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Student Research Projects

Matt Zylstra

TSAMAhub PhD candidate: Matt ZylstraResearch Project

Many sources speak of the urgent need for humans to re-connect with nature. But what does ‘being connected’ with nature look and feel like? At an individual and societal level, what would be capable of catalyzing such a fundamental process of ‘re-connection’? What sort of education - or ‘unlearning’ as it may be - could play a role in enabling a shift which cultivates a ‘sustainability ethic’?

My doctorate research is motivated by these searching questions. I am exploring how meaningful* nature experiences and profound encounters with wildlife may act as catalysts for reconnecting humans with nature and, ultimately, how insights from such experiences may inform education for sustainability.

Amidst a convergence of crises, the growing schism between human – nature is taking its toll on the richness of our interactions with the more-than-human world: in an information-soaked society, we are facing the evaporation of meaningful experience. With our Western-based lens, we tend to assume that our everyday perception – increasingly dulled through distraction - is our default way of seeing the world.

Evidence suggests that people who have had a profound moment in nature may experience an ‘awakening’ which heightens their perception and subsequently sparks a transformation in how they see themselves and the world around them. The experience may facilitate a ‘collapsing of boundaries’ between an individual and their natural environment. But is this in itself sufficient to shape attitudes and behaviour aligned with an ‘ecological conscience’?

Set against this background, my research seeks to address the following questions:
1. What is the current cross-cultural (global , national, regional) evidence base for meaningful / profound experiences with nature? What are the trends and characteristics?
2. With a focus on alien invasive species, what is the influence of such ecological change and biodiversity loss on the integrity, frequency and richness of meaningful nature experiences?
3. What insights from the above can we integrate into (tertiary-aged) education and curricula aimed at fostering a ‘wholeness’ approach to biodiversity conservation and sustainability?

Personal stories of meaningful nature experiences are being invited from anyone anywhere in the world through an outreach website accompanying this research: http://eyes4earth.org. The website utilises social media to reach a wider audience and to increase public engagement with the research.

On the ground, the focus area for field research and educational development is within the Baviaanskloof Mega-Reserve (BMR) in the Eastern Cape. The BMR contains the World Heritage-listed Baviaanskloof Wilderness Area, managed by the Eastern Cape Parks & Tourism Agency, and is an area of major cultural, ecological and spiritual significance. However, it too faces severe threats to biodiversity through, e.g. alien invasive species, agricultural pressures and climatic changes. But the area has also shown value to be a fertile ground for supporting youth of all backgrounds in ‘finding themselves’ within its wild areas.

Utilising global and regional perspectives (from literature and from the eyes4earth.org website) as well as local insights and experiences from the field, I am aiming for my research to be scientifically sound, socially relevant and personally enriching. I do this in the HOPE that it may improve a felt understanding of how humans can reconnect with the ‘wholeness’ of nature. And that together we dare to ask how this may shape approaches toward education and sustainability…in the quest to become fully human.

*Meaningful = e.g. peak; flow; profound, synchronistic; symbolic; mystical; religious; awakening; oneness; revelation; ‘a-ha’ experiences.

Matthew Zylstra is carrying out his doctoral research through Stellenbosch University’s   Department of Conservation Ecology & Entomology and co-supervised through the Department of Education (Curriculum Studies). His research is funded through the Centre of Excellence for Invasion Biology.  The research partners with the following organisations: Eastern Cape Parks & Tourism Agency, EarthCollective, Kenchaan Foundation, Living Lands, TerraPi and the TsamaHUB.



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