By Tanja Beer, Cristina Hernandez and Andrea Cook
‘Refugium’ is a term that is used in the field of ecology to describe an area (or ‘refuge’) where environmental conditions have enabled a species or a community of species to thrive during unfavourable circumstances. It is a place where species go to take refuge in adverse climates or to escape disease. Refugium is often a place of great ecological diversity and resilience. It is also a place of inspiration for reimagining our cities as interconnected, biodiverse, regenerative and resilient systems.
Two weeks ago, three researchers from the Thrive Research Hub (Tanja Beer, Cristina Hernandez and Andrea Cook) conducted an arts-science project in Perth (Refugium WA) to explore how creative practices could be used to connect people to environmental issues. Using ideas from participatory art-making (Tanja), bio-sensitive design (Cris) and community planning (Andrea), our aim was to investigate the capacity for transdisciplinary practices to lead to new modes of arts-science communication and connect people to the importance of biodiversity in urban spaces.
Inspired by the original Refugium, launched at Federation Square in Melbourne in 2016 (initiated by Tanja as part of the City of Melbourne’s draft Biodiversity Strategy), Refugium WA was designed specifically for Perth by celebrating its heritage as a biodiverse wetland as part of Propel Youth Arts KickstART Festival. The project engaged 58 participants in botanical crafting ‘kokedamas’ (a Japanese art-form using moss and string to create a sculptural piece) using five species of native sedges. Conducting four workshops at Scitech, we invited participants to create 60 kokedamas for a small installation at the First Edition Café at the State Library of Western Australia.
For the first time, the Perth project also used surveys and observation to measure if and how the activity changed participant’s well-being and connection to nature. By combining scientific knowledge (Cris) with community crafting (Tanja), we led participants through a cognitive and sensory understanding of Perth’s ecological history. We also invited people to think about how they could propagate the regeneration of their natural ecology in their own gardens. Our tactic was one of knowledge building using different forms of creative, participatory and intellectual engagement.
At the heart of the project were values which are fundamental to the Thrive Research Hub. These include: celebrating biodiversity, co-creating knowledge, facilitating ecological and social connections, contribution and creativity. We illustrate these ideas in more detail below.
Our intention was to celebrate Perth as a ‘biodiversity hotspot’, including bringing attention to its wide variety of plants and animals providing ample food resources for each other. While the participants gently wrapped string around their plants at the workshops, we spoke of the importance of biodiversity in facilitating resilience in a crisis (e.g. a disease, a flood or drought) and how this variety protects the whole ecosystem and all the little critters that live within it reducing the risk of extinction. Our intention was to draw the participant’s attention to the sedges they were holding, as living objects of great value that can offer a safety net in times of uncertainty.
The project included training ‘kokedama teachers’, emerging artists and Perth residents who assisted the general public in making the plant sculptures as well as sharing information about the plants, their characteristics and how to nurture them and information on what these wetland plants mean for the ecosystems. They were also our co-researchers on our project who took part in helping to facilitate surveys and co-observing the participant’s engagement in this activity.
Facilitating ecological and social connections
Through the surveys and observations with our kokedamas teachers, we witnessed how the participants’ engagement in botanical crafting increased connection with nature. Connection to nature is defined as the degree that an individual includes nature as part of their identity and is also an important predictor of well-being and ecological behaviour. This includes a deep sense of belonging to the natural world, feelings of peacefulness and harmony; a sense of timelessness; humility; respect and developing a sense of place.
Not everyone experienced an increased connection with nature. For some, this was because they were already very much connected to nature already. However, our data analysis demonstrated that 73% of participants felt that this activity made them think differently about nature in the city. We also discovered four categories of connection:
- those expressing an increased awareness of nature;
- those with a desire to increase nature within the city;
- those that can visualise the integration of nature in urban contexts; and
- those with specific action statements, including ideas of taking the kokedamas activity to their own communities or specific environmental actions they want to do to improve nature in the city.
One observation that stood out was the experience of a particularly quiet and shy boy who attended our workshop on Sunday morning. When filling out his survey, the boy stated that he was feeling ‘nostalgic’ and ‘sad’. He participated in the kokedama activity with his mum initially doing most of the work in building the plant sculpture. However, it wasn’t long until the roles shifted and the boy began to lead the crafting activity.
As the boy became immersed in the making process, the kokedama teacher witnessed how his face and posture relaxed. As he tied his little coconut nest around his plant, the boy seemed to become completely absorbed in the crafting experience. Then, in one striking moment, the boy kissed his plant, revealing the strong bond that was forming between him and nature.
On his post-activity survey, the boy wrote that the greatest thing he learned was to “Be one with your plant”. He also said that he felt happy when he connected with nature. The kokedama teacher also stated that he opened up during the activity and became more socially engaged. It was this experience that led us to consider the possible contributions that botanical crafting can make in facilitating nature connection and social cohesion.
In a society where we are becoming increasingly urbanised and disconnected from nature, spending more time indoors, both in our working and leisure environments, and becoming increasingly sedentary it is clear that we need to find new ways of connecting with the living world.
Biodiversity is intrinsic to the health and wellbeing of our planet but also to our survival as humans. We need to find more opportunities for bringing nature back into our cities and facilitating care for our fellow species. Communicating scientific knowledge isn’t enough. We also need to find other and more creative ways to engage people in these conversations. Participating in botanical crafting or projects like Refugium is just one way in which we can engage with this topic.
Thank you to: Propel Youth Arts, Steven Finch, our co-researchers Bridget Bathgate, Sophie Durand, Lotte Scott, Indi Ranson, Alina Tang, Scitech, Paper Mountain, Donald (First Edition Café), Dominique Hes, Paul Sutherland (photographer), and all the participants who took part in the workshops.