is a process of making connection between nature and outselves.
It is aimed at developing personal insight and transformation
as well as intimacy with the natural world. As we create
relationship with the surrounding environment and learn
to see ourselves as part of the web of life, we beging to
lose the fetters of the western worldview which regards
humans as separate and above nature. Losing ourselves in
the heady aroma of sun-warmed ferns, in the massage of the
ocean waves or delighting in watching small birds chatter
and play can loosen the narrow worldview and bring closer
to nature and to a more fundamental human nature. At the
core of Ecosychology are the spiritual, ethical and moral
questions about who we are and how we want to live in the
world.In this discussion I review aspects of Experiential
Ecopsychology which can assist us in this quest.
(1998:192) advocates that individuals can be helped by connecting
with their 'home landscape' as well as by becoming aware
of the interactions within the wider ecosystem. She says
this process enables individuals to become more responsible
for their own journey of growth and healing. The same aim
is apparent within the various approaches of experiential
ecopsychology such as wilderness and adventure therapy (Leenders
& Henderson, 1991; Miles, 1993; Greenway, 1995, 1996;
Harper, 1995); landscape restoration work (Shapiro, 1995;
Davis, 1998); rites of passage practices in nature such
as vision quests (Foster & Little, 1989); or simply
spending meaningful time communing with nature (Baetz, 1997;
Swanson, 2000). All these practices use some aspect or symbol
from nature to stimulate reflection of one's larger life's
purpose or to reveal a different way of seeing a particular
issue. They are based on the assumption that there are a
number of elements which in combination act to help the
person find insight and a new direction for their lives.
In mainstream psychology healing emerges through the interaction
between therapist and client. In ecopsychology, a number
of additional players become part of the therapeutic relationship.
1. The kind of naturescape and climatic conditions experienced.
Sensual and emotional responses differ whether we are in
open country or enclosed forest, desert or tropics, stormy
or sunny weather (Gallagher, 1993).
2. The therapist, facilitator or 'guide for the journey'
3. The participant's own issues and experiences that they
bring to the relationship or session.
4. A particular object in nature or a natural phenonomen
which can reflect or mirror an aspect of one‚s life
5. The transpersonal or transcendent dimension which, when
tapped into, can lead to profound personal transformation
(Maslow, 1964; E. Roberts, 1998).
Cock (1996) terms this process of encountering nature and
aspects of our own natures as "being and becoming in
nature". "Being through nature" can come
about by sitting quietly in the outdoors and just 'be-ing'.
These quiet reflective moments open up a path of communication
to the wider world where we can get in touch with our inner
natures and begin to understand who we really are. In this
way, being through nature is a time of healing and restoration.
"Becoming through nature" assumes that the earth
has something to teach us about ourselves and our relationship
with it. Cock (ibid.:3) describes the process as one of
observing and taking note of how we feel in nature, seeing
"attributes of ourselves highlighted in the characteristics
of plants, animals and elements, such as the hardness of
rocks, the slipperiness of fish, the piercing eye of an
eagle, the persistence of a wombat". These metaphors
then become messages for personal reflection and self-transformation
where the role of the therapist can help "reinforce
perceptions of change" and weave the experiences into
the stories of people‚s lives (Luckner & Nadler,
1995: 176). However, there is no guarantee that this process
will lead directly or indirectly to environmental action,
although the person may gain a deeper awareness about themselves
and a deeper understanding of the connection that binds
them to the natural world. Davis (1998:95) maintains that
either outcome is relevant as the experience itself, if
practiced "regularly over a long period of time is
a potent spiritual practice". For Davis, the process
of "being and becoming in nature" takes on the
mantle of ritual.
The learning and healing that occurs while communing with
nature is also the idea behind the growing number of do-it-yourself
manuals and training courses dedicated to unlocking our
'animal senses' or 'wild selves' and developing environmental
'sense and sensibility' (e.g. Swan, 1992; Clinebell, 1996;
Devereux, 1996; Cohen, 1998; Swanson, 2000). Their aim is
to foster a connection with the earth so that any information
or message we receive from nature at an unconscious level
is brought to bear more directly on the conscious. Swan
(1992:246), for example, suggests we go out into nature,
barefoot, dressed in natural fabrics; sit quietly and breathe
deeply, becoming aware of how our body feels as it makes
contact with the earth. A resonance builds up between us
and nature which can be acknowledged intellectually and
experienced without words. It is an embodied visceral knowing
that transcends the distinction between the inner and outer
landscapes. Feelings of bliss, awe and wonder may arise;
we may receive visions or connect in some way with elements
in the surrounding naturescape such as plants and animals,
insects and rocks; we may have vivid dreams that change
the way we see the world and ourselves. These experiences
can lead to self-transformation, growth and healing.
The potency of ecopsychological practice lies in the connections
made and the action taken from the messages, dreams and
visions that are received from nature. Baetz (1998:3) believes
these kinds of experiences can "bring a spiritual and
emotional (even a mystical) component not just to our personal
lives, but to the modern environment movement as well".
But this kind of self-therapy in nature, however beneficial,
does not necessarily address the radical perspective of
ecopsychology which critically addresses the assumptions
of Western culture and attempts to break through the illusion
of separateness. It may help the person to feel better and
even help pave the way for an ecological consciousness or
ecological self. At least this is the intention of the "sensory
ecology" work of Michael Cohen (1999b). Cohen, like
the deep ecologists I discussed earlier, believes that connecting
with nature "lets the natural world itself teach us
to revere nature in ourselves, others and the environment
and we naturally refrain from hurting that which we hold
sacred". I was to be reminded of this in quite an unusual
was mid-winter. I wanted to do some quiet reflecting and
as the ground was wet, I decided to climb into a very tall
deciduous tree. The branches looked inviting, bare of leaves
but not devoid of life. After I had been sitting for a while
leaning up against the trunk, almost sleeping, I heard a
voice tell me not to be too hard on European trees. "If
you believe in cultural diversity", the voice said,
"you should also believe in horticultural diversity".
It was a poignant lesson as I have long been an advocate
of planting only native species. It seemed as if the tree
was teaching me a lesson about tolerance and understanding.
But while I was excited about the message from the tree,
I was also aware of the danger of using "plant-multiculturalism"
as an argument to justify planting exotics which may subsequently
escape and go rampant in the bush (Lowry, 1999). A more
ecologically-sound solution is to restore native vegetation
which encourages the native wildlife to return. In ecopsychological
terms, restoring the land also restores the life and soul
of the people. Shapiro (1995:237) maintains revegetation
projects give people who are pessimistic about the state
of the earth "a positive vision of a healthier world"
as well as a collective experience "of working together
with the immense regenerative powers of the natural world".
This assists both individual and community renewal and the
experiences of the nature carers affirms the strength of
such communal actions.
Touching the Earth
Sensing the land. The textures. The colours. The patterns
in the sand. The breath of wind on the skin. The crunch
of dry leaves under
from left column...
foot. The haunting sound of the raven. Finding meaning
in the symbolic terrain. Ecopsychology teaches us to be
sensitive to the landscape and responsive to it. To develop
a relational way of seeing and being. To remember that
the oxygen we breathe in has been breathed out by the
trees, and our breaths flow together. We are tied to the
natural world. A number of the participants recall that
when they realized this direct and simultaneous "breathing
relationship" their lives changed irrevocably. Jane,
a science teacher and biologist in her 30s, admits that
although she "had known about this connection for
years and had even taught it in school", she had
never fully realized its deeper significance. It was an
empowering experience not only spiritually but in terms
of her activism as well. Not long after "being breathed
by the huge trees in the Exhibition Gardens", Jane
travelled to Jabiluka and became heavily involved in the
anti-uranium blockade there. She took on the role of one
of the 'mothers' of the blockade and spent several months
in and around the World Heritage area of Kakadu National
Park and loved to observe the way the protesters from
the cities down south would fall slowly into the rhythms
of the land and be captivated by them.
Jane's sudden recognition of herself as interconnected
with all lifeforms is an example of what Conn (1990:164)
refers to as the "self-world connection". Conn
contends that responsibility to help the world begins
with such an experience of awareness.
Practice in directly sensing the world - hearing, touching,
smelling, and tasting as well as seeing - enhances the
human-Earth connection, thereby increasing the likelihood
of involvement in social and environmental issues. Tapping
into the emotional connection with the world, feelings
of love and joy in its beauty on the one hand and feelings
of concern about what's happening in and to it - despair,
anger, fear - on the other, can provide an important source
of energy as well as motivation for involvement (Conn,
What is especially relevant in Conn's words is that nature
is not only a place to heal and be healed, it is also
a place of joy and beauty, a quality that might be overlooked
when faced with issues of personal and global concern.
Her work as a therapist is engaged in raising the client‚s
awareness to the relationship between personal healing
and earth healing. This has led her to devise a step-by-step
approach to shift consciousness from awareness to action,
from individual responsiveness to environmental responsibility.
Even getting her clients to take their shoes off and touch
the bare earth is a simple step along the way. The first
step is to get to know one's own neighbourhood and become
aware of the impact of environmental damage there. Conn
then gently guides her clients to an understanding of
the wider issues involved. She helps them deal with any
emotional issues such as any pain, grief or anger that
might arise by encouraging them "to feel and engage
rather than become numb and dulled" (Conn, 1991:73).
The final step is taking action ˆ to live a more
earth-friendly lifestyle or get involved in actions to
protect the earth. Macy (1991:xii) explains how this process
works to nurture both the self and the world.
Because the relationship between self and world is reciprocal,
it is not a question of first getting enlightened and
then acting. As we work to heal the earth, the earth heals
us. No need to wait. For in the co-arising nature of things,
the world itself, if we are bold enough to love it, acts
through us (Macy, 1991:xii).
Nature connecting is love in action. Sensuous love. Active
love. Love grown out of intimate knowledge - getting your
hands dirty, gutting a fish, planting a forest, going
on pilgrimage, walking the dog, praying for earth healing,
crying your heart out, blockading the destruction. Why
the participants act is out of desire. And what they desire
is, in part, a relational way of living in the world.
It sounds idealistic and it is, but for the most part
nature carers are pragmatists as well as romantics. They
recognize that in addition to an intimate relationship
with nature that social and economic change are also needed
and they work in various ways towards both ends.
Simply Romantic Idealism?
When I first read the ecopsychology book edited by Roszak,
Gomes and Kanner (1995), Ecopsychology. Restoring the
Earth, Healing the Mind I was overwhelmed by the romantic
idealism of the project. Walk on the wild side, hike into
a canyon, lie on the earth when it rains, respond to the
seasons, be part of nature, dance on restoration projects,
feel good, take part in ritual, listen to the wind - after
a while, although I agree totally with the intention,
the main push within ecopsychology began to smack of sentimentalism
tinged with "New Age" self-help therapy. Wilson
(1992:69) is also critical of feelings-oriented projects
saying they are "naïve" and lead to a "depoliticizing
effect", as they do not consider the wider social
and historical picture. Bookchin (1995) agrees, pointing
out that the shadow of romantic idealism can lead to fundamentalism
and nationalism. But after interviewing the participants
I have come to understand that romantic idealism is part
of the project to heal the human-nature relationship.
Ecologists, psychologists and ecopsychologists alike use
expressions like: "attraction" (Cohen, 1998),
"allurement" (Swimme, 1984), "attunement"
(E. Gray, 1994), "love, sensitivity and beauty"
(Hillman, 1993), "spiritual, ineffable" (Greenway,
1995), "rapture" (Cumes, 1998), "seeing
the world with love eyes" (Sewall, 1995). In fact
Sewall (1999:272) believes "that nothing less than
love will move us enough to meet the challenges of our
Statements like these have been criticized as being anti-intellectual,
anti-science and apolitical (Wilson, 1992; Haraway, 1990;
Soper, 1995). But I believe that this is another dualistic
projection. Why not embrace feelings with action, spirituality
with ecology, emotions with politics, science with poetry,
nature connecting with social critique? They are not mutually
exclusive. What are we afraid of in uniting and integrating
these perspectives? As I have argued above, ecopsychology
is multifaceted - a critical discipline, a clinical practice,
an action orientation, a research-based focus, a spiritual
project, all facets linked by an engagement with nature.
The destruction of nature is the result of a 'culturated'
human nature and ecopsychology is directed at transforming
both - harmed nature and human nature.
We are part of nature yet we need 'the otherness' of nature
to remind us of our humanness. This otherness is the wild,
a reflection of our own inner wildness. ... The wild has
the power to teach and to delight but it also has the
power to destroy. Nature writer Richard Nelson (1993:218)
points out that: "We may be elevated by the beauty
of nature, cling to it, crave to protect it, but we cleave
to the coldness of stone, the storm that carries us away
without knowing, the waters that kill without reason".
The cycles of life and death through nature's beauty and
awesome power are acknowledged by the nature carers. Eric
is a retired engineer turned nursery worker who lives
on the edge of the Victoria's magnificent alpine region.
He sees "destruction as a natural force which has
to take place to have a rebirth".
Eric (bushwalker and nursery person):
"I've been in bushfires and floods and I've seen
the awesome power of nature. I've seen the awesome destruction
and yes, the awesome rebirth. You are totally helpless.
You can't do anything but it has to take place. I'm not
saying I like destruction but there has to be a balance.
It's like the tall trees which are so aloof looking down
on you saying, 'What are you doing here? Have you asked
permission to come here?' That is the land speaking to