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River experience: a phenomenological description of meaningful experiences on a wilderness river journey
Understanding the experience of nature is an important concern in environmental education and its research. This study presumed outdoor/experiential education can foster interactions, connections and relations with nature. In this interpretive inquiry, using a phenomenological approach, the qualities of ‘meaningful experiences’ for participants in rafting journeys on a wilderness river were identified and examined. Participants were sourced from four commercial and four private trips on 10 day Franklin River journeys in Tasmania, Australia, conducted between 2007 and 2009. Data included the researcher’s participant observations, as well as interviews, journal entries and written responses to follow-up emails sourced from 32 participants (aged between 17 and 65).
The thematic structures of participants’ experiences of river natures were exposed via a concept mapping of individual and collective interpretations of the data. Emergent themes then provided a framework for reinterpreting the original individual descriptions of experience. Two age and gender neutral ‘streams of meaningful experience’ were found, namely (i) a feeling of humility and (ii) being alive to the present. The qualities of these two streams included: a sense of being lost within; a feeling of tension between vulnerability and comfort, and an awareness of an imminent paradox involving an intertwining with the more-than-human world. These interpretations are related to extant understandings of what meaningful experience is in river environments, drawing on Merleau–Ponty’s description of ‘chiasmic’ experience. The findings advance understandings of perceptual experience and intersubjective relationships in nature by highlighting how the experiences of river incorporate a paradoxical connection and separation with an already meaningful surrounding environment.
This thesis enriches the field of outdoor and environmental education by employing the rarely used phenomenological approach to inquiry in ways that explicate in-depth personal lived experience of river environments through a deeper understanding of human–environment interactions and the way in which people think about themselves and their relationship to the natural world. The study is limited in terms of generalizability, and further research into how people develop the meaning of nature by paying attention to their surroundings is described.
Publication titleEnvironmental Education Research
Department/SchoolFaculty of Education
Place of publicationUnited Kingdom