Communing with Nature: A guidebook for enhancing your relationship with the living earth. by John L. Swanson. Corvallis, OR: Illahee Press, 2001. ISBN 0-7596-3661-3
reviewed by John Scull
Author John Swanson is an outdoorsman, one of the pioneers of ecopsychology, and a member of the International Community for Ecopsychology. He has written a delightful book for people who want to get out and actually do ecopsychology rather than just sitting back and reading, talking, or thinking about the human-nature relationship. Communing with Nature has a wealth of material for the therapist or workshop facilitator and will be helpful for individual seekers or peer support groups as well. Instructions for 85 nature-communing activities, connected together with straightforward and lucid explanations, can lead to a deepening relationship with the natural world. The huge collection of insightful and relevant quotations is a tremendous bonus for the reader.
Swanson's writing style is clear and direct, true to his therapeutic roots as a Gestalt therapist. He describes his own personal experiences in connecting with nature and the "ah-ha" responses that resulted. He includes brief descriptions of other people's reactions to many of the activities, while being clear that there are no "right" answers; that each individual will make her own discoveries. Everything about this book encourages the reader to directly experience the present moment in the natural world.
Communing with Nature is a guidebook for a safe, gradual, and enjoyable journey, first to greater self awareness, then to greater awareness of our connection to nature, and finally to a sense of belonging in the natural world. The first twelve activities are mainstream Gestalt therapy tools, showing ways to increase awareness of one's own feelings and experiences. The next eight activities focus on relaxation and grounding; well-tried techniques with which cognitive and behavioral therapists, as well as those in the Gestalt tradition, can be comfortable. While there is some nature-communing in these introductory activities, they are mostly aimed at increasing the skill of being present in the moment, being aware of the nature within, and being relaxed and centered.
Activities 21 to 33 are explorations of our sensory experiences in nature. Swanson shares this emphasis on sensory experience with the work of other ecopsychologists, including Michael J. Cohen, David Abram, and Laura Sewell. The next eight activities explore the equally common ecopsychological theme of language as both a barrier and an enabler of communication with nature.
So far, the activities have served to increase the reader's self-awareness and awareness of an "I-thou" relationship to nature. The final section, with more than half the activities in the book, leads the reader beyond this to build awareness of the human part-whole, "I-us" connection to nature. Many of these activities are more complex and risky (both psychologically and physically) than those earlier in the book, but the outcome is worth the risk. Their goal is for the reader to experience deeply the permeability of the boundaries between self and the rest of the natural world. Finally, Swanson leads the traveler on an exploration of the roots, in our communion with nature, of religious and spiritual experiences.
In many cases the activities are similar to those found in other how-to books about ecopsychology, some of which I have reviewed in earlier editions of Gatherings. The unique value of Communing with Nature is in the clarity with which the activities are described and in Swanson's skill in integrating them into a meaningful sequence. Most important, these activities work -- I have used many of them in the two years since I first saw a typescript of this book. They are effective with groups or individuals. They lead gradually and seamlessly from safe and introductory to risky and advanced.
Communing with Nature is a tremendous resource for psychotherapists who want to do counseling with nature, experiential environmental educators, and group facilitators with an interest in ecopsychology or ecospirituality. The book is intended for individual explorers, but from my experience I question the extent to which an individual would work through the activities. The book might best be used by a couple or small group, supporting each other as they discover their place in the universe. This book is an extremely valuable and enjoyable contribution to practical ecopsychology, bringing a major school of psychotherapy out of the urban consulting room and into the outdoors.
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