Make Space: A Naturally Occurring Psychology

Posted by: David Key on Oct 30, 2017

Make Space was a three year programme run by Nic Green and Artsadmin from 2013-2015, developed to offer young artists the opportunity to explore site-responsive performance practices. Over the three years, the project was based at Hackney City Farm, Richmond Yacht Club (Eel Pie Island) and Totteridge Cricket Ground consecutively, with each group spending a month exploring the collaborative potential between themselves, each other and their chosen site.

This weekly series will feature reflections, artistic responses and critical writing inspired by the project, exploring the potentials of ‘place’ and rejecting the pressures of ‘productivity.’ The authors of each blog all attended the Make Space Symposium in 2016, either as a participant or as a contributing artist: 

  • 'Away with the Birds | At Sing Two Birds | Mnemonic topographies | Women of the Hill' by Hanna Tuulikki
  • 'Performance As Currency For The Wild' by Rebecca Leach
  • 'A Naturally Occurring Psychology' by David Key
  • 'Making Conversation' by Ayisha De Lanerolle
  • 'Feeling Our Way Into The Practice (Of Doing)' by Simone Kenyon
  • Make Space participant reflections

David Key: A Naturally Occurring Psychology

Ecopsychology is a broad and fuzzy subject. It was born out of the emergence of the modern environmental movement, which is often attributed to the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962. This new movement steadily gained momentum through the 1970’s. The US oil crisis brought the implications of limited natural resources to mass consciousness; photographs of planet Earth from space introduced the image of a finite biosphere and; James lovelock published the Gaia Hypothesis, showing that our planet behaves as a giant living being. By the 1980’s, psychologists with an interest in these issues and ideas started asking questions about the place where psychology and environmentalism meet.

Many of these psychologists were interested in Transpersonal approaches. ‘Trans’ means beyond and Transpersonal Psychology explored what lay beyond the conventional idea of the ‘self’. When someone asks you to point to ‘yourself’, for example, you are most likely to point to your body. Transpersonal psychologists challenged this ‘skin-bound’ idea of self, proposing that we are also the product of our relationships with things beyond our physical body. Initially this exploration was focussed on spiritual relationships and on the psychology of religion.

The emerging environmental movement, with ecology at its core, gave a new focus. It suggested that people have relationships with nature too and that these are fundamental to our survival. The next step was to link the idea of a self that is beyond the skin, to one that is ecological: a self that is part of nature both physically and psychologically.

At around the same time, philosophers also started to respond to environmental issues. They generated new philosophies and ethical ideas. If we are part of nature they wondered, what does this mean? What is ethical and moral, right and wrong, in the way we behave towards nature? Other ideas added to the mix too. Architects and landscape designers became interested in the impact of the human-built environment on our psychology. Gardeners sought to understand the psychological benefits of horticulture and conservation work. Outdoor educators and adventure guides witnessed the positive impacts that being outdoors brought to their clients, and responded through research and programme design.

This confluence of ideas found one form of expression through a book titled, ‘Ecopsychology: restoring the earth, healing the mind’ edited by Theodore Roszak, Mary Gomes and Allen Kanner in 1995. It led to the general acceptance of the term ‘ecopsychology’ to describe this emerging field and is still considered the subject’s seminal text.

At this point it is important to acknowledge a cultural paradox within this new subject. For many, myself included, the thing that is most important about ecopsychology is the paradox that it isn't new at all. It is a 21st Century resurgence of something incomprehensibly old and indigenous. As I type this, a thread of at least 150,000 years of human story unravels behind my cursor and weaves through every culture on earth.

I do not mean this in a grandiose sense at all - quite the opposite. This unravelling is despite me. I have merely unearthed some sparse language, temporary and always inadequate, for something that sits fleetingly in the heart of every human being.

The fleeting thing is this: we are nature.

We experience our natural selves when we unexpectedly smell woodsmoke, or startle a wild animal at night, when the warmth of the rising sun surprises us, or we feel the first crisp edge of Autumn - even before the idea of Autumn arrives. These are sensed beyond, or perhaps before, cognition. Nature meeting us in the realms of instinct and intuition.

I think that the most profound thing about these experiences is that we most often miss them - or at best don’t know how to respond to their giddy residue. We have forgotten ourselves. We are lost.

I once witnessed a man spend five days trying to make fire with a bow. Everyday for two hours he worked at it. The conditions were terrible - heavy rain, the ground sodden, the materials damp, swarms of midges. The sweat dripped from the end of his nose with the burning effort. Again and again he failed, ruined his hearth and spindle, broke the string on his bow, had to start again, from scratch. Then on the fifth morning a tiny ember, quickly into the nest of dry fibres with a gentle breath. Then a vibrant burst of orange flame. And a deep, long, hard, shuddering flood of tears. He had just unearthed himself. Correct response.

I used the word indigenous just now. That word is often associated with difference and otherness. It has been, and still is, a mechanism for dehumanisation and a justification for oppression. On the other-hand it is now used by those who identify as indigenous to protect themselves, to mediate with a culture that seeks to dominate them, to establish their own difference as a means to justice.

I do not mean it as a mode of difference at all but as one of similitude - something that could unite us all.

I was born in Birmingham, I grew up in Derbyshire, I lived in New Zealand - I write this in Cornwall. I have an iPhone, I drive a car, I have white skin, I was educated by the British Government, I buy food from a supermarket, I have internet access and a laptop. I am not what most people would describe as indigenous.

But actually, I am.

We all are. Indigenous means, ‘occurring naturally in a particular place’. I am interested in this definition, not the one of difference we have been sold by colonialism, our education systems, mass media and by the guilt of privilege. We all occur naturally, it unites us.

Ecopsychology for me then, is about this indigeny. It is the psychology of naturally occurring. It connects an apparently new idea with a lineage so ancient that its own genesis is beyond grasp. But more than that, I believe ecopsychology today is a call for a new indigeny. This is a delicate thing to say. I do not mean to colonise those cultures that we have traditionally thought of as indigenous but to open ourselves to something altogether new. So please dig through the dominant rhetoric on indigenous cultures. There is something underneath. We all occurred naturally, we are all indigenous.

So for me the practice of ecopsychology is about engaging with our own indigeny. Remembering - and feeling - that we occur naturally, that we are nature. This opens to a vast and rich array of possibilities.

In my own work I have designed many practices that invite people to explore themselves as nature - to excavate their ecological selves. These all take place outdoors, often in wild places, but sometimes indoors and in urban environments too.

To provide a context for my practice, I have developed metaphors, stories and processes for framing and sharing experiences of our earthy selves. And I have endeavoured to stay engaged with the people I work with - this is a journey that can only be undertaken together, in community.

My hope is to help create a narrative that makes inhabiting our natural selves possible and desirable. It is already essential to our survival.

Others apply ecopsychology through their counselling or psychotherapy practice - either indoors or outside. Outdoor leaders have integrated it into adventure programmes; gardeners into allotment projects; academics into field trips; teachers into outdoor schools, and so on.

It’s important to say here that for some ecopsychology is mainly about therapy, while for others it is all about education for sustainability. For me these are essentially the same thing. Both require the healing of our relationships with nature, in every sense. Same means, different ends.

There are a few essential ingredients that I always put into my practice. Any activity that deepens someone’s experience of relationship is central. In practical terms I try to bring together a specific place, a certain activity that engages the physical body, and some kind of helpful idea - all held in the context of a shared experience, with opportunities for personal expression. The possibilities within this loose mix are ended only by the imagination. Limitless then.

I want to focus on the choice of place for a minute because I feel it’s the most important ingredient. If this is right, everything else will find its way.

If you watch a wave in a river you can learn everything you need to know about why place is so important to our health, sanity and survival. A wave is ‘there’. You can see it, you can point to it, you can photograph it and show it to someone else. If you like you could paint it, or make a sculpture of it. You could even put your hand in it, drink from it or surf your kayak on it. It is very ‘there’ indeed. It exists, in the same way that I exist and that you exist.

If I get a bucket and scoop the wave out of the river, it no longer exists. It may have been replaced by another wave but the one scooped out has gone. Instead there is a bucket of water.

A wave is an expression of relationship. It finds form through the rocks on the river bed, the river banks, the leaves, twigs and fish moving within it, the friction of the air on its surface, the temperature of its molecules, the interactions between all these things - even the interactions between the interactions!

When you scoop it out, you cut these relationships and the wave dies.

I believe that the human self is like this wave. What I experience as myself is a product of my relationships. These are with all the things around me and with all the things inside me. When I am taken away from these relationships, “I” change.

Place is so important for the practice of ecopsychology because when we are in a place, we become it - and it becomes us.

If a practitioner hopes to help people understand that they are part of nature, then they need to choose places to work that make relationships feel as vibrant, visceral and explicit as possible. This is much easier to do in a forest than in an office. The office is not ‘out of nature’, because nothing is, it is just not as easy for us to ‘occur naturally’ there.

This ‘not-as-easy’ is a real problem. As we all enter evermore deeply into a virtual world mediated by technology and dominated by urbanism, we lose the relationships that define us as blood and bone creatures. This causes dis-ease as we sever ourselves from the ground of our own Being.                                                     
It has always been my belief that the outdoors is the most effective place to rediscover our own nature. Here we become part of something much bigger than ourselves. We come into relationship - and in-so-doing we relocate ourselves. This is not only intrinsically healing, it is also essential for our survival.

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