An Ecopsychology Approach to Guiding in Nature

Peter Cock

The search for a well mind-well earth is dependent on real and regular opportunities for humans to experience themselves within powerful naturescapes. The trouble is we are going in the opposite direction.

The little time we spend outdoors highlights the urgency to explore partnerships between learning and wellbeing that enhance reasons for being outdoors and the need for the balance to shift from learning about to learning in natures places. Our increasing everyday alienation from nature undermines the depth of heart and soul commitment for the earth. Increasing the amount of abstracted cognitive knowledge about the environment is no substitute and does not necessarily mean an increase in sustained action for the rest of nature. Research on pro environmental behaviour shows it is mainly related to individuals experiences in nature (Finger:1994).

There is a long tradition of nature being recommended as a healing. Healing through nature experiences isn’t new to city folk as the following quote from 1897 illustrates "a sojourn in a bush hut is an ideal holiday for a jaded city man whose nerves are unstrung with stress of business and racket of traffic" (Ritchie:1989).

We know that pet connection and just looking out the window at trees in a hospital promotes healing. Research has for some time presented evidence that experience in natural and wilderness settings have restorative and healing outcomes (Greenway, 1995). Research into engagement with natural environments have shown specific improvements in reducing stress levels, enhanced self concept (Wright, 1983), and facilitated treatment of the mentally ill (Levitt:1991).

How much is the above due to the character of the habitat and to the role of leader, teacher therapist or guide? Taking well-being out of the consulting room and into nature is a major step but then what? Do we leave it to self reliant individuals to undertake their own self directed learning and healing? Is being in wild places enough? What role, if any, is there for an ‘ecopsychology guide’?

Guiding with Nature

One of the values of the word ‘guide’ is that it is general and inclusive. The humility of the title enhances space for other contributors (professionals, nature, participants). Guides however still need to be clear about what they add to the participant’s experience. Just walking outside into nature isn’t sufficient. De-institutionalising the educational experience requires educators and healers also need to reconstruct their roles to be inclusive of other players. It involves relearning to listen and share responsibility.

Creating the climate that enables sharing and meeting of deeper needs isn't easy. It requires high levels of guide skill and remuneration to match. This means a high level of multi-skilling, guides who do their inner reflection work as well as developing their nature understanding. It means guides need group and psychological facilitation as well as planning and organisational skills. The more damaged, suffering the participants are, the greater the call for these capacities.

Developing guiding wisdom requires focusing energies on addressing all dimensions of being human in nature and for the guide to call forth their expression in ways that are synergetic, aid opportunities for transcendence, while being of service to all players. And yet with the capacity to work with knowing that what they know is the tip of an iceberg of the great unknown. Humility is a natural outcome of such wisdom and leaves open the door for all participants to contribute. Such capacities are developed by experiences of living and learning. They come through our biology, family, community, travel, being still in wild places, sufficient time in life, suffering, reflecting and listening. Formal training is but one small player of a number of sources for developing guiding wisdom.

The profile and rewards of the guide can be raised far more through the reconstruction of the guiding role than through a focus on accreditation. This risks cementing in one paradigm for guiding and could mirror what we have had in medicine for so long. I believe guides don’t need to be accredited psychologists in order to be allowed to work as 'health care' workers, or as sociologists to work with groups. Nor do they need a degree in ecology to be able to tell effective and accurate stories of the naturescape.

At present guides often receive low pay and status, and limited education in-depth guiding. The role of the guide needs to be enhanced so that a more middle ground between doctors and guides is established and expanded. Then a wider array of players can engage in sustaining and regenerating environmental and human health.

A learning-healing partnership

Health promotion and prevention will play an increasingly important role in health care in the future. Learning and healing can and need to be seen as partners. To achieve this it is vital that the role of healer and 'sickness preventer' needs to be reconstructed more as a guide who is a partner in healing.

Guides can play a vital role in providing access to powerful regenerative environments, and to activities that teach and heal. Here the guide helps facilitate person-nature connections in ways that enhance learning, sustain health ,and generate healing. By encouraging rekindling of the human-nature relationship, they are also helping to build a supportive constituency for wild nature.

Good guides will always be those who love nature and love people and want to help both. It is the interrelationship that is important. What they have been trained to do needs to always be subsidiary to who they are, and how they are able to care. Intellectual training, no matter how long, cannot be a substitute for the above.

Mobilising all the players

Sustaining learning and regenerating well-being is a complex task. What is needed is to mobilise all the players in the prevention of ignorance and illness. In addition, guides need humility to recognise that their way is only one way among many, and that each has limitations. Humility also is knowing that as an effective guide for learning, and as a health sustainer and healer, they are dependent on many players.

One challenge is how far does the guide go into the life experience of particular participants? Should the well-being/healing agenda be limited to providing generic experiences in nature with the individuals left to their own devices about what they take home from the experience?

By raising the profile of an ‘ecopsychology guide’, I am suggesting ways to reduce the burden of responsibility on the role of healer and health sustainer. It is unrealistic to expect the teacher-healer or the student-patient to be responsible for their learning or health in isolation. This responsibility cannot be held separate from the power to teach and create illness or heal by social and natural environments.

The power of the naturescape as learning-health sustainer

"After a week in Iceland, my skin was clear, my eyes sharp and I felt like I had boundless energy. After four weeks I felt like I had been stonewashed clean" (Perrottet:199:4).

Creating the learning-healing experience is dependent on the nature of the naturescape, as varied ones offer different opportunities. Unlike hospitals, which in themselves can be a source of stress and a threat to health and recovery, just being in powerful naturescapes can play a powerful role in education, health sustainability, and in personal regeneration. Being within powerful naturescapes slows one’s pace to smell the flowers along the way, to regenerate energy for life and its unpredictable turns, and to dilute extreme individualism and its inevitable aloneness.

Wild naturescapes can be about a journey to a place where disordered, uncontrolled life can have expression because it is held. You can shout, cry, jump up and down, and despair. This can all be expressed and maybe dissolved without consequence for others or for the bush. Nature can be the one who holds while you struggle to express and untangle life’s pain and confusion.

The tradition of outdoor education has effectively used trekking in wild naturescapes for aiding the personal development of teenagers and youth at risk. In this sense, nature stands in for the therapist who listens, accepts, and mirrors back the client’s story. A journey to the forest can be a cheaper, even richer alternative therapy than doing primal therapy or rebirthing in a padded cell, but the experience is enhanced with a special sort of guide.

There are many dimensions involved to explain why nature has this kind of impact, probably more than we are aware of. Some researchers suggest this capacity of naturescapes to contribute to well-being derives from natural settings which elicit ‘an involuntary cognitive and perceptual process whereby the mind tends to scan with not as much need to attend consciously or voluntarily. The voluntary process demands more energy and concentration and, therefore, can be more tiring mentally’ (Montes:1999).

In some senses we haven’t addressed this capacity to heal as a role for the guide for this very reason - nothing needs to be said – just take participants there, slow them down, keep them there long enough, and the naturescape will do its work. The limitation of this approach is that the door to a deeper and more meaningful role is closed and left to the private, unshared experience of the visitor. This article is a call to invite participants and guides to reach beyond simply making sense of nature and engaging one’s senses in nature, to explicitly addressing the deeper potential of the experience. The guide can then act as an intermediary between the person and their social and natural environment.

The guide as a learning-health facilitator

The guide is a provider of context. That is, they provide access to a nature context that helps learning and sustaining wellbeing. They help to ensure a healthy group dynamic. They assess the risks and provide as physically and psychologically safe environment as is appropriate for the particular group. A safe environment makes possible the exploration of the unknown and uncertain.

One of the benefits of increasing the status of guides would be that they would have increased authority to implement methods which enhance the experience, as well as restrict ecological impacts. For example, going on a silent or blind walk in the forest, creating a social environment conducive to sharing deeply, or by adding value to nature connection by encouraging participants to sit with themselves in the forest for an hour or so.

Once participants and guides are attuned to nature connections for learning and for health promotion/prevention and healing, then the guide can play an active role in using nature as a mirror for particular participants' well-being issues and troubles. They can be a facilitator of inner pathways through encouraging the sharing of personal stories and active listening. Once a whole of persons' health and healing is an explicit part of environmental guiding, then a key role is played by the guide who builds an active bridge between what the naturescape provides and the participant's life experience.

Some Suggestions for ‘Ecopsychology Guiding’

  • If a guide comes across a dead animal. This can be responded to in number of ways. They can pretend it isn’t there and ‘walk on the other side’, or they can confront it and ask: ‘Does this reflect a sick environment, or is it a normal part of the life and death cycle?’ This life cycle experience could then be used as a vehicle for exploring loss and grief.

  • Walking through a forest and he/she comes across a number of trees affected with die back (a disease that slowly kills trees). Is this because the trees are the source of their own disease or are they a symptom of a sick forest? This can then be extended to explore the question of factors shaping mental disorders. Are they inherited genetically, an individual choice, the consequences of family background and/or a symptom of a sick, unsustainable society?

  • There is an encounter with a powerful sunrise or sunset. This can be limited to seeing it as a beautiful sight, and/or exploring transcendence, magic and capacities to reach beyond current states of being.

  • Coming across a mother and her chicks. This can be a way to explore the state of the family and their experiences of parenting/childhood.

  • Participants can be instructed to sit and observe a tree and become aware of those aspects that attract. Through focusing on aspects of nature that calls individuals, one can see more clearly who they are and what they need. Whether this is to focus on roots which can be a reflection of an individual’s search to find a secure place. Or focusing on branches which can be reflection of the need to reach out. Focusing on a tree within the forest can give the message that ‘I cannot expect myself to stand tall or reach out without taking care of my roots and honouring what supports them’. Trees by themselves tend to fall over.

Guides need to express and enhance their capacities to be responsive to the need for authority one minute, compassion the next, and facilitation the moment after. Skills are needed that contribute to value adding over and above the capacity of the other players. For example, to encourage participants to face the challenge, walk the extra mile, to hold a healing moment, and when all else fails, to be the needed supportive significant other.

A risk of being explicit about a health and healing role for guiding is that in isolation this could add to the participants’ sense of separation and trouble centredness. If the traditional therapist/patient model from the consulting room is adopted, people and places may continue to be seen as powerless victims of their troubles. Working with one’s life issues in wild places mitigates against this tendency. It is more the dance between self and others in wild places that has the power to sustain well-being and contribute to personal development. Guiding is one of partnership between all the players. Getting the mix and balance right is momentary and always an art with little science.


Finger, M (1994), "From Knowledge to Action? Exploring the Relationships Between Environmental Experiences, Learning and Behaviour", Journal of Social Issues, 50. 3, pp. 141-160.

Greenway, R (1995), "The Wilderness Effect and Ecopsychology", in T. Roszak, M.E. Gomes & A. D. Kanner, Ecopsychology. Restoring the Earth. Healing the Mind. San Francisco: Sierra Club.

Levitt, L. (1991) "Recreation for the mentally ill," in Driver, B. L., Brown, P. J. Peterson,G, L., Benefits of Leisure. Venture Publishing, State College, Pennsylvania.

Montes, S. (1999) "Uses of natural settings to promote, maintain and restore human health in Driver," B etal (eds) Nature and the Human Spirit. Venture publishing, Inc State college, PA. PP105-115.

Perrottet, T. (1994), "The Icelandic Twilight Zone" The Travel Age, October 29, pp.1and 4.

Ritchie, R (1989), Seeing the Rainforests in Australia. Rainforest publishing, Sydney.

Wright, A. (1983), "Therapeutic potential of outward bound process: an evaluation of a treatment program for juvenile delinquents," Therapeutic Recreation Journal.17.2, 33-42.

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