The Engagement of Complexity: 65 and Wondering if these Ideas are Antiquated

 In Travel

It can be said that in outdoor education, there is a certain way that embraces complex qualities and values. Let me explain. In the thought process of the late eco-philosopher Sigmund Kvaloy Setreng, complexity is a good thing. Complication, mind you, is particularly different and at times, less good. Whether we know it in this way or not, outdoor educators are constantly navigating the complexity/complication continuum. Sigmund was fond of saying, “in education, the worst thing you can do is take away opportunities to explore one’s inner complexity.”


Exploring one’s inner complexity is a hallmark of outdoor education, though we don’t use this language. 


Let’s navigate this concept with a navigational example suggested to me by Norwegian colleague Jorgen Nerland. Years ago, in high alpine terrain, I found myself without a map or GPS wanting to hike cross-country to a lake without any trail. A friend at the “non-trailhead” casually said something like, “You head north over a ridge and then another, climb out of the valley and you should see a mountain backdrop to the lake. You’ll pick up the trail at the lake bringing you east to a road. Bob’s your uncle. You’ll be back before nightfall.”


This friend was confident I could read the unfamiliar landscape to find the alpine lake. I was less sure. This is complexity. “Note that little lead—find the bigger one. Is that a ridge or a spur of a larger hill? Might this rivulet flow into the right lake?” My engagement with the land was paramount and rewarding.


There is a complex understanding in reading nature. An intimacy. This involves deciphering the logic of the landscape. It was exciting and nerve wracking; challenging with a high degree of uncertainty and agency. There were real consequences to failure and a healthy degree of employment of skill put to the test. A true little adventure is involved in reading the landscapes (Beames and Brown 2016), which is markedly different than relying on your mobile phone’s GPS technology; the phone advancing a gap or distancing between a person and the land, the reading terrain closing this gap, facilitating a deeper engagement and closeness between the person and the land. Satellites to GPS on my phone or another device I can understand. Well sort of. It is easy to appreciate the skill set involved and enjoy the confidence the GPS involves in largely taking away the uncertainty. I could understand how all this works in time if I tried and it would be impressive but not wonderous. In short, complication is within my grasp. Complexity isn’t. So the other night I went out to observe the Elon Musk satellites. I’d been told they were discernible given their pattern in the sky? I didn’t see them but had my usual amazement at the stary night and insignificance of my being. At that moment I heard a truck rambling full tilt down the distant highway. Marvellous machines. I always hope I’ll hear a wolf howl or loon call though: human derived complication vs the beyond human complexity. 


This deeper engagement with nature—the more-than-human world—is complexity at play. You could say complexity is also found in wondering what your cat is thinking when you walk in the door from a weekend away or you faithfully load that bird feeder every other day week after week for the joy it affords. Why do we bring nature closer into our lives? Sigmund would say, we relish the complexity.  Now, I wonder about Sigmund and his complexity-complication continuum. If I’d had a map and no trail, this would be pseudo-complexity – a kind of false complexity. If I relied on GPS, it would be complication, relying on a human derived device where it is all too easy to watch the device and marvel at it over watching the terrain. I’ve done the same with maps. Thanks Jorgen for the example that I experienced not far from Sigmund’s family farm of thirteen generations. 


Sigmund’s own navigational example is found in a sketch. He likens flying a jet over the Hardanger Plains as complication; travelling by train gazing through the window or sleeping to the gentle roll of motion as pseudo-complexity; and skiing with a mate into the same plateau landscape, complexity. Don’t get caught in the good/bad, right/wrong binary, though. Rather, a complication-complexity continuum is about exploring differences to the human psyche. Recently Imre Van Kraalingen (2021) put it this way; “employing digital technology is not simply good or bad but the potential is there to change the quality and possible range of human experience.”


In our modern times and from the examples above, it is all too easy to dismiss this discussion as passe. “Give it up Sigmund/Bob, digital technology is here to stay.” But outdoor educators are involved in decision making along these lines constantly: do I bring the group back along a wooded trail or the roadway which would be easier? Do I encourage an early morning camp wake-up so we enjoy a sunrise or an evening lake paddle or summit hike to maximize that mystic closing of the gap with nature. 


The complication decision would be opting for ways of interacting that widen the gap with nature largely unintended, mind you. Often, complication involves a technological application, like using a lake bottom scanning fish-finder compared to that slow acquiring of knowledge from fishing the lake and following advice of old times. You can’t always say one is always better. There is just a difference: no mystique or just a different mystique. In outdoor education we have so much opportunity for complexity/natural mystic. 


The human body/human nature/nature is a dynamic interplay of complexity. Complexity is rooted in relationships, most beyond our true comprehension. It is pre-intellect, thriving in “intuition, sensitivity, love, direct integration of body and mind in rhythmic movement.” (Setreng Kvaloy 2015, 53). 


Complexity, if we stop to consider it, asks difficult questions of us. There is wonderment. Not just, what is my cat thinking?, but what is one’s place/role/being in the universe? We rarely stop to consider this overtly but it is intertwined in our gazing at a starry night or into the evening campfire and that cat’s eyes or a surprise eye-to-eye with a wolf or eagle by a river’s edge. 


Here’s another example of putting Sigmund’s thinking into an outdoor education context. Lately, I’ve been using camp stoves more and more on the trail compared to a cooking fire. There is an ease and convenient factor (until the thing breaks down). There is an environmental factor (say, if on heavily used Algonquin Park campsites or out islands in Georgian Bay where organic material is sparse).  I think of the camp stove as complication. It’s noisy. It isn’t really fun (to me anyway). I doubt I can fix it. I’ve thrown a whisper-lite into the lake once when it flamed up out of control and I was reading about a premier northern trapper Hjalmar Dale

who did it all in North from 1920 until his death in 1968 in his cabin along the Mackenzie River when his stove exploded and burned 80% of his body. (Ingstad, 2017, 48-71). But they sure are practical. 


Yet there is something missing. I miss fiddling with the campfire, creating the night heat for the moment. I miss organizing the pots on the grill or fire irons. I miss the sounds (not noise). The fire for cooking may not be as easy and convenient but the work is playful, warming, engaging, and mysterious—and at night, the fire offers primal comfort and security. 


On canoe trips, some folks also take a twig stove or fire in a can. I suppose this would be Sigmund’s pseudo-complexity.


Last example. We always travel with a canoe tripping guitar. It’s so pleasurable to sit by the campfire playing in the background while a dessert is baking in a reflector oven and folks are chatting. There is a complexity in this. The warm sound or even the boisterous rhythm of a 60’s rocker. People are drawn to the music. It is an engaging ambiance. There’s a certain realness. 


Now, enter a mini portable speaker. “Hey,” someone says, “I have tunes on my bluetooth speaker. I’ve even got a campsite playlist. I can charge it too with my portable solar panel.” We’ve moved into Sigmund’s complicated realm here. I suggest the warmth and engagement is diminished. 


“Hey, leave the guitar at home,” you might hear. 


It isn’t so much that one is better than the other—reading the land over a GPS, the campfire better than the stove, the guitar playing better than the music box—it is that they are different. They influence us in different ways. There is a question of values. There is a place for all, but there is an opportunity in outdoor education to expose students, clients and people in general to complexity at heightened levels within small group, nature-centric experiences. Whether we want to think of it this way or not: we are exposing a value set.  So different, not better but with associated values.  There is a different “usefulness” between complication and complexity activities. 


It seems like an opportunity lost not to seek out the complexity. The complication is so readily with us in our usual day-to-day lives. Throw a bit of complexity into a camping trip and watch the warmth and engagement increase. There is a “beneficial burden” in much of outdoor education complexity.  Thanks to Brendon Munge for this gem of a saying.  Often the campfire cooking experience- a burden compared up against the camp stove is worth it. The mucking around with gathering and sorting wood/fuel and getting the spark to take to the wood and the spacing for oxygen among the wood/fuel. All this is involved, messy, laborious. But there is more. These three components (fuel, spark and oxygen) do not make the fire. There is a fourth thing: uninhibited chain reactions. Therein lies the mystery. The complexity. I’m reminded of the D.H.Lawrence line of poetry:  water is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen, but here is a third thing that makes it water, and nobody knows what that is.” Again, we rarely stop to consider such mysteries. But for outdoor educators it is an inherent part of the spiritual impulse that brings us to be taking folks into the woods and lakes and mountains and deserts. All this is Sigmund’s “inner complexity” which has a significant usefulness as we culturally and individually move further and further from nature.   


Sometimes, of course, you go complicated as well. I use the latest high-tech designed tents throughout the bug season, but come autumn, I love to set up a tarp for the few or forgo the tarp and sleep out under the complexity of a starry night. The universe, the stars, the glow from lightyears away: ponder that! That’s complexity: warmth and engagement with qualities that demand involvement, deeper questions about our place—a certain, “into the mystic” as songwriter Van Morrison once tried to capture. 


Reading the landscape, working the cooking fire, guitar playing at evening camp time, sleeping out under the stars: outdoor educators can do all of that with the folks in our charge. Sigmund helps us be aware that we are bringing a rich complexity into people’s lives. 


If we are conscious of complexity, we will see and feel it more often and as educators and guides, be better able to find the best place to be in the complexity-complication continuum in the moment of our modern lives. AND, we will be conscious of bringing complexity to our students/clients/participants as guides. It might be using/teaching the GPS, using a map or reading the landscape. It is suggested here that with outdoor education, we move toward complexity often. It’s akin to offering gifts to our students. An outdoor educator colleague Glyn Thomas in correspondence on this topic recently wisely admonished that “our decision to include or exclude digital technologies should be based on whether it enhances or impairs the achievement of educational objectives.”  He is calling for solid intentionality whereby our practice/our in the field decisions are grounded in educational objectives. Enhancing one’s inner complexity is one such intentional slice of practice. I suggest here, it tends to exist at a level of subliminal practice.   


 Perhaps this pro-complexity ramble is just nostalgic wandering into a time and space before the prevalence of devices. That’s fair. BUT perhaps too, we should be aware of what is lost when we are reliant on the complication of a world so steeped in human manufacturing which all too easily can be an overbearing quality in our lives. Perhaps unwittingly there is a sensory undernourishment that comes with overbearing complication and a dearth of complexity and that certain beneficial burden in our lives. What potential for outdoor educators. Sigmund had this figured out. 


Bob Henderson works within a variety of outdoor education pathways in Ontario and beyond, including serving as Resource Editor for Pathways. 



Van Kraalingen, I. (2021) panelist on Webinar: Digital Technology and Outdoor Education. Hosted by NIH, Oslo, September 21.


Ingstad, B. (2017). A grand adventure: The lives of Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad and their discovery of a viking settlement in North America. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press. 


Beames, S and Brown, M. (2016). Adventurous learning: A pedagogy for a changing world. New York, NY: Routledge Books. 


Kvaloy, Setreng, S. (2015). Ecophilosophy fragments: Writings, drawings, testimonies. Edited by Bob Henderson and Aage Jensen. Uxbridge: Chrismar Mapping Services.

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