We are all a part of nature, whether we care to see it or not. Our personal wellbeing is directly related to planetary wellbeing. This year, I had the opportunity to combine my roots in wildlife with my study of the Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler to create a series of workshops on Ecopsychology. This has been some of the most meaningful work of my life. I have and am being reI hope the telling of how I connected back to my roots in nature will make you curious about how you can do so too.
Wildlife, Nature, and Adler
Sometimes I feel a little stuck in the middle. What is a wildlife biologist doing in psychology? What does psychology have to do with wildlife? In Adler, I found a connection through social interest; a hallmark of Adlerian theory. When individuals are focused on social interest instead of self-interest, we all win. Adler states;
“The social feeling remains throughout life, changed, colored, circumscribed in some cases, enlarged and broadened in others until it touches not only the members of his own family, but also his clan, his nation, and finally, the whole of humanity. It is possible that it may extend beyond these boundaries and express itself towards animals, plants, lifeless objects, or finally towards the whole cosmos.” Pg. 43 in Understanding Human Nature by Alfred Adler (and translated by Walter Beron Wolfe).
With regard to the environment, the question becomes how self-interested are we when it comes to our consumption and treatment of the planet? To what extent are we paying attention to our beliefs about the earthly community that gives us our very life? Are we working with nature or against it in our consumption?
As a wildlife biologist, I can go back to Aldo Leopold, who is considered the father of wildlife management to find more connection:
“All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in that community, but his ethics prompt him to cooperate (perhaps in order that there may be a place to compete for). The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively; the land.” Pgs. 203-204 Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold.
As I read Leopold’s Land Ethic today, I get a little sad. Some current wildlife management practices are exactly what Leopold warned against. Wildlife, mostly “game” animals, have become a commodity and aren’t as valued for their innate qualities. If we all practiced what Leopold called a “Floristic Style of Living”, we’d care more about our treatment of land, wildlife, and water.
Finding myself in the middle has turned out to be a good thing. As a wildlife biologist, I can use my experience in urban deer management as a case study in demonstrating the spectrum of beliefs and values of wildlife in my workshops. As an Adlerian, I can use the concepts of social interest and community feeling to extend to our belonging to Earth. My hope is to bring people in a better relationship with themselves, with others and with our planet.
Moments of Connection
My favorite part of teaching these workshops is seeing and hearing the “aha moments” regarding people’s connections to nature. Here are three examples;
- In my Ecowellness workshop at Adler Graduate School (AGS) last April, we did an activity using the assessment called Sensory Awareness Inventory. Part of the activity involves writing down what gives you pleasure in each of the five main senses. I am never sure how this is going to go but when we shared our lists, one of the participants realized that every single item she listed had to do with nature. It kind of blew her mind (and I could see it on her face and body too).
- In my Deep Experiences in Nature workshop at AGS, we used a sensory focused activity in a local park to uncover how alive we become in nature. After focusing the major senses, we gathered up to talk about what thoughts, feelings, and reactions arose from our time in quiet reflection. One of the participants realized when looking at all of the senses, that she spends too much time inside her comfort zone. Nature had given her a message to stretch herself, to grow – just like it adapts and grows all of the time.
- In my Belonging and Ecowellness workshop at the Adlerian Network, I used nature items as part of our introductory activity. The very first person to speak had chosen a pine cone from my basket of goodies. She said she’d picked it because pine cones can’t produce without fire. She related it to having to leave a toxic relationship to be productive again. All that from a tiny pine cone! Amazing!
Nature gives us an endless supply of life metaphors. It reflects back to us what is important and where we need work. It brings us alive through our senses. Touch a pine cone and notice what it tells you. Go outside and freely allow nature to tell you what you need to hear. It speaks volumes. And, nature speaks differently every time, if you will only open your heart and mind to slowing down and listening. Let nature remind you where you really belong.
Personal and planetary wellbeing
In the last of a series of three workshops on Ecopsychology at AGS, we covered eco-anxiety and eco-resilience. Mental illness continues to grow and the ties between personal and planetary wellbeing are being further documented. A Time magazine article in November 2019 explains that the American Psychological Association defined eco-anxiety in 2017. They go further to say “Mental health studies from Greenland to Australia reveal a surge in people reporting stress or depression about the climate.” Unlike clinical anxiety, eco-anxiety can be a normal and healthy response to experiencing ecological disasters, seeing news about the extinction of species and other climate issues. Only when we become overwhelmed and paralyzed to act is eco-anxiety or eco-grief a problem.
By bringing the topics to light in my workshops, I am hoping to help more therapists and counselors understand and provide tools for healing. Thankfully there are some specific programs for eco-resilience, including The Work That Reconnects and The Good Grief Network. However, taking action is key.
Healing through action
I tell participants in my workshops that the best actions involve actual outdoor work in a nearby space. I suggest finding a local park, wildlife area, community garden or other public outdoor space and helping with the work of maintaining it. Even better, I recommend finding a place that is being restored so while you restore it, it restores you. There is nothing better than getting your hands dirty to reconnect and make yourself well while healing the earth.
If you have little to no experience outdoors and want to get started, I suggest just finding some local park programs where guides/instructors can help you feel comfortable. Here in Minnesota, I suggest people start at Three Rivers Park District. They have some of the most beautiful parks in the state and offer an endless variety of activities for any experience and comfort level. Your first job will be to find an activity or space that brings you joy and passion. As soon as you are comfortable, ask how you can give back.
If you already enjoy the outdoors and have a local park you frequent, start volunteering. Offer to help with maintenance projects, teaching, or maybe becoming a guide for others. Many larger parks have “friends” groups and their mission is to help local parks succeed with less. Or, you can just Google “land restoration projects near me” and you’ll probably find an endless number of places that can use your help. You can also just start with The Nature Conservancy, National Park Service, and your local department of natural resources.
Check out this link for even more ideas for awesome hands-on ways you can volunteer to help the environment. In the end, just do something. Get out there and be inspired.
I will be offering a full series of workshops again at AGS this spring. I will post the dates as soon as they become available. This is my way to contribute to the wellbeing of self and earth. I know the work fulfills me and feedback from participants says they better recognize their own need to reconnect with nature. And, now they have some tools to do the same with clients. I look forward to future reconnection stories.
Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in any of the workshops I’ve already developed. I am also happy to custom design a workshop for your group.
I have come a long way this year and I did not do it alone. There are some key people I need to thank for encouraging me to take a leap into Ecopsychology.
- John Reardon of Phoenix Process Consultants has taught me so much about the pivotal work of Alfred Adler. His workshops in Advanced Adlerian Psychology helped me apply Adler’s principles to my work and personal life. He also encouraged and supported me in developing my series of workshops this year. I am eternally grateful. I also thank my fellow classmates; Phyllis, Kari, Mary, Judy, Pat and Paulette, for pushing me to be me.
- Evelyn Haas encouraged and helped me throughout the process of developing and offering Ecopsychology workshops at Adler Graduate School. I appreciate her personal stories on her own connections to the wildlife in her backyard, in a city where I conducted my urban deer work years ago. She opened my eyes to a new, more compassionate perspective on wildlife management. I also need to thank Dr. Jeff Allen and the board of AGS for taking a chance on me and accepting me into their Adlerian community.
- Phyllis Stoiken, friend and colleague, helped me design and administer every one of the workshops and was an active participant. She has immense energy and appreciation for this work. She is creative, passionate and caring about our human-nature connection. I could not have done this work without her undying support. She continues to push me to advance this important topic.
Theodore Roszak, in my favorite ecopsychology book Voice of the Earth, says, “Both the therapist and the ecologists offer us a common political agenda for the good of the planet, for the good of the person. It is simply stated: scale down, slow down, democratize, decentralize. Ecological goals that can heal the psyche; psychological goals that can heal the planet.”