“How peculiar it is that you could study at a university in New York or in California or in Texas or New Mexico, and you‘d learn the very same things. We‘re taught the same information because the place where we are, the particular ecology, is thought to have no bearing on knowledge and thinking." (Abram, 1997, p. 51)
Thus far relevant literature has been summarised in a model that might provide a useful map to orient clinicians. However, in following Abram‘s example (above) of valuing place, it seems impossible not to more fully address culture in this place of New Zealand, a country founded on biculturalism (even though founding bicultural relationships were often not honoured). While this further stretches the scope of an already wide-reaching review, more fully addressing the local context seems important. This chapter considers possibilities of working with the human-nature relationship whilst holding the intersections of culture and place in mind. Possible dangers of Pakeha "borrowing" of indigenous techniques are highlighted, and an alternative is suggested, that of focusing on the possibilities of language to stimulate and embody an earth-centred world-view.
Biculturalism and the Human-Nature Relationship – Questions and Controversies
There is a lack of literature directly addressing the human-nature relationship and biculturalism. This may be because most ecopsychology articles are written in the United States (particularly California) or the U.K., where biculturalism does not get as much attention as in Aotearoa.
Much of the general material on ecopsychology focuses on helping humans to become more intimate and connected with the land. This aim of ecopsychology becomes more complicated in a Aotearoa bicultural context. With a relative scarcity of literature, questions about this are easier to ask than answer. Could a non-bicultural ecopsychology that helps Pakeha and Tau Iwi to feel more like "people of the land" end up simply being an extension of colonisation, which historically prioritised non Maori‘s relationship to the land, and dispossessed Maori?
Coates, Grey, and Hetherington‘s (2006) research on bicultural social work initiatives in Canada would suggest that though colonisation is a danger in bicultural initiatives, the alignment of eco-psychological values such as interconnectedness and spirituality with indigenous worldviews is promising. Woodard (2008) confirms the importance of interconnectedness as central to the Maori sense of self, and links the concept of mana ake with Roszak‘s integrated ecological self.
Some ecopsychology does draw on indigenous ideas (mainly indigenous North American), in the form of the four directions model, vision quest experiences, talking circle rituals, etc (Almass, n.d). It is beyond the scope of this dissertation to assess the validity of this. That said, the question does seem important: Is this a creative sharing of cultural knowledge, or a form of cultural appropriation that bears little relationship to the actual indigenous relationship to the earth? Thinking relationally in the Aotearoa context, would any such initiatives be carried out unilaterally or in relationship with Maori? Leslie Gray, the indigenous North American founder of shamanic counselling, makes some suggestions that may be relevant for Aotearoa for an ecopsychological bicultural relationship.
"I think a little humility is in order. There is a tendency for people in the overculture to presume a lack of sophistication among those who don't rely heavily on industrial methods. So if ecopsychologists honour the fact that they have a great deal to learn from primal people, they will be getting off to a good start. First show respect, and then really listen. I don't recommend running around Indian reservations looking for enlightenment. Pitch in first and ask how you can serve their needs as they define them… Those who would seek to learn might first roll up their sleeves and ask how they can help. There is so much work that needs to be done. Native communities are plagued by high rates of teenage suicide, infant mortality, and unemployment, by environmental assault by business and government, and on and on… ecopsychologists should support the struggles for native survival and native sovereignty." (Gray, 1995, p. 181-182)
What may be most important about Gray‘s recommendations for inter-cultural ecopsychological relationships, is what she does not say. She does not pre-define what nonindigenous eco-psychologists might learn (though she does separately suggest that it may be more about sharing a more earth-centered world-view than about trying to utilise an indigenous practitioner‘s techniques), and she leaves open the question of what indigenous people might choose to define as their needs.
Gray‘s recommendations match Totton‘s (2005) view of socially engaged psychotherapy (including ecopsychology) as a form of local knowledge, not general technical knowledge. Engaging with the human-nature relationship as psychotherapists may require knowledge and engagement with local culture and communities, a sort of engagement that is not automatically facilitated by the training and knowledge taught at universities that may not consider place important.
This focus on the local context is not intended to discredit other forms of knowing, such as that afforded by the general ecopsychology literature, or as suggested by the seemingly universally applicable model suggested earlier in the dissertation. Instead this local focus and the other arguments made in this chapter are suggested as a counter-point to earlier parts of this review, and to the sense of knowing that a model or an overview of the literature might engender.
While Gray does not in the earlier quote specifically define what she means by an earth centred world-view, Abram‘s ideas as explored in the next section may be a useful entry point for non-indigenous psychotherapists. In particular, his ideas raise the possibility of using language that evokes animistic consciousness, which in turn produces an earth centred world-view that includes an experience of relating to nature as family.
Language and the Experience of Nature-As-Family Abram is an influential writer on the human-nature relationship whose ideas focus on language. Being a philosopher rather than a psychotherapist, Abram is not focused on technique, but instead offers an analysis of Western culture‘s movement away from an earth-centred world view and away from an animistic state of consciousness. His analysis is based on the centrality of language in the human-nature relationship, and the impact upon that relationship of the development of increasingly abstract Western language that is separated from the natural context (Abram, 1996.) I will argue that Abram‘s focus on language offers ways in which ecopsychology and indigenous views might be able to meet biculturally without needing to attempt to fit indigenous ideas into a Western model, or without non-indigenous people appropriating indigenous techniques, ceremonies, or ideas. According to Abram (1996), human language first developed in the context of the other "languages of nature", of animal tracks and calls and the signs embedded in the natural environment that humans without industrial technology, and with a more animistic consciousness were attuned to. By gradual steps language became less connected to the signs of the natural environment, coming to function, for instance, as an ark for the Jewish people in their exile from their land.
In Western cultures written signs of language gradually lost their references to the natural environment, becoming entirely abstract and self-referring. The move away from Western cultures being primarily oral cultures meant that language was no longer linked to the context of person, the relationship of storytelling, and the embodiment of language by the human animal. The loss of language that is intimately tied to the natural context has resulted in a loss of animistic consciousness. Animistic consciousness is important in Abram‘s analysis because animism, (holding an awareness of humans as members of a family of creation including animals, plants, and the earth itself) is inherently ecological (Abram, 1996.) In an animistic worldview and consciousness, the relationships between humans and nature are family relationships, involving all of the reciprocity, obligation, intimacy, and intensity that family relationships between humans do.
Given the importance to ecopsychologists of reciprocity in the human-nature relationship, it is no wonder that Abram‘s thinking has been influential as a meta-theory about the humannature relationship. In terms of clinical implications, applying Abram‘s ideas does not require a complete re-writing of Western languages. Even though Western languages are abstract and estranged from nature, there are still, according to Abram, "beautiful ways of speaking that are true to our direct sensory experience." (p. 65) Psychotherapists may be well placed to appreciate these beautiful ways of speaking, given their attunement to the use and effects of language, and that the work of psychotherapy is largely oral and relational rather than written.
For example, a psychotherapist without any eco-psychological orientation reported saying to a South African client that "sometimes an issue looms large and we can't see around or beyond it - like standing close to the foot of a hill. Therapy can be seen as standing in a different place so that, while the hill can still be seen, it is part of a more inclusive landscape." Instead of using the English word "hill", the therapist (also of South African origin) used the Afrikaans word "koppie." (personal communication, Steve Appel, August 2010)
In terms of ecopsychology this therapist‘s intervention could be understood in a number of different ways. The client‘s past direct sensory experiences of nature were evoked by imaginatively placing them in the natural environment. Furthermore, the client‘s attachment to his/her mother-land was evoked by the use of the word koppie, a word which to an immigrant might carry a very different emotional meaning from the word hill. Using the koppie as a metaphor normalises (or perhaps naturalises) the experience of being personally challenged – it places the experience in a natural context rather than in an individual (and therefore potentially shaming or disconnecting) context. In terms of Abram‘s theories, speaking in ways that are true to direct sensory experience helps the listener to shift into a closer relationship with nature (Abrams 1996).
Poetic Language as a Western Cultural Resource for Relating to Nature
Beyond this example, for Pakeha to intimately engage with the Aotearoa natural context and with biculturalism, may require them to reclaim, recognise, and use ways of speaking that are true to direct sensory experience, and that are already part of the Western tradition. As Maori arrived in Aotearoa in their Waka, this would require Pakeha to arrive, to disembark, to drag their ―ark‖ of context-less language up out of the water and up the beach, and to begin to find language to explore their new land as a home. For Pakeha this would be a very different enterprise from that which is a norm for many of us, who are used to interacting only with human signs in what Abram (1997) calls a "sort of intra-species incest."
If, as Freud and Sophocles and Katzenbach might suggest, a sort of self-referential incestuousness might fundamentally permeate Western culture, then there is also no lack of Westerners willing to address this through "story, and poetry which speaks as the body speaks, rather than as the mind.... words that are not just abstract terms, words that still have the soil clinging to their roots, that feel earthy, that are appropriate to the body and land." (Abram, 1997, p. 74)
Katzenbach‘s (2003) reinterpretation of Oedipus is potent not only because of Sophocles‘ literary power, but also because despite his status as one of the great ancestors or originators of Western culture, he can also be credibly claimed as an ecopsychologist. Furthermore, Sophocle‘s vision does not end with the tragedy at Thebes, but continues through tragedy to later plays which depicts a form of ecological redemption that he refers to as "flourishing."
While I emphasise Sophocles as being important because of the poetic power of his language, and because he is within the Western cultural stream, he is also distant from Aotearoa in both time and place. American ecopsychologists have drawn liberally on a source closer to their home, the poet Walt Whitman. In Whitman‘s poem, There was a Child went Forth, he captures the ideas of attachment to nature, and internalisation of the natural world, perhaps more evocatively than any psychotherapist has:
"There was a child went forth every day;
And the first object he look‘d upon, that object he became;
And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of the day, or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.
The early lilacs became part of this child,
And grass, and white and red morning-glories, and white and red clover, and the song of the phoebe-bird,
And the Third-month lambs, and the sow‘s pink-faint litter, and the mare‘s foal, and the cow‘s calf,
And the noisy brood of the barn-yard, or by the mire of the pond-side,
And the fish suspending themselves so curiously below there—and the beautiful curious liquid,
And the water-plants with their graceful flat heads—all became part of him..."
While the content of this poem could be thought of in terms of the empathic sectors of the specifically Western model presented earlier, the poetic and true to sensory experience (Abram, 1996) style of expression might be more important than the content, in thinking about meeting biculturally. Another example in Whitman‘s Song of the Rolling Earth, combines beautiful and direct expression with ecological content:
"I swear the earth shall surely be complete
to him or her who shall be complete.
The earth remains jagged and broken only
to him or her who remains jagged and broken."
While Whitman‘s poetry is powerful and widely appealing, at times it jars for New Zealanders who might not know the sound of the song of the phoebe-bird. In contrast, James K. Baxter is a poet who grappled extensively with New Zealand – both the social context and landscape. According to Gillespie (n.d.):
"New Zealand is only a nice idea for most. Even for those who live in New Zealand it is more of a concept than a living reality, an unconscious experience of a land as unknown as the nature of our true selves. We admire New Zealand on postcards and in still and moving image, but few in a nation of recent settlers have attempted to live and embody New Zealand, to truly understand what it is and then explain that to others. James K. Baxter attempted to do this."
Baxter‘s poem High Country Weather is below:
Alone we are born
and die alone
Yet see the red-gold cirrus
over snow-mountain shine
upon the upland road
ride easy stranger
Surrender to the sky
your heart of anger.
The quoting of this poetry in relation to Abram‘s ideas is not intended to suggest the use of poetry as a therapeutic intervention (as much as some clients might find this helpful in relating to nature.) These poets are suggested as examples of those who have found their voices to speak as human animals in the midst of nature, human animals who are nature through and through. Poets might embody their relationship to nature poetically, while therapists may have to find their own voices, and to find ways of speaking to and of nature. In doing so they may help their clients to do the same.
In order to think more about the human-nature relationship, this chapter linked some literature regarding ecopsychology, biculturalism, and the power of language. Firstly, shared values between Western eco-psychological attempts to relate to nature, and indigenous traditions, were considered. Similarities may help these two traditions to harmonise, or may facilitate colonisation of indigenous cultures. Ecopsychologists‘ use of indigenous North American shamanic rituals (an attempt to relate more intimately with nature), was considered as a borrowing of technique. Gray‘s recommendation contrasts the sharing of an earth centred worldview with such a borrowing of technique. This borrowing of indigenous techniques is related to the favouring of universalised technical knowledge over local knowledge.
The second section of this chapter drew mainly on Abram‘s ideas about the link between language and animistic consciousness. Animistic consciousness is explained as the producer of an earth centred world-view, and the experience of relating to nature as family. Relating to nature as family includes a sense of reciprocity and interdependency with nature. These ideas are related to clinical work through an example of an intervention by a non eco-psychological psychotherapist.
The final section continues with the theme of language, including the authors Sophocles, Whitman, and Baxter. These three figures are used as an example of direct and beautiful language that is true to sensory experience. In accord with Abram‘s theories, it may be worthwhile for clinicians to pay attention to the power of language to impact clients‘ relationships with nature.
Click to go to next section: Conclusions and Reflections on the Research
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