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

I recently wrote an article for a publication that ended up not happening, so I thought I would post it here. I hope it provides some food for thought.

         ".....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. The global Transition Town movement, of which Transition Whatcom is part, is a perfect example of  people coming together, mostly under the radar of the media, and outside of government, to create the beginnings of a new world.  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 basic types of effort which are occurring in a spontaneous, decentralized manner:  1) “Holding actions”, i.e. activism, such as strengthening the Clean Air Act, 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 forces which undermine sustainability, cohousing, local currencies, local food production, increasing the energy efficiency of cars, appliances, housing, etc.;  and 3)  “A shift in world views and values” – an exploration of questions of meaningfulness, the impacts of change, and who we are as human beings in this world.

       It is in the third area, “a shift in world views and values”, that ecopsychology is found.  Ecopsychology explores how our relationships with nature influence our inner lives. 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 is not just as an intellectual exercise, but a lived experience. 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 blend physical and mythical realities in how they see the world. 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, in several stories cleverly rescues the sun and brings it back to the world, after it had been stolen and the world became dark and cold.  These stories tell us about restoring the sun to our inner lives, as well as to our cultural life.

      All peoples have a 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 left, 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.

      Science, and rational thought, are an amazing body of skill and knowledge which 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. 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. 

       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. Modern life impoverishes us with its surround sound experience of human culture. We are encouraged 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. 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 is through this 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. See her current event posting: Coming Back to Life: Reconnecting with Passion, Purpose and Hope.

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Comment by David MacLeod on October 3, 2012 at 12:34pm


Thank you for sharing this here!


Right now, New Dimensions Radio is offering free listening to an interview with Joanna Macy that took place in July.  Free listening through Oct. 16, 2012.  Even their regular price of $1.99 per download is a good deal.  The topic is "The Great Turning or the Great Unraveling: It's Our Choice."

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