Once an alternative treatment, green therapy (aka ecopsychology, aka ecotherapy) is becoming more familiar now, beyond the rain forests and retreat centers of the west. Being at home in the world, of course, means many things; being at peace with the natural environment is one component. Some of us live with vague distress much of the time. Here’s the green perspective: it is possible to be terribly homesick, in the environmental sense, without ever leaving home. Peace within is affected by our sense of place on the planet.
There’s nothing quite like an environmental disaster – hurricane, earthquake, levee breach or oil spill –to focus the attention on how deeply our sense of security is tied to the earth, our home. Sometimes, tragically, you really can’t go home again. Home may have disappeared, or become unsustainable, and our emotional underpinnings are gone. When the landscape of home is intact, we are nurtured at a deep level.
Since Victorian times, we’ve known that green spaces provide much needed respite from the stress of our transient urban lives; that was the rationale for the creation of Central Park, NYC in 1853. The study of what wilderness and green space mean for our emotional wellbeing, and the interdependence of the two, began to be formalized in the 1990’s in an upstart discipline at the fringes called ecopsychology.
Marginal no more. Ecopsychology, the academic journal, launched in 2009; graduate programs in Ecopsychology are popping up at major universities. Empirical research is now part of a discipline that traditionally has included deep personal encounters with wild places, and the wisdom of indigenous cultures. A study from the University of Oregon published in 2008 showed that viewing nature through a window really does reduce our stress; interestingly, viewing the same nature image in real time on a giant plasma screen, did not have the same effect. Nobody knows why. Stress reduction lends itself to this kind of study because it can be measured; it’s not clear that nurturing of our spirits can be part of a controlled experiment. We are witnessing the uneasy dance of experts in an emerging field.
Nature replenishes us somehow. Scienceline (www.scienceline.org), published a post on August 12, 2010 asking, “can a stroll in the park replace the psychiatrist’s couch?” Self care for life in the fast lane is of course a different thing from coping with crisis. A respite in the woods can be the beginning of healing for depression, trauma, or betrayal, but eventually, we need to find words; ecopsychology has its work cut out. Those who live in a wounded natural environment like the Gulf Coast, have a long journey ahead of them. Those who fear what damage may yet come to the planet from technology on the loose, have deep distress. We suspect that these fates are entwined.
Digital wilderness evidently doesn’t transform us like the real thing. We all seek authentic experience; it would be good to know what, if anything, would make our high def, networked, online lives authentic in some sense that matters, for our emotional and spiritual wellbeing. Just noting mistrust of emerging technology as a place to live, will not be enough. The online universe is now part of our inner landscape, and our mental health will require us to integrate it, and make peace with it.
And also to get out there, in the timeless wilderness.