I am a ‘Soliphilic’ – Pondering the Ecological Unconscious
Every once in a while an article comes along that speaks of a deeper truth that resonates within me. Thanks to Carolyn Raffensperger on Facebook, I recently learned of a lengthy piece from the New York Times magazine titled: “Is There an Ecological Unconscious?”
Many of us on Facebook whom are followers of Carolyn’s wisdom and insights quickly shared the link onward in the wonderful way that Facebook allows one to do this. And this prompted more dialogue about the brilliance of the thinking in the piece.
The premise of the article is that there is a growing field of study in psychology called Ecopsychology that is examining the connections between our emotional health and environmental health. The field has been slowly growing for several decades and is now into a second generation of therapists and academics who are diligently working to make this way of thinking and understanding human mental health as it relates to the natural world more widespread.
It heartens me greatly to see a mainstream paper such as the New York Times publish such a piece raising the question of how emotionally connected we might be to the natural world. Not to be too too blunt, but to me it is a no-brainer that we are intimately connected emotionally to the ecological health (or lack there-of) of our surrounding environment.
The article introduces several leaders in this emerging field, one of whom is a philosopher and professor of sustainability in Perth, Australia, Glenn Albrecht. Albrecht has coined the term “solastalgia” which he defines as “the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault… a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at ‘home.’”
“Australian aborigines, Navajos and any number of indigenous people have reported this sense of mournful disorientation after being displaced from their land… this ‘place pathology’… wasn’t limited to natives. Albrecht’s petitioners [residents of a region in Australia that was historically known for a bucolic setting but presently the site of massive coal mining efforts] were anxious, unsettled, despairing, depressed—just as if they had been forcibly removed from the valley. Only they hadn’t; the valley changed around them.”
“Solastalgia” describes a loss of heart’s ease or disintegration of a person or a community’s wellbeing when the group or individual is taken away from their land, or their intact healthy land is taken away from them. They may be remaining on the land but the land around them has been greatly destroyed. Surely this is what the small communities in West Virginia have been experiencing since the onset of mountain-top removal. Or the residents and fishermen along the Gulf Coast after the oil spill this past spring. These people have experienced a disease of the heart with the loss of their mountains and healthy wetlands and coastal waters.
The article goes on to share the history of the Ecopsychology field, and varying views on its acceptance in the broader psychology community, and how some of the current leaders in the field are seeking to support the psychological theories through academic, empirical research. In our current fact/research driven climate, this is necessary for the field to gain wider credibility in the greater therapeutic community.
Sure, it makes sense for the need for more research to validate this widely emerging field. What I find discouraging though is that it takes years of research for broader psychological approaches to shift and more mainstream practitioners to ‘wake-up’ to incorporating these ecopsychology approaches into their practices. Meanwhile, the rates of climate change (climate chaos!) and ecological degradation continues to ramp-up and the gross numbers of people impacted emotionally only rises. But I’ve never had much patience for our science-based way of decision-making when something just seeps of wisdom and rightness and should be honored for those attributes alone.
I’m a professional gardener during most of the year. People pay me to sit in beautiful gardens and maintain them. There has been many a day when I’ve returned home at the end of the day far more relaxed than when I left my house that morning. Sitting on the ground all day pulling weeds or planting has always calmed my mind and encouraged me to let go of any emotional tension that I’d been harboring. I can personally attest to “nature’s significant restorative effects on cognition.”
There are a number of studies on the therapeutic value of viewing open fields and trees in contrast to viewing a dense urban environment. There have been a number of studies on how urban environments create more emotional stress than rural ones. The title of this piece from the Boston Globe is aptly titled: How the City Hurts Your Brain.
It is also no coincidence (to me) of how working the soil is healing in and of itself. Recent research is revealing that some of the mycobacteria in the soil act as anti-depressants triggering higher serotonin levels when we inhale or ingest some soil. This leads to a lessening of anxiety and boosting learning capabilities. It makes complete sense to me. We’ve evolved in the company of these bacteria while working the soil for thousands of years. We’re hard-wired to benefit from being an active member of the ecosystem around us, as agriculturalists. Below are some articles that describe this research in greater detail.
Therapeutic gardening is a widely practiced approach to healing people with special therapeutic needs including returning veterans.
Surely the mycobacteria and raise in serotonin levels are only part of the complex phenomenon of how working with plants and the soil is a healing experience for most.
So there is significant evidence that Nature heals us. But this still does not address the broader need for a shift in our thinking and acting to promote greater ecological health. Some believe that we need to change our consciousness. Yet how do we “go about rebooting human consciousness” to understand that mind and nature are not separate. How do we “rewild” ourselves to know on the deepest levels that we are an integral part of nature as much as nature is an integral part of ourselves.
Isn’t this is what the sustainability movement across the globe is trying to attempt, whether we realize it or not? We are not trying to “rewild” our home, our work, our food and energy systems to bring out restorative human systems that heal nature. These will ultimately heal ourselves too, though we may not be framing it that way.
To indigenous peoples, this way of living and thinking is just assumed. Their worldviews and understanding of their relationship with the world around them have always been imbued with a knowing of their deep relationships. “All Our Relations” is a common concept that expresses their knowing their wildness is one with all the wildness around them. I spent fourteen years studying with a Cherokee medicine woman and learning of how much many native peoples embrace their role as a humble one in a vastly complex web of life. They have never been separate. They do not know separateness. Only Western Culture has forged this mind frame of being apart from nature and we are suffering greatly for it, as is the health of many ecosystems. Gregory Bateson’s work – including Steps to an Ecology of Mind – addresses this, as the NYTime’s article shares. (Clearly I’ve got to read some of Bateson’s writing. While his name brings a faint recognition, I was not that aware of his work.)
It seems the real goal is to “feel ecological.” This will help us “be ecological” and help in healing our disconnectedness and consequent woundedness ecologically and psychologically. How to do this?
I read this section in the NYTime’s article and immediately thought about what could be an ecosystem within the not-so-closed systems of my home. I considered the worm condo in my basement and how my food compost and the shredded paper from a law firm in downtown Baltimore support a thriving worm and bacterial community in my basement. This simplistic ecological system of my food waste as food for worms which eventually produces fertilizer and organic amendment for my garden helps me feel connected to a profoundly brilliant natural world that is seemingly separate from the protected interior of my home – yet not separate at all. My worms help me create an internal ecosystem that bucks the environmental practices and externalized costs based on the premise that “Waste does Not Belong Inside and is Sent Elsewhere” creating problems in another location — which still eventually circles back and bites me/us in the butt whether it’s toxins in my dinner or dropping oyster populations downstream in the centralized systems of modern society.
I love my worms and how they industriously chug through my old veggie cuttings, and my neighbor’s coffee grounds and waste legalese. The lawyers who donate their shredded paper consider themselves a “Green Law Firm” and chuckle over their bags of paper shreds creating luscious soil.
Just last week, my worms received some chopped fruit from a nearby Edible Arrangements store that was starting to ferment. These worms give me great joy as I celebrate the wisdom of the ancient truth that “Nature Knows No Waste.” I only wish that I could give them all the soiled kitty litter that goes out in the trash and the black and gray water that drains out my pipes to the Baltimore City Waste Water treatment plant. I would love for my whole home to be an ecological system that supported the natural world’s health. But presently it is not.
I would really like to experience that feeling of “love” and “connection” instead of the long-term malaise that I’ve felt knowing that I’m inherently feeding an unsustainable system that is continuing to shave off mountain tops, mow down forests and contaminate the Chesapeake Bay.
Albrecht coined another term: “soliphilia”, defined as “the love of and responsibility for a place, bioregion, planet and the unity of interrelated interests within it.” What a positive resonance this term has! I know that I’m a “soliphilic”, if one could create such a term. If only the rest of my city and bioregion (nation, western world) could embrace these values and we could transform our economic and social systems to support this – in a rapid systemic way. (Are the Amish “soliphilics” too?)
If only we could understand how “broken” our worldviews are from ones that understand the truth of our connection with nature. And in realizing this “brokenness”, heal it.
Thank you to The New York Times Magazine and the writer of this piece, Daniel B. Smith for researching and writing it.