On my most recent excursion into the mountains of central, northern New Mexico, the idea that exposure to the natural world can be a therapeutic event having the potential to put our lives in perspective, occupied my thinking. As I hiked up to the Cottage-in-the-Forest and settled into a relaxed state, the day was beginning to darken. Looking out of a large cabin window toward the West, the snow-capped Sangre-de-Cristo mountains overwhelmed me with emotion. There isn’t a time when I am enveloped by the beauty of this land, that I don’t have a heartfelt response. Literally, tears well up as I take in the incredible majesty of the forest and mountains. I ponder the animals who call this area their home, thinking of the thousands of creatures occupying the space between where I’m sitting inside the warmth of the cabin and as far as my eye takes me to the top of the furthest mountain. At the same time, all other concerns seem to melt away or take a much less than important place on my list of life issues.
“Nature vs. Nurture” is a long standing debate having implications on what effect we believe we can have to help cure our ailing planet. But before I get into discussion of our impact on environmental degradation, allow me to start with the effects “nurture” can have on our ailing psyches. It has long been known that exposure to the natural world can have very positive therapeutic results when it comes to depression, feelings of loneliness and alienation, hopelessness and other mental and emotional forms of distress such as anxiety and fear. Sometimes the solutions to our immediate problems are right outside our door. Putting a crisis in perspective goes a long way toward solving that crisis because we can then see it with a clear mind and attack it with determined resolve.
As a high school teacher for twenty-five years, I had the opportunity to see first-hand the positive effects that immersion in a social problem can have. Teaching courses where I concentrated on examining social and political change, the nature of society and the prospects for future advancements, it became clear to me that if my students were to understand the political and economic system into which they would soon be expected to function, we needed to get to the heart of what ails society. Upon examination and analysis, we would determine a set of problems and then attempt to find solutions. Our “Bookstore Project” was one such experiment.
Another experiment concerned environmental issues. Part of the awareness involved an “Eco-Retreat” where students would spend a day hiking about twelve miles in silence. Students were required to communicate only through the written word or hand signals the entire time. This immersion aided awareness of the natural world and allowed them “quiet time” to ponder the questions posed to them prior to the retreat.
Former student and Terra Advocati Advisor Tanya Keyser, had recently faced a crisis of unimaginable proportions. Her best friend Adria was brutally murdered by a classmate, a crime for which he was eventually executed. During this time of mourning, I invited her to join our “Eco-Retreat” students, a group of about fifteen others, and spend a day hiking the hill country of central Texas. She agreed after I explained to her my reasoning for inviting her. I felt that such an excursion would do her good. Exposing her to the incredible scenery, the plants and animals, the creeks and ponds, the Spring-time breezes and the wonderful fresh air, would have a definite positive effect on her dismal outlook in the face of her friend’s death.
I wouldn’t presume the effect such an excursion had on her. I save that for her to propound. Yet, I can’t help but think that exposure to the serenity of the Texas hill country, allowed her to relax, encouraged her to reflect and set her toward a process to regroup. My own experience tells me that that is what likely occurred for Tanya. It has happened exactly that way many times for me. We are the sum total of our life’s experiences – traumatic and catastrophic, as well as ecstatic and uplifting.
My very good friend and Terra Advocati Advisor, AJ Giliberto and I have done back-pack immersions into the wild. Big Bend in West Texas and the Porcupine Mountains in northern Michigan are two of the most memorable. Again, I won’t speak on AJ’s behalf, but those trips are etched into my psyche and had both immediate and long-term effects like only a handful of others in my life. I am the result of what I experienced on those cliffs and forests and waterfalls.
If you need an outsider’s view of what I am proposing, read Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild: From Lost to Found” (and/or see the Academy Award winning movie). Of course there is Thoreau’s “Walden” – a classic we are all familiar with. The discipline of Eco-psychology and the practice of Eco-therapy are becoming widely recognized as truly beneficial in addressing emotional issues as well as stress, anxiety and fear.
Our natures are fixed. What nurtures us are our experiences. If we can gain perspective and insight and, at the same time, develop a commitment to help save the giant blue-green marble we all love, we are fully self-actualized and our lives mean something more important than we ever could have imagined. I am of the belief that Terra Advocati can offer an avenue to that end and that the Cottage-in-the-Forest will be a vehicle for personal rejuvenation and long-term public activism.
We are Terra Advocati!