Nowadays, we recognise car logos more easily than we can identify trees

Game Changers: A 15-year-old climate activist who presents RTÉ Junior’s Ecolution, a brilliant podcast reconnecting children with the natural world

I conducted a completely unscientific experiment at Dublin City Council’s lovely Eat the Streets event in Richmond Barracks last month. We had a Pocket Forests stall alongside Anthony Freeman-O’Brien and his Bee 8 honey project. It’s difficult to bring the idea of a pocket forest indoors, so instead I brought some of the food that they can produce, to “Eat the Trees”. The fruits and nuts were arranged on paper covering the table, with small hints written beside them. When people came over I asked if they wanted to try and guess the names of these fruits and nuts to win a poster.

There quickly emerged a fascinating trend. Older people knew these foods like they knew their own names. An eagle-eyed woman spotted instantly that I had swapped out cob nuts for hazelnuts (in my defence the hazels were few and far between and a street near us was carpeted in cobs). When I said that rose hips couldn’t be eaten raw, another older woman told me that they peeled the skins off as children and ate the skins raw, leaving the hairy centre exposed for “itchy back attacks” — putting a peeled rosehip down someone’s back and watching them squirm with the itch. But some younger adults struggled to identify anything, as if the knowledge of their parents’ generation had fallen away. We can recognise car logos more easily than we can identify trees from their leaf shapes or fruits. The things that are killing us become more familiar than the things that help keep us alive.

What could have been a depressing sense of disconnect was saved by two things: people wanted to know, eagerly consulting the books I had brought to help them look up the mystery fruits. And they seemed to enjoy paying attention to these forgotten things. The second heartening moment was meeting Evie Kenny. The 15-year-old climate activist is the talented presenter of RTÉ Junior’s Ecolution, a brilliant podcast reconnecting children with the natural world. She didn’t lick her talent off the stones. Her mother Caitriona Kenny (her Momager, as she joked) is an environmental educator with Global Action Plan. Among others — like environmentalist Susan Adams who founded Education for Sustainability as a social enterprise to bring climate literacy to schools, and Waterford teacher Patrick Kirwan, who founded the Irish Schools Sustainability Network — these are people seeing the dangers of our disconnection from nature and working to heal the situation.

In a recent Ecolution episode, Evie interviews veteran wildlife campaigner Jane Goodall, posing her own questions and recorded questions from children all over Ireland. Goodall set up a schools programme called Roots and Shoots in 1991. “It’s not too late, but time is running out and we need to get together and take action,” urged 89-year-old Goodall. For parents and teachers, listening to Ecolution can be a great starting point.

Catherine Cleary

Catherine Cleary

Catherine Cleary, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a founder of Pocket Forests