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Home / 2013 Fall / Features / Learning from the Earth
Eco artArtwork by Mary Mouser. Photo by Jill Powers.

Learning from the Earth

By Lindsay Michko

The Earth is the ultimate teacher. Supporting us, she provides us with tools to survive and keep ourselves and each other well. She reveals to us patterns that help us to inform other aspects of our lives. Her beauty rejuvenates us when we feel uninspired. The most talented of designers, Nature has mastered the principles of artistic form without neglecting utilitarian values. The Earth has so much to teach us, which is why increasingly more professors at Naropa turn to her for assistance with classroom instruction.

Nature as Artist

Spending much of their art-making time outdoors, students in Jill Powers's 3D Ephemeral Media course look to Nature to learn principles of three-dimensional design. Elements such as form, volume, balance, and proportion reveal themselves organically in the students' work as they continue observing how these elements naturally manifest in the world around them.

Jill Powers class
Students in Jill Powers's 3D Ephemeral Media course. Photo: Lindsay Michko
Walking through an autumn landscape of yucca, prickly pear, and ponderosas during an off-site class, the students observe patterns, textures, and forms. Contemplative practice provides grounding in the energy of the place, focusing the mind. Inspired and focused, it is now time to make art. Experimenting with the natural materials at hand, the students create artwork within the landscape, whether subtly nestled between branches, or prominently displayed at the center of a clearing of trees. The primary medium being ephemeral materials, or natural materials that erode or decay over time, the art-making process becomes a lesson in impermanence.

Aside from creating on-site ephemeral art installations—including an exhibition at the Front Range Bioneers Conference—the class also derives inspiration from assigned readings and visits to museums and artist studios, as well as from exploring the properties of various natural media and techniques. Throughout the semester, students experiment with natural pigments and dyes, sculptural basketry techniques, dimensional papermaking and shaping techniques, lashing branches, bark stripping, carving, wax forming, and using recycled tea bags and coffee filters as artistic media, as well as utilizing ephemeral processes such as salt crystallization and leaf skeletonization. Not only does this exploration open up possibilities for more environmentally sustainable art-making, but it also provides valuable context as students learn about the history of environmental art, reawakening age-old artistic traditions.

Nature as Healer 

Brigitte Mars herb walk
Brigitte Mars leading an herb walk. Photo: Jack Greene.
In Brigitte Mars's Herbal Medicine course, students learn that the Earth has provided us with a complete first aid kit. Did you know that yarrow stops bleeding? Or that mosquitos and ticks are less likely to bite you if your diet contains garlic? Nature has a cure for everything amidst her many fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers. From prevention to treatment, students become empowered to take physical, mental, and emotional wellness into their own hands using the resources provided by the local landscape.

Plant identification walks and Mars's "herb of the day" deeply acquaint students with the local flora, as well as enlighten them to the various medicinal and edible properties of each. Allowing Nature to serve as teacher, Mars encourages students to learn experientially. Assignments such as food and beverage journals, herb collection, experimentation with new foods and herbal teas, and even creatively written odes to a beloved plant and its properties allow students to internalize their understanding and become more intuitive around holistic healing practices. The scenery of a hike is suddenly so much more than simply a beautiful mosaic of leaves, becoming also a lush landscape of medicines and foods.

Beyond the use of food and herbs for healing, the class explores a variety of other holistic healing tools, including essential oils, flower essences, supplements, and acupressure. As the class explores these various methods, the students become more equipped not only to use more natural means for treating ailments, but also to approach health from a more holistic, sustainable perspective. While the practice of healing has become an overwhelmingly reactive one, often regarded only when a problem develops, it does not need to be. When empowered with the knowledge of naturally staying healthy and preventing ailments, the practice of healing becomes a proactive practice of personal sustainability, decreasing the frequency of necessity for reactive healing.