This Earth Day, Thursday, April 22, Open Sky is sponsoring A Walk in the Wild, a virtual adventure into America’s Wild with social scientist Mary M Clare and bestselling nature writer Gary Ferguson. Recently, we sat down with Mary and Gary to talk about their new book, Full Ecology, and how our connection to wilderness holds the power to heal our lives, relationships, and planet.
Gary: Like a lot of people, I’ve been enamored with nature since I was a little child. I’ve never lost that sense of wonder, so I devoted a career to not only writing about science, nature, and the environment, but also getting out in it. At this point, I have 35,000 trail miles underneath my feet in various wilderness areas, especially the Rocky Mountains. I don’t think it’s possible to spend that much time in the natural world, or with people for that matter, and not come away with some sense of what living well in the world looks like. The older I get, I’ve been increasingly interested in paying attention to the lessons that the natural world has to offer us when it comes to how to live our lives more successfully and with more contentment. Mary and I often say that the superpowers of nature, the things that allow nature to thrive, are also hardwired in us because we are nature. So I’m very interested in crossing that unfortunate boundary, that brick wall that we’ve erected between ourselves and the natural world many centuries ago.
Mary: Gary was raised in what he calls the corn and the rust in southern Indiana, the industrial Midwest. His childhood was typified by going to the library to read about the natural world. I, on the other hand, went to kindergarten in Yosemite. I mean, who gets to do that? My father was the chaplain of the little brown church out in the meadow, so we lived in an apartment that looked out the front door at Yosemite. When I was six, we moved to west Texas. I also thought that was super cool, the big windstorms and the rattlesnakes and the horny toads that we’d turn on their backs and hypnotize by rubbing their tummies. In my teen years, I lived on the north fork of the Guadalupe River, also in Texas, with the deer and armadillo. No matter where we lived, I was really in the natural world all the time.
At the same time, there were things that were quite challenging in my life. It’s the nature of a life. We get hurt. We get mistreated. And the natural world helped me anchor given those realities. I was lucky that it was right there at hand.
Mary: I was always curious about the ways people interact with nature and each other, so I got a doctoral degree in psychological and cultural studies. I did a lot of work on what Gary and I call social ecologies, the ecologies within and between us. We developed this notion that we can care for the natural world as much as we want to, but if we don’t take care of our interpersonal and intrapersonal ecologies, we’re going to be barred from having the kind of impact we want to have. So that’s how Full Ecology came into being.
Gary: I think full ecology is about breaking down the walls we’ve built between the human psyche and the natural world. As Mary said, the social ecologies, the ecologies between and within us, are absolutely critical to address and energize when facing challenges. We need a perceptual change. We need a reclaiming of our human nature. That active claiming of our human nature is going to give us a sense of kinship and place and bonding. From that orientation in the world, I think it’s much easier to muster genuine care and kindness for each other and the world, as well as to energize ourselves when it just seems like challenges are too big.
Mary: Full ecology means recovering our belonging. It is an entrée back into what has always been. From the moment you were even thought about, you were nature. You have never not been nature. You will always be nature. So when things get dicey, as they quite often do in human society, where can we look for reliable guidance? Well, look to the system that’s been most viable for the longest on planet earth, because that’s where you came from. That’s who you are.
Gary: When it comes to big challenges, like climate change, it’s very easy and understandable to be full of doom and gloom, and there are lots of folks who are all about that. I think that can be useful to the extent that it may prompt an opportunity to grieve what we’ve done wrong. But full ecology is based from what’s working, not from what’s not working. When we start to look for and orient to what’s working, that creates an entirely different opportunity for meeting challenges.
Mary: And the thing that’s working the very most is the fact that we are connected. Always have been, always will be. It doesn’t always feel like that, though. The problems that we face can be so big that they take up all our mental space. We forget that gravity is still holding us on the ground. That air is coming in and out of our lungs. That there are some things that are working.
We’re so oriented toward problems that we’re prone to jump in and try to solve things that are probably not really the problem. The first step in full ecology is to come to a full stop. You can do that in a microsecond. Stop all the stories. Stop all the narrative. Just stop. When you’re overwhelmed, remember connection. Remember to look to a top of a tree. The psychological impact is to buy some space, just a little space, so that some different ways of thinking about your situation on the planet in this life can come to you. We start by stopping. That’s a skill that never loses value over the course of a whole lifetime.
Gary: There is a truckload of research suggesting the positive neurological and physiological effects of people being outside. For a young person to come to wilderness therapy and be in that sort of healing environment is terrific. But beyond that is the power of the beauty of being in the world. The beauty of nature invites you in. At the same time, it sort of marginalizes you. It marginalizes you, and it makes you happy to be marginalized. In other words, you’re no longer in the center of the stage living the “me movie.” You’re still a part of the movie, but you’re off to the side. And that which is drawing you in, that which contains this moving beauty, is powerful enough to open you up to begin to feel a sense of place. You start to feel a part of something bigger than yourself and then ultimately, to come to know your own strengths and who you are in the world. That’s what the therapists and the field staff of wilderness therapy are doing all the time. They’re helping somebody know their strengths and know who they are. The powerful beauty that draws young people when they’re out in nature is like a garden bed for that kind of awareness. It’s one of the most powerful things. It’s full of mystery, and it can’t be completely quantified. We can study it and research it and know that it works, but ultimately, it’s a grand and mysterious dance.
At times in my life, I felt that dealing with nature was better and easier than dealing with the human world. It felt simpler and purer, and the beauty and mystery and all other things were somehow easier to apprehend. In truth, the human world offers all of that as well. We can and do have the capacity to give that to one another, and wilderness therapy is the most stunningly effective example of that that I’ve ever run across. It is easy in nature because nature isn’t judging you, but we humans have that same need and capability for reassuring and comforting and encouraging and creating with one another.
Mary: We also know from social science research that it’s our connection with other people that supports recovery from things like addiction and living with a history of trauma. It is even shown to help minimize the likelihood of dementia in older age. We know that being connected is good for us. While the pandemic has been isolating, it’s also been amazing for giving people the opportunity to look outside and realize how connected they actually are.
Gary: Psychology has associated being out in nature with what is called soft fascination. It’s a kind of present moment awareness. Being in the present, not living with regret about the past or anxiety about the future, is really where life happens. It’s also where we can access, as humans, our spectacular improvisational ability, which is also a great quality of nature at large. So if a young person is able to go into the natural world, quiet down, unplug, disconnect, and experience that soft fascination that allows them to be present, then they’re not only going to be present with what’s going on inside of them, they’re also going to be present with improvisational and creative perspectives that they might not have been able to hear above the din of their daily lives.
Mary: And then those skills have the opportunity to build. It’s not a magic toggle switch. Young people in wilderness therapy will eventually go back into their lives, and every cue is there for them to return to what they used to be. So it’s a matter of standing in one’s true nature and insisting on the integrity of that. That’s no small order, but it is an absolute possibility, and the whole natural world is there to sustain and support that. Always has been.