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Forest Poet Blog

Contemplative ecopsychology expressed somatically, artistically and poetically. 

What is Ecotherapy?

Laurel Vogel

"What's in a name?" --Shakespeare
"In indigenous ways of knowing, all beings are recognized as non-human persons, and all have their own names. It is a sign of respect to call a being by its name, and a sign of disrespect to ignore it."  --Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gathering Moss

Speaking of the territory of mosses, author and bryophyte expert Robin Wall Kimmerer writes: "The meeting between air and land is known as the boundary layer." Perhaps the boundary layer between the psyche and the physical world is language--close to the ground of experience, a subtle layer that mediates the lands between inner and outer worlds. "Words and names are the way we humans build relationship, not only with each other, but also with plants." 

As such, the words ecotherapy and ecopsychology merit an explanation. These terms help us see and define both the wound of our severed belonging with earth, and its repair. Though we are not truly severed, as anyone who eats and breathes knows on some level, still, there is a growing perception of loss in terms of our place on earth, as well as identifiable physical loss to the organic worlds of plants and animals--the "more than human world." This absence of contact and connection has created a sense of not-belonging anywhere--and of not being part of the ecological systems of the earth. In this way, humans fail to sense the impact we have on our ecosystem--even as we sense the psychic loss and act out in its wake.

In the anime' movie Spirited Away, a sad hungry ghost named No Face appears, and the innocent protagonist Sen allows him into the bathhouse where she has been indentured into servitude to free her parents, who have been turned into pigs. As No Face consumes more and more of what the bathhouse servants offer him, he becomes aggressively insatiable--the ultimate consumer who eventually and in a very corporate manner, also gobbles up people. He offers enchanted gold in return for the feeding of his appetites, all of which turns back into dirt once the spell is broken. Once human relationships are restored, that which has no true value disappears back into the earth, and No Face finds his place in the world. This is how we fill ourselves, with gold, with food, with addictions of all kinds, even as relationships (human and more-than-human) wain, even as we falter in attempting to discover where and how we belong. 

Unrelated to our ecosystems, we spin in a self-absorbed cocoon, with our isolated selves at center, looking for what is wrong with us. We reach and grab and ignore how all such attempts to fill our growing chasm of loss actually just increase its depths. When we first see Sen, her name is Chihiro, and she is in the backseat of her parents' car, holding severed flowers given to her by a friend she has had to say goodbye to on the way to a new neighborhood. The flowers symbolize what is civilized and cut-off, and even as they wilt, she knows they scarcely make up for being cut-off from home and friends. Through her experiences at the bathhouse, she learns how to become real again--how to materialize in a new world, through eating its food, through service, and through refusing to give in to the charms and baubles of false hope. She is heroic, restoring a polluted river to health, freeing its very spirit. 

This, in a few words, is what ecotherapy and its academic relative, ecopsychology, do: Identify and name our perceived severed belonging, describe it to ourselves, and then bring into practice real skills to re-establish our place in the ecological systems in ways that sustain and heal both ourselves, and our environment.