Back to School: Civic Ecology [updated April 15, 2015]

I have enrolled in a free online course provided by Cornell University’s Department of Natural Resources. I will audit the classes, which will last 6 weeks. The course description, in part, includes these goals and activities:

  • Explore the people, places, and practices that restore nature and revitalize neighborhoods, making a difference in ways big and small.
  • Discuss and evaluate contemporary thinking in resilience, social-ecological systems, and the relationship between nature and human/community wellbeing.
  • Grasp an understanding of how civil ecology enables those with limited resources to defy and cope with daily struggles, including after disaster and war.
  • Acquire the knowledge and skill set to enact change in your own community.
  • Participate in a civic ecology service learning project to turn classroom learning into real-life application.

To prepare for the classes, particularly in learning terminology that will make it easier for me to keep pace with the course materials, I am reading about native problems and proposed solutions.

One example of such research is Corrin James Breeding’s 2012 thesis, SOCIO-ECONOMIC REVITALIZATION THROUGH BROWNFIELD RECLAMATION, presented to the University of Tennessee for a Master’s degree in Landscape Architecture. In it, he considers assessment and reclamation of brownfield lands in Knoxville. His thesis is available to the public at

Corrin James master's thesis

It is obvious from the full course description that some of what I learn will apply directly to my own little piece of the world. Beyond this, my hope is that, in addition to achieving course objectives, I will be able to use my knowledge to forge bonds with like-minded people in Knoxville, thereby becoming better connected in the local world of green growing things.

The first class will be April 10, 2015. Wish me luck!

April 15, 2015 update


This first week of the class, which is a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), has been inspirational. There are over 900 of us posting on the group’s Facebook page

sharing our locations, describing local projects, asking questions and getting a lot of encouragement from the teaching team.

It is especially heartwarming to see posts from class members in parts of the world where Internet connection is spotty (to say nothing of simple access to electricity) who are determined to improve their surroundings. Whether it is deforestation or impossibly muddy roads, these people for whom English is a second language are persevering in both learning civic ecology practices and teaching the rest of us about their home areas and needs.

I am connecting with a librarian in California, a young man interested in honeybees in Montana, a new friend on the other end of Tennessee, and more. Everybody in the course seems interested in the health of populations of local birds! A question about birds that I posted 24 hours ago has generated over 30 “likes” and nearly 20 substantive responses. People in Alberta, Canada, and Chicago, Illinois, have created sub-groups within the larger FB group, while I have not yet had anyone admit to being in the Knoxville area.

kid and bird

The experience in the class so far has inspired me to redouble my efforts to plant indigenous species in my yards in an attempt to encourage more native birds, bees and butterflies here. I did see a butterfly last week, but it flitted away (or flutter-byed) too quickly for me to get a snapshot of it.

To show the variety of efforts of active citizen ecologists, some of the projects we have read a bout in the course so far include river cleanups in Los Angeles and Iran; community gardens in Springfield, MA, San Francisco, CA and Newark, NJ; tree planting in New Orleans, LA, “spot-fixing” dirty streets in Bangalore, India; and a food forest in Seattle, WA. There are more readings; this is just an indication of their varied scopes. Just one of the websites by a student member is Mainstream Permaculture ( It was created and is maintained by Silvia di Blasio, who lives in British Columbia, Canada. I took the permaculture poster picture at the top of this update (and the piano planter shot below) from her site.

piano garden

What I am getting from the course is a new set of online friends and a greater understanding of the stewardship each little spot of Earth needs in order for every living being on the planet to be healthier. Perhaps I’ll write a partial memoir called “Me & Bees”. I am also learning to be more careful when I answer questions posed by the instructors. I gave myself the Bonehead of the Week award for having all of one section’s questions answered correctly but then, during the final scan before submitting, altering the order of answers so that three of them were marked as wrong. I then urged others in the FB MOOC to be more vigilant:


My course project will be to volunteer at Ijams Nature Center. More on that to come!

Ijams trail


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