In an age of overwhelming mistrust, insecurity, and inequality, humans are anxiously striving for a new way to live. People in industrialized countries have created a culture of fearful, ungrounded, disconnected, isolated human beings. Many individuals see these problems and desire a revolutionary social change in our “civilized” lifestyles. People from all realms of life are beginning to create ways to integrate a more relational and holistic worldview into their current lifestyles. Some people are learning how to change their lives by re-creating how they perceive the world and learning to practice sustainability in their everyday activities.
In this article I will discuss why there is so much discontent in the US, relate it to my experience of living in an intentional community in the summer of 2002, and explore the links between the human psyche and the Earth psyche in the emerging field of ecopsychology and in the practices of permaculture. Together, these practices offer one approach to helping create a socially and ecologically sustainable culture and world.
What do humans need? “Air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, clothing, affection, company, stimulating work, freedom from stress, health” (Bell, 37). I would add that humans also need feelings of connectedness, ways of expressing their unique creativity, and a sense of meaningful participation and contribution to something larger than themselves. Do people living and struggling in our current capitalistic society and consumerist culture have all of these basic human needs met? I think there are many people who are deprived of one thing or another. While I was living in the intentional community, Lost Valley Educational Center in Dexter, OR, and enrolled in a Naka-Ima (personal growth) workshop, a dear person shared this quote to help me trust in myself that one’s environment truly is key to their well-being.
“If a seed has to grow with a rock on top of it, or in deep shade, or without enough water, it won’t unfold into a healthy full-sized plant. It will try–hard–because the drive to become what you were meant to be is incredibly powerful. But at best it will become a sort of ghost of what it could be: pale, undersized, drooping… In the age of ecology, we ourselves are the only creature we would ever expect to flourish in an environment that does not give us what we need! We wouldn’t order a spider to spin an exquisite web in empty space, or a seed to sprout on a bare desk top. And yet that is exactly what we have been demanding of ourselves.” (Barbara Sher, Wishcraft, 1979)
What are we all striving for? Why are so many people unhappy? We live in a developed country where many of us find all our basic needs for food, air, water, and shelter easily at our fingertips. The only catch is that we just have to play the game: sell our souls to the global corporate economy and mimic the addictive behaviors of our consumer culture; alienate ourselves from truly sensing our feelings. We have enabled ourselves to hide our fears by learning to be numb and creating a culture of fast cars and movies to distract us from our hectic lives. What about trees, wind, and clear water? Do we not need muddy feet, soiled hands, fresh fruit, sunshine, and beauty? How many of us never fall asleep to the sparkly sky?–or wake up to the birds singing in the fresh air? Do we need mirrors, TV, shopping malls, French fries, sexy dates, and SUVs? Instead of fulfillment, the results of our culture are depression, confusion, alienation, searching, drunken nights at bars, chocolate, coffee to stay awake, credit card debt, obesity, heart attacks, cancer, dissatisfaction, and unhappiness.
Most of the environments people are surrounded by in America are fast paced, loud, competitive, isolated, and lonely, with polluted air, water, and food. “Sadly, the despair and the lack of supportive community that too many of us feel is common throughout America” (Cohen, 81). Can a human being truly find peace in such an environment?
If we are willing to listen to ourselves, an instinctive wisdom inside each of us reminds us that there must be more. The world is full of wonders. There is more to life than work and material possession. We need honest, real connection with humans, animals, trees, and ourselves.
So many of our feelings of confusion and disconnection stem from not realizing that we all have the sensory ability to connect with our natural environment. “Our incredible bewilderment (wilderness separation) blinds us from seeing that our many personal and global problems primarily result from our assault on and separation from the natural creation process within and around us” (Cohen, 82). Human psychological health depends on the health of the earth. If the air, water, and food are polluted, so are those beings trying to live in that environment. Yet, if beings experience the fresh air, clean water, abundant tasty whole food, and honest connection with other beings, those beings shall experience mental, physical, and emotional health. The new term, Biophilia, coined by Edward O. Wilson, refers to the innate emotional affiliation that humans have to other living organisms (Wilson, 1993)
Lost Valley Educational Center
My experience of living at Lost Valley Educational Center allowed me to have a full body and mind experience of love, support, and peace. About 30 adults and seven children have journeyed to this peaceful place in Oregon to create a new cultural lifestyle. In addition to a core organic gardening program that I participated in as an apprentice, they also have multiple other programs from vision quests, self-healing workshops, and meditation retreats, to eco-design construction. Being completely enveloped in this kind of environment created such clarity that I was able to see my vision and move in that direction without many restraints. I have learned to trust myself and experience life through not only my mind, but also my heart and soul.
Why was this possible for me? I believe it was because I was surrounded by a supportive, understanding, open, honest, and loving group of human beings who made me feel 100% accepted and never judged. I was in a place of security. Being surrounded by holistic, conscious people allowed me to practice interacting with others and myself in a more positive manner.
In addition to the healthy human relationships, the beauty and freshness I was surrounded by day and night was also key to my peaceful experience. Sleeping in a meadow surrounded by huge oak and fir trees, in my tent or just under the stars in the quiet fresh air every night, helped my mental health gain more balance. Cooking and eating in the outdoor kitchen, bathing in the outdoor solar shower, and working in the gardens among the many plants, chickens, and ducks created such a relaxed lifestyle. No cars, traffic, cement, dirty air, lack of shade, or rushing required! Just clean air, trees, open sky, wonderful healthy food, a community of trusting, open friends all around, and peace and harmony with great communication, yoga, meditation, dancing, singing, and swimming.
After I returned to the East Coast, I realized, when connecting my learning of permaculture and my experience of living in a community, that my experience could be encapsulated by the word ecopsychology. I learned how to simultaneously heal myself and practice sustainable farming and living skills, which, I found, innately work together. Social and ecological change happens in all aspects of life, and everyone is playing their unique role in the interdependent web of life.
What Is Ecopsychology?
People define the field of ecopsychology in various ways. The connection between nature and humans, which is being split in the modern world, is the basis for all the definitions of ecopsychology. Ecopsychology addresses the field of psychology and the field of environmental management by acknowledging that human health and environmental health depend on each other.
At the core of ecopsychology is the realization that our relationships with the environment directly affect our relationships with each other (Hodgson, 1). Theodore Roszak, who gave the first definition of ecopsychology, says it is a way of including ecological insight with psychotherapy in such a way that there is a “re-defining of ‘sanity’ as if the whole world mattered” (Roszak, 1998). Roszak claims there is an ecological intelligence deeply rooted in each human being that is connected to the psyche of the Earth (Roszak, 16).
In the practice of ecopsychology, our sense of place and interconnectedness is strengthened, which results in becoming better “stewards of the land.” Therefore, healing the human psyche will lead to healing the earth (Scull, 2).
There is a plethora of diverse practices individuals can engage in to apply ecopsychology in their lives. These can include anything from studying indigenous worldviews and practices in order to cultivate an ecological self identity, or connecting inner and outer realities through experiencing breath awareness, to eschewing mass consumer culture and choosing to practice “mindful presence and loving connection” (Elan Shapiro, 2002).
The Permaculture Link
Permaculture, a design system that seeks to create sustainable living systems, is a field where much ecopsychological philosophy can be applied. Permaculture is practiced at Lost Valley Educational Center with an undercurrent of the ecopsychological worldview. Spiritual, ecological, and psychological thought and work allow people in all different realms of life to integrate ecopsychological philosophies into their lives.
Many people have offered definitions of permaculture. Bill Mollison, the founder of Permaculture, defines it as “a design system for creating sustainable human environments. On one level, permaculture deals with plants, animals, buildings, and infrastructures (water, energy, communications). However, permaculture is not about these elements themselves, but rather about the relationships we can create between them by the way we place them in the landscape” (Mollison, 1).
Once people gain an “ecopsychological” view of the world, many become interested in learning how to practice permaculture in all aspects of their lives. For some individuals it may be just simply recycling their waste every week; for others, it may be completely changing the value system that they live by and creating a new cultural way of life. Anyone can practice permaculture, in the way they garden, how they design their house, or just simply by being more conscious of the choices they make every day concerning food, energy, and water use. An ecopsychological view of the world sees the intimate relationship between the earth’s health and human health, both of which are enhanced by permaculture.
One must be centered, emotionally and mentally clear, to fully grasp the new paradigm of permaculture. From that place of awareness and intention, it is much easier to learn the related practical skills.
Back at Lost Valley
My experience at Lost Valley Educational Center as a garden apprentice learning permaculture practices also placed great emphasis on interpersonal relationships and self-healing through the application of an ecopsychological worldview. I and the other apprentices and interns learned about and practiced companion planting techniques, forest gardening, how tree guilds function, how to create alternative forms of energy, and how to use herbs for medicinal purposes. In addition to all of these practical skills, we simultaneously were engaged in non-violent communication skills, community living organization and functioning, interpersonal communication, and workshops on developing the inner self with all our relations: other people, our natural environment, and ourselves.
Lost Valley Educational Center is very focused on exploring human relationships and connections in the context of a peaceful, healthy, natural environment. I believe that experiencing all of this together as an interconnected web of life allowed me to move through one of the most personally transformative experiences of my life. As a result of the community’s emphasis on personal growth and connection with others and the natural environment, I have been able to move closer to my vision of living a lifestyle that incorporates permaculture principles. I can now trust my ecopsychological worldview as working for me in terms of being able to see my vision clearly.
There are numerous individuals and communities in this world working on achieving a social revolution to gain a healthy way of living with cultural and ecological connectedness. Be honest with yourself. Have you created a lifestyle that brings you true happiness? If you feel something is missing, maybe you should investigate ways in your own life to re-establish connectedness with yourself, with your friends and family, and with the natural environment that creates all life.
Bell, Graham. The Permaculture Way: Practical Steps to Create a Self-Sustaining World. 1992: Thorsons, An Imprint of Harper Collins Publishers.
Cohen, Michael J. Reconnecting with Nature: Finding Wellness through Restoring your Bond with the Earth. 1997: EcoPress, Corvallis, Oregon.
Hodgson, Cathleen, and Jill Heine. Shamanism and Ecopsychology. Copyright 1995: Sterling Rose Press, Inc. (World Wide Web–viewed 11-18-02–www.celestia.com/SRP/AM95/Html/Shamanism.html)
Mollison, Bill and Reny Mia Slay. Introduction to Permaculture. 1991: Tagari Publications, Tyalgum, Australia.
Roszak, Theodore. 1998. “Ecopsychology On-Line: With Earth in Mind.” Copyright 1998: The Ecopsychology Institute. (World Wide Web–visited 10-9-02–ecopsychology.athabascau.ca/).
Roszak, Theodore. “Where Psyche Meets Gaia.” In Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind. 1995: Sierra Club Books, San Francisco.
Scull, John. “Caring for the Land.” (World Wide Web–viewed 10-3-02–www.ecopsychology.org/gatherings3/land.html).
Sher, Barbara. Wishcraft: How to Get What You Really Want. 1979: Penguin Putnam.
Wilson, Edward O. The Biophilia Hypothesis. 1993: Island Press/Shearwater, Washington DC. (World Wide Web–visited 12-15-02–www.dhushara.com/book/diversit/restor/bph1.htm).
Myra McKenney submitted a longer version of this article as her independent paper at Cornell University. She will be graduating in May 2003 and is in search of what to do when she is free from college and where she can find places to start creating a new way of life. If you know of anything you think would be of interest to her, please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (607) 272-6131 (at Von Cramm Co-op with a phone shared by 30 people).
©2003 Talking Leaves
Volume 13, Number 1
Communication & Eco-Culture