By Ashley Culver
In the past year or so due to the ongoing covid pandemic many of us, myself included, have found pleasure in being in nature; yet, social distancing has meant this is often a solo activity. While Outdoor School: Contemporary Environmental Art was likely not written to address our current lack of collective engagement within nature, it does just that by gathering a multitude of artists, farmers, writers, facilitators, collaborators, and thinkers. Outdoor School offers dialogue around ways to be outside together and connect with the natural environment. This book is edited by Diane Borsato, a visual artist with a relational, interventionist and performance practice, and Amish Morrell, an editor, curator, and writer. It is a collection of 150 photographs and fifteen contributions including a foreword by Ann MacDonald, director and curator of the Doris McCarthy Gallery, along with Alana Bartol, Jacqueline Bell, Diane Borsato, Bill Burns, Carolina Caycedo, Jen Delos Reyes, Sameer Farooq, FASTWÜRMS, Jeneen Frei Njootli, Ayumi Goto, Maggie Groat, Karen Houle, Hannah Jickling and Reed H. Reed, Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill, Rita McKeough, Peter Morin, Amish Morrell, Public Studio, Genevieve Robertson, Jamie Ross, Aislinn Thomas, Vibrant Matter, Georgiana Uhlyarik, Jay White, Tania Willard, Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson, and D’Arcy Wilson. With all of these voices meeting within the pages of Outdoor School, the book offers a complex conversation of art and nature.
I admit to feeling a high level of FOMO (fear of missing out) when flipping through the large publication for the first time. The cover image shows dozens of artists and mathematicians in bathing suits venturing into a glacier-fed river surrounded by evergreen trees – everyone including plants and humans bathed in golden sunlight. Another image near the beginning shows Diane Borsato and Amish Morrell holding hands with a young boy facing a gallery full of mushroom foray participants outfitted in rubber boots, and waterproof jackets, some holding red Tim Hortons coffee cups and wicker baskets. Another of people congregating around two glowing points: a beach fire and LED light. The circles of faces lit by warm and blue glow respectively are engulfed by darkness with a couple stars and whiffs of clouds visible in the sky above the outline of treetops. Further in on page 86, there is an image of about a dozen people sitting cross-legged on pebbly ground. There are charts of flowers and mushrooms as well as guidebooks, water bottles, and backpacks strewn in-between their knees. My knee-jerk FOMO stems from having missed out on the specific exhibitions, residencies, outings, walks and such described in Outdoor School or even more so from the lack of togetherness these days. These gatherings are a long way from anything I have experienced this year. I live in Toronto, where many of the contributors also reside, and Toronto residents experienced the longest lockdown in North America this year – the same year Outdoor School was published.
It’s easy to feel some FOMO when reading Outdoor School; yet, when read with the same tone of curiosity, attentiveness, and openness the book takes and the artists included bring to their work, it is the opposite of the sensation of lacking. It points to possibilities. It is a guidebook for new ways of being in relation to each other and nature. As Borsato said, “We were looking for projects that reimagine our relationship to the outdoors, to nature and the land, that are rooted in performance and site-specificity. And also to teaching and learning.”
My interactions with or into nature are much less spectacular than the ones highlighted in Outdoor School. The insights shared in Outdoor School can be applied to our solitary activities at home and in our neighbourhoods. For instance, I can ponder Karen Houle’s ‘Farm as Ethics’ as I tend to my balcony garden of herbs: rosemary, two variations of mint, sage, and oregano that didn’t last the entire summer. I can think of the ‘Slow Walkers of Whycocomagh’ when I walk the railpath in the west end of Toronto. I can recall Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson with Public Studio’s words in ‘The Earth’s Covenant’ when I speak to my mother, who lives on the West Coast, on the phone about the recent floods or what are now referred to as atmospheric rivers.
Even without partaking in any outdoorsy activities, I can contemplate Morrell’s land acknowledgment and consider my residence here. In ‘We Always Begin with an Acknowledgement of the Land’ Morrell recognizes “the Mississaugas of the Credit and the Anishinaabe, the Haudenosaunee and the Huron-Wendat, and the land agreements, like the Dish with One Spoon treaty.” However, he goes further than simply speaking their names by exploring how one connects to place and community as well as some of the problematic aspects of outdoor culture and education. This is not a land acknowledgement spoken out of obligation but thoughtful practice.
By shifting from feeling left out to joining in through participating in this new iteration of Outdoor School in the form of a book by reading, I find a new understanding of my relationship to the earth. In a period where many of us are seeking solace in nature, Outdoor School encourages us to consider our presence and the practices we have. Gathering almost thirty artists, the book activates the conversation of art and nature and how we fit into it.
 “Nature walks helping many relieve anxiety during COVID-19,” CBC, January 31, 2021, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/prince-edward-island/pei-nature-conservatory-1.5895421.
 Diane Borsato and Amish Morrell (with Feliz Morrell), “Mushroom Foray,” in Outdoor School Contemporary Environmental Art, ed. Amish Morrell and Diane Borsato (Madeira Park: Douglas and McIntyre Ltd., 2021), Page 16.
 BUSH Gallery with Lisa Myers, Akwesasne Women Singers, imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival, “Beach(fire) Blanket Bingo Biennial,” in Outdoor School Contemporary Environmental Art, ed. Amish Morrell and Diane Borsato (Madeira Park: Douglas and McIntyre Ltd., 2021), Page 32.
 Diane Borsato and Amish Morrell, “Artist Spotlight: Contemporary art goes outdoors,” AGO Insider, May 26, 2021, https://ago.ca/agoinsider/contemporary-art-goes-outdoors.
 Karen Houle, “Farm as Ethics,” in Outdoor School Contemporary Environmental Art, ed. Amish Morrell and Diane Borsato (Madeira Park: Douglas and McIntyre Ltd., 2021), Page 88-99.
 Aislinn Thomas, “Slow Walker of Whycocomagh and Mountains Used to Be Ugl,” in Outdoor School Contemporary Environmental Art, ed. Amish Morrell and Diane Borsato (Madeira Park: Douglas and McIntyre Ltd., 2021), Page 120-123.
 Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson with Public Studio, “The Rights of Nature,” in Outdoor School Contemporary Environmental Art, ed. Amish Morrell and Diane Borsato (Madeira Park: Douglas and McIntyre Ltd., 2021), Page 166-169.
 “What are atmospheric rivers, and how are they affecting the B.C. floods?,” CBC radio, November 18, 2021, https://www.cbc.ca/radio/whatonearth/what-are-atmospheric-rivers-and-how-are-they-affecting-the-b-c-floods-1.6253763.
 Amish Morrell, “We Always Begin with an Acknowledgement of the Land,” in Outdoor School Contemporary Environmental Art, ed. Amish Morrell and Diane Borsato (Madeira Park: Douglas and McIntyre Ltd., 2021), Page 19.