environmental Education, contemplative education, ecological ethics, environmental philosophy, zen

The Raven Knows My Name: Contemplation and Practice on an Off-Grid Island

November 18, 2021

Bio: David Chang is a teacher-educator who studies philosophy of education and contemplative approaches to environmental education.  David spent approximately a year on an off-grid island, where he explored the practices and dispositions associated with a land-based ethic. Drawing from Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of habitus and Zen Buddhism, David’s work is a philosophical, narrative, and poetic account of the ways that modern western societies can enter into a sacred and vibrant relationship with land.

As a 2017 Steel Memorial Scholarship recipient, you wanted to research how the experiences of students living in off-grid communities might help us reconnect us to the earth and transition to lower-impact lifestyles. What sparked your interest in researching this topic?

Much of the global ecological crisis can be traced to capitalist systems of growth and consumption. I noticed that classrooms are not immune to the proliferation of materials: piles of books, toys, binders, computers, and gadgets fill shelves and cabinets. I was dismayed by how much stuff I had accumulated over my years as a teacher. I wondered about places where teaching and learning could occur with fewer materials and fewer demands for energy. Hence, I became interested in schools in off-grid locations.

When I found a school on an off-grid island, however, I learned that the programs and practices were very similar to those of urban schools. Further, the school was undergoing some transitions, and my presence as a researcher would not have been appropriate at that point. I turned to a different question: how do residents of the island make do with limited access to energy and resources? I had long been interested in wilderness retreats, and I wanted to get a first-hand taste of living off-grid. So I decided to document my own experience.

Your 2021 dissertation addresses the emotional difficulties associated with ecological decline. One area you focus on is “ecological grief.” What does that mean? Would you describe this as an emerging research topic in education?

Many young people are learning about ecological decline and that they will likely live in a world heading toward 3℃ of warming. While most of our dreams about the future assume planetary conditions favourable to life, something devastating happens in the hearts and minds of young people when those conditions are no longer certain. Ecological grief is a form of psycho-emotional suffering that arises when we recognize the seriousness of the crisis, along with western society’s failure to address environmental decline. Ecological grief is already a major area of research (Lertzman, 2015; Woodbury, 2019). As wildfires rage and storms pummel more parts of the world, ecological grief will become more prevalent.

For your dissertation, you spent ten-and-a-half-months on an off-grid island on the West Coast of BC. What are some of the challenges you faced?

Living off-grid is very physically demanding. I had to ride my bike to a spring to collect drinking water. I split wood and hiked up and down a small mountain every day. I didn’t have a refrigerator, so I ate only dried goods: oats, lentils, and brown rice each day without much variation. When the pipes froze in winter, I had to go to a pond to fill a bucket of water and carry it back to my cabin for washing and cooking. The creature comforts most people take for granted were absent. Fortunately, neighbours provided me with good advice on many matters, from trapping mice to repairing fences, and lent me tools when I needed them. Beyond their kind assistance, I negotiated the challenges of daily life on my own.

What experiences were highlights for you? What did the experience teach you?

This experience taught me there is a full and vibrant life to be had outside of being a consumer. I went for weeks without spending a dime and discovered I did not miss the life of commerce. I spent long hours observing the forest and watching the oceans—these slow and quiet days taught me that wonder grows in proportion to the quality of attention we bring to the world around us. A simple life is beautiful and uplifting. I spent many hours in meditation, learning to be a friend to myself. 

Many people have asked me whether I was ever bored. To the contrary, I felt more engaged and attuned than ever. Zen gave me access to a deeper inner life, where I glimpsed insights and perspectives not otherwise possible in the din of the city. Contemplation is neither an escape from reality nor a repudiation of society. It is an entrance into a dimension of experience easily obscured by the frantic motions of the metropolis. I saw more clearly that modern life tends to inculcate a set of dispositions: for example, incessant stimulation from screens creates a disposition toward restlessness. For those captive to the screen, an hour of silent repose can seem terrifying. The quiet days on the island helped me rediscover the splendour right under my nose. It was one of the richest, most transformative periods of my life.

In researching environmental education, you draw from a range of disciplines—including ethics, philosophy, cultural studies, and science. What do you see as the main benefits of this multidisciplinary approach?

Data needs a soul. It’s important not only to learn about the world, but also to feel the world and discern our shifting contours as we change in the process of learning. Scientists have presented to us some crucial information about the climate crisis. Once we see how the modern way of life is implicated in the crisis, we might find it harder to accept the things that once seemed a matter of course. But as it becomes harder to live with the status quo, science is less helpful in dealing with the resulting anguish. For this, we can look to wisdom traditions and adopt contemplative practices to expand our minds and hearts, helping us to skillfully navigate this difficult time.

What impacts or outcomes do you envision as a result of your research?

I hope my research provides some insight about how our dispositions are shaped by contemplative practices and how we can adopt such practices to promote a closer connection with land, which is one of the fundamental pre-conditions of widespread change. Powerlessness is one of the primary sources of frustration for young people feeling the weight of the ecological crisis. For that reason, I also hope young people will feel empowered to adopt practices and develop habits, wherever they live, to cultivate an appreciation of the more-than-human world and move toward lifestyles demanding fewer materials and resources.


Lertzman, R. (2015). Environmental Melancholia: Psychoanalytic dimensions of engagement. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315851853

Woodbury, Z. (2019). Climate trauma: Toward a new taxonomy of trauma. Ecopsycology, 11(1), 1–8.