© Sylvie Shaw, 2000
(Department of Social and Political Inquiry and Graduate School of Environmental Science, Monash University, Clayton, Victoria, Aust. Please contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to quote from this article).
This article briefly discusses childhood nature connection. In particular it looks at aspects of childhood trauma, where nature is a protector for children who are physically and sexually abused.
According to research by Louise Chawla (1998), what characterizes peoples concern for nature is linked to their childhood experience of nature as well as to their childhood perception of the natural world as alive and conscious. This childhood animism is nurtured by parents or other role models and adults played a major role in introducing nature to their children. For Helen it was her father and her grandmother. Heres what she says about being with her dad:
Like Helen, several of the interviewees said that what they remembered about their childhood adventures in nature was the sense of freedom; they felt free to do whatever they liked and could roam through the bush or across the paddocks for the whole day without any adult supervision or control. These positive childhood experiences in nature, as well as books about nature and adventure stories, and adult mentors or role models, are also common childhood experiences for people who become environmentally-active.
Other writers have found, however, that children growing up in the city are likely to acquire a cultural heritage that ignores or is afraid of wild nature. For example, in their article entitled "Nature is Scary, Disgusting and Uncomfortable", Bixler and Flood (1997) have documented how children raised in urban areas are afraid of being in the woods, they fear wildlife, insects and spiders, they are disgusted by the dirtiness of the outdoors, and they dont like feeling or being in extremes of weather. Instead they prefer to have adventures in the tame and predictable city - in manicured parks or shopping malls.
This is not the case for the people I interviewed for a study on nature connection. Participants in my research had a range of experiences of wild nature in their childhood. For most of them it was a positive experience, but for some of the interviewees, those suffering from physical and sexual abuse, nature was the only place where they could feel safe.
While most children get through childhood without experiencing severe trauma, this wasnt the case with Kim, as this very graphic story shows.
Kims story of abuse is terrifying. To cope with the terror, nature not only provided her with protection and refuge, it also acted as a kind of parent. The women surrounding her and singing seem to be playing the role of mother. Her trauma was so severe that she believes the women answered her cries for her comfort and protection and took over the role of mother.
Kim now works with survivors of abuse, as well as with young people in danger of suicide. It is not uncommon that people who have been abused end up working with survivors of abuse, this is referred to as the survivor mission (Herman, 1992, 1997). Kim mentioned that she would not know what would have happened to her if she had not had wild nature as a safe haven.
Psychotherapist Judith Herman, in her book Trauma and Recovery, points out that around the age of seven or eight, abused children often run away or hide and perceive their hiding place to be a place of safety and this mirrors Kims experience. Herman suggests that abused children are "more dependent that other children on external sources of comfort and solace" (107), so Kim, living in an isolated situation out in the bush where there was no one else to depend on, found protection in nature.
But hat happens then to abused children who dont have nature to escape to? Children growing up in the city who are deprived of wild nature connection. A child psychologist I met at a workshop a few weeks ago told me that abused children who are not able to find solace in nature may be scarred for life.
Other interviewees were able to cope with psychological and emotional abuse by finding a refuge or special place in nature where they can be alone and free.
It is thought that having a cubby is related to our stone age life when we needed to hunt prey from a safe refuge and they could not hunt us. It was a place to hide in and a place to hide from.
Trauma in Nature
So from trauma where nature was a protector, to children being traumatized when they see nature being destroyed. One reason why people become involved in environmental activism is because they feel a deep sense of loss when development ruins their childhood place. This is certainly the experience of some of the people in this study as these stories demonstrate.
Darrens story was a little bit different. His feelings of grief came not from seeing a treed place or special play space being destroyed but from animals being killed. He believes that feeling of grief and despair is partly what stimulated his interest in environmental issues.
While these interviewees may not have suffered such severe child abuse as mentioned by Kim, the trauma they experienced was none-the-less real to them. The trauma they witnessed was perpetrated on nature, often on their special place, So they felt the trauma very very personally, but being young did not know what was happening or why.
So what does this mean in terms of the theory on trauma?
What is common among the interviewees stories is the sadness they felt along with a feeling of loss of control. They could not stop the destruction; they were too young, but they experienced a deep sorrow as their special place, the place where they played, was destroyed. And they were confused, as they could not understand the reason for the destruction. The other common element in their stories is that the trauma in childhood paved the way for their later activism. As I said earlier, what characterizes peoples concern for nature is linked to their childhood experience of nature, so I was interested that several of the activists I spoke with had similar stories.
There are several possible explanations linking their experience of seeing nature destroyed and their later activism and I am going to propose some of these.
Perhaps their later activism can be seen as an attempt to resolve the trauma they experienced. This is akin to the survivor mission that I mentioned earlier, where people who have been physically and sexually abused help other survivors cope with their trauma, only in this case, its trauma done to nature. Their survivor mission becomes the protection the earth.
2. The second possible explanation Ive called Restitution:
As children, they felt powerless and confused by what they witnessed and experienced, and now they want to make amends or restitution for their feelings of helplessness at the time, and for their inability to intervene and change the situation. They become active as adults as a way of transforming the impotence they felt as children into empowerment and action: and they work to repair the earth in order to repair their own damaged selves.
It can also be seen as a type of retaliation or revenge for the anger and hurt they experienced as children. But their anger is now being channeled though more socially acceptable means like non-violent direct action or land restoration projects or earth-based spiritual practices. Their anger may be sublimated now but they still feel angry by the continual destruction of the environment and at societys reluctance to take any action, even to care about this destruction. Their activism can be seen as an attempt to stop a repetition of the trauma and to stop others from experiencing that same traumatic scene.
4. Re-creation or a Re-living of the Experience
It may also be possible to see their later environmental activism as a type of revisiting of the trauma. Seeing a forest destroyed in childhood might have a parallel in seeing the forest destroyed later in life and working to stop it.
All these explanations talk about making amends for what they witnessed and felt as children and are pathways of healing for them. In trauma recovery work, survivors are encouraged to speak out, to share their trauma story with others who have similar experiences. It makes them feel less isolated and gives them a group with whom they share a common experience. So being with others in a campaign or forest blockade for instance can be healing as well as a political experience.
Bixler, Robert D. & Myron F. Flood (1997), "Nature is Scary, Disgusting and Uncomfortable", Environment and Behavior, 29, 4, pp. 443-467.
Chawla, Louise (1998), "Significant Life Experiences Revisited: A Review of Research on Sources of Environmental Sensitivity", The Journal of Environmental Education, 29, 3, pp. 11-21.
Herman, Judith (1992, 1997) Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books.
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