Beauty as Healer

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Review of Trebbe JohnsonRadical Joy for Hard Times: Finding Meaning and Making Beauty in Earth’s Broken Places (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2018).

 We need beauty desperately during these troubling times. Forced human migration. Climate change devastation. Polarized viewpoints. Losses of freedom, agency, the ability to survive. Needless deaths, human and ecological. It seems the list of atrocities and dire concerns is endless. It sometimes feels like there is nothing we can do that will effectively meet, much less reverse, the damage to which we bear witness every day. But even amidst the crises at hand, there is hope. For beauty is the way through to healing. This is why I heartily recommend Radical Joy for Hard Times by Trebbe Johnson.

Trebbe has been a colleague and friend of mine for years. From the moment I first met her—at a Pascua ceremony in a rural outskirt of Tucson, Arizona—I knew she possessed what it takes to meet the needs of a suffering world. The road was too dusty, and even the handkerchief over my nose and mouth was insufficient to keep the silt from penetrating my nostrils. Searing heat burned my exposed skin, and I rapidly became drenched by my body’s attempt to regulate my internal temperature. Dirt gave way to mud. I walked as if I had painted the soil on my skin. We moved at a snail’s pace, or a bit slower than that. The Easter ritual in which we were invited to participate entailed meditatively walking and pausing as part of a processional around the town. Holy tableaus had been created around the village, and the mix of Native American Yaqui and Catholic rites blended beautifully to honor both Earth and Christ. Afterward, there was a feast, and I found myself drawn in by stories Trebbe told at it: her work as a wilderness guide all over the globe, articles and books she had written, musings about beauty and ritual and how it holds a culture and people close to their land. She was steady during the Pascua ceremony (while I was feeling shaken and overcome by the oppressive heat) and articulately passionate about the role of beauty, ritual, and healing as we conversed afterward. She has much to teach all of us about wholeness in fragmentation, about the fierce need for passionate beauty and aesthetics, about revisiting wounds (outer and inner) in order to assimilate, learn, grow, and then heal from them.

A Calendar Using Nature Objects to Count Days of the Month

Trebbe’s notion of healing from attending to the broken places on Earth is not just an outer landscape affair; it is a deeply inner healing one. A person can be made whole again by accepting the changes to a place, by grieving the losses, by adding something lovely to it as it is today. The reciprocity between our inner landscape and the outer one is palpable in this ceremony, this work, that Trebbe details so deftly in her book (p. 151):

1. go to [the] wounded place,

2. share your stories [and meaning],

3. get to know the place as it is now,

4. share what you discover,

5. make a gift of beauty.

So, this act, or series of actions in a specific location, includes inner exploration as well as outer abiding. It is about being onsite, in the wounded place. It is about reciprocity, giving back to a place just as we have received from the place. It is an embodied act of generosity, gratitude, compassion, and grieving. It is about coming full circle.

For ten years I have engaged in the Global Earth Exchange, Trebbe Johnson’s annual ritual for beauty-making in wounded natural areas. I first engaged the ritual to support my new friend. But each year, my connection to and reverence for the ceremony has deepened. Now I look forward to, and invite others to join, the act of creating beauty in a wounded place. I call my part in this annual ceremony “Treephilia” and each year I find a wounded place in or near a forest, a stand of trees that have been cut down, or some other area in which fallen or damaged trees have impacted the natural landscape. And over the course of the morning, I craft—object by object—a bird image. Sometimes I have not returned to the site. Other years I have gone back to check on the state of the art I have created in a place. This year, I went back a few weeks later and spontaneously refreshed the bird image I had made after rain and wind had scattered bits of my creation. I have no idea if others who pass by pay any attention to or notice the beauty offering I have created in a place. But I know that I am indelibly marked by it. It makes me feel whole again in a location where brokenness has occurred.

Treephilia 2019

A few weeks ago, I found myself back in Tucson, more than ten years after first meeting Trebbe there. I was presenting my nature-based, creative wellness work at an annual conference for conflict resolution professionals. In the course of the two-hour plane ride, I went from an outdoor temperature of 62 to 108 degrees F. I slithered from shadow to shadow in hopes of avoiding the onslaught of direct sunlight as we made our way to a rental car. I knew it would be exceedingly hot, dusty, and dry. But the forty-six-degree temperature difference, even mitigated by an air-conditioned conveyance and several hours of “acclimation,” was oppressive. As we made our way to the conference venue, I recalled the recent articles I’d read about how Tucson is suffering from environmental conditions: droughts, mountain fires, excessively high electricity consumption (air conditioners alone accounting for 25 percent). How outdoor jobs in the city are rapidly becoming untenable when the only sustainable time to labor outside is in the few hours just after dawn and for the last hour of light at dusk. Tucson is the United States’ poster child for the dramatic and unlivable conditions that global warming is creating and is the third-fastest warming city in the country. The elderly and children are not the only vulnerable members of the population; basically, everybody is at risk when the daily highs exceed 110 degrees for weeks at a stretch. But though my friend Trebbe was not in attendance at this recent conference, she was very present for me as I navigated a desert trail to a short peak at sunset one evening.

As I carefully avoided the spines of cacti and kept vigilant watch for snakes and scorpions crossing the path, I felt Trebbe’s encouragement to find beauty even in difficulty. Deserts are challenging for me: the heat and aridity, the starkness, the intense inner work I have engaged out in desert landscapes, the fact of my ancestral origins in the verdant and lush homeland of Ireland. I suddenly realize that, despite my discomfort, I am peering intently into the depths of a cactus, where the spike joins the green flesh; I take an abstract photograph—capturing beauty more than creating it, perhaps. But I will use the image as a creative tool for my work once I return home. And, indeed, upon settling back in my beloved Pacific Northwest several days later, I realized that I had taken nearly a dozen magnified images of desert plants—precisely at the point of convergence between plant parts.

Nature Calendar Celebrating Springtime

This is what Radical Joy for Hard Times, her most recent book, does: it illustrates and encourages page by page, in the astute and compassionate voice of a wise environmental activist. Every chapter opens with stories—some are memoir-like anecdotes told with ferocious honesty; others are heartfelt stories of people Trebbe knows. All are tales that depict what happens at the convergence of landscape and human, particularly damaged places that are, or were once, loved by humans. Out of her own spiritual quest fasting in the wilderness, Trebbe was given the gift of her current work: to help find meaning and make beauty in places that have been damaged, destroyed, or transformed by humans. Ms. Johnson’s simple-but-not easy antidote is to visit these broken areas, abide there a while, acknowledge the feelings that arise, tell stories about what was or what could be in the place, and finally, create an act of beauty there utilizing what can be found in that particular place. Trebbe’s compelling and instructive tome readily holds seeming opposites: beauty and loss, grief and joy, activism and quiet deliberateness. She defines her use of words (“activist, guerilla, radical” or “broken, beauty, joy, healing”) in a manner that highlights that these terms are not exclusive from one another, inviting the reader into her heartfelt ideas. For example, Trebbe describes “guerrilla acts of beauty” as those that are done “on the sly—spontaneously, unofficially, impractically . . .  doing it because you are compelled to give a gift back to a place that has given much to you.”

Nature Altar for the Bereaved

It is timely that I write this review at the one-year anniversary of my mother’s death. As a longtime hospice volunteer and a nature-based mentor for writers and other creatives, I don’t need to be convinced of the value of beauty or the need for joy even in stressful times. I know that beauty heals, soothes, and enlivens us. I use objects from nature and images of beauty (photographs, nature art, natural-object altars) daily in my professional and volunteer endeavors. Personally, I use beauty-making rituals for Earth-based (equinoxes/solstices) and spiritual/calendar/relational holy days (Christmas, Easter, Mother’s Day, anniversaries and birthdays, among others). I encourage and guide my clients to do so also. And when I am at the bedside of a hospice patient, I bring beauty to that place, too. One year ago today, I was sitting vigil with one of my sisters at our mom’s bedside. Surrounding the three of us were hundreds of beautiful images of trees, flowers, landscapes, fiery autumn leaves we’d brought inside, and other items from nature that we knew our mom loved. Just as I didn’t shun my mom when her disease took her ability to practice her vibrant and loving art, and just as I don’t avoid the difficulties or unpleasantness associated with hospice families and their dying loved ones, I do not turn away from the places on Earth that have been damaged. Just as I embraced my mother, held her hand, sang to her and told her stories; just as I brought in vibrantly colored autumn leaves and ensured that her favorite purple hues were represented by the flowers that I purchased for her daily in her last weeks; just as I created altars around her room using pine cones and seaweed, grasses, shells, pebbles, seeds, mosses, lichens, and blossoms; so do I create beauty in hurt landscapes. One might suggest that Radical Joy for Hard Times is the choir book for a soul who already sings in delight of nature. But it is also a guidebook for those looking to heal relationships of all sorts, including with oneself and the hurt places outside and within.

Celebrating Lynn

Trebbe Johnson’s work, as she lays it out in the book, to me is not only about beauty as an antidote. It is much more profound and transformative than that. It is about becoming whole. It is about a notion of aesthetics that is alive, changeable, and perhaps even ephemeral. It is about being ready to be vulnerable. It is about the continuity of showing up to ourselves and to others, to treeless once-forests and coal mines, to fracking sites and to denuded landscapes. It is bringing together the honesty of pain and the unexpected result of joy and watching them co-exist in the unlikeliest places. It is about using at least five of our senses in the creating of something gorgeous—and perhaps six, including our Earth sense: spirituality, intuition. It is about embodied compassion for fragmentation, and the wholing that can come from reintegrating pieces into a cohesive present. Finally, Trebbe Johnson’s stunning book is about a practice that is at once simply elegant, and yet profoundly altering.

Photo Credits: Jennifer J. Wilhoit, Ph.D.

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  • Jennifer J. Wilhoit

    Jennifer J. Wilhoit, Ph.D. is a published author, spiritual ecologist, and the founder of TEALarbor stories. She compassionately supports people’s creative and healing processes by drawing from nature’s wisdom. Dr. Wilhoit’s most recent books include: Writing on the Landscape: Essays and Practices to Write, Roam, Renew (LifeRich Publishing, 2017) and Weaned Seals and Snowy Summits: Stories of Passion for Place and Everyday Nature (LifeRich, 2019), co-authored with Dr. Stephen Jones.

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