THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE 2015 WINTER ISSUE OF GREEN TEACHER, A CANADIAN EDUCATIONAL/ENVIRONMENTAL MAGAZINE FOR TEACHERS WORLD WIDE
EcoCarols: A Creative Approach to Reinvention
Give new life to an old tune, by reworking the words to tell a story about our human relationship to nature and the Earth.
by Ann Palmer
‘Teacher. Is the Northern Lights God having a dance in the sky?' 'Teacher. The bible says the world was made in seven days. Evolution says it took billions of years. Which is right?'
These are two profound questions from a six and seven year-old respectively. Children are perceptive, holistic and direct. Many possess the innate spirituality expressed through their experience of nature demonstrated in the opening quote. As a 25-year-old headteacher of a school in the Orkney islands off the coast of Scotland in 1971, I answered these questions in ways culturally acceptable at the time but hardly satisfactory.
The supremacy of scientific language in western culture means we do not look to nature automatically and habitually as our prime teacher. Or defer to its fractal patterning as the deep informer of life processes. To take models from nature concerning how life works is not taught today, though it once formed the bedrock of understanding in all indigenous cultures. We recognise our species homo sapiens as part of the ecosystem and therefore subject to Nature’s Lore but the full interconnection remains off-limits. The new science of biomimicry is a step towards using 'nature as teacher' in a modern context. Indigenous people have always been well-versed in the art of reading an environment both physically and spiritually. We have reached the point, educationally, where the natural has to be taught; the virtual being home-base to the 21st century mind.
From this background I devised the term ‘Complementary Spirituality’. Complementary Spirituality looks at the big picture first, and sees the religions of the world as expressions of any one culture’s spirituality. In the case of EcoCarols, what is being joined up, interconnected, is the celebratory within the Christmas carol of the Christian faith and a celebration of nature and the Earth.
An EcoCarol or EcoHymn uses the tune of the original, unaltered. The reinvention consists of new lyrics in the form of ecological words. An EcoSong takes a favourite or famous song and, likewise, gives it a new and ecological theme and subject matter. For the purpose of this article the terms EcoCarol, EcoHymn and EcoSong are interchangeable.
Writing an EcoCarol is about using a creative approach to this type of reinvention. That is, using as many of the functions of the brain's right hemisphere as possible in the process and preparatory stages. Functionality is not subject-bound, so the creative process is led by the functions that the right hemisphere does best. Its general ability as a superior processor is well attested by biologist Bruce Lipton who compares the left brain to a 40 bit processor against the right brain's 40 million bit processor.
Such claims need explanation. The linearity of left hemisphere processing means it can only handle one thing at a time, and communicates through words and language. The simultaneous functioning of the right hemisphere accesses big pictures and syntheses and communicates through pictures and images. The right hemisphere is also closer to the limbic brain, thus responsible for emotions and feelings.
Sir Ken Robinson, states in his TED talk that, for the future, creativity will be more important than literacy. My own book Writing and Imagery: how to deepen creativity and improve your writing, looks at the relationship between brain-use and the teaching of Creative Writing. It isolates 21 functionality differences between the two hemispheres, highlighting the need for the greatest possible right brain input into any creative project. The full circle on this way of thinking is derived from indigenous peoples, who sang, drew, danced and generally played in order to solve any problem that they encountered. This right hemisphere led approach resulted in highly inventive solutions.
It's against this background that the following three stage preparatory process to the writing of an EcoCarol is offered. This right-hemisphere based preparation is then followed by considering the left hemisphere based skills the project requires for completion.
The original example used here is 'We Three Kings of Orient Are' and the ecological remake is 'Trees of Earth.' The structure, rhythms and beat of this particular carol single it out as one that could be used across a broad spectrum of nature-based themes which have a single syllable such as birds, roots, rocks, seas, growth, ants, bees, plants. 'We Three Kings of Orient Are' is a carol well suited to the listing technique. It carries the inclusive, global underpinning which is the ecological imperative. The basic makeover model offered here applies to any song-tune a child or student enjoys, resonates with or simply loves. Choice of song by a student or child may come down to 'what goes around in your head' when cycling, walking or running, a time when the mind is free of focused concerns.
Stage 1 – mindmaps Originally the brainchild of Tony Buzan in the 1990's, mindmaps acquired the status of an educational breakthrough. This is because children find it easier to free associate on a central idea than they do to make lists. Seen from a perspective interested in right hemisphere led brain functioning, it is the pattern and design qualities inherent and embedded in the mindmap that make it an easy, attractive and flexible tool for quickly producing and organising a lot of divergent material. The 'field' of thought accessed is automatically larger because the central idea written bold in the middle of the page or flip-chart is repeatedly returned to, inviting a fresh association along another of its spider-like arms. Mindmaps are right brain holistic, whereas lists are linear and sequential, the operating mode of the left brain.
The Class Mindmap is a reliable tool to provide an overview of the feelings and ideas present in a group of students. Teacher-led, with all students asked to contribute, it quickly produces a lot of material. I wait until the class runs out of ideas, and then add my own to fill it out, which usually starts another round of suggestions. The mindmap can be of favourite tunes, what the children want to say about the Earth, their relationship to nature, and/or related to other green projects going on in school.
Stage 2 – art-word meld The importance of this stage is the development of image-speak. A variety of approaches to this artwork is not only possible but highly desirable, as it encourages individuality of expression. The freestyle drawing or painting is, in some way, a representation of the EcoCarol, EcoHymn or EcoSong the student wants to write. The options are to write about the artwork's meaning in an ecological context afterwards. Or incorporate words into the drawing as the artwork proceeds. I find it developmental to draw with the left hand and write with the right, at the whim of spontaneous impulse. If your students can manage this ambidextrous exercise it will allow both sides of the brain to alternate leadership throughout, until the drawing is finished. If the unusualness of this procedure inhibits experimentation, the best antidote is to recollect what is happening at the brain level. That is, right hemisphere image leading, left hemisphere interpreting. In the opinion of Iain McGilchrist, it is in allowing the right hemisphere to lead and the left hemisphere to interpret, that we have the greatest opportunity to evolve as a species. At this point the connection with Sir Ken Robinson’s belief in the necessity of prioritising creativity in future education, is made.
Stage 3 – improvisation If the words and tune of a song are closely associated, it requires effort and determination to not revert to singing the original words. Have students hum the tune over and over again, as a preparation to inviting the singing of spontaneous words, phrases or sentences related to the EcoCarol's theme or subject matter. In a classroom situation, a good introduction is to choose a single carol and give groups just one verse of the proposed EcoCarol to work on.
Musical ability is not a specific requirement. I myself am slightly tone-deaf and cannot always hold a tune. Even if you are unable to read music, it's useful to have the printed music available in order to see where words are held for multiple notes, and to trace the rise and fall of the tune. The original words assist in giving a template for a sound-alike pattern. This helps to make the new words a good fit.
At any point in this three stage preparation to write an EcoCarol, a word, phrase or line may pop into the mind as being just right, or very nearly. It should be noted down and treasured! The nature of creativity is newness and chaos, sourced in the right hemisphere's natural divergent random functioning. The only prescriptive advice worth following is to 'trust the process'. The bottom line is to re-engage with a mindset that knows there are probably hundreds of ways to develop any one idea. Furthermore, any one idea is capable of infinite development.
Trees of Earth Words and tune to 'We Three Kings' by Ann Palmer by John Henry Hopkins Trees of Earth, we honour your part We three kings of Orient are, Healthy planet, life-giving art. Bearing gifts we traverse afar. Pear and pine tree, gum and plum tree Field and fountain, moor and mountain, Seeds are your chosen start. Following yonder star. O, Trees of Wonder, Trees of Earth O star of wonder, star of night Hosting homes for life's new birth. Star with royal beauty bright. Ace at sharing, air-repairing Westward leading, still proceeding Trees have stratospheric worth. Guide us to thy perfect light.
Elm, ash, oak, birch, willow and plane Born a king on Bethlehem plain, We praise your lovely forms again Gold I bring to crown him again, Lemon, banyan, rowan, aspen, King forever, ceasing never Lovers of sun and rain. Over us all to reign: O, Trees of Wonder, Trees of Earth O star of wonder, star of night Hosting homes for life's new birth. Star with royal beauty bright. Ace at sharing, air-repairing Westward leading, still proceeding Trees have stratospheric worth. Guide us to thy perfect light.
Copse or wood, rainforest and grove, Frankincense to offer have I, Root to crown, in sap-rising grows. Incense owns a deity nigh, Shading, shelt'ring, filtr'ing, cooling, Prayer and praising, all men raising, Trees are a treasure-trove. Worship him, God most high: O Trees of Wonder, Trees of Earth O star of wonder, star of night Hosting homes for life's new birth. Star with royal beauty bright. Ace at sharing, air-repairing Westward leading, still proceeding Trees have stratospheric worth. Guide us to thy perfect light.
Arms and limbs, your branches long, Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume Filled with movement and birdsong, Breathes a life of gathering gloom; Budding, greening, rustling, breathing, Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, Beauty in every one. Sealed in the stone-cold tomb: O Leaves of Wonder, Leaves of Earth O star of wonder, star of night Hosting homes for life's new birth Star with royal beauty bright. Ace at sharing, air-repairing Westward leading, still proceeding Leaves have stratospheric worth. Guide us to thy perfect light.
Sacred trees, you give us the wood Glorious now behold him arise, fashioned into millions of goods. King and God and sacrifice, Tables, gables, books of fables, Alleluia, alleluia, Leaves are your clothes and food. Earth to the heav'ns replies: O, Leaves of Wonder, Trees of Earth O star of wonder, star of night Hosting homes for life's new birth. Star with royal beauty bright. Ace at sharing, air-repairing Westward leading, still proceeding Trees have stratospheric worth Guide us to thy perfect light.
A consideration of the whole of the original carol gives more developmental options for an EcoCarol, and also it may highlight unhelpful directions. Before beginning the project there are two extra things which will prove invaluable throughout the process. Together, these guide the treatment of the eventual EcoCarol. Firstly, write down the feeling-tone words associated with the chosen carol, which give it its special character. Secondly, make a list of ten qualities the group wants the EcoCarol to have. These two little exercises will help to set the scene. They may feel like a stretch into the unknown, but they give big frameworks, before starting work on the details. Additional research may be required depending on the topic of the carol.
1. Close to original with occasional word-borrows as a 'nod' to the source – though not in expected contexts. Enhancing in intent.
2. Words working hard – each individual word.
3. Youth-appealing. Fun if possible, or thoughtful. Good connections made so a coherent worldview emerges.
4. Relevant and real. Says it as it is but condensed, so that the reality-match is closer than in the original carols.
5. Positive, empowering.
6. Focuses up our relationship with Earth.
7. Incorporates a narrative line, so there is a sense of development, a different focus in each stanza.
8. Retains something of the original emotion/mood of the reference carol – whether loving, celebratory, unifying, joyful, reverential, exultant, jubilant, passionate, courageous, compassionate, caring, energy-raising, respectful, inspiring, honouring, full of awe, grandeur, simple innocent wonder, thankfulness or gratitude. Or any combinations of these that the original carol draws up.
9. Without inflation, it needs words 'better than' the original ones, in the sense of being more relevant to our interconnected world.
10. The EcoCarol must speak to something within the eco-psychological matrix. That is, nature's healing ability accessed through Shakespeare’s saying ‘One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.’
The next phase concerns the changeover to adopting the full pattern of the original carol, much as does the poet when writing a sonnet or adopting any other formalised structure.
Obviously, the major criteria is: 'does it sing well?' With a class of elementary school children, this may be as far as it need go. However, with teenagers, this project has the potential to be an introduction to teaching a more formal poetry-like structure.
The first stage is to see how the original words fit the music. Many carols are quite simple, with only the obvious end-word held over for another note. But others, like O come, Emmanuel, have an unusual word-tune marriage.
I use syllabics to set up an initial rough fit, as do many of my peers. Syllabics does not ensure a good word-to-tune fit, as the stressed syllables do not necessarily match the tune's beat. However, first forays into EcoSong writing are aided by a syllabic match to the original. If students are confident and musically adept, they may not need this stage. If they are stuck, they may find its hand-holding effect encouraging, fun and useful. Syllabics provides a platform for later word-juggling, a vital skill for any would-be eco-lyricist or poet. Now, the inclusion of a rhyming dictionary and a thesaurus are essential to open up further word options. Though neither resource may provide the right word they expand the range of possibilities, and that too is necessary to keep a sense of forward momentum in this process.
The four major determinants are: the rhythm, the rhyming pattern, how it borrows from the original carol, and the willingness to use partial rhymes to give meaning supremacy. This requires a certain flexibility of thought. Far greater, though, is the need for a delight and passion in this activity, so the task becomes a high energy one. The creative guru's guide is 'to wrestle with the process.’ I've also heard creative writing described as 'wading through treacle,' which is certainly the tastier simile! Creativity and imaginative work still has an aura of mystique about it. Re-seen as the divergent, random, intuitive, subjective individuality of right brain functioning, it is explainable at the level of neural networking.
The original meaning of the word 'educare' is to 'draw out'. Here, as with dreamwork and spontaneous artwork, the word 'educare' comes into its own and does just that. In the preparatory stage, to engage in drawing directly accesses the right hemisphere of the brain as illustrated in the art-word meld. EcoSongs invite students to interpret their own symbology, discover more meanings than they were previously aware of, reveal to themselves their own innate inner wisdom and sing about it.
A further fourteen EcoCarols are available through my website: www.gaiadancebooks.com/ecocarols.html. Included is the reinvention of ‘Silent Night’ as ‘Northern Lights’. It honours those moments when we teachers access the innate wisdom of our youngest pupils.
For me, and I suspect for many others, this activity acts as a deep self-healing process, taking on and working with the spirit driving all of those human expressions of love, joy, awe, respect, passion, compassion, honouring, devotion, wonder, gratitude, thankfulness, celebration, courage, commitment. The effect of working with these emotions cannot be overestimated. In directing them towards the Earth and the future of our own species on this planet we offer children a Joined-Up and coherent world view.
EcoCarol, EcoHymn and EcoSong writing can be seen three ways. Clearly it is an interesting Creative Writing exercise, based on reinvention. It can also be characterised as a dynamic and interactive introduction to open up the subject of formal poetry. However, its major contribution is to invite children to invent their own EarthSongs – ones they may remember for all of their lives.
Ann Palmer is a former headteacher who has taught Creative Writing across the age-range. She was awarded a distinction in a Postgraduate Diploma in Teaching Creative Writing for her Warwick university-accredited courses in the U.K. Currently she is promoting a grassroots-led anti-litter campaign in the Western Isles of Scotland. You can learn more about her work at www.gaiadancebooks.com
Bruce Lipton – Audio DVD – The Biology of Belief issued by Sounds Time Inc.
 Sir Ken Robinson – TED talk recorded at TED2006 – How Schools Kill Creativity – www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity
 A. J. Palmer – Writing and Imagery – How to Deepen Creativity and Improve Your Writing published by Studymates 2011. ISBN 970-1842850609. Re-issued by Aber Books on Amazon.com as a Kindle edition Writing and Imagery – How to Avoid Writers Block 2013 ASIN B00C8RR7UE.
 Tony Buzan – Mind Maps for Kids published by Thorsons (re-issue 2005) ISBN 978-0007151332.
 Iain McGilchrist – The Master and His Emissary – The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World published by Yale Unversity Press 2012. ISBN 978-0300188370.