As a first year graduate student at Naropa, in my first semester, I was taking a class taught by Diane Israel. We were learning about Erikson’s stages of development and Bowlbly’s and Ainswoth’s theory on attachment. It was late September. I was getting into the flow of school as Colorado’s Aspen trees were turning gold. Diane had originally given us the assignment to observe a child and write about it, but with the class’s excitement about the trees, Diane decided to change the assignment to “go observe a tree.”
And so I did. With my pup in tow, I drove up the canyon to 10,000 feet at the Fourth July Trailhead outside Eldora. In my journal I wrote:
I don’t feel young, like I do at times in the summer when I am running down a trail. Nor do I feel old. I just am. I wonder if this is how the trees feel. Not tired, but just ready for a slow down. Along with the trees, I am fully here for this change in season.
Driving back along the bumpy, Aspen and pine strewn trail towards Eldora, I wonder: what if there was a nature attachment theory? A theory that stated all living things are connected, from the dirt to the sky, from trees to humans. And if one was to let herself slow down, to remove the superficial thought and material things and just be, that she would be able to re-connect with nature, to be held by Mother Nature. In this re-connection, healing from the trauma of the “created” human world, harmony would be found. The attachment to Mother Nature has all
the love and safety one needs to be securely attached. In this oneness with nature, humans could become whole within themselves and with the world.”
That day, I began to create Mother Nature Attachment Theory.
Now before I dig into the presentation, I’ll very briefly describe attachment theory. The theory states that in our earliest years, a safe and secure attachment to a primary caregiver is critical to development. If a young child does not have her needs met, then the child will insecurely attach not only to their caregivers, but this attachment will carry on through life and later relationships.
From my own definition, Mother Nature Attachment Theory states that growing up and living with a secure attachment to nature is essential for humans to find harmony within themselves, as well for society to find harmony in itself. An insecure attachment to nature leads to dis-ease among humans and destruction in society.
With this in mind, I came up with two principal questions:
Can Mother Nature help heal our attachment wounds in relationship with humans? And what happens when we, Mother Nature’s children, separate ourselves from the Earth? Can we re-attach?
I also have to note the main limits of my research, the first being that I am personifying Mother Nature. However, my hope is that this view helps me explain my theory a little better. Second, I did not have time to include adverse experiences with nature, such as those people who have survived natural disaster. And finally, while many of my ideas are backed in research, much is also backed in passion of the teachings I have learned from spending countless hours wandering in the valleys of Ohio and the mountains of the Rockies.
While I did grow up with loving parents, I developed an insecure attachment in childhood. In my teens and early 20s, my insecure attachment showed itself as anxiety and depression. Then I found service and trail running. A shift happened. My perspective on life got brighter. In 2015 when my dog and I moved to Colorado, we hiked the nearly 500 mile Colorado Trail which runs through the state. Despite our misadventures, I had never felt more at home. Despite the elements, I felt held, unjudged, like I belonged.
Several years later, I found myself interning at Harmony Foundation, a substance abuse rehabilitation treatment center located just outside Rocky Mountain National Park. A majority, if not all, of the clients come their with attachment wounds and score highly on the Adverse Childhood Experience test. In addition to being surrounded by nature at the treatment center, we also go on weekly outings. In these moments, gratitude is often present for clients and we discusses it on an individual basis and as a group. Studies show that nature reduces rumination by lessening the activity of the subgenual prefrontal cortex, often linked with depression and mental illness. In place of rumination, the mind opens to allow a sense of wonder and awe, a change in perspective. Something as simple as laying in the grass and watching the clouds, or the guided imagery meditation of tree firmly rooted into the ground, can help people feel stable and secure, also regulating the nervous system.
In addition, another recent study found that in laboratory mice, a friendly bacteria often found in soil activated brain cells and produced the chemical serotonin, which affected the mice’s brain in a way similar to anti-depressants. Of course, as someone who believes we, humans, animals, and plants, are all our connected, I would say leave the mice a lone and just go outside and seep the benefits in that we already know our there, with the intuition Mother Nature bestowed us with at birth.
And so, while I still feel it is necessary for humans with insecure attachments to find security in attaching with other humans, I believe nature can supplement and enhance the process.
My second question, can humans on a societal level re-attach with Mother Nature, is a bit more complicated. It is quite obvious that humans, especially in the United States, have separated ourselves from Nature. Even more obvious are the effects this has had on our world, and I’m not only speaking about climate change. Ecopsychologist Chellis Glendinnings calls our separation form the Earth the “original trauma” and that this trauma has been passed down and interwoven with other trauma’s such as abuse. Is it a coincidence that as we rape our women, we rape the Earth? Or that we’re seeing high rates of infertility as we spray farms with chemicals, and that we numb our own pain with substances and medication? Furthermore, statistics show that the majority of people have barely anyone to lean on for help and that we also spend more time indoors than ever before in our history. Is it any wonder that in this separateness, we have mass shootings and are facing extreme changes in weather?
In this insecure attachment, a sense of “dis-ease” has swept through our society. We see it in the consumption of material goods, drugs and alcohol, and what we call mental illness. Psychologist James Hillman writes “to grasp the disorders in any subject we must study carefully the environment of the disorder: the kind of water, the winds, the humidity, temperatures, the food, the plants; the times of day; the seasons. Treatment of the inner requires attention to the outer; or, as another early healer wrote, “The greater part of the soul lies outside the body.” End quote.
It’s hard to say when this separation began. Some trace it back to Descartes’ great chain of being, where he presented a hierarchy of humans and animals, later adapted to humans and skin color. Others trace it even farther back to early writings of the bible. In America, we can most pointedly find it as we murdered and uprooted the Native Americans, the people who had the most to teach us about Mother Earth and Her wisdom.
OR [So where does our story of disconnection begin? Our story that we are not acceptable, that Nature is not acceptable as it? Perhaps with the story of Adam and Eve, where the serpent told Eve she was not good enough as she was and to be like God she should take a bite? And Adam in his jealousy of Eve knowing more than he, took a bite as well. And the story of separateness of death began? In America, the picture is a little easier to see, as explorers and settlers came to our country for freedom, escaping dictatorship. Unfortunately, some of the settlers brought their fear of not being accepted, the need to be better than with them, and they separated by themselves by killing of the very people who knew the land the most, who could have helped us re-connect to the Earth. And we continued that pattern of saying “Mother Nature, you are not good enough as you are. We must make you better.” And so we poised her land with chemicals thinking we could grow plants better. We took her animals, our siblings capable of great emotion and knowledge, and put them on industrial farms for slaughter, feeding them with the chemical plants. We cut down Her trees, drilled holes in her body, always wanting more. And now we see this separation is our own disease. We eat the food lined with pesticides and GMOs, and end up in the hospital with diseases like cancer. We’re beginning to see the Earth self-destruct, saying “no more” as we see the effects of climate change. ]
Renowned author and doctor Gabor Mate says in his book In the Realm of the Hungry Ghost “The pressures of urbanization are cutting millions of people adrift from their connections with land, tradition, and community” and later in the book goes on to say “We have seen that addiction arises out of dislocation. The absence of meaning is yet another type of dislocation that we human beings, spiritual creatures that we are, cannot well endure.” End quote. As we’ve separated from the Earth, we have lost one of our primary roles as humans: caretakers of the Earth, the body that we are all part of.
How I look at things is that humans are the microcosm and Earth is the macrocosm. What we do to one we do to the other and vice versa. Or, as Chief Seattle stated “Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.”
Speaking of webs…Did you know that trees are intricately connected and talk to each other? There can be hundreds of trees in one grove, sharing nutrients, giving out distress signals, and holding each other upright in bad weather. Even bigger is the web of mycelia, a fungus, fondly referred to as Earth’s Natural Internet by mycologist Paul Stamets, with one organism expanding to 2.4 miles in Oregon. These plants show us that when we stand together, connected, we are stronger. The Earth’s natural internet is not unlike our world wide web of the internet, though ours is a superficial example of what it means to attach to one another. Trees and plants are willing talk to us too, if we are willing to listen.
Right now our trees are dying. And as they die, our world has less filters to give us clean oxygen. Our natural landscapes are changing in scary ways, almost as if Mother Nature is telling us “enough is enough.” So my question is, “is there hope?”
At times I have been tempted to say no.
“As I see pictures of animals being brutally slaughtered, pipelines being built through sacred land, forest being destroyed, and mass shootings on the rise , my heart wants to bury itself in despair, but I scream to myself: be the light, be the light!
One of my favorite speakers on the subject of hope is Zach Busch, a doctor who advocates for natural farming practices and againsts fertilizers like RoundUp. After giving a speech that sounds like doomsday is right around the corner, he gives a profound message of hope. He reminds us of Mother Nature’s amazing ability to renew and heal. Farms that were once depleted of nutrients can regenerate to full capacity with a little love and time. In a podcast with Rich Roll, Busch reminded listeners that sometimes we have to reach our death before being reborn. I see this with my clients too. Many of them come to Harmony Foundation having hit their rock bottom. Truly, if they would not have come to Harmony, they’d may be dead. So in the shadow of the mountains, we offer them a new hope, a rebirth. We remind their souls that life is worth living, and something greater is out there.
And then, there is the great Joanna Macy, the environmental activist who wrote a book entitled Active Hope. Joanna Macy says:
“Active Hope is not wishful thinking.
Active Hope is not waiting to be rescued . . . .
by some savior.
Active Hope is waking up to the beauty of life
on whose behalf we can act.
We belong to this world.
The web of life is calling us forth at this time.
We’ve come a long way and are here to play our part.
With Active Hope we realize that there are adventures in store,
strengths to discover, and comrades to link arms with.
Active Hope is a readiness to discover the strengths
in ourselves and in others;
a readiness to discover the reasons for hope
and the occasions for love.
A readiness to discover the size and strength of our hearts,
our quickness of mind, our steadiness of purpose,
our own authority, our love for life,
the liveliness of our curiosity,
the unsuspected deep well of patience and diligence,
the keenness of our senses, and our capacity to lead.
None of these can be discovered in an armchair or without risk.”
And the truth is, hope is all around us, which is shown in the hearts of humans and from scientific studies. We know that the brain, at any age, can create new neurons. Research now shows that heart disease can be reversed by following a diet rooted in plants. We have evidence of forests regrowing and regenerating when native species are planted and then left alone to heal, with the animals who once lived there returning. There are farm sanctuary’s opening up around the country because they know animals are loving, sentient beings. We know that attachment wounds can be healed.
Furthermore, kids across the world are marching in their cities to demand action is taken on climate change. People in my midwestern hometown of Parma Heights, OH are recycling, something I didn’t even know existed as a kid. Even more astonishing is that their local grocery store has a vegan section! Psychologist in Scotland are now permitted by their government to prescribe nature rather than pills. And in Boulder, CO there are graduate students getting their degrees in Transpersonal Wilderness Therapy.
As Suzanne Simard said in her 2016 Ted Talk, “Give Mother Nature the tools she needs to use her intelligence to self-heal.”
If Mother Nature can heal herself, and if more humans realize that we are part of Nature, we can heal too.
So how do we re-attach?
In the Spell of the Sensuous, writer David Abram states that “When a Navajo person wishes to renew or reestablish, in the world, the harmonious condition of well-being and beauty expressed by the Navajo word hozho he must first strive, through ritual, to create this harmony and peacefulness within his own being. Having established such hozho within himself, he can then actively impart this state of well-being to the enveloping cosmos, through transforming the power of song or prayer.”
With clients, our job as therapist is to help them begin to create harmony within themselves, to love themselves. At the same time, we can help them create a life of harmony with nature, with therapists remembering that healing client wounds is the same as healing nature and vice versa. Simple practices that can be done with clients are:
-going outside and walking rather than staying in an office, then highlighting the experience as my supervisor Gretchen Leezer reminded me.
-Using a nature basket to help clients describe how they are feeling.
-Using guided imagery that lets one feel grounded like a deeply rooted tree or one that allows them to escape to their “happy place” in nature
-giving homework to go outside
-creating metaphors with plants and the landscape with clients, which I often consider to really be parallels. Examples include comparing the curves of Mother Nature to the curves of a woman with a client challenged by body-image, or looking at a tree on a windy day and comparing that to staying grounded in ourselves in the midst of life challenges.
-Have clients share their nature story from childhood to adulthood. (Most people can report having a secret spot outside that they went to as a child, or have fond memories of summer vacations outside with their family..)
-Create ceremonies and rituals using Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water.
Finally, there is service. We can encourage clients to volunteer for their local parks, cleaning up trash, planting native species, or building new trails. We can suggest volunteering at animal shelters or farm sanctuaries that care for and give a new life to animals like sheep, goats, and pigs that were once neglected and abused.
O, did I mention all of this isn’t just for our clients, but all of us?
Throughout the day, my classmates will be sharing more brilliant ways to strengthen our connection with the Earth.
In summary, by healing our own wounds and client wounds we are also healing nature’s wounds, and by healing nature’s wounds we are healing our own. When we live a life in harmony with Mother Nature, with plants, trees, animals, insects, fungus, and all, we can live in harmony with ourselves, bringing out the best and beauty in all of us.
“There will be times when standing alone feels too hard, too scary, and we’ll doubt our ability to make our way through the uncertainty. Someone, somewhere, will say, ‘Don’t do it. You don’t have what it takes to survive the wilderness.’ This is when you reach deep into your wild heart and remind yourself, ‘I am the wilderness.”
– Brené Brown