The World This Week: Ecopsychology 101

On the edge of my town sits a gas station that was forced to close last year because of a leak in one of its underground tanks. Soon after this event occurred, yellow crime-scene tape was ominously swaddled around the block. Since then, a chain link fence has replaced the tape, replete with barbed wire across the top for good measure—as if someone would scale the fence to make off with …what? The stale peanut butter crackers in the vending machines? The entire scene, frozen as it is in time (including the listed gas prices of $4.37 to $4.69), could serve as a museum installation called "The Last Days."

Because the full extent of the spill has yet to be determined, the damage remains unremediated. Every time I pass that station it feels like an open wound in the earth, over which the flimsiest of band-aids has been placed. At the risk of adding more gasoline to the fire of last week's column, I submit that it feels like a wound because it is a wound. There is in fact a growing branch of psychology that deals with the impact of the natural environment on the human mind and body: ecopsychology.

Ecopsychology, as propounded by James Hillman, a therapist based in northeast Connecticut, seeks to redefine the goals of psychology by paying heed to the health of one's environment just as one would the pathology of one's family. As Hillman wrote in the foreword to Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind, "Psychology, so dedicated to awakening human consciousness, needs to wake itself up to one of the most ancient human truths: we cannot be studied or cured apart from the planet."

Ecopsychology is on the level—the community level, that is. That's where and how Hillman has felt it in his own town, where he has been active on environmental issues and open space acquisition. I talked to Hillman at his house some time ago, and he touched on the psychological effects on the community of environmental "crime scenes."

"When a farm is subdeveloped, acres of trees go down or there's an oil spill in town, you feel it deeply and it goes on in you for so long, every time you walk past that place," said Hillman, who has successfully fought road extensions and subdevelopments in his town. "That never comes into consciousness. It is never talked about on the community level. People all know this inside their bodies. That's the horror. It hurts. When I see old healthy trees go down, it hurts."

The real problem comes when that person then tries to convey that feeling at a planning and zoning meeting, which is a cut-and-dried forum. How does one quantify the impact on a community's psychology of sprawl, widened roads or oil spills?

"It is almost as if we need a huge revolution of thinking, and I don't think it's a spiritual revolution, either," said Hillman. "It's something else. It's that feeling of being hurt when those cows are gone and you walk past that place and you see those houses stretching to the horizon. How do you present that in the cosmology that rules the world, whether you call it bottom-line thinking or administrative language, whatever system you want to call it, that rules the world, all the world?"

Hillman cites the film My Dinner With Andre as an example of how this feeling is universal, whether in small New England towns or cities. "At the end of that film, Wally is going home. He drives by a building in a taxi… And the voiceover of his thoughts runs, 'I remember going into that place with my father, and that place for something else…' That's an important part of that film. If you tear those buildings down and put up a new Trump Tower, where is Wally's memory? You see, there is something that remains in these places—the old buildings or the cow farm, whatever it is that was there."

If I were 20 years younger, I would enroll in the master's program in ecopsychology at Naropa University. What could be better than communing with the spirit of Jack Kerouac and Henry David Thoreau while learning to heal the earth? Naropa's website is


Author: Alan Bisbort

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