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Ecotherapy

John Folk-Williams has lived with major depressive disorder since boyhood and finally achieved full recovery just a few years ago. As a survivor of ...Read More

Ecotherapy is more than a walk in the woods or watching a beautiful sunset. It’s an emerging form of treatment that can help with healing depression. It aims at restoring the connection to the natural world that is usually limited to high-speed glimpses of windshield scenery.

Reconnecting to the literal earthly world is an important part of wellness, but reading a book on ecotherapy seemed a little strange. I guess we’ve so lost the natural connection that it’s now a treatment rather than a part of everyday life. I’m reminded that even sunshine has become a form of treatment. Make sure to get your daily dose of 20 minutes to keep your inner lights on.

Lack of connection to people, places, emotions – pretty much anything – is a hallmark of severe depression, and multiple therapies are usually necessary to help get a depressed person out of a world of gray sameness.

Awakening the feelings and senses by participating in the natural world can be a powerful way to begin this process. That doesn’t have to mean heading off to forests and mountains. A few city trees and a strip of urban canyon sky can do the trick. That’s about what I could see out my fifth-floor walk-up in New York years ago.The main thing is to stop and let a living thing get into your senses and mind.

Like everything else these days, there are MRI scans and neurobiology experiments about areas of the brain involved in the perception of natural things. Scientists who study ecopsychology believe there’s a benefit to mindful responsiveness to nature in the form of enhanced growth of nerve cells and neuron circuits – the neuroplasticity concept.

In my purely subjective understanding, I’ve always felt a strong response to the places I’ve lived in. I have a need to reach into those spaces to feel their influence and to let them work on me. It’s partly a need to feel that I belong where I am but even more a desire to get close to the natural as well as the built setting.

I look especially for any bit of terrain that preserves the character of the place as it was before human construction changed it. It’s all too easy to lose touch, not only when depressed but also when overly absorbed by work.

The book, Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind (edited by Linda Buzzell and Craig Chalquist), is especially interesting because it brings together essays on psychological, spiritual, social and political dimensions of restoring the human relationship to nature.

The “nature” discussed here and in many recent books and articles is not a single thing, but includes the flows of life, even in lands changed drastically by human cultivation. Entering wildland, rural areas of farm and range, or gardens covers many forms of healing experience.

Before there can be healing, though, there has to be an openness to the sensations of each place, a relaxing of mind, a different awareness of one’s own physical presence.

As Jim Nollman puts it in Why We Garden, this is not something we are born with. It evolves as we have more experience of different places and participate by getting to know them by gardening or hiking or living in them. It includes the perceptions, “a touch of spirituality” and perhaps the gut feeling that we want to put down roots in a certain place.

It’s hard to imagine a more dramatic contrast of experience than that between remote wildlands of vast extent and the backyard garden. Yet both in their own ways can awaken mind, feeling, body and soul to the sense, relationship and sustaining power of the natural world.

The experience of wilderness is that of participating in and responding to a power of nature far greater than anything in our normal scale of living. It is a reminder of a vaster order in life in which we have a place but which we do not control completely. For me, at least, part of the experience is the hard work of getting there, hiking with a backpack for miles. That’s a sort of boot camp to purge and sweat out the stress and preoccupations of a mind-centered self, full of tension, worry and depression.

The purging relaxes me and brings back the ability to be surprised. It opens the senses to awareness and awe in the presence of forces so much greater than the plans of human minds. It changes perspective about what’s important and slows down time and inner rhythm. Healing, for me, is almost incidental to such deep changes of perception, feeling and thought.

Experience of nature at the small scale of the garden is all about participating in a different way, through the daily, hands-in-the dirt work of digging, planting, weeding, watering, composting and a dozen other jobs. It’s about watching closely the daily changes of weather, the influence of heat and cold, rain and drought, the content of the soil and what it can grow.

The sense of time turns to seasons and cycles of growth, the opening of blossoms, the growth of fruit and decay. All around are the presences of living, growing things that instill a close responsiveness to their needs. Gardening adds to who we are as we concentrate thought, touch and all our senses on working with the natural processes unfolding before us.

Of course, it’s possible to heal in the presence of nature without quite so much labor. Walking into a garden or seeing mountains and canyons at a distance evoke two kinds of responses in me. One is the feeling of beauty and balance I get in the presence of great art, a restorative harmony that fills my being. Allied with that is a kind of blending into what I see in a way I think of as spiritual.

I can’t get it very well into words because the experience starts in a part of me that precedes words and thinking. It is the stuff that words and ideas try to capture but never succeed at expressing. Words like transcendence, transformation, vision come to mind. Whatever the experience should be called, it’s often overwhelming, and it’s always healing.

These experiences are shared by everyone to some degree. What are some of the restorative places and moments that stand out in your memory?

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