Healing & the Power of Place

Leaf After Rain-Frapestaartje

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In a couple of excellent posts, Susan at the Wellness Writer has written about ecotherapy, a form of treatment that seeks to restore the lost connections with the natural world that are essential to health. (She cites a new book of, the same name as a good introduction.) Of course, reconnecting is an important part of wellness, but it drove home the fact that we’ve so lost the natural connection that it’s now a treatment rather than a part of everyday life.

Of course, lack of connection to people, places, emotions – pretty much anything – is a hallmark of severe depression, and multiple therapies are usually necessary to help get a depressed person out of a world of gray sameness. Awakening the feelings and senses by participating in the natural world, in whatever form it might be available, can be a powerful way to begin this process. It’s also true, though, that people without depression need that same restorative connection to sustaining wellness.

No matter how many places I’ve lived in or traveled to, I’ve always felt a strong response to the natural setting. It’s a need to reach into those spaces to feel their influence and to let them work on me. Susan’s post reminded me of that dimension of my experience. It’s all too possible to lose touch with it, not only when depressed but also when overly absorbed by work.

The book,Ecotherapy, is especially interesting because it brings together essays on psychological, spiritual, social and political dimensions of restoring the human relationship to nature. (In this post, I’m talking about the personal dimension related to healing, and will look at other contexts in future posts.)

The “nature” discussed here and in many recent books and articles is not a single thing, but includes the flows of life and earth even in lands changed drastically by human cultivation. Entering wildland, rural areas of farm and range, or gardens covers many forms of healing experience. Before there can be healing, though, there has to be an openness to the sensations of each place, a relaxing of mind, a different awareness of one’s own physical presence. As Jim Nollman puts it in Why We Garden, this is not something we are born with.

… A sense of place evolves as we live, experience, grow, touch and perhaps taste soil, learn to predict weather, garden. … It begins to evolve only after a person starts to perceive himself or herself participating … with the natural processes of place.

…[A] sense emanates from every part of the body. In other words, a sense of place includes attitudes. And perceptions. And a touch of spirituality: a sensitivity to dreams, perceptions and visions. And gut feelings – like the gut feeling that is currently prompting so many of us to put down roots … .

He also describes a sense of place as including the relationship to place. As he says above, it’s not just about the thoughts and responses but also about participating, getting close to the natural processes of growth and change wherever they may be found. It’s hard to imagine a more dramatic contrast of experience than that between remote wildlands of vast extent and the backyard garden. Yet both in their own ways can awaken mind, feeling, body and soul to the sense, relationship and sustaining power of the natural world.

The experience of wilderness is that of participating in and responding to a power of nature far greater than anything in our normal scale of living. It is a reminder of a vaster order in life in which we have a place but which we do not control completely. For me, at least, part of the experience is the hard work of getting there, hiking with a backpack for miles. That’s a sort boot camp to purge and sweat out the stress and preoccupations of a more mind-centered self, full of tension, worry and depression. That purging relaxes me and brings back the ability to be surprised. It opens the senses to awareness and awe in the presence of forces so much greater than the plans of human minds. Then the awareness, the sense of what’s important, the experience of time, all begin to change. Healing, for me, is almost incidental to such deep changes of perception, feeling and thought.

Experience of nature at the small scale of the garden is all about participating in a different way, through the daily, hands-into-the dirt work of digging, planting, weeding, watering, composting and a dozen other jobs. It’s about watching closely the daily changes of weather, the influence of heat and cold, rain and drought, the content of the soil and what it can grow. The sense of time turns to seasons and cycles of growth, fruit and flower-bearing and decay. All around are the presences of living, growing things that instill a close responsiveness to their needs. Gardening adds to who we are as we concentrate thought, touch and all our senses on working with the natural processes unfolding before us.

Of course, it’s possible to heal in the presence of nature without quite so much labor. Walking into a garden or seeing mountains and canyons at a distance evoke two kinds of responses in me. One is the feeling of beauty and balance I get in the presence of great art, a restorative harmony that fills my being. Allied with that is a kind of blending into what I see in a way I think of as spiritual. I can’t get it very well into words because the experience gets into some part of me that precedes words and thinking. It is the stuff that words and ideas try to capture but never succeed at expressing. Words like transcendence, transformation, vision come to mind. Whatever the experience should be called, it’s often overwhelming, and it’s always healing.

These experiences are shared by everyone to some degree. What are some of the restorative places and moments that stand out in your memory?

6 Responses to “Healing & the Power of Place”

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  1. Dear John,
    Thanks for mentioning me. What a nice description of the book and the movement! I keep on rereading passages of this book and liking them so very much! And my gardening seems to fit in perfectly with the ecotherapy philosophy, which makes sense to me.


    • john says:

      Hi, Susan –

      Thank you for bringing that book to my attention. Gardening really does fit right into my efforts to keep myself from getting “disordered.”

      Keep up your good work in letting us know all the approaches you’re trying.

      All my best —


  2. Merely Me says:

    What a great post…as usual. You have a way with your writing to transport me to another place. Yes nature has always been healing for me too. I recently took my first trip into the mountains and I fell in love. It just puts everything into perspective. We are so very small in scheme of things…the world is a vast and grand place…full of beauty. We miss so much of it being trapped in our minds.

    I do apologize for not coming to visit more often. I am trying to catch up now. Really good to see you!

    • john says:

      Thanks so much, Diane –

      The mountains are especially powerful when you first get into them, but I find the feeling never goes away – it’s impossible to take them for granted. The contrast in scale – in space and time – is so overwhelming and humbling.

      Remiss? Me too – but no matter. Here you are, and it’s great to see you.

      All love — John

  3. Marie says:

    Hi, John –

    I so love the phots you share (not just these, but all of them) . . . they are awesome!

    I live very near the Colorado Rockies and have always found their breath-taking beauty mixed with the chirps of the mountain-region birds and the smell of the pine trees always refresh my soul. It is my sanctuary of choice.

    – Marie (Coming Out of the Trees)

    • john says:

      Hi, Marie –

      That’s a great place to live. We spent over 20 years in Santa Fe and between, family vacations and work, spent a lot of time in the Colorado mountains. There are many parts of the Rockies I love.

      By the way, your comment got me over to your blog just now, and I look forward to reading it.


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