April 28, 2020

Ep. 12 | David Anderson | The Riskiness of Life and Love

"People care for only what they love. They love only the things that they truly know.  And we only truly know things that we’ve experienced.  We give kids experiences in nature, direct experiences, and those experiences cultivate a desire to know."
~ David Anderson

In this episode, environmental educator David Anderson describes his work with international environmental organization A Rocha, inspiring communities to practically engage and steward their neighbourhoods.

He describes risk as a human necessity for engagement with nature, sharing a personal story of loss, that provides a resonant example of what it means to lean into nature, life and love.

Episode Guest

Ep. 12 | David Anderson | The Riskiness of Life and Love

David Anderson

David Anderson works with children and youth in outdoor pursuit as both therapy and education. He’s Director of A Roche BC., an international environmental organization focused on engaging communities for environmental initiatives.

David sees intrinsic connection between how we see ourselves, others and the natural world. His work provides communities the opportunity to experience the wonder and beauty of caring for the earth’s preservation.


Transcript | Ep. 12 | David Anderson | The Riskiness of Life and Love

Rachel Cram – David it’s such a pleasure to talk with you. I’ve long admired the work of A Rocha and I’ve really looked forward to this interview. Can you start with a brief background to how you arrived at A Rocha and the work that you do?

David Anderson – Oh yeah. Thank you. Well, first off A Rocha has kind of a unique name. It means the rock in Portuguese because the first project was started in Portugal in the early 80s. A Rocha now exists in twenty one countries around the world, and the overarching mission is environmental stewardship. Like how do we inspire people to practically engage and steward their places. Yeah. So whether that’s in Canada or whether that’s in Uganda or Peru or Brazil or the U.K. or these places where A Rocha is, we really want to work with local communities and neighborhoods and inspire them to take care of what they’ve got, to really value what they have. And then we work collaborating with them on how to work that out.

Rachel Cram – One of the reasons I wanted to interview David is because of the work you do, or the work that A Rocha does, with children and families. Do you see a global thrust or movement in how communities want to address our environmental concerns?  Are we gathering momentum?

David Anderson – Yeah. Well, I think the younger generation rightly sees how polarized so many of the issues are.  And recreate this us/them dynamic. When you have honest conversations with with everyone, like everybody wants clean water, clean soil, healthy clean air. We want flourishing biodiversity. We want clean rivers. We want, like everybody wants goodness in the world. I actually truly believe that. So what does it look like to get honest and work collaboratively and together. So A Rocha is all about asking those questions and then working across what’s often seen as divided parties. We really like bringing people together. Yeah.

Rachel Cram – I’m just thinking that whether we’re paying attention or not, environmental concern is essential for ourselves and for our children and for their children.  David, maybe I’ll start by asking what shaped your passion for environmental care? How did that start?

David Anderson – Sure. Well first off, as a young adult I had some really healthy and formative experiences in the context of the outdoors and nature.  A lot of outdoor pursuits. I mean partly because I probably had a lot of testosterone and adventure seeking that I just needed to work out of my system,

Rachel Cram – Fair enough

David Anderson – as a lot of young young people do. But partly because of the community that was formed in a lot of those contexts.  That was just hugely formative for me and healthy. But somewhere along the way you can be deeply committed to the outdoors and outdoor pursuits with basically what is a consumptive mindset. Like I’m gonna go out and consume all of these experiences for me. So somewhere in towards my mid to late 20s that started to turn to a desire to steward, tend, care.  A desire to want to take care of these amazing ecosystems and environments that I was travelling through. They weren’t just for my benefit. I had a part in helping them be well and flourish. And I would say those were the seeds that were planted that eventually led to the journey with A Rocha through doing conservation work.

Rachel Cram – So when you bring in children, what do you hope for them and what type of experience do you think is realistic for their understanding about how they can participate with nature?

David Anderson – What are our hopes for them.

Rachel Cram – Well, and David, can you also give examples that parents can use with their own children to bring increased appreciation for nature.

David Anderson – Well this is easy really. Kids love nature.  Kids love being outside; they’re naturally curious. They see the world with eyes that are full of wonder. That’s just a natural expression of who they are. So we cultivate gifts that kids naturally have. Everything we do is hands on. It’s all experiential based.

Rachel Cram – Well and that’s a must isn’t it. That kind of hands on tangible tactile experience. Children need that.

David Anderson – Absolutely. We’ll take the kids and we’ll walk back to a really healthy forest and we’ll blindfold the kids, those that are willing to participate, and we do a listening exercise. We’re trying to teach them how to be attentive to the world around them and how to really listen. So two or three minutes will go by with five and six year old kids and they’re completely quiet. Well, mostly completely quiet.

A few minutes earlier they may have been like all over the place, jumping all over the meadow but they’re keen because there’s lots of things to attend to. So in the quiet for two or three minutes they’ll be listening and then we’ll talk about; well what did people hear?  And there’ll be a few giggles but then it always goes to what we were hoping for; which is, “Well I heard the wind.”

Well where did you hear the wind?  Blowing through your hair?  Blowing through the meadow grass? Did you hear the wind blowing through the trees? It blew through something.

“Well, it blew through the trees.”

Well what kind of trees? We teach them about the naming of trees. These are Douglas Fir and Western Red Cedar and Big Leaf Maple and Vine Maple.

And another child would be like, “Oh I heard birds.”

Did you hear cawing?  Peeping? Chirping? Did you hear a trill? You heard a particular kind of sound.  And we get them to describe it.  And then we’ll do bird songs together and we’ll discover that wasn’t just any bird, that was a bald eagle trilling at the top of a Douglas Fir and that particular call means the bald eagles was marking territory.

Rachel Cram – I love this David. Recently I heard an ecologist talking about, I think this very thing.  He was talking about the importance of being able to name plants, animals, birds because names accentuate our recognition of value, of  importance. What is it that you’re trying to cultivate through this type of experience with children?

David Anderson – So we’re trying to cultivate what they already have, which is curiosity. We’re turning that towards wonder because we are surrounded by beauty and richness and complexity and as you name that and help kids to see that, they do. We’re surrounded by wonder all the time. We just don’t have eyes to see or ears to hear because we’re not attending to it. Our minds and our hearts are taken up by so much of the day to day and the busyness. So kids lend themselves to that a little bit more readily. You have to work harder at it with adults. But it’s possible. So there’s an example.

Musical interlude  

Rachel Cram – Wonder and curiosity are such a beautiful essential parts of life, and when we go into that realm it does so much for us internally. Can you talk a little bit more about that David?

David Anderson – Sure. Love to. Wonder cultivates all kinds of things in us. It has the potential to cultivate humility. I worked with teens at risk and they’re trying to make sense of life and themselves. They’re full of all these feelings and hormones and they can get too preoccupied with their internal world to their detriment.

And then you take them mountaineering and you go up to 4000 feet and they’ve been surrounded by city lights their entire life. There’s no lights for 100 kilometers in any direction. There’s no light pollution, and you’re sitting out at dusk and you’re watching the stars come out. You see them get quiet and just start looking around at the night sky. They can see galaxies and the Milky Way and constellations and shooting stars and wonder is cultivated. But then humility is cultivated.

Rachel Cram – What brings that new level of understanding?

David Anderson – Well, they’re caught up in realizing that there is something so big, beautiful, magnificent and outside of their control. There’s this mysterious thing that happens where it’s not an, “Oh, I’m meaningless in the vastness of it all.”

Somehow they realize they have meaning but they’re not at the center of it. And there’s something bigger and wider and more glorious going on and they’re a part of it.

Rachel Cram – So there is this affirmation of who they are as people but then they also get caught up in being a part of a much bigger story.

David Anderson – Yeah, very much so. And that’s really healthy for us emotionally and socially and it cultivates gratitude in us. We get confronted by the complexity and the beauty of the natural world around us. And it lends itself to thank you like who am I that I get to participate in all of this.

Children, they don’t name it quite as such at a really young age but you see it in their exuberance; you see it in their silence. They’re just completely absorbed and they’re grateful; it fills them up in a way that I don’t know and entertainment doesn’t.

So it’s wonderful to see that.  We use a phrase people care for only what they love.  They love only the things that they truly know. And we only truly know things that we’ve experienced. We give kids experiences in nature, direct experiences, and those experiences cultivate a desire to know.  That knowledge then lends itself to a kind of love. And I want to say love in the sense of committed care.  Love as action.

Rachel Cram – I love what you’re saying. David and I’m going to come at this from a different angle. There’s concern right now for what’s being called nature deficit disorder not so much as a medical diagnosis but rather a description of the human cost of alienation from the natural world. No. Yeah. Can you explain a little bit about what that is about what is nature deficit disorder and how do you move a child from that place to the place of wonder and experience that you’re talking about.

David Anderson – Yeah, well nature deficit disorder, there’s educators and sociologists that are increasingly concerned. It’s actually a real thing.

Rachel Cram – Can you describe it?

David Anderson – There’s a couple of different ways that you can come at it.  One angle is, at least in urban and suburban centres, there’s been like a sea change in the last like 30 years. Most of us, like I grew up and I had abundant access to nature.  And I had lots of time outside, just downtime, exploration time, adventure time; time to build tree forts and rope swings and that was just in a greenbelt like in between cul de sacs. There’s a lot that’s developed in kids with that kind of free time, exploratory time, adventure time.

Rachel Cram – So time’s the overriding need that nature deficit addresses then?  The necessity of time in nature?

David Anderson – Yeah. I would say the vast majority of kids have little to no interaction with the natural world on a day to day, week to week, month to month basis. They learn about themselves and the natural world in it in a fundamentally different kind of way that’s experiential and practical. And that’s really different than reading about it in books or watching it on YouTube.

Rachel Cram – And what happens inside a child when that’s the case without that time?  What’s going on internally for them?

David Anderson – I’ll come at it from the therapeutic point of view. I know that demonstrably now, kids struggling with depression, kids struggling with anxiety; getting them outside consistently literally changes the hormone balances in their system. There’s increasing evidence that getting kids unstructured time in natural settings, it settles their system down; it calms heart and mind and soul in a different kind of way than happens in environments where they’re surrounded by artificial light and artificial sound and constant stimulus. Yeah, overstimulation is a real problem. It’s a huge addiction for a lot of us. I include myself in that as something I have to be conscious of.

Musical interlude  

Rachel Cram – As you are talking, it just made me realize this feeling that I’ve often had, that I’ll be working in my office or even in the house with my kids and I can just feel the room, I can feel life closing in on me.  I can feel this weight, this heaviness, overstimulation like you were just saying.  And then I’ll step outside and the air, the space, and the word you used earlier, the vastness of it all, and it’s not needing a mountain, it can just be a parking lot literally, it lifts my pressures and concerns in such an amazing way.

David Anderson – Yeah.

Rachel Cram – So David, as an ecologist, maybe as a father even, are there stories or examples you can share of how your attending to nature, how that affects your daily life or your perspectives.

David Anderson – Sure. I’ll take a positive slant on this and then I’ll take a, it’s not really negative but it’s a harder one.  So I’ll come at it from a few different vantage points. I’m going to start fairly light, but one of the things I really valued, I think it actually ties in quite well with childhood development; is, in outdoor pursuits you talk a lot about risk; about balancing of risk. Risk is the actual potential for harm.  Like the goal isn’t that you get harmed but if you’re doing something risky, the word itself implies there is inherent potential for harm.

If I climb a mountain, I don’t go intending to hurt myself by any means, but I go and there is the true potential for hurt. And because of that because there’s the potential for hurt, it makes the journey and the accomplishment significant. It truly is significant because there was either the potential for cost or actual cost along the way.

So kids, they need to be able to risk; they need to try things and fail and be,

Rachel Cram – Well, and not be rescued?

David Anderson – Well, you know here. We have so many parents that bring their kids and they’re all excited and it’s misty rain in October and the kids jump out and we get them dirty. I mean, we set out to get them dirty. I mean it’s muddy boots and stomping through the forest and going down to the creek.

And then they get back to the car and they’re just about to hop in and they get the stern lecture. They get the, “Don’t you dare get mud on our seats.”

Now I have some sympathy with parents. But we want them to get dirty. We want them to risk and engage and touch and taste and feel and be sensory. And if that’s censored, if that’s edited out, if that’s a finger wag, it sets a tone. It says don’t get dirty. Don’t risk don’t get messed up. Don’t get; it curtails something that ought not be curtailed.

Rachel Cram – I think part of the importance of connecting with nature is because it directly reflects how we live our own lives. And when you separate those two things, ourselves from nature, you bring about a sterility to yourself that can, that can make life so limited so one dimensional. What our cars may not benefit from the dirt but our kids will.

David Anderson – And it’s worth it.

Rachel Cram – Yeah

David Anderson – Like the mess is worth it.

Rachel Cram – Yeah.

Musical interlude  

David Anderson – So on a much more personal level, we have three children; we had three children, and we had the normal hopes and joys and fears around having children and raising children as as most parents do. I don’t think we hyper focused on the negatives but inevitably as parents when your kids are young you you worry for them and you seek to protect them.  And you have your midnight musings when you can’t sleep and you worry about what would happen if our children got a life threatening illness or if they go off the rails and get into addiction or something. You know, you have the the worrywart scenarios and fear gets generated and you wonder what you do.

Well, we have two boys and then we had a girl. She was eight and a half. It was a Monday morning. I remember really clearly. I’ll never forget it. All three kids had a stomach bug, the normal kind of 48 hour, you know they threw up a few times and had a light temperature. And then the boys got better and went back to school and Thea, our daughter, just seemed to kind of stay kind of low grade fever for longer.  We didn’t think too much of it. But she got worse over the weekend and her fever spiked. So we took her in right away and we found out just a few hours later that that she had leukemia.  Two weeks earlier we were skating on the pond up at the top of grouse mountain and she was healthy and strong and then we were racing for Children’s Hospital in Vancouver and we were in our nightmare scenario.  We were in our deepest fears. Here we are. Everything feels surreal but it’s but it’s very very real.

And there’s some parents out there that know this journey I’m sure.  Some out there know how hard chemotherapy is. It’s, it’s absolutely wretched. It is a horror to walk your kid through but you do it because you love them and you’re fighting for them. We then had nine months back at home and things seemed to go really well for most of that time, although it was a really hard recovery. She seemed to be recovering.

And then we found out just a few weeks before her 10th birthday that the leukemia was back. And at that point there was no other medical options. She passed away just a few weeks after she turned 10.  So we’re learning lots about grief and loss and pain.

But here’s how I want to tie it back into today because I can say this without a shadow of doubt. We often hold ourselves back from…we fear pain, right? Naturally.  All of us as humans, we fear pain.  I think all of us know the struggle of, you know, is the is the inevitable challenge and the frustration and the pain that’s gonna be associated with this challenge, is it going to be worth it.

Because we can protect ourselves from pain.  Like, we can shut ourselves off from other relationships, from people, from circumstances, from risk.  We can shut ourselves off from risk. We can choose not to risk.

Rachel Cram – Trying to protect our hearts?

David Anderson – Trying to protect our hearts. And I understand that, particularly for folks whose hearts have been broken, who are or who have experienced great pain. But in our case, losing Thea was, obviously it’s, it’s a horror in our lives. Like it’s hard. it’s hard to find words. It’s just it’s like a hole in your life. But when I compare all the pain and the suffering that we’ve gone through in our journey with cancer and our loss of Thea if; I compare that to the joy of of who she was and the gift of having her in our lives for the 10 years that we had her, it isn’t a comparison.  As deep as the hurt is, it doesn’t hold a candle to the joy and the gift of what it was to be a parent to her. And to have the privilege of knowing who she was and her unique presence in the world. The joy so far outshines the pain. Even though the pain is really deep.

Musical interlude 

Rachel Cram – Your insight or your perspective David, comes at such a cost and, I so understand caring requires that, it’s just something that’s difficult to consider as we give our hearts.

David Anderson – Yeah. Should the hurt hold us back from caring, I guess is where I’m going. And the answer is absolutely not. Absolutely not.

So where am I going with all that?  The risk of loving, the risk of loving the other, whether it’s your child or whether it’s your spouse or whether it’s the people in your life; we will experience pain if we reach out and open ourselves to the world and other relationships and to nature. Sure we can protect ourselves.  We can numb ourselves. I guess we can make the choice to not care, but that’s always a loss; like we lose out. It’s our loss.

So, somehow together, learning to navigate pain together and hurt together, that becomes a big part of the journey. And certainly for our family, if we had not had the communities around us, helping us hold that pain of Thea’s loss, I think we would have been undone. All of that coming together helped us to navigate our way.

Sometimes we don’t truly care until we see something that we love and value at risk. So in our case, our daughter’s illness and passing, one of the things it has been teaching us is just how extraordinarily precious the gift of life is. It’s not, it’s not, it’s not a foregone conclusion. It’s not a given. It’s not a right. It’s not something that we earn.

Life is sheer gift. We can recognize that gift.  Attend to it. Be grateful for it. Immerse ourselves in it; like lean into life, the riskiness of life, the riskiness of love. Those are some of the things that we’ve been learning and appreciating.

Rachel Cram – That story, it’s so hard. And thank you for sharing it. I just think life is filled with riskiness, like you’re saying and the way that we deal with those risks profoundly affects the way that we live our lives. So David, I’m wondering, as we wrap up this interview, is there one piece of wisdom you can share about opening ourselves up to care.

David Anderson – Yeah, well I guess what comes to mind is just if you’re always focused on the threat and if you just sit in the fear, we go to numbing.  We numb. We entertain ourselves. We consume experiences. I don’t know. We try to numb the fear and the ache and the worry.  But when we’re really honest with ourselves, that’s not healthy. It’s not good. It kind of engenders cynicism and resignation and apathy and we don’t want that. We don’t want that for our families or our kids.

It’s a both/and.  It’s naming, yes, these things are scary.  But it’s also naming the truth that the earth is beautiful and that life is precious and that we have agency and power in the world, individually to some extent, but together, enormously.

So the way forward is to act. It’s to get engaged. When communities gather around, whether we gather around our children and help raise them together.  Whether we gather around a particular place that we love, a river or maybe it’s a beach or maybe it’s a stretch of forest, maybe it’s a local park, maybe it’s the green belt behind your townhouse complex.  So get outside and get a bit messy because when we do that, when when we all become the kind of people that do that, the cumulative effect is enormous. It really is.  We can do this. It’s totally possible. It’s just a matter of community working together.

Rachel Cram – Great. Thanks Dave. I think we’ll end on that optimistic note.

David Anderson – Oh yeah. Thank you.

Rachel Cram – Thank you.

Episode 6