Frank Fisher: Walking Wilderness
Many readers will remember Professor Frank Fisher, inaugural Australian Environmental Educator of the Year and long-time supporter of the Victorian Association of Environmental Education (as Environment Education Victoria was in his day). More than four years after his passing, his impact is still felt and his presence missed, throughout our community.
Walking, talking, living
Someone who knew of him from a distance recently asked one of us what it was about Frank’s communication style that made such an impact upon so many. One of the things that stood out to us was that Frank was straight up, what you saw was what you got. In communication parlance, Frank put great importance on ‘walking the talk’, to the extent that his ‘walk’ often communicated more than his ‘talk’.
We think that was because, for Frank, the ‘walk’ came first. After all, what does the talk mean without the walk? Frank was immensely interested in, and stimulated by, the practice of living sustainably. Not that he saw himself as being about sustainability, as such, or even the notion of ‘environment’. For him, what was at stake was learning how to live richly, sensitively and coherently in the world – qualities that he saw as effectively one and the same.
How did he communicate this? Importantly, while the talk meant little without the walk, the reverse was also true. The walk would remain limited in possibility and meaning without the wherewithal to (re-)conceptualise it ‘in language’, describe it and, in turn, experiment with it anew. In this way, experiments in thought and deed feed powerfully off one another.
Environmental education, in that context, wasn’t so much about saving the wilderness in East Gippsland, Frank used to say, as it was about saving the wilderness within. How can we help each other become a little less predictable to one other – a little less automatic in our thinking and acting – thereby illuminating different understandings of life, in context, and honing our abilities to tune in to them? For Frank, environmental education was the art of enabling others to enter into this view – and practice – of life.
Bringing daily practice into view
Engagements with Frank, both in the classroom and outside it, often started with a reflection or question about something that had just happened to him ‘on the way there’. Whether it was the difficulty in finding the stairs (so as to avoid the lift, and benefit from the exercise and chatter one doesn’t generally get in lifts) or an interaction between road users and what that revealed about the road system. In a classroom setting, these ruminations could sometimes be taken as a mere warm-up or precursor to the actual (pre-prepared) content for the day. But, for Frank, these experiences were the content (of life), and richer opportunities for learning than any lesson he might construct.
Bringing our daily practices into view became a key part of Frank’s pedagogy. He saw environmental education as a process of learning about ourselves, and by extension the socially constructed systems and stories that support, or don’t support, the lives we lead. Frank made an art form out of bringing our attention to things many of us hadn’t thought about.
This often took the form of a dilemma he’d faced in trying to avoid some kind of consumption or waste, that some system or cultural expectation had made appear almost inevitable. Perhaps the most obvious example was his wonderfully symbolic bike – his primary form of urban transport which, when combined with public transport and the occasional car access, made for highly efficient, enjoyable and benign movement around the city. Decades old, and (deliberately) looking its age, but certainly not lacking for a smooth and highly functional ride, there was no need to ‘update’ it. Or to ‘pass it down’ to someone younger or less fortunate. For him, the bike was a social mechanism, vastly more than a technical one. And his service to his fellow earthly inhabitants was far greater by gently yet strongly refusing to be bound by these conventions. The bike carried a sticker imprinted with the saying, ‘Live simply so others may simply live’. But the bike had already said it.
Frank also had a way of trying to make some of his own deliberate practices more visible. For example, he found that carrying his bike pannier around with him was not a recognisable enough item to lead non-cyclists to the realisation he had cycled to meet them. So, quite often, he would make a point of carrying his helmet as well. This wasn’t intended to be ostentatious. He deliberately didn’t wear lycra. Carrying the helmet was an attempt to subtly portray cycling as very much compatible with professional life and esteem, and to make it visible as a vastly more efficient and enjoyable alternative to the default mode of car travel.
This kind of gentle provocation was part of his ambition to leave people, and particularly his students, ‘a little wilder’ than he found them. It’s an unusual ambition for a teacher and runs deeply counter to contemporary mainstream approaches to teaching oriented towards acquiring specific knowledge or skills. We think the idea is that, as we come to understand ourselves, our practices, our systems, thinking and language more, we come to see that they are amenable to change. And how we can make it happen. Frank hoped that this will empower us to experiment with the infinity of weird and wonderful ways of being in this world, and thus find better ways of doing all manner of things.
And the gentleness is necessary. It is something about the refusal to be convention-bound, while caring deeply for the people who walk those conventions into existence every day, and their integrity. After all, we cannot learn to walk differently if the ground is taken too abruptly from under our feet. But, with the right guidance, those first steps can gather confidence and lead us to the sorts of transformations and meaning we long to be surprised by.