Moving with Living and Dying

Nicole Land thinking with Maria Wysocki, Selena Ha, Andrea Thomas, and Alicja Frankowski

We’ve been thinking about rats and understanding the yard as a complex, lively, more-than-human world since yesterday – and this question of responding well, or moving well with, the common worlds of the playground; living with rats and bugs and the yard vs inheritances that tell us we need to control or manage the yard. There are, in this urban place, rats, chipmunks, racoons, bugs, and slugs. I’ve been thinking about this alongside our intentions to want to unsettle practices of ownership or commodification (and concurrent relations of comparison, status, competition). Why, and how, do we invent relations with the yard with children beyond ownership and property? What happens when we refuse to see the yard and its inhabitants, including critters and materials, as things we can control and own and occupy? How do we notice and respond with the yard without centering our inherited ideas of human exceptionalism and mastery and control? 

This reminds me of my friend Narda Nelson’s (2018) work. In Rats, Death, and Anthropocene Relations in Urban Canadian Childhoods, she writes about a moment in Victoria where Narda and some children came across a rat had been poisoned by the UVic groundskeepers and was dying on the sidewalk. It’s a story that has inextricably threaded itself through the Centre where this happened, and is one that has been revisited for years as the educators think with the forest and campus. I think that some of the urban childhood storytelling that Narda’s thinking with connects to our questions about noticing in the yard/sandbox. I’m thinking about noticing, and what we are “supposed” to notice and not notice with children. I think too, that the ‘urban ness’ of the yard is emerging as a really important consideration for how we move well together in the yard: it matters that this yard is in the university, in a very urban place, with very urban animals and concerns. 

Here are two quotes that Nelson (2018) offers that I want to think more with:

“…this does not diminish the recognition that children have fascinating, sometimes off-putting, questions to ask and opinions to express in relation to death and other phenomenon that are shaped by their own “in place” relations and understandings. I am concerned about putting these connections at risk if we, unconsciously or otherwise, continue to disconnect early learning pedagogies from the heterogeneous specificities of place relations by meeting children’s thoughts and questions with reproduced, universalized narratives about the places we live and learn together” (p. 15).

“We are not isolated in the act of living, making, doing, caring, fearing, nor dying as we learned from our encounter with the dying rat… What happens when we stop to notice in new ways together with young children? Speculating with them about what happened to the squish of a worm against pavement or tufts of rabbit fur and other body bits left behind by an owl in the forest affects understandings of place relations. It raises questions about necessary life and death entanglements and our how far we understand the reach of ethical obligations to be…This “thicker notion” of humanity requires us to cultivate the response-ability of seeing our lives as inextricably connected with the lives of others and therefore obligated to answer increasing calls to enact new ways of living together in the face of serious ecological issues confronting us” (p. 16)

Nelson makes me think about how our moving in the yard is never detached from the very real living and dying that happens in the playground – rats are poisoned, birds crash into windows. When we see the yard as something to ‘manage’, we might move in ways that work to mitigate death or make invisible lives we don’t deem palatable. But, if we take up Nelson’s proposition that it is necessary for us to think with children about life and death, and the ways we are implicated in living and dying within the yard, then our ways of moving need to shift – we might move in ways that take seriously the marks that our footsteps leave. How then, I wonder, might we take up the incredible complexities of moving with the yard, when the yard is a place of life and death? This feels like a deeply ethical question: how do we move with the yard, when the yard is a space of life and death entanglements?

Nelson, N. (2018). Rats, Death, and Anthropocene Relations in Urban Canadian Childhoods. Research Handbook on Childhoodnature: Assemblages of Childhood and Nature Research, 1-23.

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