Lessons from the Aspen Grove

When I worked at an addiction treatment center next to the forest, our spiritual advisor would take the clients to an Aspen grove next to the center.  When the spiritual advisor left, I followed in his footsteps.  We told the clients that the Aspen grove, the hundreds of trees in front of us, were one organism. Underground, they were connected, firmly rooted because of how they intertwined with one another.  That way, when 2013 flood swept past, or when harsh mountain wind blew through, the trees remained upright.

I told them this with fervor, as I knew that at the heart of addiction was disconnection.  Many of the clients had already begun to learn this, as in group they let their guards down, shared their stories, and made deep friendships.  Within days, I could often see a shift in the clients, a glow, like those of Aspens in the fall.

I told this story again to my mother, just a few weeks ago, at her first chemo appointment.

Just the week before, she called me on a Wednesday evening to give me the news “I have cancer.”

She told me not to worry.  That she was tough and going to be fine.  She had the same doctors as my older sister (still going through her own cancer treatment), and they were going to take an even more aggressive route.  She told me not to come home, to continue my work in Colorado.

Two days later I learned from my older sister that my mom was in surgery to have her port put in, a small device put under the skin to make to make blood draws and infusions easier during chemo.  My older sister and my step dad went to her first chemo treatment, which my mom was upset about.  She wanted to go alone.  Not to be an inconvenience to others and their “busy” schedules.  It wasn’t until almost a month later that I found out it was stage 3.

But when your family, both in blood and deep friendship, schedules and to-do list don’t matter.

My mom’s stoicism didn’t stop my from collapsing to the floor in pain and tears minutes after we hung up, with my dog rushing over to me to lick the salt off my cheeks.

It didn’t stop me from feeling anger, sadness, and confusion.

As I gave myself the space to feel all of my emotions, I came to a few realizations.

The first being that this storyline, the storyline of “I have this problem, but it’s not for you to worry about” has shaped my own beliefs growing up.  When I felt sad, so sad that I wanted to claw my way out of my body and escape to somewhere, anywhere else, that I wasn’t enough to share how I felt.  It was my burden to bear.  Alone.  Even after the depression passed, a fierce independence took over.  It’s taken me years to learn to lean on others, like a fallen tree resting on its neighbors.  Still, I have to fight the urge to just collapse.

Second, I remembered the message of the trees.

Even more amazing than hundred plus trees in one Aspen grove being one organism, they are connected even more intimately through a fungal network.  This network not only allows the trees to send vital nutrients to each other, but also communicate.  If there is concern about disease or insect infestations spreading, the trees will send out distress signals to each other, allowing the others to alter their behavior.  And if a mother tree is felled, the surrounding trees may continue to send her nutrients, keeping her roots alive.

Humans have created this world wide web in our own way through technology.  But I suspect there is a deeper form of connection between loved ones, one that may not be visible to the untrained eye (trees also send out chemical, hormonal, and electrical signals).

I can’t say with certainty that without my phone I could have picked up on the distress of my family hundreds of miles away from me.  What I do know is that I feel better when I am in the loop, and even better when I can offer some form of help, be it a card or flying back to Ohio to provide company.

When I told my mom about the trees, I went on to say that because all the trees are connected, one’s challenge is not just theirs alone, but shared among the group.  My analogy, trying to tell my mom that we were all in this together.  She wasn’t a burden but an opportunity for our family and friends to come together and find strength.

She said she understood, but I’m not sure she felt my words.  Maybe I said too much.  I don’t know.

When I got the original call from my mom telling me she had cancer, I texted my sisters (after I picked myself up off the floor).  I told them that I never wanted us to keep things from each other, good or bad, that we never had to “go at it alone.”  When they both texted back “agreed”, I felt we solidified a pact.  We were in this life together, for reasons both known and unbeknownst to us, tied together by cell phone signals and invisible visceral strings of love.  My heart felt a bit lighter, like an Aspen leaf held up by the wind.

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Mother Nature Attachment Theory: Why Living in Harmony with Nature is Essential for Healing Ourselves, Others, and the World (Unabridged capstone presentation speech)

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

aspens
Taken on the day of my journal entry.

 

Why are People Trashing Our National Parks?: A Wilderness Therapist’s Theory

While the government closure goes on into it’s 4th week, the once protected National Parks are left vulnerable without rangers, volunteers, and respectful citizens to protect them.  Like many of my Facebook friends, I’ve been both angrily and sadly watching my feed with updates on more news of parks getting trashed, human waste building up, and even trees being cut down.  Why, why is this happening?  What would make a human so lazy as not pack out their trash, or be so motivated to take a saw into the park and cut down it’s historic trees?

Over the past few years, I’ve been observing and studying what I have dubbed “Mother Nature Attachment Theory.”  This is based on human attachment theory that, in short,  states our earliest relationships to our caregivers affects how we attach, securely or insecurely, in our other relationships throughout life.  In other words, if you have a negative relationship with your mother, or maybe she was never there, or sometimes there, or was always there looking at you for comfort rather than vice versa, then as adult you might either embody these same characteristics or go overboard in the opposite direction.  The underlying feeling left is often one of fear or distrust. (That’s just a brief summary of attachment theory).

(Cuyahoga Valley National Park)

In my own Mother Nature Attachment Theory, I see this in a similar way.  If a child doesn’t grow up spending time outside, climbing trees, building forts with sticks, then the child didn’t grow up with an attachment to Nature.  Or, maybe the child was told “don’t get dirty”, “it’s not safe out there”, and handed an iPad to keep busy, then the child grew up without trusting Nature, and an insecurity to it.  Then, there might be the child who was given a dirt bike before ever taking a hike in the woods, never recycled, or grew up with the perspective from parents that we must dominate Nature.  Again, this kind of relationship creates another form of insecurity.  These types of attachment to Mother Nature create not only a fear but both a disconnection to the land and to the self, for all of us who have grown up with a secure attachment to Nature knows that we are all connected.

If you didn’t grow up with the view that nature is an abstract object, then leaving a wrapper behind is no big deal.  If you grew up fearing nature or with the a privileged view of separate equals better than, than the damage of cutting down a tree might not be worth a second thought.  Actually, those acts might be your way of trying to cope from that missing connection with the Earth.  Temporarily, it might make you feel better.

The sad thing is for the people who grew up with an insecure attachment to Mother Nature is that their outward destruction usually reflects their own inward pain.  While I’ve only been interning as a therapist at a substance abuse center for 6 months now, I’ve clearly witnessed the turmoil many of our clients face from growing up with an insecure attachment to their early caregivers.  Most of them self-destruct with drugs and alcohol, don’t trust others, and don’t trust the world.  It’s a tough, unbearable way to live.  While I’m still angry at the people trashing our National Parks, I can find a little sympathy and sadness for them because I have a sense of what they’re lacking.  Having lived several year’s by Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley National Park and now next to Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Parks, I have re-gained a sense of wonder and awe, felt at home, found my Higher Power, and cried in the beauty mountain shadows.  Just thinking of my life without Nature leaves me feeling like I have void centered in my chest.

Rocky Mountain National Park

If your feeling sad or angry about the state of our National Parks, that is actually a positive feeling.   It shows your love and secure attachment to Mother Nature, and a justifiable angst that She is not being respected or taken care of.  These feelings can either eat at us, or motivate us to do something.  What can we do?  For those of us who don’t live by National Parks* and can’t inform visitors or trail or park etiquette at this time (which may be dangerous and I don’t necessarily suggest) or clean up like this little boy, we can support our National Parks with donations, visit them the next time we are on vacation, and speak with our actions by recycling and trying to reduce of consumption of heavily packed products.  We can also get to the heart of the matter by encouraging others to have a secure attachment with Mother Nature.  If we have or work with children it’s a bit easier.  We can encourage kids to get dirty, to sit outside when they need to calm down or had a bad day, or make comparisons like “wow, that flower needs food and water just like I do!”.  It’s a bit trickier with adults, and we already know preaching usually doesn’t work, but we can sneak in comments, maybe at work, such as “Whew! I had a really tough day.  I need to make sure I get outside for a run today.” or “I had a great weekend hiking with my family.  I feel so much more energized now.”  We can also use our actions like recycling or bringing in re-usable silverware to eat lunch with.  If you have time, I suggest volunteering for your local or National Park a few times a year too.

I’m also going to keep praying to my Higher Power, Mother Nature, that the parks re-open ASAP.  And when they do, profusely thank the rangers for all that they do.  I’m going to count my lucky stars (which, by the way, are amazing living right next to a National Park) that I”m blessed enough to live in the mountains and that I grew up with parents who allowed me to play in the mud and build tree forts.  Last, I’n going to try to send a little love to those who haven’t been as blessed, as angry as I am by their actions, because I know what they are doing on the outside is a mirror of what is going on inside.

*While I live right next to Rocky Mountain National Park, I’m very fortunate to not have witnessed any damage from my outings, which may speak to the community of Estes Park whose residents see themselves as the parks caregivers.

**I have to add this Rich Roll podcast with Zach Bush, MD of Food Independence & Planetary Revolution because it is relevant, both from a scientific and spiritual standpoint.