We were on a broad shelf above the Pacific, mid-way down the Big Sur coast, looking for something lost … lost long ago by our ancestors when they moved from the woods and fields into cities. They gained the advantages of urban life but lost their roots in the Earth beneath them and their relation to the stars above them. That loss may be partly responsible for the craziness of our times, for the proliferation of anxieties, for the ongoing destruction of the planet’s life-sustaining processes.
Two dozen environmentalists and psychologists met last month at the Esalen Institute, called together by Berkeley author Theodore Roszak, who in his seminal 1992 book, The Voice of the Earth, suggested the need for a new profession to begin the integration of psychology and environmentalism. He called it “ecopsychology,” a formidable academic term-but perhaps the only one yet available – for the potential rediscovery of the lost wisdom about how to relate to the Earth.
For five days we exchanged thoughts on Roszak’s thesis that “healing people and healing the planet are part of the same enterprise.” There was no disagreement that the planet is in deep trouble, that its human-inflicted wounds – deforestation, poisoned air and water, ozone-layer depletion, soil loss, and extermination of plant and animal species – all contribute to a pervasive feeling that the times are out of joint, that we may be in the grip of a global psychosis.
At least two members of the group could not be numbered among the “we” who have lost roots in the Earth. They were Indians, Native Americans, whose Earth-centered cultures offer something of value to the urban-industrial societies – not a model, for we cannot become hunters and gatherers, but a more sane and salubrious view about how to make our accommodation to the needs of the planet. One of the Indians in the group was Jeanette Armstrong, of the Okanagan people of British Columbia. She jolted us by her reaction to the opening of the conference, when we had followed the usual custom of going around the circle and briefly identifying ourselves.
“Listening to those identifications,” she said, “confirmed that what I had heard and feared about whites was true. Every introduction was about yourself, not about your community. You seem to have no community connections. If that’s true, I’m sorry for you.
“In our culture, we identify ourselves in relation to our group. We don’t know who we are except in relation to our family, our community, and the land that is our life. We don’t know ourselves unless we know how nature works. Our language reflects our knowledge of the birds and flowers and trees. I identify with my people and with the plants … and I’m that river, too. Our first law is the law of the natural world that gave us life. We cannot do anything that injures the natural world; we would be injuring ourselves.
“You can’t imagine the pain your society creates by breaking up our connections to our land and our community. Grand Coulee Dam flooded the land of our ancestors, and we were ‘relocated.’ Our children were taken away to attend residential schools and they returned without any sense of community. They didn’t know how to relate to each other and to plants and animals in a loving way.
“Your disconnection with your community ruins ours. I’m happy to be here with you, but mostly I feel grief for you and with you. I’m afraid for the world.”
When Armstrong had finished speaking, there was an extended silence as we listened to the sounds of the surf below the cliff. I reflected on the difficulty of understanding cultures that have far different values than our own. In our dominant tradition, nature has always been first an antagonist to be conquered, then a commodity to be used for our convenience and comfort. Is it possible, I wondered, to make a decisive shift in that view, to affirm the rights of nature, todevelop a psychology that redefines the individual as a member of the community of life on Earth?
John Seed, an Australian environmentalist, inducted us into what he called a Council of All Beings. He asked us to make masks that we were to decorate to indicate some plant, animal, or natural feature – and then to wear the masks and speak from the point of view of that being. Someone masked as Ocean spoke of the pollutants that humans were pouring into the sea. Rhinoceros deplored the slaughter of his kind by humans for the supposed aphrodisiac effect of the horn. Redwood related the killing of his parents for lumber but expressed thanks to the humans who had protected him in a park. It occurred to me that the exercise might well be emulated in classrooms as an ecological game.
Like the Native Americans in the group, an African American said he could not identify with the European American view of the environment. He was Carl Anthony, president of Earth Island Institute. “The black experience,” he said, “is very different.
“We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. As Malcolm X said, Plymouth Rock landed on us. Blacks have had a very painful relation to the land, and our experience is not part of the traditional narrative of American history. We feel left out. To the historians we have been invisible.”
Anthony told the group he was deeply concerned with the urban habitat, where it is necessary to consider environmental problems in relation to race, poverty, and injustice.
Another member of the group, James Human, the eminent Jungian analyst, coauthor of We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy – and the World’s Getting Worse, said that the aesthetic experience, the love of beauty, particularly the beauty of nature, is a vital human need ignored by mainstream psychology. Also ignored, he said, is the fact that humans, as Aristotle wrote, are by nature political. Traditional psychotherapy, confined to the inner life, neglects the citizenship dimension, the need for participation in the human and natural communities as an element of mental health. For many people the best therapy may involve quiet meditation under a tree or by the ocean or in the wilderness.
Chellis Glendinning, a New Mexico psychologist and author, began by saying: “My name is Chellis, and I’m in recovery from Western civilization” (which is also the title of her forthcoming book). She said industrial culture needs to recover from the trauma of being separated from our roots in the natural world.
One response to that traumatic separation, she said, has been addiction: dependence not only on alcohol, tobacco, and drugs but on prestige, wealth, and power struggles. We also try to find relief through over-consumption – for example, by shopping, Glendinning said. But it doesn’t work: “Recovery involves restoring our sense of belonging, not only to a human community but to the natural world around us.”
At the end of the conference, walking back over a footbridge where a creek cascaded under the redwoods, strolling through the reverberating green-energy field of the Esalen gardens as if I were walking through a van Gogh painting, I reflected that although we had not found in five days the talismanic wisdom that the dominant Western tradition lost centuries ago, we had heard some hints about how to find It, some clues to entirely new directions for psychologists and environmentalists.
It seemed evident that we cannot repair the damage we are doing to the Earth without rediscovering the psyche’s need for an intimate relation to the elemental processes that sustain life on this planet. From the edge of the ancient sea-carved terrace above the cliffs I could look down the Big Sur coast for miles and watch the white explosions where the Pacific was meeting the edge of the continent in a wild, prolific encounter.