Healing Severed Connections
Several years ago I drafted a “5-year plan” to shift my career from teaching in the classroom to doing work related to the outdoors, especially in relation to my cultural identity. Through this shift, I founded Latino Outdoors and achieved success in connecting with peers and colleagues, and recognizing their valuable contributions to work in nature movements, outdoor representation, and the diversification of the conservation field. This journey made it possible for me to complete that first 5-year plan before starting a plan focused on how I could continue to best play a role in the field.
I knew I wanted to continue to be more intentional about focusing on equitable access to the outdoors and our reconnection to nature. As soon as I explicitly named that focus and what could arise from it, I began noting descriptions and stories that intensified my commitment.
Many years ago, I saw a presentation by Charles Thomas, executive director of Outward Bound Adventures. He shared a slide titled “The Philosophical Aspects of Cultural Difference” showing axiology (what and how we value) and epistemology (our process of knowledge) by ethnic groups in relation to nature. I found it interesting because it led me to be more aware of the reductionist, mechanistic view of nature — a Western European model of science — that became dominant after the Enlightenment Era. Basically, one saw a tree, for example, through a human-object relationship and assessed the value of the tree through a cognitive process of counting and measuring. It is a useful tool for natural resource management but limiting and different from a human-multiverse axiology and affective-active epistemology found in many Native and Indigenous perspectives.
Years later, I was sitting in the Jackson Hole Airport lobby in Wyoming, waiting for my flight. I saw one of those “free library” stands and decided to browse it. I came across a book that piqued my interest, “Other Ways of Knowing: Recharting Our Future with Ageless Wisdom” by John Broomfield, whose writing helped me start framing my understanding of that expression and assertion: Other Ways of Knowing. It was a powerful way to expand the idea of science and, in many ways, to honor its original meaning and etymology: to know.
Later, I would read “Braiding SweetGrass” by Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer. Along with other readings, it added richness and expanded the tapestry of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) in relation to “Western science.” It validated the insight and expertise that we had systematically devalued, erased, discredited, and destroyed through settler colonialism. It not only added to the value of a more inclusive nature movement, but also gave helpful and necessary orientations to face the ecological and environmental struggles and disasters we had wrought on ourselves. Where Richard Louv coined “nature deficit disorder” and called for action, I saw healing medicine in the offerings and teachings of Broomfield, Kimmerer, and others.
I also saw two art pieces, one by Ernesto Yerena and one by Vienna Rye, that cemented my thinking and offered a framing I was looking for: Healing Severed Connections.
The piece by Yerena was titled “I Choose to Heal Severed Connections / Sangre Indigena (Indigenous Blood).” The piece by Rye was titled “None of Us Are Well Until All of Us Are Well.”
Together, these experiences called me to this idea of healing our severed connection to nature, which also served as a calling of individual and community health — one that included ourselves and nature in community.
As these ideas were swirling and occasionally coalescing in my head, I realized that weaving them together and putting them down in a more coherent narrative required time and space to breathe. This opportunity came with the gracious support of the Pisces Foundation.
I have known Pisces Environmental Education leader, Jason Morris, for many years and have found his approach to be welcoming, thoughtful, considerate, and strategic. During one of our check-in walks he essentially asked, “What do you need, and how might we help?” I responded, “I’d like some time to think and write out connections, without the worry of how I’m prioritizing paid engagements and my volunteer work in service of the field.” Given that I was a freelancer and no longer connected to a nonprofit once I had stepped out of the executive director role at Latino Outdoors, we came to an idea that provided a helpful structure. The Pisces Foundation offered a fellowship, providing me the funding to set aside the essential time that is often lacking when we’re engaged in freelance and when the asks are many without reliable and sustainable funding.
Pisces’ Environmental Education Program mission and vision proved to be a helpful frame for me to collect these thoughts, especially as I was thinking about the role of leadership, wellness, and community. The fellowship was flexible, adaptable, and not constrictive or prescriptive. Furthermore, the opportunity to be in conversation with Jason and receive feedback from foundation staff through regular engagements and presentations was highly useful and supportive.
From that, here is my offering to you.
Healing Severed Connections
“When kids gain the environmental know-how they need to thrive in our rapidly changing world, we’ll see smarter decisions, stronger communities, and daily actions that improve their well-being and our planet. Environmental education strengthens children’s self-esteem, leadership, and character, and enhances social justice by leveling the playing field.”
We start with the Pisces Foundation’s mission and vision on environmental education as one framework to ground, re-envision, and reconnect the relationship and value of “nature” in our practices and behaviors.
Second, viewing nature as a tool, platform, library, and experience for learning and socio-emotional experiencing, it provides guides and examples on how we can approach knowing, decision-making and leadership, community, and wellness.
With this we take “environmental know-how,” “smarter decisions,” “stronger communities,” and “well-being” as four elements to look at in how Environmental Education (EE) can be an expanded platform and space for how we approach our understanding of nature, how it can serve as a model for leadership, how it can help us define and shape community, and support and expand our well-being.
- Know-How: Nature Relationships, Connections, and Frameworks
- Smarter Decisions: Leadership and Network Thinking
- Stronger Community: Love, Sacredness, and Valuing of Difference
- Well-Being: Holistic, Anti-Capitalist, and Regenerative
A critical element woven in all this is a practice and framework of “equity and inclusion”– so that it not only re-integrates people into the equation, but centers with equitable intention the most marginalized and disproportionately impacted from our severing from nature.
Each element is a starting point of discussion and ideation and is not intended to restrict or constrict other approaches. This will also lead us into thinking about the “role” of environmental education and what models or metaphors may be useful in envisioning that for the present and future while honoring the work of those that have come before this and “built” the field.
With roots in Nature Study and Conservation Education, Environmental Education can have a range of definitions. The 1977 UN Tbilisi Definition of Environmental Education defines EE as “a learning process that increases people’s knowledge and awareness about the environment and its associated challenges, develops the necessary skills and expertise to address the challenges, and fosters attitudes, motivations, and commitments to make informed decisions and take responsible action.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states: “Environmental education is a process that allows individuals to explore environmental issues, engage in problem-solving, and take action to improve the environment. As a result, individuals develop a deeper understanding of environmental issues and have the skills to make informed and responsible decisions.”¹
My goal here is not to provide a new definition for Environmental Education, but to explore how the construct of it and my ideation of its scope and reach can be useful and essential in a larger work of ensuring that access to nature is not a nicety but a necessity.
But this all starts and is based on my proclamation and acknowledgment that we have a severed connection from “nature,” a deep wound that requires healing. And on that path and in that process, we touch on the aforementioned elements.
What is Radical? What is Revolutionary?
I start with “radical” and “revolutionary” because to me they present terms that can often be used to indicate ideas that are outliers or on the edge of modern convention or acceptance — an idea of extreme change. Yet, in looking at the root of the words, I think they are instructive in connecting us back to the “point” of this work: our relationship with nature.
The root of the word radical is “forming the root”– so I look at it as a way to think about what is the root of the work that we do, and what roots are there to reconnect to, which may not be as “extreme” as we may think, and rather may be a returning.
For revolutionary, the root of the word is “rollback” as in revolve. I see that as noticing how cycles return us to beginnings — each step in a cycle in balance moves to the beginning and end, not a detached linear progression.
This is why to me these are “radical and revolutionary” ideas, not in the expected sense per se, but in a re-grounding to the core intention and definition of them.
Let us begin.
Know-How: Nature Relationships, Connections, and Frameworks
What we know and “how” we know about nature matters. Environmental education, in what I see as a slightly broader scope than just science in the outdoors, opens up the opportunity for us to examine the frame and perspective of how we connect with and understand nature. What I mean by this is that we can look at different and other Ways of Knowing, which is something stressed in Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK).² This is important not purely for the expansion of our approach, but also to honor and respect often undervalued relationships with the land, and it also allows us to connect to the ongoing work of equitable, inclusive, and justice-oriented practices in the nature movement.
Dr. Rupa Marya, in looking at “how the macro connects to the micro” and looking to understand drivers of not just physical but also cultural trauma, shared the following as a follow-up to her 2018 Bioneers talk:
“To understand the root causes of the pathologies we see today which impact all of us but affect Brown, Black and Poor people more intensely, we have to examine the foundations of this society which began with COLONIZATION. To me, to be colonized means to be disconnected and disintegrated — from our ancestry, from the earth, from our indigeneity, our earth-connected selves. We all come from earth-connected people, people who once lived in deep connection to the rhythms of nature.”
She followed with this image:
Here we see her perspective on the “connections of harm,” along with her definition of colonization as one of disconnection and severing from our earth-connected selves.
Michelle Holliday took this diagram and framing to include one previous step where a pre-cause, a “root,” of colonization is one of a mechanistic reductionist worldview:
The “mechanistic” view is one I had examined years ago as I was looking at how different “cultures” related to nature, based on this adaptation by Charles Thomas, itself based off the work of Dr. Edwin H. Nichols:
This was an introduction to framing about how, through no mal intention necessarily, we can see how our axiology (what we value) and epistemology (how we know) can reinforce our views of nature while also limiting them. This is an important first awareness to create space to understand Other Ways of Knowing in the consideration of another culture’s axiology and epistemology.
Following Dr. Maya’s statement and definition of colonization as one inclusive of severing from nature, Michelle Holliday flips the diagram to include a definition of decolonizing³ as one that includes a reconnection to nature, with a frame of a “Life-Honoring Worldview.”
This opens a path not just to recognize the “harms” but also to work toward what heals, a healing that is rooted in nature.
This also aligns well with Richard Louv’s call for “Nature Rich Cities” as a way to paint a vision of what to work toward, not just amplifying the “doom and gloom” narrative of ecological destruction.
Michelle Holliday notes:
“In the cracks where the behemoth of capitalism is beginning to crumble, what if we planted systems and structures of regenerative development? If an economic system is simply the intentions and design of our interactions with each other and the world around us, what if we instead designed a system that explicitly repaired the damage done and supported life’s ability to continuously regenerate itself?”
This idea of regenerative development continues to point back to what we can learn from and with nature, which I argue has lessons for leadership, decision-making, community, and wellness. It connects to ancestral and Indigenous knowledge, but it is important to note that it is not a “regression” in the sense of carte blanche dismissal of what we have accomplished. It is a call for an additive expansive evolution that is more inclusive.
As writer Giles Hutches notes:
“The next evolutionary step for human-kind is to connect what we have learned and adapted during the Scientific, Industrial, and Technological Revolutions with what we can learn from nature’s wisdom. That is to say, integrate mechanistic analysis and advanced technological innovations with nature’s insights and ecosystemic awareness. To incorporate the latter, we must renew how we engage with ourselves, each other, and the world around us. We must reclaim our own inner nature (our sense of self) and the connection to our outer nature (the natural habitat around us). We must reclaim our humanity and restructure our ways of living, our societies, and our organizations to be based on the Logic of Life.”
From this, we can begin to view how other “modern” and contemporary structures of relationships can be seen differently with learnings from nature, or as Hutchins notes, a “living-systems logic.”
Smarter Decisions: Leadership and Network Thinking
“To the extent that trees deviate from their natural form, pruning and insect extermination become necessary; to the extent that human society separates itself from a life close to nature, schooling becomes necessary. In nature, formal schooling has no function…
If a single new bud is snipped off a fruit tree with a pair of scissors, that may bring about disorder which cannot be undone. When growing according to natural form, branches spread alternately from the trunk and the leaves receive sunlight uniformly. If this sequence is disrupted the branches come into conflict, lie one upon another and become tangled, and the leaves wither in the places where the sun cannot penetrate. Insect damage develops. If the tree is not pruned the following year more withered branches will appear.”
–Masanobu Fukuoka in One Straw Revolution
“Nature is a totally efficient, self-regenerating system. If we discover the laws that govern this system and live synergistically within them, sustainability will follow and humankind will be a success.”
–R. Buckminster Fuller: On the Wisdom and the Purpose of Life
Although it may look “messy and chaotic” there is a reason and rationale to nature. The logic of nature is systems-oriented, stressing relationships and connection, and regeneration, while still being quite efficient in its process and intention.
As Hutchins notes on regenerative logic:
“With this regenerative logic: externalities become opportunities for additional value creation; waste of one output becomes food for another; stakeholders become partners to engage with through authentic communications and reciprocating relations; linear-thinking is replaced with systems-thinking and circular economics; resources are not simply managed and controlled for short-term gain but perceived holistically in the wider context of the inter-relational matrix of life.”
There is a way in which this may seem obvious while also posing the question of “what is a practical example?”
One example where I see this clearly when dutifully applied is in the Learning Cycle, which is not linear, including it not being a strictly sequential linear cycle. It can manifest as a web, just as the water cycle itself is not the simple linear cycle depicted in early models.
With the Learning Cycle we can see how “externalities” such as throwaway thoughts or questions can actually be links to deeper concepts or investigation. While there is a direction and sequential movement, there are also eddies of process and reflection. Application may lead to more Exploration, and Concept Invention may lead to Invitation before arriving at Reflection. And, of course, the end feeds back into the beginning.
I said “dutiful” because we do not always bring awareness or practice to the Learning Cycle when designing spaces of learning, even as research has supported its approach. But it is one instructive reminder of how we can “think” and apply it as a practice in this way.
We also see these ideas for decision-making in the “Ecological Democracy” work of architect, designer, and professor Randolph Hester. For Hester, Ecological Democracy aimed to “centralize the environment and people’s well-being in the political choices that directly impact planning and design decisions central to the political choices that often direct planning and design decisions.” Particularly design actions should be inspired by “interconnected thinking, community stewardship, voluntary inconvenience, systemic co-selfishness, and conspicuous non-consumption.” This is a direct application of “nature thinking” in the Participatory Design Movement in landscape architecture.
This type of “thinking” and decision-making consideration also allows us to continue to push beyond the Rational Choice Theory, which dominated so much framing this past century.
One alternative, the Reasonable Person Model (RPM), actually incorporates (and to some degree relies on) nature for its construction and delivery.
If all we needed for “smart decision-making” was simply the best information available for us to then the Rational Choice Theory would suffice to explain our decision-making. It does not. We must also account for the effects of our environments — this is where the psychological framework of the RPM can be helpful. The main argument of RPM is that people are at their best when their informational needs are met through a supportive environment, approaching it with three considerations:
- Model Building: We have a need to build and maintain those cognitive maps, mental models, to function effectively in our worlds. How we support and challenge these models matters.
- Being Effective: Being effective is not innate, it requires support to build competence in a way that is not demeaning. It requires developing necessary skills (knowing what to do and how to do it beyond just having information) and keeping a “clear head” and focus to function effectively.
- Meaningful Action: We have a desire to make a difference, to be heard and supported in making a difference, and to have opportunities to engage and do better.
Another useful framework for nature-inspired leadership and thinking is in the form of Network Leadership and Regenerative Leadership.
These call for a shift in how we “traditionally” lead and make decisions for organization building compared to network building.
First, on Network Leadership, it focuses on Four Principles. They are:
- Mission, Not Organization
- Trust, Not Control
- Humility, Not Brand
- Node, Not Hub (or Constellations not Stars)
These represent a shift in the following way:
One important piece of value from network design is the value of “boundary spanners” who may be at the outer edge or “fringe” a network but that can actually be a deep source of value and strength because they connect to other networks, bringing additional “resources” to the network.
Building on Network Leadership, we can see the “nature connection” in the work of Network Ecology.
Network Ecology is especially helpful in the practice of “network weaving” — the practices, actions, and skills of network building. What is wondrous, in my opinion, is to ground this in the examples of nature.
Lastly, the work of Giles Hutchins, Laura Storm, Katherine Long, and others, on Regenerative Leadership puts these in the bigger context of “the logic of life.”
They based this on a longer list of Regenerative Leadership Principles, to which we can see the connection and applicability of Network Leadership.
Some of these Regenerative Leadership Principles include:
- Living Systems Thinking
- Collaborative Abundance
- Gratitude and Awe
- Creativity, Curiosity, and Conviviality
Similarly, to Network Leadership, they present a shift in logic in the following way:
Lastly, not that posts on sites like Forbes are necessary validations, but it is notable to see how “lessons” from grounding our relationship with nature continue to be applicable and influencing on “traditional” leadership models (we also see this in the application of Permaculture Principles). I suspect we will continue to see more of this in the face of our current environmental challenges and the need for more approaches in environmental and ecological sustainability.⁴
One important reminder here is not to think that ALL decision-making be done this way or that we are ignoring how fluid and organic organizations and leadership already can be.
As Hutchins notes:
“There are times when top-down hierarchy can be effective — for instance, giving consistency of messaging around response-protocol across diverse hospitals and doctor networks over short time-frames.
It is worth emphasizing here that the organisation has always been ‘living’ rather than ‘machine-like’ in the sense that it has always been made up of unpredictable, interdependent, emergent human relationships. The organisation has always been a complex, dynamic and evolutionary ‘living’ system, in this regard. By shifting our leadership consciousness, we are merely starting to sense into the organisation as it really is.”
Community: Love, Sacredness, and Valuing Difference
“It used to be that people were born as part of a community and had to find their place as individuals. Now people are born as individuals and have to find their community.”
–Bill Bishop, Aspen Ideas Festival
We use the word “community” often in our environmental education work. It may be via programming in terms of the “community” and partners we work with. It may be in the practice of our internal organizational work and the “community” of practitioners and staff we are building. It may be in relation to the content of our work and what “community” looks like as habitats, landscapes, and life cycles.
A common familiar definition of community may be a “group of people with diverse characteristics who are linked by social ties, share common perspectives, and engage in joint action in geographical locations or settings.”
For me, a question is how the community of nature is instructive in how we build our human communities of the built and social space. Especially as we have noticed a shifting of “community” that is both dispersed and refocused by technology and individualism while also seeking to exist beyond physical geographies.⁵
Many of our current cities were built with and for the “efficiency” of mechanistic logic, with rather clear and demarcating boundaries from nature. While that has been changing as we incorporate more natural landscape design, it is still one of grids, where nature may be contained in parks.
I recall one Native elder once saying that they came from a space and practice of circles and that in coming to the city it was all squares and actually disorienting.
In this context, community began to change, as we moved from relatively small villages and towns and worked to incorporate those community relationships into larger cityscapes, with varying success and which continued with suburbanization. It is in this path that many lament “the loss of community” as we have become more disconnected.⁶
It is from there that I see an opportunity to move from an “egocentric” logic to a more “ecocentric” logic that helps locate community in place, space, and time. This can help us understand how many Indigenous communities see themselves as part of an ecological community and vice versa, one which is not limited to the present, but also includes other generations.⁷
This is an important lesson because referring to the axiology and epistemology again, it allows us to pause how we may engage with nature differently if we see its ecological members as familial, as if they were family members. How would we treat a tree differently if it were a brother or sister? This does not exclude utilitarian purposes but it also does not limit it to just that.
As Kiowa author, N. Scott Momaday states:
“You say that I use the land, and I reply, yes, it is true; but it is not the first truth. The first truth is that I love the land; I see that it is beautiful; I delight in it; I am alive in it.”
“When we’re in love with someone or something, there’s no separation between ourselves and the person or thing we love. We do whatever we can for them, and this brings us great joy and nourishment. When we see the Earth this way, we will walk more gently on her.”
“A useful definition of love is sustained compassionate attention. Each time students have an opportunity for sustained compassionate attention with a leaf, an insect, or a tree, they fall in love a little bit with the natural world.”
This brings back the “sacredness” and “love” into the community — which can cause some discomfort to some, but that may be because of, again, limited perspectives.
First, to stress that this is not about structured or dogmatic religion, but one of what we value — why community matters in the first place.
We see this used in landscape design and community planning, for example again, in the work of Randolph Hester and others. For Hester, “Sacred Places” are the areas, resources, and elements of a town or neighborhood to which the community has a strong connection. These can often only be identified through local knowledge and thus serve as an invitation to a design process by asking community members to describe and map what they consider “sacred” and why. “In one case study, for example, an old gravel parking lot was considered sacred because it was host to a biannual local festival.”
And in regards to love, as well as a direct connection to the work of equity, inclusion, and justice, I think this Martin Luther King Jr. quote from the aptly named speech “Where do we go from here?” captures it well:
“Now, we got to get this thing right. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love. And this is what we must see as we move on.”
That also connects us to an interesting paradox of how we value and understand the strength of diversity in ecological systems but sometimes struggle to operationalize that in social settings.
I have often said that few people say “that’s a beautiful monoculture of a forest.” We value biodiversity almost intuitively and take it as a given that it is an indicator of strength and health in ecosystems. This keeps pushing us to assess what lessons we can derive from that. Often, given our extended disconnection from nature, we also distance ourselves from natural cycles and their consequences, up to a point.⁸ As we have been straining the carrying capacity of the planet, we are seeing and experiencing more of those consequences and collapses. Which can still return us to ask, what can we learn about how nature values diversity for restoration?
Well-Being: Holistic, Anti-Capitalist, and Regenerative
“When I is Replaced by We, Even Illness Becomes Wellness.”
“We live amid a time of great upheaval and challenge, with adults across all parts of the world increasingly facing stress, anxiety, breakdown, mental illness, loss of purpose, complexity-overwhelm, confusion and over-work. Today’s leaders are suffering in the same way — with recent research showing the vast majority of today’s senior leaders are struggling to cope.”
–Giles Hutchins, Transforming Leadership Consciousness for a Better World
More and more studies have been pointing out the health benefits of nature and the outdoors. Not just the physical and mental health benefits but also their relation to the quality of life. This is how the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention list “well-being” under its “Health-Related Quality of Life (HRQOL)” where it defines well-being as:
“There is general agreement that at minimum, well-being includes the presence of positive emotions and moods (e.g., contentment, happiness), the absence of negative emotions (e.g., depression, anxiety), satisfaction with life, fulfillment and positive functioning. In simple terms, well-being can be described as judging life positively and feeling good. For public health purposes, physical well-being (e.g., feeling very healthy and full of energy) is also viewed as critical to overall well-being.”
This idea of not just being physically healthy but also including “contentment, happiness, and feeling good” is interesting because to me the question is not one of its validity but of where we derive it from. The expression “the pursuit of happiness” is infamously captured in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, but that was within a colonial extractive Manifest Destiny framework that both limited that access to happiness and made it dependent on a social stratification that included slavery. While we have made great strides in not rooting happiness in that space, we still suffer the effects of that while also facing both a conflict of happiness framed from capitalist consumerism as we see a trend of “isolation and depression” in young and old.
I am linking all of this back to our “big picture” framing of our relationship with nature and approaching this with a broad holistic spectrum of wellness that incorporates physical, mental/cognitive, and spiritual wellness with healing that can come from reconnection to nature.
We see this recognition and trend in the writing of Richard Louv as well, starting with his own framing of disconnection from nature in Last Child in the Woods coining the popular term Nature Deficit Disorder, and then expanding it to include more spiritual and holistic elements with his newest work Our Wild Calling.
Interestingly one critique of Nature Deficit Disorder, from Professor Elizabeth Dickinson, links to a call for a deeper and historically-longer analysis of a disconnection from nature. In her article “The Misdiagnosis: Rethinking Nature-Deficit Disorder” she states:
“Underlying Louv’s and forest educators’ discourses are culturally specific assumptions about human-nature relationships. Both evoke a fall-recovery narrative — that children are separated from nature and must return — and promote science and naming to reconnect. I argue that, in the absence of deeper cultural examination and alternative practices, NDD is a misdiagnosis — a problematic contemporary environmental discourse that can obscure and mistreat the problem. I call on adults to rethink human-nature disconnectedness by returning to the psyche, digging deeper to the problem’s cultural roots, and using nontraditional communication practices such as emotional expression and non-naming.”
The call here is to be wary of simply putting kids back in nature as an automatic or simple remedy. She asks to assess what has happened over generations (so we do not simply idolize or romanticize our experience with nature without looking at underlying and generational dysfunctions) and to not have all nature learning experiences be “science-led” hence her call for “emotional expression and non-naming.” This also includes questioning the nature “within us” as she quotes William Cronon:
“To protect the nature that is all around us, we must think long and hard about the nature we carry inside our heads.”
Dickinson calls Nature Deficit Disorder a misdiagnosis, which comes with the note that her intention is “not to diminish the issues” raised by Louv but rather argue they are “part of larger alienation issues” ‘and her goal is to “complicate Louv’s argument…not dismiss them entirely.”
Thus, to me, in that “complication” it is not much of a contradiction in what may be root causes and actually be part of the larger picture: what I would argue is a historical, social, cultural, and spiritual severing from nature.
I note all of this for wellness because it may be too easy to limit wellness from a clinical perspective (which has its own issues) and too easy to dismiss it as “not scientific enough” and lose the wellness that comes not just from being “in nature” but also “with nature” and “as nature.”
Especially since the impacts to which we need to tend to are real.
A main point here is how nature is a restorative and regenerative environment in at least two ways. The first is that it has processes and cycles for regeneration and restoration, be they small in the way seeds operate, or landscape-based as seen in the succession effects after a fire (of which the fire is also part of the process). The second is the effects it has on our restoration, especially cognitive, and our ability to function in attention-demanding human systems.
Simply put, to increase our well-being, we can increase our time in nature. But also amplify it by paying attention to how we spend time in nature without having to fully understand the full complexity of nature to derive its benefits.
A parallel example comes from writer Michael Pollan on food.
In explaining the “magic” of a carrot, for example, he noted how a reductive science approach in food led us to believe that we found all we needed to know in regard to how to feed ourselves. First, with macronutrients, then with vitamins, and then finally, with the carrot as an example, polyphenols and carotenoids. But Pollan asked, “who knows what the hell else is going on deep in the soul of a carrot?”
“The good news is that, to the carrot eater” he notes, “it doesn’t matter.”
The takeaway was that instead of trying to get the right combination of pills, you can just “eat the carrot.”
This connects back to the “life-affirming” framework and “life-logic” from which we can quickly be disconnected from, be it in our online environments or walking the grocery store aisles.
But as Dr. Nooshin Razani recently so simply and elegantly reminded me, “it’s tuning in to the Life Cycle.”
That is a powerful reminder not just for our well-being, but how we move about our daily lives and make decisions within it.
To close this portion, and to stress the point that in our pursuit of happiness and well-being we must be gentle with ourselves and be wary of how we can still submit to dominant culture paradigms (for example “perfectionism”) — a note on “satisficity.”
I recall one of my graduate school professors talking to me about satisficity and it directly led me to think about the culture around us that frames “happiness” and “satisfaction.”
Consumerism is very good at stressing superlatives on us, to keep us off balance on “what is good enough” When we expect each other to be the best, or when we require perfection, what is the stopping point for “that should do it”?
My professor stressed having a personal practice in our quest for “having the best” or “being optimal” and reminding us how having something be “good enough” had begun to carry a somewhat negative connotation. But in fact, it may be just what is needed to deal with current issues of resource depletion, mental restoration, and overall happiness — our well-being.
We can be incredibly happy by being satisfied instead of feeling we need “the best.” It is about recognizing good enough as meeting the needs of the requirements at hand without it seeming like it is shortchanging the process. “Good enough” being what you were looking for the whole time in search of the best. Without attention, we can be manipulated by a consumer capitalist culture that is really tuned into our adaptive psychology and preys on our insecurities to twist and confuse our needs and wants. We also see this in current work looking at the effects of social media, which itself is an environment constructed not for restoration but for a demand for directed attention.
Thus, a call for satisficity.
In returning to our “pursuit of happiness” and its role in our well-being, perhaps to include there is the “pursuit of satisfaction” and really, of “good enough.”
As we continue to seek to understand we can also just go out in nature. Just eat the carrot so to speak.
Metaphors and Models: A Nature-Rich Mindset and Rethinking Outside
In closing, how does this all fit into how I see Environmental Education?
There were many metaphors and models that came to mind, but two that crystalized for me related to boundaries as I thought about what “defines” the “field” of environmental education. The two mental models were that of a Boundary Spanning Bridge and a Habitat Edge Effect.
The word “field” can have a wide range of definitions: direct agriculture (a cornfield), utilitarian (landing field), extraction (oil field), natural force (magnetic field), or even the practice of working outside (doing fieldwork).
But the one we often refer to is that for subject or activity of profession: field of study. Still, it is helpful to keep the others in mind, as it can help with my framing.
I envision the field of environmental education as a network that itself occupies a boundary spanner space. Rather than seeing the tension of either/or when thinking about “where does it fit in” in relation to “environmental” and “education” I see it as a bridge of both/and that connects and allows for the flow and passage not just within how we have thought about and built the current field of environmental education but also what more it can include. It’s a space that pulls toward, rather than away from.
It is a reminder too to pay attention to those at the edges or our boundaries and how they are connectors to other networks from which our field can benefit.
This also leads me to also see this field as having the edge effects found in nature.
Edge effect refers to “the changes in population or community structures that occur at the boundary of two habitats” When there is ample space in this boundary then it is known as the ecotone, the “zone of junction or a transition area between two biomes (diverse ecosystems). It is the zone where two communities meet and integrate.”
The edge effect goes up when the number of species and the population density of some of the species in the ecotone is much greater than either community. For example, in a terrestrial ecosystem, you may see more birds in the ecotone between a forest and a desert.
This type of setup is ideal, but it calls for borders not to be narrow with a strict bifurcation, as we often do with human activity (and see below in figure 1). In such cases it can be highly disruptive or destructive.
We may do this with walls but also with roads, with an impact of habitat fragmentation.
Thus again, why I stress this as a bridge that is an overlapping zone of edge effect, a habitat boundary that demonstrates emergent abundance and can “contain high biodiversity because they potentially combine species from two habitat types plus additional boundary specialists.”
As this happens in nature, the idea is in play for human systems as well, as we see in these talks by musician Yo-Yo Ma in The “Edge Effect”: The Place Where Innovation Happens and professor Boluwaji Ogunyemi in Edge Effect: Different Perspectives Yield Creativity, Innovation.
It’s the “diversity and interdisciplinary situation or geography” as Yo-Yo Ma put it.
That is again a reminder for the value and power of difference, for inviting diversity into a space, especially as a driver for creativity and innovation, as this episode of Hidden Brain: The Edge Effect noted.
Thus, it is a reminder that the interdisciplinary nature of environmental education can be a strength and with openness to diversity, have an edge effect of abundance.
How might we approximate this abundance effect?
We can start with some relatively simple, and hopefully not that all surprising, steps.
First, note how important or necessary a clear border is (or how that may be a default for us). Sometimes that may be necessary, as when mechanistic logic dictates a particular type of response. But many other times, we can take the time or create the space to assess both the decisions we need to make and the delineation of where we are working — and how permeable and expansive that boundary can be.
That takes us again beyond either/or border creations and into the both/and framing. By challenging ourselves to see how much of that space we can create and hold, it can serve as an opportunity to increase the edges in our designs (and decisions!) — an extension of the interfaces to the surrounding ecosystems, a growing of the ecotone with its corresponding effects.
We can also look at the language we use. Instead of mechanistic language to describe processes, we can use nature-modeled language. For example, instead of a “well-oiled machine” how about a “healthy habitat”? How does leadership change if we envision ecology leaders, for example, a keystone or niche species leader? How does that change how we think about the role in different contexts?
We can continue to infuse nature where possible, from the cultural (behaviors, norms, values) to the physical space. As Hutchins notes:
“As a transformational-learning environment, nature offers a ‘special edge’ to adult development. Well-facilitated nature-immersions cut through the noise and baggage of the monkey-mind like nothing else, enabling busy people to go deep quickly and safely, and enabling them to embody and recall their learnings more vividly than other learning experiences can provide for.”
Lastly, one reminder that I found important is that in talking about balance and drawing from nature, the river came to mind as a model to acknowledge that balance is not stillness.
Balance is a tension between a pulling and a pushing, an Emergence that arises from Divergence and Convergence. This is important for when we are bringing in diversity and difference (Divergence) into a space and work on what inclusion means (Convergence). It is also why it is important to be wary of fully discarding what we already have. The river does not flow in a straight line, but it is also not scattered. It flows as a result of tension. It is Emergence from Divergence and Convergence.
That is another lesson from the logic of life.
“A human being is a part of the whole, called by us ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.”
At a minimum, I see environmental educators and practitioners as network “seers” and network weavers, and as healers and re-connectors, not just weaving a field in which they see themselves reflected, but tending to a flowing space that opens it up for others, as we weave reconnections to the natural world.
In physics, there is sometimes the philosophical reflection of how we are the Universe observing itself.
I see the same in environmental education with the reminder that we are nature both caring for and reflecting upon itself — an ecological In Lak’Ech that prepares us to be proactive for nature, rather than reactive by nature.
To take also take a cue from Michael Pollan in summarizing in as few words as possible, one humble attempt:
Be with nature⁹, in reciprocal balance.¹⁰
There may be of course questions such as“what do we do?” in more “concrete” and procedural terms. To the reader I offer that they ask themselves, “What do I do differently given this? How do I practice it?” along with offering what answers arise.
Please share your reflections with me on Twitter @JoseBilingue and use the hashtag #HealingSeveredConnections. I look forward to engaging in this discussion with you all. Please share!
A PDF version of this thought paper is available HERE with different formatting and notes.
- The Ecology of Leadership: Adapting to the Challenges of a Changing World. Kathleen E. Allen, Stephen P. Stelzner, and Richard M. Wielkiewicz
- Natural Leadership. Nigel McFetridge and Polly Williamson
- The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature. William Cronon.
- The Misdiagnosis: Rethinking “nature-deficit disorder” (2013). Elizabeth Dickinson.
- A Guide to Regenerative Leadership in Practice. Giles Hutchins & Katherine Long.
- The Six Directions: A Pattern for Understanding Native American Educational Values, Diversity and the Need for Cognitive Pluralism. Rose von Thater-Braan, (Tuscarora-Cherokee)
- Cosmic Serpent: Collaboration with Integrity. Bridging Native Ways of Knowing and Western Science in Museum Settings. Nany C. Maryboy; David Begay; Laura Peticolas.
- The Reasonable Person Model: A brief description. Rachel Kaplan and Stephen Kaplan.
- Four Network Principles for Collaboration Success. Jane Wei-Skillern and Nora Silver.
- The People Who Make Organizations Go — or Stop. Rob Cross and Laurence Prusak
- This comes with the added policy support of the 1990 National Environmental Education Act.
- This snippet also captures the general idea: “Nature is something we live within and as a part of it. No essential separation: no transcendental dualism, no Enlightenment search for objectivity, no Puritan fear of dangerous, chaotic nature, not distant observation in Romanticism.” –Professor David Barnhill on Native Americans and Nature Views and Values
- Colonization and Decolonization are terms that deserve their own exploration, as there is good debate and range on how to approach them, from direct restoration of Native sovereignty, to deconstruction of colonial thought structures
- I anticipate this both in programming such as The Ecology of Leadership and in scholarly work such as this piece in the Journal of Educational Leadership, Policy, and Practice
- This would be online communities but also identity communities, for example “the Latinx community.
- A strong argument also made by Robert Putman in Bowling Alone
- I wanted to insert a connection and note to “Seventh Generation” Philosophy but it is actually not clear how accurate that is in terms of being rooted in the Iroquois Great Law of Peace, to which it is often attributed. The closest reference would be to “Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people, and have always in view not only the present, but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground — the unborn of the future Nation.
- Though the most pressing disruption of a natural cycle at the moment is the carbon cycle: Climate Change
- This stresses not just the being in Nature as often as possible, which is essential, but also being with it in an expanded non-binary framework. Be with nature as nature
- This to acknowledge that it isn’t just about mimicking natural models, but being attentive to the “human” element as well, and one of interconnected cyclical relationships. And also that “learning” in a narrow sense will not drive all our natural experiences. And looking at balance not as stillness but as tension, an Emergence from Convergence and Divergence