Volume 9: Editor’s Note — Serious Play

by Susie Conwell and Mitchell Thomashow, Editors

What does the “serious work” of protecting biodiversity, saving endangered ecosystems, or restoring damaged landscapes have to do with play?

The more urgent ecological issues become, the easier it is to become narrow in our quest for action. And the easier it is for us, as environmental professionals, to find ourselves on separate paths, not only from each other, but from other professions as well. Play brings people together. Whether the playground is a backyard or city park or piano bar or river rapids or ocean coastline, play connects people with each other and their place, and creativity and collaboration follow — both integral to the ecological work we face now and in the future.

Play sets the imagination in motion. When we toss a baseball or frisbee around within a particular landscape, we notice topography in a way we hadn’t before. We notice the unevenness of the ground and the eddies of air currents. This connection between ourselves and the land occurs along the veins of our senses. “We need our bodies back,” contributing writer Andrea Olsen tells us, “to engage the challenges of our environmental crisis, we need our full selves present.”

The essays in this issue of Whole Terrain grapple with the meaning of play. Some do so in the context of environmental work. Others celebrate the richness of our creative powers and the unifying quality of spontaneous, unexpected acts. Instead of talking about play, they show us what it looks like in a variety of contexts, including those we don’t ordinarily consider playful. Alan Atkisson gives us some concrete examples of how to be playful in the business world, while David Duncan describes how the play of rivers shapes his activism.

Several articles discover the landscapes of play, and how one’s ideas of place emerge accordingly. Richard Grossinger’s love of baseball reflects the subtle textures of the various places he played the game. He suggests an archetypal origin for baseball, grounded in landscape and then explored using beaches, rooftops, and fields. David Sobel laments the evaporation of play — landscapes once safe and outdoors now overly contrived and electronic. As an educator, he advocates for the restoration of childhood play based on stories, dreams, and time spent outside.

Another question arises out of these essays: How do adults play? Some revel on the dance floor, as contributor Michael Branch writes, “Every one of us was up and dancing, as if we arrived together in the same pick-up.” He speculates that music is our primary link to the earth, “We need music and dance because they are languages the world speaks and understands — languages that are born of our daily conversation with the Earth, and that bring us together without names.”

Lilace Mellin Guignard finds her conversation with the Earth through the language of rivers, as learning to kayak teaches her to let go of her desire to control nature, including her own. “Logic says the quickest way from point A to point B is a straight line. The river tells me that progress is not always forward.”

Inevitably, the subject of play invokes its absence. Joseph Meeker brings an evolutionary perspective to play, while Amy Wright learns a lesson from a pair of loons: that play goes beyond human artifice. Consider the opening lines of Johann Huizinga’s classic work Homo Ludens: “Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing.” When a hawk soars over the forest, is the quest for food the only dynamic to consider? Both writers explore the tendency to separate the play they observe in non-human nature from play in their own lives.

Terry Tempest Williams writes about the transformative power of art, creativity, and play, suggesting that the nature of play is to keep change and motion occurring in our lives. “The humor, the wickedness of turning a situation upside down, inside out, standing on our head, seeing the world from a different point of view,” she says, “that’s what the Trickster embodies.”

What better place to see the transformative power of play than nature itself? Look to the sky and notice the swirling weather systems that move through your town. There are laws of motion which dictate why moisture and winds move where they do, but there is surely an improvisational aspect to the positions of clouds. Perhaps the bio-sphere is one enormous, incomprehensible improvisational experiment. Music, dance, games, poetry — these are all ways that humans improvise with order and randomness. The essays in this issue suggest that at the very heart of our ecological efforts lies the importance of such improvisational experimentation, the importance of such creative and collaborative play.

Take your guitar out on a summer evening and make music with the crickets; dance in a field of tall grasses on a windy day; skip stones on a placid lake; explore the boundaries of land and sea where the water tags the beach; backpack to a new place. Play in the landscape, because in those moments of participation, the boundaries between yourself and the environment dissolve, and you are free. And then you will renew what may have called you to this work in the first place the joy felt in moments of playing in the world, and the determination that future generations could experience that same delightful gift.