By Christopher Nyerges
For Eagle Rock resident Jesse Carmichael, the path to becoming a “biocitizen” began around 2017, with a feeling, an urge, to do more to support the earth and young people.
She was living in Echo Park, raising her son, running a café, active in the Neighborhood Council and the Chamber of Commerce. Still, she recalls, “I wanted my work to have purpose and meaning, and that meant activism beyond marches and petitions, writing letters and talk.”
So, Carmichael got in touch with her friend, Dr. Kurt Heidinger, the founder of Biocitizen, an organization that develops educational programs in field environmental philosophy, a teaching method that combines the study of earth sciences and ethics. “He became my mentor and taught me all that I know about Field Environmental Philosophy and The Land Ethic,” says Carmichael.
Working together, Carmichael and Heidinger established a Los Angeles branch of Biocitizen. The goal is to share outdoor classes and field trips with as many students as possible, helping them to perceive and understand where they live, for when they know their place, they take care of it.
“I knew that the climate was in crisis and we needed a new model of behavior, and we needed a generation of Earth Stewards,” says Carmichael.
The first camp in 2017 was a five-day session, from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., where the students — ages 6 to 16 — were loaded up in vans and headed to local trailheads. “The kids were ecstatic, and they came home energized, enlightened and filthy,” says Carmichael. “They loved it!”
The teaching experience led Carmichael to develop what she calls “the path of the biocitizen,” a three-step process of Wonder, Connection, and Stewardship. “We go through this cycle every day we’re with them,” says Carmichael.
“Wonder” is the foundation. Being outdoors, in nature, in the mountains, filled with awe — this experience opens students to the lessons of biodiversity, including identifying plants, the relationship between native plants and the habitats they support, the role of water, the damage from pollution. “We talk about where our water comes from, and if you pollute the upstream communities, it affects downstream communities,” says Carmichael. “Suddenly the students are seeing cause and effect. That’s part of our philosophy.”
“Connection” comes next, that is, connecting your learning with the place you are in. Teachers ask questions, such as ‘What is the story that your land is telling you?’ ‘How did this canyon form?’ ‘Why are these trees here?’ Students discern and discuss the answers. “Then they start to put things together,” says Carmichael. “They connect to one another, to the earth and with themselves, especially when they realize their capabilities by making a long walk or climbing a mountain, pushing their limits,” she says.
Students also keep field journals to record what they see and do, says Carmichael. Documenting experiences is another way to connect deeply with them.
Stewardship is the third step on the path of the biocitizen. When children have “Aha” moments in nature, they develop a love for the place and a love for their fellows, says Carmichael. “That care compels them to act in a meaningful way to protect these places – – this is what it means to be a steward of the land,” she says.
Stewards know how to be in nature without disrupting it. “We teach “Leave No Trace” principles,” says Carmichael. That includes picking up trash, removing invasives — aiming to leave a place undisturbed if not better, she says.
Another aim is to experience the sheer fun of being outdoors, of being “unplugged,” of learning through exploration, says Carmichael, whether that’s in parts of the Arroyo Seco, hikes in Griffith Park, trails in the Angeles National Forest or other local areas ripe for discovery.
In the coming year, the L.A. branch of Biocitizen is launching a new program to address inequities in outdoor education: “Through a scholarship initiative, we hope to support a new generation of Black and indigenous students and stewards,” says Carmichael. “We are committed to making our programs accessible to anyone who wants to walk with us.”
You can learn more about Biocitizen at www.la.biocitizen.org
Christopher Nyerges is an environmental educator and author of “How to Survive Anywhere,” “Extreme Simplicity: Homesteading in the City” and other books. More information at www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com]