“Each of us inherits the story of our people, communities, nations, and it is remembered through, with and in the context of the land and seas, and air, and creatures.” — Kimberly Ruffin
Anna, a small-framed 15-year-old Caucasian female, sat engulfed by the overstuffed chair in my office. She looked down, past the floor, to the day her world collapsed. She was walking home from school when three men jumped her, threw her against the huge old oak tree that lay on the outskirts of her family’s farm and proceeded to rape her. They left her against the tree, with torn clothes, battered and forever changed.
After a time (how long Anna could not recall), she walked home to her beloved lakeside farm that was just a quarter-mile from the assault. She described her home as her “safe place” where she was able to “just be myself,” surrounded by her animals, which included horses, dogs, goats and chickens. After finishing her numerous chores around the farm, she would grab a book and take her kayak to the center of the lake, spending hours immersed in the narratives. This had been her haven … until now.
Anna’s mother met her at the door, and Anna collapsed in her arms. The police were called but were unable to make sense of the traumatized youth’s story and unintentionally violated her with their dismissal. She was left feeling ashamed, alone and unlovable. She began isolating herself from her siblings, her friends and even her animals.
According to Dan McAdams, Ruthellen Josselson and Amia Lieblich in their book Identity and Story: Creating Self in Narrative, identity development is a “process of dialogue between the person and the host culture. The individual appropriates meaning from the culture in the form of important attachments to people, events, valued objects, environments and even orientations to our bodies (i.e., embodied identity).”
The history of humanity is held in the context of the ecosystems in which it takes place. Conflict leaves marks on the earth and with the people and animals who reside in that setting. Although most of us do not rely on cues from the sea or sky to determine our fate or next move, we still rely on the global eco-community to provide food, clean water, medicine and oxygen. Although we are removed, we remain interconnected, and our connection is just as important to our overall well-being as it was centuries ago.
Human development has been described as a biopsychosocialspiritual experience that is a complex interaction of genetics and internal and external environments. Among the external contributors to a person’s growth are family, community and culture (which examines customs, beliefs and values).
However, often excluded from a cultural assessment is the green space and biodiversity experienced by a child. Green space refers to open space, urban spaces such as parks or any natural setting in a person’s regular surroundings. Biodiversity is a term that describes the variety of (and interaction between) life on earth. This information provides a framework to the early interactions among natural settings that inform an individual’s concept of self within a more global context.
As clinicians, we are greatly remiss when we fail to explore a person’s eco-culture. Children learn through early interactions with their environment. According to Stephanie Linden, a special education curriculum specialist at Crofton Elementary School in Maryland, “A child’s first language is not verbal; it is sensory. Children learn to communicate through their senses. Therefore, it is imperative to have an understanding of their routine sensory climate.”
This is especially of interest when considering the variety of environments that may be experienced. A person living in an urban setting may know only of concrete playgrounds with metal benches and pigeons gathering on windowsills. This is different from a person who lives on a farm with goats and horses. Furthermore, consider individuals arriving from other countries who may experience human-animal-plant relationships differently. For example, a child from India (where cows are viewed as sacred) may find a school fieldtrip to a dairy farm to be disturbing. Therefore, assessing for eco-culture demonstrates a level of cultural sensitivity that encompasses a holistic understanding of the person’s worldview.
Eco-culture and nature therapy
Ronen Berger, researcher, author and founder of Nature Therapy in Tel Aviv, along with Mooli Lahad, medical psychologist and professor at Tel-Hai College, identified several variables that contribute to overall resiliency. In their BASIC Ph Resiliency Model, Berger and Lahad noted that it is the combination of our Beliefs, Affect, Social Functioning, Imagination, Cognition and Physiology that aid in coping with stressful and traumatic events. However, they found that most clinicians and academics focus on cognitions alone. In addition, the researchers proposed that engaging in nature promotes creativity and aids in physical, emotional, social, cognitive and moral development.
Berger and Lahad concluded, “Nature invites us to make room for the child within, those parts of us that feel, imagine and are present in the experience of playing. Connecting to the cycles of nature can help us bond with parallel processes in our lives and to relate to them in a broad universal context. An encounter with a migrating bird, a dead lizard or a blooming plant can be a stimulus for expressing a similar story within us, of which we were previously ashamed. Sharing the story can normalize it and impart hope. The direct contact with natural elements, the wind, the earth, the plants, can connect us to our body and can awaken the world of images and emotions. Something in the encounter with nature and its powers has the potential to connect us to ourselves; to our strengths and to our coping resources.”
Engaging in the natural eco-culture of the client can provide a deeper, more meaningful healing.
Anna’s ability to discuss any aspect of her trauma was enhanced when Max, my therapy dog, joined the sessions. Initially, we would take Max for short walks around the practice neighborhood. On one of those walks, Anna proclaimed her love of kayaking and asked if we might be able to go one day. I had never taken a client kayaking before, and I was unsure of the liability and ethical ramifications. Still, Anna felt strongly that she wanted to go kayaking with me on our nearby creek.
Following consultation with several colleagues, I asked Anna’s mother about the possibility of holding a session on the kayaks. To my surprise, Anna’s mother enthusiastically agreed: “Anna is a very proficient kayaker and a very strong swimmer. I am happy to consent.”
The following week, we met at the area where I keep my kayaks. Anna had brought her own. We put the kayaks in on the sandy shore of the lazy creek and paddled around for a while. Anna had become more animated since we took our sessions outdoors, and she eagerly pressed for us to move out of the calm water to the more challenging adjoining river. I decided that this was indicative of her trust in our relationship — to venture into deeper, more challenging waters.
As we entered the mouth of the river, I remembered the bulkhead that was just around the bend. I had frequently found myself paddling too close and instantly getting sucked into the undertow, which resulted in my kayak being thrust into a head-on collision with a rock barrier. I knew how to release from the undertow, but I was curious how my eager client would view the challenge.
As we paddled into the river, the waters began to churn, splashing in the wake of passing boats. Anna stayed safely in the middle of the river, while I deliberately ventured slightly closer to shore. Sure enough, the current grabbed my kayak and forced me against the rock bed. Anna remained safely beyond the current and was surprised to see me paddling against the waves and rocks. She called out to me, “Stop paddling! Just let the waves take you in … then release.”
I acted as if I had not heard her wisdom and continued to struggle with the current. Finally, Anna yelled, “Stop fighting it, Dr. Cheryl! You have to let it take you in … to release you! You will be fine. Just let go!”
AH! YES! Don’t fight it. Just release it! So, I did …and easily paddled to my very wise (and now frowning) client.
She lowered her head and began to cry for the first time. We adjoined our paddles and for the rest of the session sat in silence in the middle of the river.
The weeks that followed were an emotional roller coaster filled with disclosure, tears and healing. At the end of one session, Anna announced, “It is time. It is time to return to the oak tree.” She was ready to return to the place where her violation had occurred. To confront the oak tree that had stood witness. The sessions that followed were characterized by imagery and preparation for Anna’s journey to the location of the assault.
Finally, she was ready. We met at the site of the rape. We got out of the car and slowly walked to the tree — a huge ancient oak whose branches, now bare preparing for the winter rest, stretched out, welcoming Anna. I could never have been prepared for what happened next. Anna ran to the tree, wrapped her arms around its wide girth and began to cry, “Thank you!”
Anna had now slipped to the base of the tree and continued, “Thank you! During everything, you stood with me. You held me up. You never left me!”
Anna’s mother and I just looked at each other in astonishment. Anna was grateful to the oak tree for holding witness to her assault and remaining with her throughout the entire atrocity. Anna’s rape is remembered through, with and in the context of the land and seas, and air, and creatures. She wanted to honor the old oak, so she planted bulbs at its base. In the early spring, Anna returned to find the most beautiful small white flowers peeking up through the late frost … a sign that life can hold beauty even after devastation.
Nature provides us with the context of our experiences. It is not separate from, but a container for — a co-journeyer of — our lived experiences. As Berger and Lahad found, “Through the direct contact and connection with nature, people can also touch their own ‘inner’ nature. One can feel authenticity and develop components of personality and important ways of life that might have been hard to express amidst the intensity of modern life.”
As clinicians, we have the ability to facilitate this type of deep healing as we venture into the eco-cultures of our clients and invite them to reconnect with the natural settings of their lives.
Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is affiliate faculty for Loyola and Fordham Universities. Her research interests include examining sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer, nature-informed therapy and geek therapy. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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