Friday 5 May 2023
Families in the Forest Revisited
We asked poet and creative Adam Kammerling to write about his experiences of delivering the Families in the Forest tour at Orleans House Gallery. Adam devised and delivered the activity from summer 2021 through to March 2023. Adam’s experiences are described below.
What’s your dream job? Ice-cream taster? Rollercoaster Development Researcher? Sofa tester?
I’m a freelance writer and educator and I deliver a very wide variety of projects, from creative writing residencies in inner-city prisons to rap workshops on the Devonshire seaside. So I’d be hard pushed to describe a dream job. And even if one did materialise in my inbox, I probably wouldn’t recognise it as such. Thankfully, Orleans House Gallery presented me with my dream job back in Summer 2021; As a part of the Cultural Reforesting programme, along with Jessica Ihejetoh, I was commissioned to create a nature trail for children aged 3-8, in Orleans House Gallery woods.
How does one go about creating a tour for a small, dense wood, that from one day to the next appears entirely different?
We began with immersion. At the start of summer when we began creating the tour there was head-height cow parsley in every direction so that the wood seemed to be consumed by a haze of white mist. A week later the cow parsley had shed its cotton-fluff to be replaced by dry, yellow straw, everywhere. On another visit it rained so hard we had to take refuge under the canopies of young trees; effective to a point but we all went home a bit soggy that day. The woods were constantly shifting and morphing with the dawdle of the season and every time we returned the space was new. So we needed to focus on the most reliable residents of the forest, the wildlife, the older trees, and us, the human participants.
If you’re a museum guide it’s pretty straight forward to learn your way around. You have galleries, signs, maps, doors. In the woods, the only way to navigate reliably is to get to know the space. And when that space is as changeable as Orleans woods, you need to really, really get to know it. So, the first thing we did was hang out in the undergrowth, a lot. Pretty sweet for a few mornings work. And while we were exploring on site we were talking with Andrew Chater from Orleans House Gallery whose knowledge of the woods was hugely useful, and dancer, Emma Houston, who helped begin a physical conversation with the environment which inspired some of our tour stops. And once we had a six or seven stops, we needed to craft a route that would become the finished tour.
This is what we landed upon:
Stop 1. At the entrance to the forest, where we see the last glimpses of manmade buildings, we switched on our forest senses and attempted to listen and see like the bats that animate the woods at dusk.
Stop 2. At a converging of many paths we made viewfinders and discovered our favourite corner of forest. In our portable frames we counted how many colours and particularly, shades of green, we could see in the canopy, and on a single leaf.
Stop 3. At the Cedar of Lebanon we engaged our touch senses and explored the trunk of the tree from the perspective of a squirrel.
Stop 4. We considered the circle of life at an all-you-can-eat insect buffet!
Along the way we chatted, sang songs, invented songs, collected fallen leaves, stones, husks, spotted squirrels, spiders, even a woodpecker. A wonderful effect of the trail was the agency that children took from the activities. However we began the tour, by the end of the 45 minutes we usually had a gang of very confident young people collectively enjoying the forest.
At the heart of the tour is a consideration of mindfulness in nature.
The activities are small tasks that raise questions about the environment and bring lovely details to our attention through moments of stillness and quiet. I have a toddler myself and I recognise this doesn’t read like a very child-friendly set up, but the forest does so much in regard to promoting peacefulness (as do parents) that it was always great fun. Our environments, especially in cities, are orientated towards productivity. The Families in the Forest tour seeks to encourage ‘being in a space’ as the activity itself, and promotes a creative approach to nature that is both considerate and active. By being mindful of the needs of the living things we share space with, we are able to engage with them playfully. It is a mutually beneficial arrangement.
I hope Families in the Forest continues to run at Orleans House Gallery. I always jump at the chance to be the guide. It is a model that could be applied to any natural space. With a few facts and ample space for creative conversation and knowledge-building, we can create more impactful experiences for very young people that encourage an active and considerate engagement with our environment. And more dream jobs for freewheeling creatives, but mainly the first one, it’s all about the kids.