Saturday, March 22, 2008

Place: The Sense of Spiritual Home

Knowing place reflects an intimacy with the elements of that place, the trees, the animals, the human visitors and, in the case of this blog, the Brisbane River. American nature writer, novelist and preservationist Wallace Stegner (1992) says that: 'Your province is not the wilderness, where the individual makes contact with the universe, but the farm, the neighborhood, the community, the town, the memory of the past, and the hope of the future—everything that is subsumed for you under the word 'place'.

Along the river, away from the road and signs of the city, the tall trees shimmer with the song and dance of birds. Flashing past overhead, in colours of red and green, the King Parrots are being pursued by a small gang of Noisy Mynahs. Miniscule pardalotes parade daintily on narrow branches above the water, while the blue-winged Forest Kingfisher fossicks among the leafy bushes, purring and gurgling as it searches for tasty treats. And right in front of me, the jauntily-dressed black and white Willie Wagtail wiggles its tail feathers back and forth as it hops from branch to branch as if leading the way. Watch out! The Brush turkeys scatter as runners zip past. Dogs bark, straining on their leashes to follow them. The river is brimming with life and movement.

Getting to know place is a joyous adventure. It involves making friends with the locals, human and animal, observing the changes in the light, the colour of water, the shifting seasons, the cycle of flowers and seeds, and the changing tapestry of hues. All these events, sights and sounds effectively bring me home to place.

Steven Galliano and Gary Loeffler are landscape architects in the US who have studied the connection between sense of place and attitudes to the ecosystem. In their paper Place Assessment: How People Define Ecosystems (1999), they recognize the significance of place attachment, saying it acts as a link between human and ecosystem as well as between social experiences and geographical regions (bio-regions).

According to Galliano and Loeffler, the concept of sense of place is individualistic, a subjective yet shared experience at once emotional and symbolic, which can define an individual, a community or a culture. Sense of place brings meaning to the lives of visitors and residents alike, affecting them in various ways from the physical to the spiritual. Feelings of attachment, allurement and love emerge as people engage with local places, reflect on their memories of place, tell stories of their childhood connections - the cubbies they built, the fish they caught, the trees they climbed, and track their life changes through the changes to place.

Even if we've never visited a particular place we can still value it for its symbolic resonance, its wilderness quality and its spiritual attributes and join with others to fight for its protection and survival. Yet these values are often bypassed in resource management practices as such practices are geared to defining places as 'resources' rather than, or in addition to, places which have meaning and can make meaning.

Galliano and Loeffler call for a different way for resource managers to make decisions about place. Place management and place attachment seem poles apart when development, mining or logging intervene. Different groups of stakeholders value places from differing and often clashing worldviews but it's not worldviews that are weighed up in resource management decisions. Their focus is on the physical, the objective, the measurable. Thus concepts like affinity and attachment to place which embrace emotional, symbolic and spiritual dimensions are neglected, and in many cases, rejected as being unscientific, subjective and weak.

As a consequence, the social and spiritual impacts of decisions can result in a strengthening of social/community capital as whole communities may decide to join together to defend what they regard as their place, or our place. Shared meanings about place become shared meanings about attempts to despoil that place.

Meanings about place can be classified in four main ways: (i) scenic-aesthetic; (ii) activity-goals, based on conventional resource management practices (iii) cultural-symbolic, representing emotional and spiritual dimensions; and (iv) individual-expressive, reflecting personalised or individualised meanings about place. Galliano and Loeffler suggest these themes can be used to better qualify management decisions and the likely impacts of those decisions. Using holistic principles, resource managers can more effectively map 'the interactive unity of people and place' (Clark, 1971), taking into account the multiplicity of values about places, not only the economic and/or the ecological.

Resource management processes and environmental impact assessments as they are currently structured often fail to address the intangible non-empirical values and shared experiences of individuals and communities. Galliano and Loeffler mention that one of these unmeasurables is compassion for both natural and cultural qualities of the place.

The Brisbane River and its natural environs is a place of values in conflict where management practices are based on conventional rather than holistic methodologies. I call such approaches 'neo-conservationist' as they attempt to conserve with conservativism. Rather than applying the precautionary principle of first do no harm, the neo-conservationist stance conserves use values over their counterpart, the intrinsic, aesthetic, symbolic and spiritual values, even if these values are founded on scientific evidence, indigenous ecological knowledge or archeological research.

What matters most? Biodiversity or a river view? A place to fish or a place where fishers are repelled? A place to clear or a place to log sustainably and look after? Techno-managerial solution oriented approaches may overlook the nuances inherent to these questions. A sustainable community can have both biodiversity and aesthetics, fishing and rivercare, urban forests and sustainable development.

Knowledge and understanding are key characteristics of resource management but perhaps, following Galliano's and Loeffler's research into place attachment, qualities of wisdom, insight and compassion should be added, to forge a holistic method that embraces the interactive unity of people with place.

Galliano SJ and GM Loeffler, 1999, Place assessment: how people define ecosystems. Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR-462, Portland, OR, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station. (Quigley, TM, Ed., Interior Columbia Basin Ecosystem Management Project: Scientific assessment),
Stegner W, 1992, The sense of place, a letter to Wendell Berry. In: Where the bluebird sings to the lemonade springs: living and writing in the West. New York, Random House, Inc.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Ecotherapy and City Living

Walking in nature is good for your health.

In 2007 the UK mental health charity known as Mind released the results of a study into the health effects of nature connecting. The study was conducted specifically on the impact of green exercise among people with mental health problems and involved a comparison between ecotherapy - a walk in the country and retail therapy - a walk in an indoor shopping centre.

There was a startling difference between the two environments, natural, outdoor and constructed, indoor. 71 percent of participants reported a decrease in depression after walking in the country; they felt less tense and had higher self-esteem. In contrast, walking in the shopping centre led to 22 percent reporting an increase in depression, 33 percent felt no change, and half said their levels of tension had increased. Paradoxically, an equal number of respondents, 44.5 percent, said their mood had improved at the shopping centre while the others' mood had worsened.

There is substantial evidence to show that exercise in outdoor environments enhances physical and mental health. In Mind's survey, 90 percent of respondents claimed it was the combination of nature and exercise that made the difference.

In an article titled Conserving Land; Preserving Human Health, Howard Frumkin and Richard Louv (2007) argue that there is an effective relationship between public health outcomes and the provision of green spaces. They outline that connecting with nature is a significant indicator of positive health and quality of life, while a lack of green spaces can lead to poorer outcomes in both health and life quality.s

Making a plea for an increase in public parks especially in urban areas, Frumkin and Louv state: 'We need to promote land conservation as a way to advance public health, both for people today and for future generations.' Theirs is a widespread all encompassing dream that embraces the future for earth and humanity.

'More than anything, we need a vision of healthy, wholesome places, a vision that extends from densely settled cities to remote rural spreads, from the present to the future, from the most fortunate among us to the least fortunate, from the youngest child to the oldest adult. ... Such places will promote our health, enhance our well-being, nourish our spirits, and steward the beauty and resources of the natural world.'

In this picture spirituality and aesthetics go hand in hand with urban planning, resource management, public health policy and the provision of open natural places in urban areas. Its intention is to create healthy cities and healthy populations.

This issue is also at the forefront of a study by the CSIRO into the links between greening the city and a healthy population. Australia is 'one of the most urbanised countries in the world' with most people living in urban and suburban communities (Pyper, 2004) and the recent rush for development has placed 'enormous pressure' on present and future sustainability. The CSIRO study Greener Cities, Healthier People cites overseas studies which demonstrate that greenspaces provide 'environmental, economic and quality of life benefits for individuals and local communities'.

The World Health Organization has predicted that depression will be the second greatest cause of global ill health by 2020. The test is whether planners and politicians in Brisbane and elsewhere take heed of the research and implement the dream of Frumkin and Louv to protect environmental quality and as a result, to protect and promote public health.

Frumkin H and R Louv, 2007, Conserving Land, Conserving Health, Land Trust Alliance,
Mind, 2007, Ecotherapy – the green agenda for mental health, London, Mind,
Pyper W, 2004, Do greener cities mean healthier people?, National Year of the Built Environment - 2004, Ecos, Apr-June, 9-11,

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Ecopsychological Spirit

The Brisbane River is undergoing tremendous changes along its banks. According to criticism from Associate Professor Peter Skinner of The University of Queensland, the state government has been ''suckered into' allowing developers ... to treat the Brisbane River as if it were a 'vacant lot'' (Robinson, 2008).

What I'm reminded of here are the lyrics of the poignant Joni Mitchell song, revived recently by Counting Crows, Big Yellow Taxi:

'Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got till it's gone?
They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.'

These types of changes to the urban river environment not only alter ecosystem flows, reduce tree canopy, and destroy bird, insect and animal havens, they also create an inner disturbance which the practical and academic field of ecopsychology seeks to assist. Irrevocable changes to the natural environment, especially to places where we may have grown up, can cause psychological trauma, grief and deep deep concern (Bohm, 2003; Windle, 1995).

In recognition of the personal, emotional and even spiritual impacts of environmental devastation, and in contrast, to promote the role of nature in human health and wellbeing, the Australian Psychological Association has developed a position statement, Psychology and the Natural Environment.

Authored by Joseph Reser and others, the document recommends that in light of 'the urgency and magnitude of the environmental issues and problems' ... intervention by 'psychologists requires much greater attention, visibility, strategic cross-disciplinary collaborations, and concerted effort.'

There are a range of practical eco-psychological approaches towards combatting the depressing impacts of environmental despair as well as enhancing human health and wellbeing. The pioneer ecopsychologist Sarah Conn makes a strong connection between personal psychological issues and broader ecosocial concerns. She works with individuals to enhance mental health and wellbeing together with an awareness and action program towards sustainability (of earth and self). This involves an immersion in the natural world.

In David Suzuki's wondrous television program The Sacred Balance, Sarah Conn takes Suzuki into the forest and explains to him the process of connecting simultaneously with forest with self with forest. Conn says: 'The key to motivating environmentally sound behavior, from an ecopsychological standpoint, is to enhance the human experience of connection with the non-human world - creating opportunities for experiencing an expanded sense of identity.'

To unearth this expanded sense of identity, or eco-identity, linked within The Sacred Balance website is a practical exercise called Soul Tracking. First there's a very short questionnaire about place which then leads to some suggestions about how to connect with one's place in order to develop or deepen a relationship with that place.

Initially there is an awakening of the senses, the sounds, sights, smells of the area mixed with deep purposeful breathing. Authors of Soul Tracking, Walter Christie and Cynthia Krum, say that their process is simple. It 'involves paying attention and noticing where you are drawn. It is like following an animal's tracks in mud or snow.' What you follow is what they call a 'fascination', something in nature that you feel drawn to.

'A fascination may be a place of resonance, a feeling of familiarity. There may also be a sense of mystery, a feeling of importance of this encounter. ... Once you are drawn to an image of fascination, observe it carefully. ... While tracking, you may use questions such as: how does what I have been drawn to relate to something going on inside of me? How does my experience relate to a specific theme or issue in my life?'

Following a fascination, or in process-oriented earth-based psychology, following a flirt, and contemplating its significance lacks the notion of reciprocity which an integral dimension of ecopsychological theory and practice. What emerges in this interconnected process of reciprocity is what Sarah Conn terms 'ecological consciousness', which occurs through 'an approach to phenomena [which] is about opening to their manifestation and resonating with them, opening to the intuitive awareness that we share consciousness with plants, animals, and even rocks.'

Conn was speaking at the 2007 Psychology-Ecology-Sustainability conference where she asked the insightful question: 'As we head towards breakdown, what possibilities are emerging for breakthrough? How can each of us open to those possibilities and find our part in the breakthrough?' Part of her answer can be found in the practice of ecopsychology whose task ' is restore the experience of interconnectedness and interdependence among psychological, cultural and ecological systems.'

During her talk, Conn cited the experience of the deep ecology and Buddhist Pullitzer Prize winning poet Gary Snyder whose nature encounter with an Oak tree had a profound effect:

'After years of walking right past it on my way to chores in the meadow, I actually paid attention to a certain gnarly canyon live oak one day. Or maybe it was ready to show itself to me. I felt its oldness, suchness, inwardness, oakness, as if it were my own. Such intimacy makes you totally at home in life and in yourself.'

Opening to another, whether Tree, River, Flower or Bird, can affect us signficantly. Conn says that in the process we slow down, become silent and are more open to and aware of local surroundings. As a result there can be unexpected consequences. One of Conn's students remarked that: 'Presented with unseen complexity, a need for empathy, and the feeling of a greater energy at work, I felt a connection to the grass that encouraged me to give back.' Another commented: 'Being with the water allowed me to hear about movement, change, and constancy.'

The Brisbane River offers opportunities for soul tracking, an inner journey that can effect change in ourselves, and subsequently, in the environment.

Becoming aware of the intricacies of the river's aqua-system, the movement of the tides, the seasonal changes of water flow, the changing colours of plant and water, the sights and sounds of different creatures, and becoming attuned to the constancy of its flow, mesh together in a sense of curiosity and intent where responsiveness to nature leads to responsibility for nature.

Slow down, notice, feel the fascination, connect, reflect, give back. Conn comments that what emerges through an eco-connection with places in nature is an 'ecological identity, a consciousness of one's place in the ecological community' that leads to an active engagement of care.

Bohm G, 2003, Emotional reactions to environmental risks: Consequentialist versus ethical evaluation. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 23, 199 - 212.
Conn S, 2007, Psychology in a New Key: Ecopsychology and Ecological Consciousness, Paper presented to the Psychology-Ecology-Sustainability Conference, Lewis & Clark College, Portland, Oregon, June 8, 2007.
Robinson G, 2008, Flood concerns over Brisbane River, Sydney Morning Herald, Jan. 24, 2008,
Windle P, 1995, The Ecology of Grief, in T Roszak, ME Gomes and AD Kanner, Eds., Ecopsychology. Restoring the Earth. Healing the Mind, San Francisco, Sierra Club.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Leisure or Essential Essence?

Shhrrrtumpth, shhrrrtumpth, shhrrrtumpth - a strange squwelchy, hoarsey, staccato call emerges from the tree canopy. I think it must be a fledgling Coucal rasping its call for food as I have not seen a bird like this along the river before. As I peer among the branches an adult Turkey is resting on one of the low branches overlooking the water, while young Turkeys fossick in the leaf litter below.

The early morning rain is lifting and the song of the river explodes in the sound of Kookaburras, Magpies and Noisy Mynahs. People run by with their dogs, both panting in the damp humidity. The personal trainer with a series of water bottles velroed into his belt, stops with his client to do some active sparing. Thwack twack go the boxing gloves. Muffled voices from the rowers echo up the riverbank as their coaches or coxwains urge them into faster and more coordinated rhythms. In the distance the low throaty thrum of peak hour traffic and the growl of planes overhead seems to vanish in the space of heightened awareness and sensitivity.

The river trail is a haven, a refuge from the outer life of the city. It helps people turn inward, so connecting with the river becomes both leisure activity and spiritual experience.

Two New Zealand researchers, Christopher Schmidt and Donna Little (2007) have explored the interconnection between leisure and spirit and found that people who feel their leisure experiences are spiritual experiences say they gain a renewed sense of vitality, awe and appreciation. Being in nature was 'inspirational', 'an escape' from everyday life (235), where they could feel 'more peaceful and connected', where there were 'no distractions' and 'no one to judge you' (236).

Others found an affirmation of their Christian beliefs saying they felt closer to God. One woman described the sunrise and the spreading rays of the sun as 'a great miracle being unveiled... like God stroking your face' (236).

Walking in nature and being connected to nature, even in the city, created meaning in the lives of the informants. They gained personal insight and one Buddhist practitioner said it helped her tap 'into emotions that had been lidded by modern society' (237).

Leisure activities like meditation, yoga, tai chi also enhanced the spiritual. The informants said that these and other ritual practices laid a spiritual foundation for their day, a place for 'spiritual reflection' and 'guidance' for the day; this was in addition to the exercise they gain. Schmidt and Little comment that leisure became 'a composite tapestry with multiple elements and implications' (239-240).

If natural beauty is inspirational, a significant trigger for physical, emotional and spiritual enhancement, what happens in a world where the beauty of nature is being smothered with the entrapments of postmodern society? Governmental predictions show a rise in depression and other mental illnesses, so can nature-centred leisure help?

While nature-based leisure experiences are not the only answer, the culling of trees, the plastering over of river spaces, the consequent disappearance of birds and animals, can give rise to grief and trauma about the on-going loss of place and sense of community (human and nature). As the study by Schmidt and Little has shown, nature encounters can offer individuals guidance, insight and wellbeing, an escape from their busy city-driven lives and a provide a new sense of vitality and meaning.

Schmidt C and DE Little, 2007, Qualitative Insights into Leisure as a Spiritual Experience, Journal of Leisure Research, 39, 2, 222-247.