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A Way Home: Ecopsychology and the Renewal of Ourselves and Our World

"...ecology needs psychology, psychology needs ecology. The context for defining sanity in our time has reached planetary magnitude". -- Theodore Roszak, in Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind

We live in an extraordinary historical moment - beset by challenges on all sides, but also ripe with possibility. In the midst of droughts and hurricanes, high oil prices and economic hardship (not to mention the looming specters of climate change and peak oil), it takes courage and optimism to remain engaged with the world.

And yet, there are people everywhere working actively toward a future very different from our present. From stream restoration, to urban gardening, to the Occupy movement; from non-violent communication, to neighborhood associations, to creation spirituality, people are coming together. Mostly under the radar of the media and outside of government, people are creating the beginnings of a new world. The answers to the critical dilemma that society faces are being found in the act of living. Joanna Macy and David Korten have described this cultural transformation, already underway, as The Great Turning.

In Coming Back to Life, Joanna Macy describes three aspects of creative change which she sees occurring in a spontaneous, decentralized manner: 1) "Holding actions" - what we usually think of as activism, i.e. strengthening the Clean Air Act, or organizing to stop an increase in coal or oil exports; 2) "an analysis of structural causes and creation of alternative institutions", including things like: exploring the economic, social and political underpinnings that work against sustainability, the growing cohousing movement, increasing the energy efficiency of cars, appliances, housing, etc.; and 3) "A shift in world views and values" - the exploration of questions of meaningfulness, the impacts of change, and who we are as human beings in this world.


It is in this third area, the explorations of meaningfulness and what it means to be human, that ecopsychology is found. While ecology studies the relationships among species, ecopsychology explores how our human relatedness with nature influences our psychology. Ecopsychology begins with the awareness that we are interconnected with the natural world with every breath. It goes on to recognize that our appreciation of beauty has evolved with the natural world as its first reference point. We find natural imagery in poetry, art, dreams, and even music. Mystics of all religious traditions, all over the world, throughout human history, have sought spiritual illumination and solace in the natural world.

Ecopsychology seeks to explore this interrelatedness between nature and our inner worlds, not just as an intellectual exercise, but to bring conscious awareness to the experience. In so doing, we come home again. Ecopsychology returns poetic imagination to a world that has been categorized and described by the disciplined thinking of science. It opens us to a rich, life-affirming, nourishing mystery. An ecopsychological consciousness allows us to see with two eyes - the view of science, and the view of imagination, feeling and intuition. These two ways of seeing, together, bring us the depth of vision needed to imagine a new world.


Indigenous peoples see the world in a way that blends physical and mythical realities. Among northwest peoples, for example, raven is not only a particular black bird that thrives in particular habitats. He is also Raven, a trickster figure who, while often lazy and not to be trusted, cleverly rescues the sun and brings it back to the world, after it had been stolen and the world became dark and cold. There are several traditional stories with this theme. All peoples have this mingling of worlds in their folk traditions. Seven ravens have lived in the Tower of London for hundreds of years. The legend is that if they were no longer there the Tower would fall and England would face disaster. The origin of this custom is shrouded in legend, but the care of 7 resident ravens in the Tower continues to this day.

We all, individually, experience nature symbolically as well as physically. This is why stormy oceans or snowy landscapes figure in some of our most powerful dreams. Our society has, however, relegated this type of imagination to the realm of sleep. Our waking world is limited to what we see with our senses; our concepts informed by a rational sensibility.

I do not mean to disrespect rational thinking, or science, in any way. Science is an amazing body of skill and knowledge that has allowed humanity to accomplish things that our forbears could not even imagine. It is, however, a tool, and like any tool, is not useful for all things. The psyche also needs imagination, symbology, and feeling in order to thrive. Our society's relationship with the natural world suffers for the lack of this dimension.


Where I live, on the north side of Whatcom Falls Park, the scars that remain from the 1999 pipeline explosion are still visible, though no longer obvious. Everyone who lived in Bellingham on that day remembers the huge cloud of smoke rising over the Park, as gasoline that had leaked from a pipeline into the creek burned. The flames rose out of the water, torching the trees and brush that lined the steep slopes of the ravine. Three people died. It was devastating. I am grateful to live in a community that rallied in the face of disaster the way that Bellingham did in 1999.

I recently walked the Park, remembering the many experiences I have had there, before and since the explosion. As I passed through what had been called the "burn zone" I was profoundly impacted by the burgeoning of life everywhere. The barren slopes and blackened trees had remained for a long time after the explosion, despite the dedicated work to clean the creek and restore the creekside. Now, thirteen years later, that loss is barely visible. The dead snags rise up through lush undergrowth, including young trees. The snags themselves provide a home for nesting osprey, and for the bugs that are food for pileated and other woodpeckers.

This visible resilience of the wild world provides a lesson for me about my own resilience in the face of life's challenges. I can't force my life into a mold based on some ideas, but if I support what is life-giving, the landscape of my life is resilient, just as the creek watershed is. The remains of old losses become structures that support new life. The same is true of the world.

If I viewed the creek watershed as a place separate from me, from my life and struggles, and from the ongoing turmoil of the world, I would not be able to receive all that it has to give. And I would be unable to give what I have to offer. Ecopsychology understands that it is natural that we love a place and grieve if it is harmed, that we are heartened by how a place, or a creature, speaks to us about how to live.


When I work with people outdoors, I often have them consider something in their lives with which they are struggling, and then to approach what attracts them in the landscape. Inevitably what they find offers a new and helpful perspective. A woman who was having difficulty settling into a new community found herself sitting with a large Douglas fir that had been uprooted by a storm. She said that the experience gave her a clearer sense of the immensity of the change she was in, and helped her to think more clearly about what she needed to do to help herself through.

All the time we spend indoors, working, reading, even talking with close friends and family, we are bounded by what humanity creates. Humanity creates great beauty, as well as great foolishness, but the only time we explore a world not of our own making is in nature, or with animals. In actuality, modern life impoverishes us with its surround sound experience of human culture. Modern life encourages us to see ourselves only as reflections of our fellow humans, only in terms of social norms, to see ourselves as separate from nature. Only in such a context could human beings feel numb about what human beings are doing to the world. Only in such a context would it be possible for people to avoid the pain for the world that feeling connected brings.


Just as when your foot is asleep, the blood returning is painful, so opening up the imagination to the natural world can be painful. Paying attention to how we feel about what is happening to the world is painful. That pain is a good sign. It is a sign that we are alive, that we are relating to our world. Ecopsychology provides tools to help us to experience our feelings about the state of our world, and to move through them to a place of hopeful empowerment. It offers access to our creative imagination in the service of positive change. It is through the restoration of our psychological ground in the wide world that is our home, that we will find the way to create a vibrant, joyful, life-sustaining future.

Emily Farrell, MA LMHC is a psychotherapist in private practice with over 25 years of clinical experience. In addition to her psychotherapy practice, Emily offers retreats, classes and workshops in nature. She practices in Bellingham 360.815.6445.

Copyright Sept 2012 Emily Farrell


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