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Exploring the Book of Urban Nature: A Q&A With Lea Schweitz

March 07, 2017 • By Lea Schweitz Exploring the Book of Urban Nature: A Q&A With Lea Schweitz

Chicago is a city rich with urban nature—its beautiful lakefront trail, its countless parks, and the Lincoln Park Zoo are just the beginning of the list. Lea Schweitz, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology/Religion and Science at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and the Director of the Zygon Center for Religion and Science, discusses her research for The Enhancing Life Project on the topic of re-imagining urban nature spaces in the context of theological creation, and discusses some ways that she has encouraged her students to “stop and smell the roses” through her pedagogy.    

What is the topic of your research for The Enhancing Life Project? What have you been working on recently? 

The Enhancing Life Project, for me, is at the intersection of urban ecology, theology of nature, and spiritual formation. I'm working on a case-study based manuscript that tells the stories of several nature spaces here in Chicago, and uses them as a way to interrogate theological and spiritual resources, particularly as they are indexed to nature in the city. This will continue to grow in importantce as human population trends all point towards the increasing of urbanization of the planet.

What is the public relevance of your research? 

I have a couple of intersecting publics for my research. The whole project got started when I asked my seminary students to reflect theologically about creation. They would sometimes bring back stories from faraway wilderness places, but never stories about nature from here in the city, in Chicago. It was a strange absence. My questions took shape out of that particular public, but it has a much wider relevance: parents watching their kids playing after school at the park, bikers on the lakefront, and others. They had — slightly translated out of the theological key but otherwise — similar needs for connecting to urban nature. I thought, there really is a hunger for ways for city-dwellers to connect more deeply to the nature just outside their back door. Chicago is a great city in which to think about that hunger, because its front yard is the lake, and its backyard is the Cook County Forest Preserve. There is an ethos of Chicago as a “City in a Garden.”   

Are there any specific implications for public policy that have occurred to you during your research? How would you advise, for example, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, on urban nature initiatives? 

If you start at the national level, what's happening to the Environmental Protection Agency is disastrous, frankly. At that level, there's just so much to say. If you think a little more regionally, one of the ways in which what's happening to the EPA is going to connect directly to the city of Chicago is through the Great Lakes system: Lake Erie is in danger. Algae blooms are happening there from completely preventable kinds of pollutions—and this might be hyperbole, I hope—but if we lose the EPA, we lose Lake Erie. The Great Lakes are where our drinking water comes from—90% of North America’s fresh surface water is held in the Great Lakes system. We're situated in these various watersheds between the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes, and that's key, not just from a recreational standpoint, but from a public health standpoint.  

Even more locally, one of the things that Mayor Emanuel and Governor Rauner could do is fix the separate and unequal funding of Chicago Public Schools.  Let’s imagine a system that prioritizes equal funding for these kids—who make up 20% of the state’s enrollment but get 15% of the funding—and who are 90% children of color. From a fair and equal basis, then, let’s get our public school kids connected to the parks systems as part of our public schooling in the city—as a standard course for public education, rather than an extraordinary thing that teachers have to do above and beyond everything else. There are great organizations, Mighty Acorns, for example, that are working to do this, but it seems like it's a lot harder than it should be, especially because there is so much research supporting the benefits of being outside for children's learning and development. The need for more than the obligatory 20 minute recess (that may also include their lunch time) is research-based. Here is a place that research-based educational outcomes, policy, and Chicago’s rich urban ecology could come together to support the next generation.  

Have you recently taught an Enhancing Life Studies course? 

Last fall, I taught a course called "Exploring the Book of Urban Nature." It was offered as an advanced seminar for our graduate students, so there was a mix of PhD and Masters level students in the course. All of the courses that we offer in religion and science at the Zygon Center are simultaneously public courses, so we typically have visitors joining us as well, which makes for a really rich, community-connected conversation.  

What are some benefits of having a course open to the public? 

Two ways. One, on a practical level, we expanded access to nature across the city through the stories of experiences they brought with them. There were some folks who knew the West Ridge Nature Preserve, this really funky park just next to Rosehill Cemetery, up on the North Side. Because we had a wider constituency there in the classroom, we could get stories about what’s happening all over the city. Second, on the epistemological level, part of the aim of the course was to question who carries authority when it comes to information and knowledge about urban nature. When that is a part of the discussion, it's beneficial to have other folks in the room taking part in that conversation. If you want to open up epistemological questions about authority and knowledge production, it's good to have a wider sample of knowledge producers in the classroom itself.  

Since the course was about urban nature, were there opportunities for "field trips"?

There were! This course met in the evening, which made it a challenge, but the Lincoln Park Conservancy was super accommodating. The field trip was one part natural history, one part urban ecology, and one part service. Our group was able to collect and scatter seeds and do park clean up around the North Pond Nature Sanctuary. I also asked the learners to be on the lookout for nature sightings in their everyday lives outside of the classroom. They would bring those in as part of the course, as witnesses to urban nature. We also went on a "Toxic to Treasures Tours" tour with the Southeast Environmental Task Force. It wasn't during the class period, so we  couldn’t require it of the students, but several of them came along. The tour took us through the industrial corridor on the Southeast Side. 

You mentioned the assignment where students were tasked with being attuned to urban nature in their everyday lives—was there anything that surprised the students when they were paying close attention? 

The class met once a week. It was a three hour evening class. When they entered the classroom, they were asked to write on a big huge sticky post-it board a couple notes about what they had seen throughout the week. We kept those poster-sized post-it notes, with the date and the sightings, hung up in the room throughout the semester, adding a new one each week. The chorus of witnesses of what urban nature looks like grew, and over the course of time, the sheer diversity of what's there when you're paying attention became clear. That was something that I was trying to persuade them of, and more persuasive than me telling them, was them being able to see it—for it to come alive over the weeks of the semester. 

The other thing that happened is that the students started to realize how much they didn't know about what was right there. During the first weeks, students would say, “okay, I saw trees changing colors” and then when they watched those trees for another week, they came back asking, “What kind of tree is that?” And so the way in which they started to pay attention cultivated a curiosity about the ecology that's right there in their neighborhood. That was part of the idea behind the assignment, so that wasn't a surprise—that was supposed to happen, and it did! The thing that was a surprise, and that was a wonderful surprise, particularly in our religion and science classroom, was that there were some teaching opportunities that showed up along the way. Around two thirds of the way through the class, I was talking with a student before class, and we were thinking back on the semester, and I don't know if he was referring to a due date or a paper assignment or something else, and he asked, “Oh, when was that? It was when I saw the hawk.” And we could track back, through the poster-sized post-its on the wall, to when he had seen the hawk. In theological discussions, there's a difference between chronos and kairos. The former is time rolling out chronologically, ordered by days and months; the latter is sacred time marked by moments that are at “just the right time” and interruption of the chronos with something of the divine – in this case, akin to the sighting of a hawk.  That moment gave us this opportunity to talk about different senses of the unfolding of time, whether a point in time is indexed to this significant event, like the sighting of the hawk, or if it's a date on the calendar. There were moments like that, where having this parallel narrative with us, allowed these unexpected teaching and learning opportunities.