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Seeking centres for ecological engagement: The Bush Hut experience in Australia

31 August 2012

Photo credits: Jesuit Social Services

Pedro Walpole, SJ

Yarra Bend Park has a rich Aboriginal past, and the Wurundjeri Tribe highlight some of the places of tradition practice and life of the land – for this we are grateful. It is a good place to come, full of wattles on a cool July day, and people can draw back from the instant demands of the week, touch the barks and the blooms of the land and be connected without the electronics.

The Bush Hut at Yarra Bend (an old police station on a curve in the road and is a heritage listed house in a vast native bushland reserve in Kew, an inner eastern suburb of Melbourne, Australia) is a meeting point for many youth activities under Jesuit Social Services but the Hut also holds a key to opening the experince for Jesuit people in exploring reconciliation with creation. In April 2006, Jesuit Social Services  was granted a 21-year lease on this historic hut to be refurbished and used for The Outdoor Experience, a Bush Adventure Therapy program for vulnerable young people (aged 15-25) who commit to make positive changes in their lives.

Jesuit Social Services has been a healing environment for many young people and is now embracing ecology as another dimension of needed healing. In 2011, a few gathered to start such a reflection on ecology as the context of how we live and this concern lives on.

Last July, around 20 people from the offices and friends had four hours together to discuss life and work over the year and where interests in ecology and reconciliation with creation might be going. It was an exploration of how the experience of gratitude leads towards engagement. Getting back to gratitude for the day, time, and people was a good starting point for a quiet walk. People took time out and looked for symbol to express ecological justice as part of each one’s identity before expressing a sense of share and care for the world around us.

Ecology was discussed again as more than the science and more of how people fit together, calling for a greater expression of the human spirit. Ecology is where human spirit and natural systems need to meet. Some are considering establishing a program of ecological sustainability and young people; there are many options now emerging. The sense is that with trust and discernment, people will then know how to proceed.

Words from the wrap-up of Bush Hut included: excited, informed and embedded, confidence, collective and individual wisdom to achieve the direction, more grounded in the next 18 months, traction to move forward, still optimistic, newborn baby with nature, jumbled but more comfortable and enabled, opportunities, challenge to incorporate, another step in a long journey.

What does all of this mean? In Australia, the world’s laboratory of climate change and where there can be both flood and fire the same day, people are more than aware, more than caring and concerned, and they are deeply challenged, politically, socially, economically and culturally in finding the ways forward.

Venues for exploration of feeling, prayer and networking, of learning together and trusting to change individual lives as well as great institutes are needed. Centres for ecological engagement are places that allow people learn in a broader cultural and ecological context beyond the daily context. There is a need to identify such landscapes for ongoing reflection and engagement of those seeking deeper reconciliation with our environment. The youth seek to learn new ways of living while some may be disturbed by many problems surrounding the ecological crisis. We need to be more in touch with how we can humbly live through these concerns and seek greater change.

Photo credits: Jesuit Social Services

Today there is a need for a new form of centre to give space to more integrated learning, sense of the sacred, identity in connectedness, and healing action. The intention is to create a place for connecting with the landscape that can be used as a convergence point – for people, ideas, and experiences – that allows space for personal learning and reflection. The integrated knowledge systems focus on several areas of culture, ecology, science, human development, and spirituality. Such a centre provides a sense of unity while allowing the expression of diversity in experience. Furthermore, it hopes to provide a venue where interests can be combined, values recognized, and needs and responsibilities shared.

There are several centres emerging from different but broadening perspectives. “Centres” may also be “temporary” as in setting up a landscape venue for a meeting as for the Mekong Reflection Workshop in Kampung Cham for the JCAP gathering in 2011, and engagements can grow from these occasions with a greater sharing and vision. The idea is not to develop a homogenous sense of activity, or a hodgepodge of things to do, but to be integral for the people and organizations that come.

Key elements are:

  • Spirituality that brings us to a basic experience of gratitude and fires us with discernment and apostolic vision
  • Community connectivity with the land and water, especially Indigenous Peoples, which gives us the experience of a reality that is challenging
  • Social analysis and knowledge of extractive industries, land and water management and market forces
  • Sustainable living as with food security, recycling, architectural design, facilities management
  • Ecosystems and ecological services as the science of connectivity and sustainability of diversity
  • Programs and trainers shared in developing capacity to transform, exploring attitudes and career options with a sense of cura personalis
  • Formation and response to the needs of young people today searching for ways to live productively and creatively in society
  • Advocacy for greater awareness and response to global concerns and the need to engage in policy shifts and resource accountability.

Pedro Walpole, SJ is the Coordinator for Reconciliation with Creation, JCAP Task Force on Ecology and Research Director of the Environmental Science for Social Change. Pedro was invited to share his experiences and speak at the Just Leadership Breakfast Forum of the Jesuit Social Services in Melbourne, Australia last July 2012, where he had the opportunity to join a bush hut experience.

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