Ecopsychology: A Personal History

~ Robert Greenway

Ecopsychology has seemed something like a 'field' or 'discipline' since Theodore Roszak's book (The Voice of the Earth) appeared in 1993. His was a call of an inclusion of the human psyche in our consideration of nature, and for an inclusion of nature in our various psychologies. In one sense it was an expression of astonishment that the two 'realms' ('nature' and 'psyche') had pulled so far apart, and an urgent call to pull the two together again.

Since Roszak's publication there have been several books that could be said to have an explicit orientation to ecopsychology: the Roszak, Gomes, and Kanner book of ecopsychology readings; David Abram's The Spell of the Sensuous, Laura Sewell's Sight and Sensibility, Deborah Winter's Ecological Psychology, and Ralph Metzner's Green Earth. There are a number of master's degrees now out on ecopsychology, and even an excellent PhD thesis (Andy Fisher's, of York University): an excellent attempt at a "radical philosophical and experiential foundation for ecopsychology". So it certainly seems an idea whose time has come . . . better late than never!

I'm often bemused to hear of this 'new, emergent field' because I have a personal history with the two fields going back into the 1950's. On the assumption that the evolution of my personal involvement with the 'field' might be useful in helping to understand it, I'll share a summary of how it emerged in my life, and what it has meant to me, for what it’s worth.

As a child in the Bay Area I was always a 'nature boy'- butterflies and pigeons, animal tracks and basement museums. With the onset of World War II, and the disappearance of all the Japanese gardeners (cf., the book and movie, Snow Falling on Cedars) I became fanatic about breeding nursery stock, and had a lucrative garden-care business by the time I was 12, as well as careful charts on fog patterns in the Bay Area which, in my childhood mind, were going to be of immense help in the war effort.

After the war, when my family moved to Seattle, I immersed myself even more in the lakes, mountains, and fish- and snow-cultures of the region, retreating more and more into the wilderness as the painful storms of adolescence emerged. I attribute the fact that I am alive today to the healing I received deep in the then-almost-empty mountains, especially the Olympics west of Seattle.

In college, at the University of Washington, I was a very reluctant student until I met my first 'real' teacher, the legendary (just deceased a few weeks ago) W.T. Edmondson, one of the founders of ecology, and a strong contributor to limnology, the scientific study of lakes. He sensed right away that I had an intemperate passion for lakes, and talked me into studying Seattle's Lake Washington which then (1954-55) was rapidly 'dying' - becoming so polluted that the lake was becoming incapable of 'turning over' and oxygenizing during the winter months, because of the increased algael growths. I worked with him through my final undergraduate years and into graduate school. I watched him piece together the complicated puzzle of the lake's rapid deterioration (it was the 'treated' sewage going into the lake that was fertilizing the algae), and then dramatically, through the first expression of ecological principles most people had ever heard, teach the people of Seattle just what the future of the lake would be if dramatic measures were not taken. Fortunately, the people of Seattle bought his ideas, developed the first Metropolitan sewage system in the country, and the lake is now cleaner than it was when I was a kid (clean enough to swim in, even drink, here nestled into a huge urban area).

That was my first experience of the psychological-sociological linkage with ecology. Never again could I truly separate the fields.

With a growing family and the need for work, I became, subsequently, a garden writer (Sunset Magazine) and a research writer (Stanford Research Institute), always pulling into my work the ecological ideas I had learned from Edmondson. Ken Kesey and others of the Stanford writing school under Wallace Stegner often met next door to where I lived in Palo Alto, and I became familiar with 'nature writing', and Stegner's incredible ability to evoke the importance of the wilderness in human life and health. Of course, watching the destruction of natural California was horrifying- where Silicon Valley is today, there were endless miles of prune and apricot orchards- and we turned to John Steinback for depictions of California (the way it was- Cf., Pastures of Heaven and To a God Unknown), and to the poetry of Robinson Jeffers, to find a trajectory into the past and future, along which we could align our lives with regard to our relationship with 'nature'.

In 1960, I was invited to join the Brandeis University graduate school (in a psychology PhD program, and as a writer for Abraham Maslow). So there I was, dragging my long-suffering wife and children to Boston, dropping into one of the 'softer' brands of psychology. I took 'my ecology' along with me, and would often irritate my teachers and fellow students with assertions of the crucialness of the linkage between ecology and psychology. Like graduate students everywhere, though we had excellent world-famous teachers, we probably learned the most from each other, and my discussions with Art Warmoth, Joel Aronoff, Bob Silver, Michael Breen, Deborah Tannen and others kept alive this growing (and then radical) conviction that mind is nature, and nature, mind. We called it 'psychoecology', and I wrote my first paper (very superficial, in retrospect, and poetic) describing a joining of the fields in 1963.

Meanwhile, as any graduate student of the era will remember, especially in the Boston area, it was a time of great seething turmoil; there was a clear sense of fundamental change taking place. We were invited to go to Harvard every Friday and listen to the charismatic lecturer, Timothy Leary. We heard him describe culture as a game, and the idea that some kind of upwelling from our inner depths would "alter the programming" of the culture. B.F. Skinner visited our seminars, as did Erik Erikson, Rollo May, Carl Rogers, and many other 'lights'. Maslow took us to his first meeting with Aldous Huxley, and we were thus immersed in 'self-actualizing' talk. We linked up humanistic psychology with Rousseau; and watched as 'the further reaches of human nature' morphed into transpersonal psychology. We studied Jung and his colleagues, paid respects to Freud and the ego defenses, and idealized the neo-Freudians -- Karen Horney, and Franz Hartmann. We drew out of the messy mish-mash of too many psychologies ideas that might help reveal a nature-psychology: empathy, identity diffusion, alienation, identification, projection. And thus it was that 'ecopsychology' remained alive: we saw nature in Jungian archetypes, openings into natural relationships through the window of 'conflict-free spheres' of the ego; we found similarities between the hierarchies of Piaget and Erikson with the hierarchies that seemed intrinsic to evolution; we studied feedback loops and found them everywhere in nature, and everywhere between humans and natural processes. We puzzled over the subtle overlaps between projection and identification.

I lived in a second-floor apartment with wife and four children, drove a taxi-cab most nights, could only long for the endless days of my youth feeling the eroticism of the shapes sloping into the headwaters of mountain lakes. Poetry kept much of 'nature' alive in my soul, but I remember it as a time of great longing for the sight and feel of places where "humans had had no influence".

In 1963, desperately needing work, I accepted an offer to help start a new college in the mountains of New Hampshire. I became the founding dean of Franconia College, still in my 20's, with four children to support, and proceeded (much to the subsequent horror of the conservative town) to hire as faculty some of my colleagues from Brandeis. We had studied R.D. Laing and his writings on the alienation rooted in the splintering of the psyche; and Paul Goodman (Communitas) on how to put it back together. Thus, we attempted to create a college based on ecological principles, with every interaction between student, faculty, administration, town, and broader community, placed in the context of a system, with the system’s interactions modeled on a generalized understanding of ecosystems. It wasn't a college with lots of 'nature' courses about nature. The very design of the college- and our fundamental pedagogy- was as 'natural' as we could understand. It was a good plan, and worked well.

Subsequent jobs with the Peace Corps involved, among many other tasks, using the wilderness experience as part of a training program for Peace Corps volunteers, and studying the effects of 'the cross-cultural experience' on 'the best of American youth' (as defined by white-cultural standards) kept the ideas of ecopsychology close to mind. We noticed that it was easier for many genteel American youth to relate to other species than it was to relate to people of different cultures. It was during this time that the phenomenon of ‘relationship’ emerged as the obvious center of ecopsychology - 'relationships between the apparently separate' was how we defined it. We studied Martin Buber's I-Thou as a clue to the differing kinds of human relationships, and attempted to understand just what it was that Peace Corps volunteers were supposed to be sharing around the world (Love? Expertise? The American Way? Empathy? Some kind of guilt-rooted altruism?).

After a short stint designing colleges for the University of California, barely weathering the tempestuous days of 1968, I ended up teaching at Sonoma State University, in Northern California. Given encouragement to teach "whatever I wanted", I turned to the wilderness experience, to 'psychoecology', and to the then-nascent field of transpersonal psychology as the basis of my teaching, attempting to create a composite that would reflect my understanding (at the time) of how 'mind' and 'nature' interacted.

We found Alan Watts (Nature, Man, and Woman), Paul Sheperd (Nature and Madness) and Gregory Bateson (Steps to an Ecology of the Mind, and later, Mind and Nature), to be useful in defining the issues and perimeters of the area of thought we were making up as we went along. Students returning from long stays in the wilderness were incoherent about what had happened to them- we sought a language. The students' longing for community, and 'right livelihood' again impelled us towards language- a true ecopsychology- in order to articulate not only a lifestyle, but a way of relating to a culture apparently hell-bent on destroying the natural world on which we all depend.

We searched for 'the wound'- the core of the apparent (but illusory) split between humans and nature, between 'culture' and the 'natural world' - and found it in the writings on dualism by John Dewey and others. The environmental movement, and many other attempts at re-connecting (misguided or not) began to appear as a massive 20th. Century 'revolt against dualism', and we realized that, though many psychologies touch on it, there was no fully developed psychology of dualism that could articulate the incredible isolation that most humans in the latter 20th century seemed to be feeling.

Our intellectual and political question began to be: how can we join this 'urge to merge', and still maintain psychological integrity, and still live in a culture programming from birth onward for 'individualism'. Is individualism 'merely' dualism writ-large? And is the answer to the apparently broken and problematic human-nature relationship resolvable by the overcoming of dualism, personally and collectively?

If so, then 'the wilderness effect' (where people rapidly and deeply seem to reconnect - with each other, and with 'nature') began to make sense. The massive surge to practice new forms of sexuality, every form of gardening, home-birthing, and so on, seemed to imply ways of re-creating linkages between culture and nature. Most of all, the influx of Buddhist ideas- especially meditative practices- seemed to provide techniques for reconnecting apart from need-driven egoic consciousness, and also implied that it wasn't the wilderness per se, or the sex per se, or the backyard garden per se, but the opening of the human-mind to natural processes that was possible, anywhere, at any time (breath by breath ~ swallow by swallow ~ these life processes are not cultural!).

It was in this mix of ideas and continued teaching of 'psychoecology' that I met, through graduate student Elan Shapiro, a group in Berkeley convened by Alan Kanner and Mary Gomes to discuss the human-nature relationship. We had a grand time - exploring Jung's ideas on nature, reading Bateson, discussing how psychotherapy might help heal the human-nature split, and many other topics. This was in 1989, and by 1990 I decided to move back to my home country on the Olympic Penninsula; and about that time Thedore Roszak joined the Berkeley group, and became interested in 'ecopsychology' as a field (he had long touched on ecopsychological issues in his other writings i.e., Where the Wasteland Ends, Person/Planet, and the like).

In the Northwest, trying to live out ecopsychological principles, I became immersed in local politics (especially with regard to the extensive devastation of the Olympic Peninsula's private and national forests), and with bioregionalism - realizing that there must be a return to local food supplies (as opposed to corporate shipping of food all over the world), and locally-adaptable seed supplies. So I began, in 1991, working on the County Planning Commission (more land is lost via county regulations, or the lack thereof, than all the more publicized ways), working with the Abundant Life Seed Foundation (one of the few distributors of non-hybridized seed left in the country, and growing organic vegetables and fruits for market. Ecopsychology as practice!

I found with some amazement that the local community into which I had moved had little interest in my excited talk of ecopsychological abstractions. But they liked buying my beets at the farmer's market, and to that tiny degree, I had a measure of local credibility. So I grew and grew, talked less and less, but still saved 'ecopsychology' for late-night ponderings, and, more recently, wonderful internet discussions.

So it was with delight that, in 1993, Ted Roszak's book emerged, and since then, a small flood of other ecopsychological books. There have been a dozen or so conferences on this 'new emerging field' of ecopsychology, and a much greater understanding in recent years of how the roots of this field go back into deep-level (anti-dualism) cultural movements, into the precursors of the environmental-political movements, into the environmental education field, and even into environmental psychology, and landscape architecture (and I could name a dozen other roots as well).

So for me, to summarize this personal account, I ask these questions - of sources, and pronouncements of an ecopsychological nature: is it about relationship? Does it have clues about healing psychological dualism? Has it chosen a psychology (my bias is, of course, transpersonal psychology, that other psychologies, such as gestalt, might work) - has it chosen a psychology that assumes the reality of humans-as-nature, and as processes, and 'systems', and that understands - or seeks to understand - how interacting systems work? Is it meant to arouse a superficial kind of 'band-wagon' interest – to give weight to an environmental-political campaign, or is it willing to delve into not only language that can accurately describe the human nature-relationship, but into a language that is, itself, seen as rooted in nature as it is rooted in culture?

I marvel at the eagerness of the expansion of the ecopsychological idea. Clearly it speaks to a longing, a need, though this can be problematical. When a college or university claims, now, to 'teach' ecopsychology, or students write about how to become accredited in this 'field', I still find myself telling both institution and individual, "There is no field!" It is still forming, waiting to be articulated, hardly used anywhere. Perhaps you know of some missing pieces to the ecopsychological puzzle; perhaps you will be the one to click a coherent ecopsychology into place.

Meanwhile, I talk with my garlic, my garlic talks with me. I explore every potential relationship that comes my way. I deal with my own rebellious part of nature (cancer), and seek to feel in the depths of my mind what the tides and winds and sunrises and endless winter rains are telling me.

Robert Greenway, 2000
Olympic Ecopsychology Institute
Corona Farm, Port Townsend, Washington

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