Tools, Trees, and the Necessity of Failure

Recently, not far from Orion’s home in western Massachusetts, educator and writer Dina Strasser led a workshop for Teaching the Hudson Valley, an organization for Hudson River educators. Her workshop, “Place and the Digital Native,” challenged participants to think critically about the role of technology in connecting kids to nature—and about the opportunities, difficulties, and open questions in store for us all as we attempt to remain human in a digital age.

As a teacher, I’ve found that when failure is imminent, it’s good to be up front about it. So when I discovered that I had no idea how to work the older-model GPS devices the workshop coordinators had so kindly provided for our geocache, the only honest thing to do was embrace the failure—and ask my participants to do so with me.

Geocaching, for readers unfamiliar with it, is the use of a GPS device to locate a set of coordinates where a “treasure” is hidden—usually a container of some sort holding trinkets and a signature log. A kind volunteer had set up six small geocaches on the conference grounds. I asked workshop participants to find them. With grace and humor, they dove into the work with the unknown technology.

I hoped to have them explore what Richard Louv describes in The Nature Principle as our need for a “hybrid mind”: one that can switch with smoothness and ease from a technological mindset to one in which all sensory information is fully embraced and interpreted.

One of the younger participants in the workshop, who had some experience with geocaching, felt that it was the perfect means for developing a hybrid mind: GPS brings the seeker to a general location, but then he or she must interact with the environment in order to find the cache itself. (The geocaching community, as it turns out, has codified this experience. They call it “using your geo-senses”: using sight, sound, and touch to find a cache, since a set of GPS coordinates alone rarely brings you to an exact location.)

“But I couldn’t hear the birds,” countered a different participant. “I was stuck on finding the cache, so the sense I engaged was overwhelmingly visual. That’s not bad, necessarily; but we’re going to have to think carefully about what our goals are before assuming that just being outdoors connects our students to nature in the ways we want.”

Which leads to the question: when we say “connect to nature,” what do we really mean?

Despite being outdoors, participants were surprised at what they didn’t notice. People lost their sense of the temperature, the trail, the door that led back to the classroom—they were absorbed by the GPS interface. “I could have walked through a patch of poison ivy and not known it,” one participant said. Yet many of these same people assured me strongly that they still had “lots of fun,” whether they found the cache or not.

There may be a name for the phenomenon they experienced, as coined by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: “flow.” Flow is when a person becomes so absorbed, immersed, and motivated by a goal-oriented task that they lose track of time and their surroundings. Flow is a gold standard when it comes to teaching and education—and indeed, as Csikszentmihalyi argues, in all life. I was fascinated, then, to find it cropping up in the workshop with darker implications. Wasn’t flow supposed to be a good thing? Why did it seem to block my participants’ full sensory relationship to nature? Perhaps a flow experience centered on technology that engages just one or two major senses (as a GPS does) is not actually what we should be shooting for when it comes to “connecting with nature.” Richard Louv has a similar concern with using iPods to conduct nature walks.

Yet would it have been a better idea to ask my colleagues to visually track an animal instead of using a GPS? Here’s the rub: flow, it seems, necessarily limits one’s senses to the task at hand, whether technological or natural. That’s not a bad thing. In fact, in situations of intense concentration and engagement, such focus is a hallmark of excellence—and it has nothing to do with the presence or absence of technology.

Maybe the naturalist’s question of whether to tech or not to tech is actually a red herring. Perhaps the central question we should address as advocates for nature is not tools versus trees, but what, exactly, healthy consciousness looks like in the first place.

I wonder if the possibilities are richer than people might imagine.

Afterward, I asked the participants about the emotions they experienced. Frustration, reported some. Surprise. Joy came up, gratifyingly, several times. But the one response I recall most clearly was from a silver-haired woman whose diminutive size belied her bluntness.

“I was bored,” she said. “It was too easy. It wasn’t any fun.”

Here was a reaction I hadn’t expected. I didn’t think about my response—I just laughed in delight. And I remembered what she said.

As Richard Louv and many others have noted, we live in a world whose technology—and whose climate and ecosystems—are changing with unprecedented speed. There are no GPS coordinates for where we’re headed.

Perhaps, given the mysterious and hard-to-qualify experience of my workshop participants, we need to be wary of preconceived notions. Wary, even, of the soundness of the Precautionary Principle. Perhaps, as my workshop participants did, we need to embrace failure. There is nothing, after all, like a well-examined failure to give us the truth of a thing.

I see a future where we will try to create new tools and fail. We will try to understand their full ramifications, and we will fail. We will try to use them to find treasures of all kinds—and fail. And perhaps that is good; that is all right. Because then, in the face of our time’s instability and uncertainty, we will have a small light to see by. We will know.

Dina Strasser is a neohippie, former Fulbright Scholar, and an eleven-year veteran of the public schools, where she teaches English language arts to middle school students. Her blog, The Line, was cited by the Washington Post as one of the Best Teaching Blogs of 2010. Photo by William Urbin, Roosevelt-Vanderbilt National Historic Sites, National Park Service.


  1. I think, that’s is when we stop and be one with nature, accepting that we are not a different entity in this universe. Realising that living isn’t ‘hard’.

  2. Thoughtful, timely article. As part of my illustrated field-journal workshop, I’m developing a component that uses Gaia GPS along with drawing/painting directly on the iPad. Gaia allows you to track your walk through the terrain, on a topographic map, as well as dropping pins, with notes, to highlight where events occurred or things were “noticed”. Or where you made a particular sketch. Using technology this way avoids some of the trouble with goal-oriented activities like geocaching. Sending all your senses out into the surroundings is an underdeveloped skill, whereas being outdoors with a task/game/sport focus may be an OVER-developed one.

  3. Great Article! Thank You. Yes, there is no roadmap for where we are going and experimentation necessarily implies “failure” or “learning curves”. Please see: The Natural Eye Project which deals with this and deeper issues on our disconnection from the natural world and the consequences of making technology a panacea

  4. To be honest, I found myself much more reistant to the inclusion of technology in such workshops before I read Hannah Hinchman’s comment. I use one of Hannah’s books in a graduate course I teach on field journaling, and her work is so perceptive, so immediate, so aesthetically complete, that I find it hard to imagine what her next book will look like if she includes the use of Gaia GPS technology. But its Hannah’s last sentence that confirms my own sense of the role of technology in experiences specifically designed to enhance perception. I understand that adding layers of technology onto our sensory experiences is an elaboration on our total perceptual experience, in much the same way that a field lens can add to our understanding of what we’re observing on (or off) the trail. These workshops are really useful. But we have no shortage of opportunities to include extra layers of technology in our ways of experiencing of the world. On the other hand, most of us could use a good deal more time experiencing the world–and especially unmanaged landscapes–with nothing but our senses, our reason, and our imagination. It’s not always easy or practical to shed the remaining layers of technology–the language that orders our thoughts and the clothing that slows the wind, sun, or rain–but we need those moments when less is decidedly more.

  5. Hm. Interesting. Gives me pause to reflect on my own nature/art workshops and the technology that I admit makes me bristle.

Commenting on this item is closed.