‘Heart’ of environmental education

By Chandler Holland
Times-News correspondent

A heart-based environmental educator training workshop takes place at the Eco-Institute at Pickards Mountain in Chapel Hill. [Inda Luciano / Special to the Times-News

In 2005, Megan and Tim Toben founded the Eco-Institute at Pickards    Mountain in Chapel Hill  based on their concern for the future, and desire  to move toward a life-sustaining society with a  deeper human-earth  relationship. Since then, this local center has grown into a vibrant  community  embracing all walks of life and ages. Each member brings a  love for the earth, creativity, passion and  something unique to share.
Their educational farm and ecological resilience-learning center reside on  38 breathtaking acres,  between Graham and Chapel Hill. The Eco-  Institute hosts a wide variety of programs, workshops,  field trips, seasonal  celebrations and camps throughout the year.
Their flagship program is a 10-week residential immersion Odyssey  Fellowship.
“The goal of this program is to cultivate an authentic, dedicated, growing  community of young adult  leaders who hold a vision of a future that is  ecologically resilient, socially just and spiritually  fulfilling for all beings,”  according to information from the Eco-Institute.
The Fellowship includes permaculture education, where fellows learn to design and work to meet  our needs in harmony with nature. Study groups are based on the writings of Joanna Macy and  Thomas Berry, and practical workshops include sustainability skills such as earthen building, beekeeping and farm-to-table culinary arts. Personal growth workshops include Sacred Wild Nature Connection and Soul Tending. There are also numerous field trips to Piedmont Biofuels, Abundance NC and other local sites.
Along with several Fellowship participants, as part of my NC Environmental Educator certification, this April I had the honor of participating in a Heart-Based Environmental Education Workshop: Rekindling Hope for the Future Generations. For four full days, three professional naturalists led 14 mentees through the path of reconnecting with nature, finding their inner child, and developing a new framework to build a novel way of viewing, learning, and sharing with others. Environmental education can easily lose emotional attachment to the subject at hand, but this course went far deeper than simple academics to nourish a connection with nature and walk a path of ecological leadership.
Daily guidance was based on the 8 Shields program (8shields.com), which advocates observing patterns in nature to discover recurring trends. Using the cardinal direction associated with each segment of the “shields,” a map is created of the many relationships occurring in nature, both on a grand scale, and at the human level, helping to create connections with nature for both the individual and the community.
The result was the creation of a dynamic instructional toolkit to which a new shield layer was added each day, so that workshop participants came to understand both their strengths and areas of weakness. Participants learned about mental focus, sensory awareness and adrenaline-producing activities — the three states that enhance learning capacity. Games such as Otter Steals Fish and Firekeeper taught them to pay attention to their surroundings on a much higher level. Participants practiced three styles of mentoring; asking open-ended questions, doing the unexpected and storytelling. They actively explored different types of nature connections such as knowledge-based, joyful fun, personal and a deep connection. Central to all activities were the four pillars of deep nature connection, mentoring and cultural repair; a strong nature connection, the presence of mentors, processing stuck emotions and exposure to vibrant leaders.
Not quite ready to dive in?
Before attending a program, consider a visit to the Honeysuckle Tea House (honeysuckleteahouse.com), a tranquil escape in the Eco-Institute’s beautiful setting. Enjoy teas, tisanes, coffees and smoothies. Many of their medicinal and culinary herbs are harvested on site, and all are raised using ethical practices.

To learn more, including information on upcoming programs or to make a tax-deductible donation, visit Eco-Institute.org.

 Chandler Holland is a senior homeschooler and a Teens & Twenties writer. She looks forward to attending Warren Wilson College, and will obtain her NC Environmental Educator Certification during her gap year.

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