The fact that nature provides benefits and is healing to the human soul has never been a surprise to me. I grew up climbing trees, fishing, and mucking around in swamps. I was mostly on my own and happy to be outside, despite the dysfunction that blazed and simmered inside the family home.
Over my early adulthood, I discovered that whenever I strayed too far from soft ground and growing things, I’d become somehow troubled and then heartsick. Each time, I’d find myself simply having to change course and head back outside, wherever that might be. It became a pattern that I eventually recognized when, rather absent-mindedly, I charted a large life-line with a thick felt pen across a length of butcher-block paper. The pattern was obvious. With time plotted on the x-axis, my life followed sine waves showing my recovered joy soon after returning to the woods, or to a kayak and a tent.
Some would insist on knowing, as exactly as possible, how nature does this for us. But perhaps such insistence points to the wrong question. Perhaps greater health and wholeness happen when we go outside simply because what’s alive and mostly whole (as in landscape, cycles, patterns, flocks, and trees) is what we experience, or ingest, as it were. James Hillman would say that wholeness is “on display,” by which he meant, richly available to the human senses and psyche. In healthy places, signs of wholeness are visible in every direction. But whatever it is—that difficult-to-articulate display of functional systems—slips easily through our object-oriented, modern minds. The flux of natural reality—the non-linearities and chaos—is no doubt hard to grasp. But when we study what can be measured, we too often miss the overall experience. In the end, we do not give proper attention to whatever it is that is so slippery. In the context of nature and healing, it is as if we lack faith.
So perhaps the more relevant question is, “How do we get there—to healing—from here?”
What follows is a woven, interdisciplinary comment on the mutual healing of self and planet. It is an adaptation of a presentation given at the Center for Humans and Nature’s annual Forum on Ethics and Sustainability in 2012. It is both story and critique, and although somewhat disguised, it is also a pragmatic plea for committing our dwindling resources to land preservation—so that, for our health and well-being—we will be assured of robust green-growing places where we might find a fresh wind or a bit of silence, where we might take our children, see a wild thing, and reflect on more than self and human artifact.
The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, in southern Utah, is nearly two million acres of protected mountains, plateaus, canyons, rivers, desert country, and varied forests. The geology reveals some 200 million years of earth history. I recently taught a college course there, entitled Nature and Psyche, with Tom Fleischner, a conservation biologist and natural historian.
Tom introduced us to the deep history displayed in the cross-bedded Navajo Sandstone, in the austere, red walls of the Wingate, and in the striped Chinle Formation. We learned a language to describe the uplifts and folds we found, the monoclines and synclines that define the region and landscape; we learned about the seas that washed over Utah during the Jurassic period, and about the dinosaurs that walked where we stood. We learned about Aeolian dunes, sedimentation, the incredible power of erosion, and unimaginable scales of time and place.
We walked into long, winding canyons, discovering waterfalls, hundred-foot arches, and mysterious pictographs; we waded into rivers, climbed on eighty-foot rock towers called hoodoos, and flopped into pools. All week long, I heard the students say, “Oh my,” “holy cow,” “holy shit,” and “wow.”
As a visual psychologist, I taught perception and other psychological facets of our relationship with the natural world. In particular, I led exercises designed to enhance sensory awareness and develop our skills of attention. It was an easy task in a country so vivid and mind-boggling.
By the end of our week in the backcountry, we were radiant—all of us thriving and flourishing. From where I sat (gazing upon my metaphoric flock), every student demonstrated the healing power of nature and the primacy of direct experience. So I asked them, How does nature heal?
Some said: “The land pulls out my emotion,” “my thoughts are free to roam here,” and “it’s natural to be part of all this and so it’s a kind of returning to ourselves, isn’t it?”
Others said: “I understand myself to be in it and I never knew that I could see so much,” and “a sense of duty develops, a sense of passion . . . we need it to counter our despair.”
A psychology student said, “A lot of individual pathology could be healed with this.”
Sweet Natalie said, “My dad is anxious; I’m getting him a field guide.”
Big, tall Matt said, “It’s the rhythm that matters.” He meant sunrise, mealtime, look time, playtime, and sunset. Then he said, as if out of the blue, “Stretch,” and he looked up to high clouds: “I see clouds and ridgelines and I don’t trip over rocks.” Then, as if tuned, he said, “Freeing my mind, the internal hard drive in my own head is ready now.” “Sigh,” he said, “I’m never ready in the city. And out here, I don’t trip.”
Utterly beautiful Lauren said, “There are no mirrors out here. No reflection, and I feel more. It’s grounding, I’m closer to the ground, closer to life under my feet; it’s in the bones.”
In class presentations, we heard that the cottonwoods shading us are good for swollen joints and indigestion; that the Utah juniper berries hanging nearby heal bladders and kidneys, that they are analgesic, and useful as a diuretic and for birth control; and that globe mallow, blooming everywhere at our feet, is good for the intestines and the stomach.
In snatches of conversation around camp, I heard, “I was the cold water, I was the sky . . .” I heard, “My curiosity soars . . . ,” I heard laughter and someone saying, “. . . so much curiosity that my wonder couldn’t keep up.” I heard, “. . . there’s depth in thin air out here; we’re swimming in it.”
Hollister, the Idaho rancher’s son with the long, red dreads and penetrating questions asked, “What if the big ideas come from the land?”
While heading home in the van, Alex said to me, “Outer attention brings a new perspective; it’s fresh, and it keeps me fresh. When looking at stars, it draws my wonder.” He paused and then turned to look me in the eye, saying, “I crave the feeling. There’s no replacement; only wild is wild. It takes a while to let go the grasp . . .” He means of screen and cell and text. “It’s illusive,” he said. “This feeling wild is illusive. It lurks in the shadows, and I feel crave, like starting a fire with flint.”
Later he said, “It’s like unraveling heady spaghetti, and I get receptive and find it all out there, and I’m there, too, gaping. There’s no thought or thinking.”
We then asked, Why is the practice of natural history important?
Iza, the brilliant gal from New Mexico, said, with no doubt, no fear, just fact: “Natural history is carnal knowledge.”
Together what they said in various ways was: People get beyond themselves—it’s an antidote to narcissism; it helps us be attentive and to care; it’s good for mindfulness, and it’s fun.
Chelsea said, “It feels good to see plants and animals for who they are. I’m finally giving them respect, and I feel my own heart rise up. I’m just wowed by what’s possible for a life, by the range of manifestations.” I think of the range of adaptations and solutions, and then she says, “Watching how others sense the world re-minds me that all of us animals depend on sensing for everything. That’s good to know.” Correct, I said.
Then we asked them, Why is paying attention important? They said, I can see more! (And they meant hear more, feel more, and care more, too.) And in so many ways, they also said, I’ve been sad about the world. When paying attention, I’m curious. I forget myself, and my sadness, too.
Molly, with the pigtails and deep intellect said, “Paying attention almost heals my sadness.”
By then we were speaking for one another: “It changes the brain,” said someone. And Nicole, forgetting her shyness, said, “I would have stepped all over the crypto-biotic crust and peed on it.” And then, exasperated, she said, “I would have destroyed it.”
Natalie said, “Our ancestors would have died without it.” By then we all knew that it was the plants and animals that made us curious and shaped our incredible skills of attention, that honed our acuity and gave us memory. It was the others—not the humans—that made us who we are. And so, we came to know that we humans are part of something very old and very much larger than our solo or even human selves. And so we were joyous, and laughed to hear that Gary Snyder says that we are just “crazy, sexy clowns” whose job is to entertain the animals.
But this is a story, mere anecdote.
The reference list for a twenty-page paper recently published by Howard Frumkin, Dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Washington, is eleven pages long. The paper refers to research demonstrating the ways in which contact with nature is healing to humans. In summary, the research claims that
The “wilderness effect” is real: people experience a sense of renewal, an increased sense of aliveness, efficacy, and energy, and a sense of awe when in the back country for a few days or more.
The capacity to pay attention is restored with even a little exposure to natural scenes, to “fascinating stimuli”—meaning photographs of natural scenes, windows, or driving on scenic routes.
Hospital patients heal faster when they have a natural scene to look at.
Prisoners with a view of a natural scene need less medical care.
People are happier and live longer with pets and plants.
Although there is a good deal of such research, Frumkin claims that it has limitations. He notes problems with experimental design and small sample sizes, and suggests that, as a result, the evidence is not always strong. He also suggests that a lack of mechanistic understanding of the benefits of contact with nature makes it hard to structure effective studies. More specifically, Frumkin claims that important aspects of what happens with “nature contact” are unquantifiable. For example, the awe and sense of renewal that are hallmarks of what some call “wilderness rapture” are immeasurable. Because of these concerns, we could call for more research, as is our habit.
No doubt, data is useful. But our lack of direct experience in nature is, in my mind, the most significant limitation here. Furthermore, I am convinced that if we wait for more data, for ironclad certainty, our most natural inclinations will be lost still further to a manufactured world, dulled by mediocre entertainment and lowered to common denominators like hunting for the “lowest price ever.” Such debasing influences are ubiquitous. Seduced and distracted, we may forsake our natural selves—forgetting our long-evolved, potent selves of quick acuity, wonder, and curiosity.
Forgetting, we might further forsake nature herself. Forgetting, we could allow our public lands to be further drilled and pumped. It would be easy to do so; thousands of drill sites are currently approved, and tens of thousands more are in the planning phases.
We could allow mountain tops to be further blasted and reduced to rock rubble, filling streams and killing all aquatic organisms in addition to the insects, birds, and mammals that once, and always, lived there. We could allow Pennsylvania to be further fracked and torn asunder, allowing water supplies to become grossly polluted, and to burn at the tap.
This is not hypothetical. We have allowed such utter disregard for nature and the natural order, reflecting our wide-scale withdrawal from the living and en-souled world beyond ourselves. From an eco-psychological point of view, this in turn reflects a deep, dualistic divide in our ways of thinking about, perceiving, and behaving toward whatever is not-human, or not-human-created.
In author Andy Fisher’s words, our alienation from the rest of nature and our dualistic habits of thought have produced a “cosmos that is now perceived as flat, literal, soulless and dead.” This has left us without our wonder—perhaps “flat and soulless” ourselves. And, I would argue, without our full capacities to see, and hear, and feel—or to fully embody our experience.
Those sensory capacities were demanded by the circumstances of living dependently within place, by hunting and gathering for upwards of 95 percent of our human history. Now, I would suggest, those same sensory abilities are atrophied and dormant. We may not easily recognize this, but we do seem to know that we are missing the mark with respect to realizing our inherent human potential, just as we know that we are colluding in large-scale environmental devastation.
And so, far from “the peace of wild things,” we find ourselves with skyrocketing levels of anxiety and depression: The National Institute of Mental Health claims that 18.1 percent of the U.S. population over eighteen years of age is clinically anxious. A 2011 Harvard study shows a 400 percent increase in anti-depressant use between 1998 and 2008, and according to the federal government, one in ten Americans use prescription anti-depressants.
This could be a matter of better diagnostics (as has been repeatedly claimed) or the pharmaceutical push for profit (as has been appropriately suggested), but is there also a link between the rise in mental illness and our distance from nature, and between our uncertainty, anxiety, depression, and the horrific scale of human-caused environmental degradation and destruction? From my point of view, the more appropriate question is, how could there not be?
I am not suggesting that academic or scientific inquiry is the culprit here. But I do think the burden of proof presumed by academic and scientific modes, when applied to the fraught relationship between modern humans and nature, is also symptomatic of the divide between ourselves and the rest of nature, and, by extension, between our domesticated and natural selves—the selves that value and trust our own, direct experience in the out-of-doors. By extension, I am also referring to the long-evolved human selves that naturally hold faith with what is fundamentally organic.
I am suggesting that the lack of sensory and sensual engagement with the natural order of things and the consequent lack of a deepened appreciation of our psychological, social, and spiritual interdependence greatly amplifies a non-relational approach to the rest of creation—and that is what most needs healing.
I could be talking about the way nature heals attention deficit disorder, or lends itself to healing obesity or heart disease. I do not doubt that it does. But I’m more concerned with the ways in which our wounded collective psyche continues to inflict itself on the natural world. Together, we are perpetrating and amplifying cycles of environmental degradation and nonsense. We are fouling our own nest across innumerable and differing scales, and, as a consequence, we experience widespread variations on the themes of shame, despair, and anxiety—both in ourselves and one another.
All of this is “of a fabric”: Our modern malaise, our anxiety, dis-ease, and dysfunction arise from culturally induced alienation from the larger organic order and from our own deeply embedded natural selves. So, my issue with the reams of research is different from Frumkin’s; mine is a paradigmatic issue.
The research Frumkin cites does not address this fundamental split between nature and ourselves. These studies are about our healing; they view nature as a resource for healing humans, but not as itself a subject in need of healing and care. There is no reciprocity represented here. It seldom seems to cross our academic minds, and again, from an eco-psychological point of view, that’s the fundamental problem.
Numerous thinkers on this issue argue that this largely unconscious yet hyper-dualistic divide dates back some 10,000 years, to the beginning of agriculture when fences began dividing the wild from the domesticated, and when newly agrarian communities built settlements, stored grain, and developed commodities by which social stratification was created. Others point to the influence of Plato and Descartes or to the age of reason, the printing press, gunpowder, the compass, and the mystery and fear of the Black Plague raging through Europe that drove a need to know, to have control over “nature.” Some suggest the fatal rejection of sensual knowledge emblazoned in the European psyche by the burning of some nine million natural healers and pagans.
Certainly, there are numerous events and conditions that shaped the modern, Western mind. Cumulatively, those events and conditions have wounded the modern psyche. The diagnosis is habitual, divisive ways of thinking and perceiving—a form of dualistic presumption in the modern mind—and a kind of hubris and fundamentalism that has proven to be destructive.
The remedy is undivided experience. Think: “I was the water, I was the sky.”
What if nature and psyche are “always already” together, entwined in the moment of perception? What if our senses keep us inescapably tied to our environment, and what if we are entirely dependent on the signals we receive? What if the “rivers of our senses” are both signal and sensation?
If so, dualistic ways of thinking become no more than an illusion of the human mind. Consider the case of vision: millions of photons of light bounce off surfaces and stream into us in every look. From that perspective, the distinction between in-here and out-there quickly blurs—or rather, our radical embeddedness becomes clear.
And then, what if healing occurs because our sensory systems are changing continuously in response to those incoming streams of environmental information? Neuroplasticity refers to the changing connectivity between neurons as a function of experience. It is a fact of science, and the essence of how and why we learn, have memories, and have a quick eye. I think of neuroplasticity as a wondrous example of both self-organization and daily adaptation.
Evolutionary psychologists tend to claim that our brains evolved in a world that no longer exists—the world in which we were hunters and gatherers—and that as a result, we are maladapted to current conditions and, by extension, doomed. Alternatively, I would argue that our evolutionary history has given us a highly adaptive brain, a learning system capable of changing its structure, patterns of neural activity, and functionality in response to relevant information.
The brain’s functional structure is a matter of synaptic strength—the degree of connectivity between neurons, and the strength of those connections, which is a function of activation, use, and experience. In other words, if you look at something often or repeatedly, the neural networks that serve as substrates of that perception will fire away again and again. As a result, the connections within the network become strengthened, facilitated, and streamlined, like well-trodden trails.
There are a couple of key points here. First, more highly connected neurons require a lower threshold for firing or for making a connection with the next neuron, and signals take this path of least resistance. In functional terms, this means that well-connected networks fire off with a hint of electrochemical signaling, like a flutter of wings.
In the visual realm, facilitated networks mean that we readily see whatever our eyes have been trained upon—as in practiced, conditioned, or attended to. With a mere glance, we see what is familiar and expected—or, in visual cognitive science, most consistent with our “perceptual set” or schema. For example, with a practiced eye, we see warblers when others see only a tangle of bushes.
Second, adult plasticity—or the changing degrees of connectivity between neurons—requires the activation of neural mechanisms responsible for attention. Our focus of attention thus determines not only what we see in any given moment (by selecting certain signals), but also what becomes most readily seen in the next moment (by altering neural structure). What we attend to becomes a facilitated view, a familiar and ready view. Attention (and our intention behind it) is consequently a very big driver in a feedback loop with much reinforcement or amplification. This, I believe, is how perceptual habits form and why they become sensory assumptions and projections. It follows that what we attend to repeatedly shapes our sensibilities and constructs our worldviews.
Given our dualistic habits of mind and our alienation from non-human nature, all of this begs the question: how might we cultivate a relational sensibility? By this, I mean a readiness to recognize the ways in which we are so deeply embedded in, and dependent upon, the natural order. I’m looking for an ecological worldview.
Our sensory predilection for contrast draws us to patterns and then leads our eyes from one coherent form to another. There is a wholeness and order in patterns, and a kind of reassurance and meaning to be found. With an eye toward natural patterns and life-forms like butterflies and birds, we see slices of planetary diversity and begin to appreciate the incredible range of adaptive solutions. We see patterns linking lives to places and come to understand the notion of niche, gaining an enlarged sense of wholeness, and of belonging. These are embodied concepts. They develop when the sensory body encounters the natural world. These ways of knowing are associative, deeply informing, immeasurable, and innumerable. One might say that they create an inner depth of field.
By paying attention, we begin to savor complex patterns, and in so doing, we further strengthen the neural networks subserving our appreciation. Looking again, we begin to see and recognize still more. Soon we find ourselves looking for beauty, too—why not? What’s beautiful resonates. It feels good, as if our best selves—our own organic vitality—rise up to meet the beautiful other, and as if our brains hum in recognition. This is hard to quantify.
Scott Russell Sanders suggests that resonance is the sympathetic vibration we feel when beholding beauty. And something is beautiful, says Sanders, because it gives us a glimpse of the underlying order of things, and that natural beauty—as in cosmos, as in the order of the universe—reassures us that we are exactly and wonderfully made for life on this glorious planet.
This affinity and sense of belonging is healing. With such reassurance, we relinquish our defenses and modern personas and are generously offered a flood of sensations. With the wholeness and beauty of the natural world more deeply embodied, we gain a greater sense of coherence and relatedness, of meaning and hope. Desire trots close behind, and then we glow.
E.O. Wilson advocates a consilient worldview, one in which various bodies of knowledge, borne of differing methodologies and differing lines of evidence, are unified in the interest of understanding complex realities. Consilience is the convergence of evidence, and, in Wilson’s approach, it is science-based. Here I am asking that we consider a network of ideas and experience, a form of consilience that includes not only quantifiable knowledge but also ways of knowing that represent the rich, qualitative facets of life on the planet.
I am asking that we make it our work to develop an ecological worldview by cultivating a relational sensibility—and I am suggesting that such a sensibility might serve to recover much of what is lost to the modern psyche. I am suggesting that there are all sorts of healing to be had if only we turn again toward the natural other, attentive, and letting our thoughts roam, our curiosity soar.
From a pragmatic point of view, this requires prioritizing land protection—or conserving natural and wholesome places. There’s mutual interest here. From an inclusive and interdependent worldview, this is enlightened self-interest. Nature and psyche heal together.