a fair bit of work on that, and we also had some guest speakers from the VicForests.

(Teacher interview)

Trees propelled the engagement with the timber industry and the rehabilitation of the local wetlands, and it is trees that characterise this bioregion. Learning about logging in the timber industry and the action of planting trees at the local wetlands are both interestingly framed by a relationship with trees. Trees shape the place's biophysical attributes and generate human actions that produce its socio-ecological characteristics. This school's sustainability education activities implicitly recognise the agency of trees in shaping both the bioregion and children's actions within it.

The teachers go on to describe how they use the study of town planning to involve students in thinking about how places come into being over time within the relationships that make up the social ecologies of places. The story of these relationships unfolds as the teachers talk about the human history of the wetland as a commons that is intimately linked to how the children learn sustainability.

We've also looked at town planning and had a very integrated unit of work on the town planning, and we had town planners from Traralgon from the government area come in and talk to us about how towns are planned, and we looked at that ourselves, and then looked at Heyfield itself, and the wetlands were part of that, and looked at what the wetlands were before, you know, it was a football oval, a horse racetrack. And before that people were allowed to just graze and have vegetable gardens and grow different things; tobacco - there was tobacco; it was a commons, yeah.

(Teacher interview)

The Heyfield wetland site became the focus of their sustainability education. The idea of a 'commons' as a shared space where humans interact with the more-than-human world is a key one in the history of the Heyfield wetland. Often previously known as swamps, wetlands were maligned for their dank smells and prolific insect breeding, they were cleared of their native plants and filled in to become permanently dry land. In these actions humans assumed a role as the dominant species, destroying the life forms of the place. When the town demographic changed, people's relationship to the place changed. The teachers explained that the number of people involved in the timber industry decreased as the seven timber mills were reduced to two and more diverse families moved into the town. As part of their learning about the complex and dynamic ways that people and places interact, the children interviewed the local timber contractors who were responsible for digging out the wetland in the 1990s to return it to its watery nature.

The nature of swamps as places that are alternately wet and dry makes them highly fertile and rich in animal and plant life. The wetland is now returned to its original form with a clearly articulated pedagogical purpose. It is protected as a prime ecological habitat with walking tracks, ponding decks, art installations and a community information centre that has its own curriculum. The wetland is host to an annual one day biodiversity field event for a group of local rural schools that participate in biodiversity audits, bird watching, tree planting, artwork, reptile and bee activities.

Well we're having another [field day event] in November and John Caldow, who runs the Bug Blitz programs, he's going to have an Aboriginal elder doing something down there; Peter Ware the bird man will be making nests out of material that they collect down there with the children. Last year the Department of Sustainability and Environment brought their fire awareness trailer, they'll be doing something else this year.

(Teacher interview)

When the children, their teachers and community experts come together in this place they collectively enact new social ecologies in which the life forces and forms of the place become more dominant. Bug Blitz is a form of sustainability curriculum, a kind of franchised programme that is brought to life through the specific relational pedagogies of the place. The Bug Blitz programme aims to help children learn about the delicate balance of an ecosystem. It is a programme about bugs, and rather than despising the prolific insect life of the swamp the children research the biodiversity of the place; its fecundity is reframed as a healthy and fascinating richness rather than a form of otherness that harbours infestation and lurking threat. Aboriginal people with deep cultural knowledge tell children about the journeys their people made from the Snowy Mountains to the sea, stopping at the wetlands as a rich source of food. The children learn with bird experts to recognise the bird life of the area by making nests that link them to the materiality of the trees and to the particular birds who inhabit the place. Fire awareness teaches them about the tall ash forests that surround their town and are prone to wild fires. All of these things - the water, bugs, rural schools, teachers and children, Aboriginal stories and birds and fire awareness trailer - create an assemblage of place that the children visit over and over again in their learning.

The teachers also talked about how the children's sustainability activities in the school grounds connect to the wetland across the road. In the school grounds the children grow a butterfly garden, tend chickens, plant vegetables and make nesting boxes that they place in the trees of the school and the wetland: 'so they have an ownership of the surrounds of the school, the vegetable garden, the butterfly garden, and the extension of that, the wetlands are so close'. The idea of ownership, the extent to which the children identify with the places of their activities is significant for the teachers:

If they use the wetland a lot they think of it as theirs, and we encourage that too, and just looking at rubbish and drainage over the years when we're doing units of work, we look at where does all of the stormwater go, and we can actually go out onto the road and stand there and look, and show the children how the stormwater does drain down into the wetlands and say, everything that you drop, or all the oil, everything, and they can actually see how it is going to go, they can follow the path.

(Teacher interview)

In this learning, children come to understand that their actions in one place have an impact on other places. This is not only cognitive learning but is about the identification through which the flow of children's desire is directed towards the wellbeing of their places. Their desire for one place is connected to other places through the flow of water that has its own forces and energies. Their sustainability education practice enables the forms and forces of the more-than-human world to shape their learning in ways that would not otherwise be possible.

Sustainability education is constituted within constellations of local places that make up a bioregion. While a region such as a local government shire is drawn by a boundary that is marked around an area from the outside, a bioregion emanates from a multitude of centres within and expands outwards by links that form between entities. Rather than describing an externally derived boundary, bioregion involves an ontology formed from the iterative linking that starts from where you are, an area that has no real boundary. The social ecologies of a bioregion are dynamic, variable and vulnerable in the ways that relations between humans and their places unfold over time. In the children's sustainability education activities in Heyfield it was the relationship to the timber industry, the trees and mountains from which the timber is harvested, the wetland with its human and non-human histories and the school grounds with its chickens, vegetables, butterfly garden, nesting boxes and trees. Each activity creates a local place that is connected to other places and a constellation is formed from the interaction of human and more-than-human participants.

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