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Pathways to Nature Kinship

Presented at the 15th National Trails Symposium, Redding, California, September 21-24, 2000 -- sponsored by AMERICAN TRAILS

By James A. Swan, Ph.D

"If we ride, hike or horse around on the trails before this process is complete, the damage to the trail could be permanent."


The following is adapted from Nature As Teacher and Healer by James A. Swan, Ph.D. (revised edition:, 2000, hardcover $24.95) available from any electronic distributor including

"Inside-Out Ecology"

In 1903, my grandfather gave Sinclair Oil permission to drill for oil on the family farm; a 550-acre parcel located on an island in Lake Erie just south of Detroit called Grosse Ile. My father was two years old at that time. Taking a trip to the drilling, he later remembered as his earliest memory. The memory stuck with him, no doubt, because he stole a sandwich from one of the workmen's lunch pails, took a big bite out of it, and his mother gave him a spanking.

Sinclair Oil bored down 2375 feet through clay and then limestone. They struck a gusher, but it was mineral water, not oil. The stream of water was so strong that Sinclair Oil gave up on prospecting for oil, leaving my grandfather with an artesian well that streamed 22 feet into the air, pumping out two million gallons of highly mineralized water per day that had a pungent odor like rotten eggs.

At first, the water just spewed out of a pipe and drained into Lake Erie, along the way creating a one acre wetland that drew swarms of ducks and shore birds. The birds were attracted by a small snail that loved the calcium-rich water. My grandfather's business associates from Detroit flocked to hunt ducks in the marsh by the well. In time, a bridge was built to Grosse Ile, and a procession of Henry Ford's motor cars crossed that bridge, carrying passengers on outings. Engineers had verified the flow of the water from the well, and it was declared the largest artesian well east of the Mississippi. A steady stream of sightseers began to come. Some asked permission to take jugs of the water home. People reported that the water seemed to help them with stomach troubles, constipation and rheumatism. More people came, and grandfather founded the Wonder Well Company, complete with souvenirs, to sell the water. Soon trucks were carrying thousands of gallons of water to Detroit to sell the water in what would become a forerunner of the modern health food industry.

After completing his studies in engineering at the University of Michigan, my father came home to manage the water business. When the Great Depression threw the nation into poverty, the family became doubly thankful for the Wonder Well. Not only were they able to sell some water, but the flocks of ducks and shorebirds that were magnetically drawn to its mineral-rich outflow pond provided many tasty meals.

After the Depression, the Wonder Well became a major tourist attraction in the Detroit River area. Ripley's "Believe It Or Not" listed it, as did the AAA and other tourism guides. By the late l940's thousands of people were coming every week-end to sample the water, take home a few gallons for their health, and buy souvenirs, including taffy made from the water. My father ran the business, working 365 days a year unless someone could convince him to take a vacation.

In the late l950's new superhighways were built that would carry people to northern Michigan in the time that it used to take to drive the fifteen miles south of Detroit to visit the well. The tourist business began to decline, and coincidentally, so did the well's flow. It was now only about half what it was a decade ago. In summer months the tourist business was still respectable, but in winters my father sometimes sat there all day without a customer. Seemingly inspired by the gentle force of the upwelling water, a potent symbol of fertile creativity emerging from the unconscious, he began to invent. With the continual background sound of 52 degree water splashing onto a pile of rocks that surrounded the fountain, he was always working on a new idea, many of which were developed into profitable products that he sold in the slack time: fishing lures, tourist novelties, model car kits, erosion control planting systems and Christmas decorations.

By the l970's, the Wonder Well was pumping out only one-quarter of its original flow. The flow of customers, too, had dropped off considerably. Drawing on his college training in chemistry and engineering, my father invented a new smoke bomb firework that was legal. His invention led to a challenge to the Michigan fireworks laws, and soon business was booming again, though fire, not water, was the prevailing element as he became a major retail outlet for Class C fireworks. The Wonder Well was now a curiosity that flowed just a few thousand gallons a day. My father just gave away the water. As a sentimental memorial to the early days he had enjoyed so much, he dug out a shallow depression with an island in the middle, and channeled water from the well into the pond. The tiny snails quickly returned in the mineral-rich water, which again became popular with ducks and shorebirds.

The years passed and fireworks sales made my father wealthy. He continued to manage the business every day, rain, snow or sun, drinking a glass of water nearly every day, as he had done for years. Many people began to come to see the "old man and the well," and he became a local celebrity in the Detroit area. Each year the Wonder Well's flow declined more and more, but its force seemed to continue to inspire his stream of inventions. When he was ninety he signed a contract with an agent to represent him for a word game for children that he had invented.

One month shy of his 93rd birthday, on October 1, l994, my father died quickly and quietly of a heart attack. He worked every day up to the day of his death. Three days before he passed away, the well stopped flowing, for the first time in 91 years. It started up briefly three months later, when I sold his car. Two weeks later, it stopped flowing and hasn't flowed since. A geologist said that it was just a coincidence that the well's flow seemed to be parallel to my father's life. I disagree. I believe the synchronicity of the well's life span and my father's death is but one example of the magic that can occur when the mind and nature are in harmony.

We buried my father along the Huron River on the mainland. The last time that I went to visit his grave, it was winter. The river was frozen over, but there was a small patch of open water right opposite the cemetery. A single whistling swan was swimming in that opening. I'm not so sure that was a coincidence either.

Growing An Ecological Conscience

Is it nature, or nurture, that makes us who we are? Both, most behavioral scientists agree. But are our genes or how parents treat their children all that makes us uniquely who we are? I propose that there is a third formative force that plays a powerful role in all aspects of human life; a force that shapes both nature and nurture. Nature. Not "nature" meaning the genetic inheritance of our species. Nature, meaning the heavenly bodies, animals, plants, stones, mountains, rivers, caves, and the biggest living organism that we are associated with, the earth, and the vital force that drives them and links them together into an energizing spider web of awe. This is a book about reclaiming our psychological roots in Nature.

Look for a discussion of Nature in psychology texts and you will usually find next to nothing. In scientific psychology, animals are mentioned in terms of psychopathology, as in "bestiality" -- having sex with animals -- or "lycanthropy," a psychosis where one acts like an animal gone mad. Animal research in psychology normally consists of controlled laboratory procedures with rats, monkeys, pigeons, or flatworms. Sunsets, waterfalls, lunar eclipses, a bolt of lightning, rainbows, a fresh snowfall, a tapestry of wildflowers in a mountain meadow, the sweet lusty evening song of a warbling vireo, the haunting hoot of an owl, majestic snow-capped mountains at sunset and towering redwood trees thrusting up into a fog bank, seldom, if ever, get any column inches in our psychology texts, and these are the books that set the standards of what we should think of ourselves. It is as if Nature had no significant influence on our lives! "We are victims of academic, scientific, and even therapeutic psychology, whose paradigms do not sufficiently account for ". . . that essential mystery at the heart of each human life," James Hillman has declared.(1) I could not agree more. Until Nature is factored into our psychology we cannot become whole, and our ability to avoid environmental catastrophes is hindered. Since this book first came out, there have been efforts to articulate the man-nature relationship, principally "deep ecology" and "ecopsychology." Both have made valuable contributions, and both also at times become political movements as much as scholarly pursuits. Rather than aligning this book with any movement, I simply prefer it to stand as an investigation of kinship with nature.

Popular psychology, created by people independent from the constraints of academia, is often a place where one can tackle subjects that go beyond normative academic psychological theory -- the real world! The presently popular self-help books on love, for example, provide sorely needed guidance and insight into the practical alchemy of relationships, another area where psychological theory is deficient. The art of loving Nature, however, is nowhere to be found in self-help manuals, as if it did not matter. But it does matter. The love of Nature is critical to the love of self. Increasing your love for Nature is the primary goal of this book. The benefits go far beyond personal pleasure for as Fritz Perls, developer of the gestalt approach to psychotherapy observed, "We do to ourselves as we do to the environment."

One of the first people to call attention to the connection between emotional burnout and the destruction of nature was the Swedish economist Staffan B. Linder. In l970 Linder published an insightful and troubling study entitled "The Harried Leisure Class," in which he showed how when people become obsessed with a work ethic, life becomes more and more hectic and less and less fulfilling as they drain themselves and resources around them. In his own words, "people die an early death from overstrain and insufficient time instead of, as previously, from a shortage of goods. Deaths are now caused by high productivity, not low productivity."(2) The truth in Linder's predictions are all too true today where anti-stress drugs are the most common prescriptions and in Japan, "karoshi," which means "working oneself to death," has become a public health problem of epidemic proportions.

We shape our environments and they shape us. The average person today spends 84% of their life indoors, relying on the media to define external reality, but when the new subspecies, Homo Sapiens indoorensis, looks out a window or ventures outdoors, nature is there, even in the concrete, steel and plastic canyons of the inner city. Over 90% of the population now lives in urban and suburban areas, but there is always a sky above with clouds and birds, wind, rain, snow, sunlight and darkness. There is always a ground underfoot, with earth (covered or uncovered by concrete and asphalt), and plants that manage to grow in the harshest of environments. As Bob Dylan reminds us, "You don't need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows." We cannot escape from Nature, but we can pave over our consciousness so that the natural harmonic link between people and nature is denied. Re-establishing that link is the goal of this book.

The extent to which people can deny ecological imbalance in their lives became apparent to me in the late 1960's when a papermaking plant along the Huron River in Ypsilanti, Michigan, was dumping large quantities of brightly colored paper dyes into the river. The dyes were supposedly non-toxic and on various days the river might be white, blood red, purple, indigo, or lime green, depending on what paper was being made that day. Some local people were up in arms about the rainbow hues of the Huron River, but since the chemicals used were not highly toxic, according to the laws of the day it was difficult to prove pollution was taking place. In the heat of the debate, a woman wrote a letter to the Ypsilanti newspaper, thanking the company for dumping effluents into the river. She said that she lived along the banks of the Huron River and every morning she would go to the window first thing to see what a beautiful color the river was that day!

One reason why tranquilizers and anti-ulcer drugs are so popular is that we forget about, or deny, the importance of Nature in our lives. Even though much of modern life is distanced from Nature, we still yearn for it unconsciously. The massive world tourism industry has become more than a trillion dollar a year business because people feel a need to recreate. Nature is where we go to recreate. Our minds call us back to earthy roots of Nature, but making the best use of our contacts with the natural world has become a serious problem for mental health. Like loving another person, falling in love with Nature, especially for the first time, may be a terrifying experience for we do not have ample preparation for what may transpire.

When we do go on vacation, studies show that many people are not quite sure what to do. The average visitor to a national park spends six hours or less (a significant amount of which is spent at the visitor center, restaurants and bathrooms), and does not venture more than 50 feet from the road. A change of pace and place is relaxing, but real recreation requires something more than just a change of scenery. We must realize that we are always our own best experts. Establishing kinship with nature arises from personal sensory awareness experiences that are filtered and interpreted by a knowing mind that knows how to "see," as Aldous Huxley described wise perception.

In his popular book Megatrends, John Naisbitt proposes that for every advance in technology, we must have a balancing development in self-awareness to prevent us from self-destruction. If we are going to have technological with an increasingly potent ability to manipulate nature, we must cultivate a balancing equivalent ability to love of nature within and without to guide our decision-making. This book presents a guide to recovering our kinship with Nature. It will draw upon modern psychology, but we also will call upon the psychology of native people, from time to time, to help us understand where we must go and what may happen when we get there. Many scientists dismiss the wisdom of the bush as superstition. As we shall see, such an attitude is one reason why alienation from Nature is so widespread in modern society. Nature did not invent modern science. If science cannot explain Nature that is science's problem, not nature's.

Science may be objective, but scientists are not. A Ph.D. follows my name. Let me tell you about my biases. My professional discipline is environmental psychology -- the study of the interaction between people and the world around them. Now that ecological concerns are finally being taken seriously, environmental psychology sounds like an appropriate research area. Shocking, but true, environmental psychology did not even exist until the early l970's when, following Earth Day l970, the American Psychological Association bowed to pressure from a handful of members and created a division called "Environment and Population Psychology." Nearly 30 years later there are about as many environmental psychologists as whooping cranes. New movements like deep ecology or eco-psychology are beginning to fill the void, but much more must be done to facilitate our re-union with nature.

Since the l960's I have been trying to map-out the psychological relationship between people and nature. This quest has taken me from the concrete jungles of inner cities to the sensuous golden-sand beaches of the South Pacific; from solid mahogany meeting tables in corporate board rooms to the billiard-table flat Arctic tundra along the shores of the Arctic Ocean; from the bowling lane-like halls of the US. Department of Interior's headquarters in Washington, DC, to the underground ceremonial kivas of the Southwest US pueblo Indians; from cheering crowds of thousands at eco-rallies, to the privacy of a counseling office, listening to the tears of clients struggling to cut through alienation and reclaim their life. In this book I will report on what I have found. At times, I will be autobiographical, so you can understand my position. Often, I have found that to get closer to nature one must unlearn what one has been taught and entertain ideas and experiences that will broadened your image of human nature. I consider myself a recovering academic.


In the field of psychology, Abraham Maslow revolutionized our understanding of human behavior when he realized that most of our theories of human behavior were based on studies of rats, chimpanzees, pigeons, or mentally disturbed people. The potentials of mental healthiness were virtually unexplored, Maslow concluded, and so he began to study people who were seemed to be performing at levels of healthiness far exceeding the norms. He called them "self-actualizing" people. (3) I met Maslow in the early l970's. After listening to my interest in the love of nature he told me that if I wanted to uncover what moved people to develop a passionate love for Nature I should follow his example and study people who are dedicated to ecological balance, both famous and unknown, living and dead, in hopes of finding what forces have moved them to feel such a strong love for Nature. As he was about to leave he added, with a twinkle in his eye, that in his studies he had found that a common quality of self-actualizing people was the love of nature.

Maslow's advice has been wise. Since that meeting I have surveyed and interviewed hundreds of ecologically-concerned people. In addition, I have poured through biographies and explored the psychology of loving of nature among traditional and non-western cultures where they consider kinship with Nature to be the root of human health. What emerges from this investigation is that there are five paths that lead to developing a deep and enduring love of nature. Not everyone fits neatly into just one category, and it is often true that by seriously following one path, one comes to embrace several others, but they all ultimately lead to one common end -- a passionate, life-inspiring, healing, love for Nature.

1. Becoming Well-Informed

One path to developing an ecological conscience is by absorbing and gathering information: reading books and magazines, listening to radio and television, taking classes and attending lectures, relying on reports from expert sources to form opinions. For many people, especially people who live in cities and seldom get out-of-doors, their concept of nature is highly influenced by second-hand sources. The enormous popularity of nature in the media is but one indication of our yearning to be close to Nature, even though we may be physically and sensorially distant from the fresh south wind, the songs of redwing black birds, or the snarl of a jaguar. Exposure to ecological information and nature programs on television can do no harm, so long as they are accurate, but how much good the average cognitive educational program does is uncertain. Frankly, after awhile, a lot of the stuff published and produced in the name of nature can be pretty boring. Nature is never boring.

Most people say reading magazines and books and watching movies and television supports feelings that are already there, rather than being the initial motivating spark that fuels a yearning to be close to nature. I know of only one leader in the environmental movement who feels that he became committed to serious ecological action through information exposure: Dr. Albert Baez, world-renown physicist and science educator who switched careers and became director of education for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources based on reading volumes of scientific studies about the pollution of the biosphere. I am sure there are others, especially, in the scientific and academic community who have followed this path of the intellect, but in my research they are a minority among those who love nature deeply from their heart.

Everyone needs to be ecologically literate; learning ecological terms, the facts about pollution and its causes and prevention, and how we are all tied together in the web of life called the food chain. As the need to be hunters and gathers of food has declined we now learn to become information-gathers through formal education. But if your feelings about nature are only based on what others say, it is likely that you will be prone to shift your priorities about social issues as often as the winds change, hopping on fads, causes and crises like taxi cabs that carry you from point A to point B because you do not have time to walk and enjoy the sunshine. This is one reason why this book includes experiential exercises. You must discover what is Nature for yourself. You cannot find it from sitting on a couch reading or watching television alone.

2. Serving A Sense of Social Justice

Many people who join the environmental movement see pollution and extinction of animals and plants as just one more example of the injustices inherent in our socio-political system. People on this path often are not ardent naturalists, and may spend little time in natural areas, but nonetheless they are ready to throw themselves into ecological battles, seemingly inspired by the spirit of that social crusader Saint Augustine, because they feel it is the right thing to do for a just society. Ralph Nader is a good example of someone becoming an ecological crusader because of a strong social conscience. So was the archdruid of social protest, Saul Alinsky, whose books on strategies and ethics of political activism remain Bibles for many eco-activists. Some modern entertainers who have joined the environmental movement seem to come from the motivation of justice than ecological savvy.

3. Concern for Personal and Public Health

A person whose work has been very influential to understanding the way physical environments can influence health and happiness is Fred Soyka, author of the groundbreaking popular book on air ionization The Ion Effect. Soyka's interest in air chemistry was triggered by his discovery that his long bout with a strange chronic physical and emotional sickness was due to his sensitivity to "something electrical in the air," that we now understand to be negative air ion deficiency. The original motivations of scientist Barry Commoner, author of the immensely popular study of ecology and the future, The Closing Circle, also seems to fall into this category. His initial interest in ecological issues was triggered by fears of public health dangers arising from fallout from atmospheric testing of nuclear devices. Farm worker activist Caesar Chavez's concern for pesticides also seems to fall within the social justice motivational pathway to eco-activism.

A number of people report that they discovered the healing powers of nature when they sought out natural areas to escape from dysfunctional families and abusive relationships. John Muir spent most of his childhood in Scotland, then later in the woods of Wisconsin, escaping from a tyrannical father. Nature writer John Burroughs escaped an unhappy marriage by retreating to the woods. One of the first black students to go through the National Audubon Society Expedition Institute told me how he escaped from gang violence the inner-city public housing projects of Atlanta by hiding in a peach tree. While hiding in the tree, he met birds, raccoons and squirrels and ate sweet, fresh peaches. The peach tree literally saved his life and in return he has since become an outstanding environmental education teacher.

4. Seeking Personal Health and Fitness

The fourth path to ecological advocacy comes from an awareness of how health and fitness are linked to ecological quality. People on this path, such as the late Robert Rodale, feel strongly about the need to buy and eat organic foods, get more exercise, meditate or do yoga, and live and work in clean and safe environments. A visceral concern for ecological quality that originates from self-interest is generally much stronger and longer lasting than a purely cerebral one. Eating your way to ecological awareness is an effective way to establish an ecological conscience because you can feel the rightness of it in your body as well as knowing it in your head. What is good for nature is generally good for your own nature.

5. Emotional/Spiritual Experiences

The fifth path is the one that modern psychology has almost totally ignored, yet it is the most common and potent motivation of all for the committed leaders of the ecological movement, as well as many others who share their feelings but work in other fields. Almost all dedicated ecologists can trace their passion for nature to one or both of the following experiences: early positive encounters with nature in childhood, usually in the presence of loving adults, involving intense beauty and wonder; and later, in adulthood, extraordinary moments filled with healing, creative inspiration and spiritual qualities. In a study of 124 people who report having had some kind of extraordinary experience with nature as adults, psychologist Dr. Samantha Dowdall found that 68% of her interviewees could recall powerful positive emotional bonding experiences with nature in their childhood. They all saw this as an integral root of their being. (4)

Clearly, one person who would agree with the importance of early experience in developing an ecological conscience is singer Pete Seeger, who has become a leader in fighting pollution of the Hudson River with his sailing craft Clearwater. Pete traces his childhood roots of love for nature to many long hours spent playing cowboys and Indians in the woods. Seeger told me that he nearly always took the part of the Indians.

Actor Robert Redford, a ardent environmentalist, links his lifelong commitment to ecological issues to a childhood visit to Yosemite Valley where he was deeply moved by the beauty of nature. Another actor with a commitment to conservation, Jameson Parker, star of numerous movies and the hit television series, "Simon and Simon," vividly recalls childhood summers in Vermont when he was allowed to roam the woods freely and he found fascination with seeing how close he could approach animals.

Both David Brower and Loren Eisley trace the origins of their fondness for nature to helping ailing parents stay in touch with the world: Brower's mother went blind and he had to become her "eyes;" Eisley's mother was deaf, and as a result he developed a kind of sensory communication with her "which might have been conducted by the man-apes of the early ice age."

In his autobiography Dreams, Memories, Reflections, Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, believed by some to be the most important authority on the psychology of religion in the 20th century, reports some of his very vivid early memories of Nature that had life-long vitality and meaning to him. He writes: "One memory comes up which is perhaps the earliest of my life, and is indeed only a rather hazy impression. I am lying in a pram, in the shadow of a tree. It is a fine, warm summer day, the sky blue, and the golden sunlight darting through the green leaves. I have just awakened to the glorious beauty of the day, and have a sense of indescribable well-being. I see the sun glittering through the leaves and blossoms of the bushes. Everything is wholly wonderful, colorful and splendid." (5)

Jung recalled another time when his aunt took him to see the Alps bathed in the golden-red alpenglow light at sundown as burning a lasting impression in his mind. A third early memory links him with water, which was to be a life-long association that in later years he maintained through his country residence on the lake at Bolligen. Jung recalled this moment in childhood some eighty years later as:

"My mother took me to the Thurgau to visit friends, who had a castle on Lake Constance. I could not be dragged away from the water, the waves from the steamer washed up on the shore, the sun glistened on the water, and the sand under the water had been curled into little ridges by the waves. The lake stretched away in the distance. This expanse of water was an inconceivable pleasure to me, an incomparable splendor. At that time the idea became fixed in my mind that I must live near a lake. Without water, I thought, nobody could live at all."(6)

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and John Burroughs all felt that being alone in nature provided deep spiritual inspiration. Like the Desert Fathers in the Christian tradition and the many native peoples around the world who seek spiritual guidance at sacred places, they knew the power of nature first-hand. It was the root of their faith. When one traces the origins of religions of the world, one finds that integral to their birth is someone having a spiritual experience at a special place; Buddha and the Bodhi Tree; the many revelations reported in the Bible; and Mohammed's ascent to the Throne of God from the top of the mountain in Jerusalem, are a sample of what is a universal pattern of man discovering his spiritual roots in nature. Undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau spoke with deep reverence of that transformational moment in his life when he made the first underwater descent with his invention, the aqua-lung. Rachel Carson's mother taught her at home, spending many long hours studying nature first-hand. Later as an adult she found that retreating alone to seacoasts, such as Cape Cod, she would slip into a rapture of ecstasy about nature. Drawing on this inspiration, she wrote the award-winning book The Sea Around Us, and coined the term "a sense of wonder." This love for nature later moved her to pen the classic warning about the dangers of pesticides, Silent Spring.

Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas was an ardent wilderness advocate, who linked his intense love for the out of doors to a moment in his youth, His father had died very unexpectedly, and as a teenager standing beside his father's grave in the high prairie of eastern Washington state, Douglas felt a deep emptiness. He looked up at nearby snow-capped Mount Adams and suddenly realized that his second father would be the mountain.

James Lovelock, the renegade British scientist who invented the gas chromatograph that made possible the detection of minute quantities of pesticides, also conceived the "Gaia Hypothesis" that the earth is alive. Lovelock told me that during the time he was working on his landmark book about the living earth thesis, Gaia: A New Look At Life, he would periodically hike to the summit of a nearby mountain, Brentor, where an old church, St. Michael de la Rupe, is located. After sitting in the church for a time, he would return home and find continued inspiration to formulate the Gaia Hypothesis.

My own conclusions about the primary importance of emotional bonding to nature based on biographical studies and personal interviews, are supported by professors Thomas Tanner and Harold Hungerford. They and their colleagues have surveyed members of citizen environmental groups and consistently found that many more people than we think, who are environmentally concerned, have had transcendent moments of awe in nature that seem best expressed as ultimately a feeling of love. (7)

That the emotional foundation of nature kinship is not better known and appreciated seems largely due to the limiting framework of scientific thinking, especially the Newtonian-Cartesian perspective that wants to boil down all life into objective math, chemistry and physics. The lack of attention paid to nature transcendence as an integral root of an ecological conscience is a little like sex before the Kinsey reports: lots of people are having the experiences, but few are bold enough to talk about them publicly or admit their importance in regard to lifelong attitudes and values.

To cite an example of just how important transcendent experiences in nature are to ecological action, one need look no farther than the story of the origin of the word "conservation" and the birth of the conservation movement. Gifford Pinchot, Chief Forester in the administration of President Theodore Roosevelt, knew the outdoors well as an avid fisherman and hunter, but his professional expertise was scientific forestry, for he had trained in the finest schools of Europe. On a foggy February morning in l905 Pinchot slowly rode his horse named "Jim" through Rock Creek Park in Washington, DC. Roosevelt had asked Pinchot to come up with a single unitive policy directive that could be used to guide resource management for a wide variety of issues including fisheries, wildlife, forestry, public grazing lands, mining and mineral leasing, oil drilling, park lands, and so on. Pinchot found the magnitude and complexity of the assignment overwhelming. He was burdened and in a state of depression. Surrounded by the splendor of the ravine, in a flash of insight he recalled that in India there were large districts called "conservancies" that were managed for the good of everyone. This revelation, he writes in his autobiography, was like a light at the end of a long dark tunnel. The words "the greatest good for the greatest number for the longest time" came to mind, and he dug his heels into Jim's flanks and raced back to the White House. Pinchot rushed into the Oval Office to relate his experience. Roosevelt became so excited that he called a special cabinet meeting that evening. During that memorable session it was Secretary McGee who coined the word conservation to describe the new comprehensive resource policy of the Roosevelt Administration which was defined as: "The wise us of natural resources for the greatest number of people for the longest time." (8)

It was not that Pinchot was unconcerned about natural resources before this time, but rather his noetic insight that suddenly made clear a common principle that could unify action on many fronts. Pinchot's experience is what is called an "adamic ecstasy:" i.e. a sudden realization of unity emerging from depression created by a sense of chaos and confusion.


Powerful positive emotional experiences associated with nature "open the doors of perception," as Aldous Huxley might say. Moments of intense numinous beauty, wonder and awe etch life-long benchmarks on our psyche; providing a baseline by which to judge other emotional experiences and serving as a lasting awareness that contact with nature is a wellspring of health and inspiration. Such bonding is important to emotional development in much the same way that young animals or children imprint on certain adults, establishing an awareness of loving parents or friends is a life-long source of support and guidance.

Building upon early experiences, as we become older comes the potential for emotional experiences to deepen, possibly even taking on supernatural and/or spiritual qualities. Confronted by the sight of a majestic snow-capped mountain or a breath-taking waterfall, our emotions soar and ego boundaries dissolve as we slip into a unity with nature. Such experiences move us to contemplate ourselves and our existence in ways that touch the core of our being. They seem to transform our life. In the words of Mircea Eliade, "...for those who have a religious experience all nature is capable of revealing itself as cosmic sacrality." (9)

The instincts we come with at birth are implanted in us as they have survival value. In addition to moving us to find sex, food, water and shelter, other instincts guide us to seek love, and perhaps even beauty, to nourish us. The language of the psyche is symbolic, and these symbols are forms of nature -- birds, fish, animals, trees, clouds, sun, moon, stars, water, and trees. We are born with these forms stored in us. Extraordinary experiences seem to be catalysts for realizing similar forms in the world around us to affirm our inner identity. Such discoveries yield tremendous benefits. Science tells us that when two or more objects of a similar nature come into harmony, energy is exchanged. Having a strong psychic bond with nature enables us to realize the phrase "living in harmony with nature" and establish a dynamic source of life-affirming energy. It also sheds light on the workings of intuition, the least understood of all psychological modes, as a quest to discover harmonies.

A spiritual teacher once told me that no powerful spirit comes like a dog when you whistle. Ecstasies with nature also seem to be beyond our control, although ancient cultures possessed a technology to increase their chances of occurring -- ritual. Modern people have nature bonding experiences by chance, when they least expect them, sometimes in moments of deep depression, even in accidents. Sometimes when they happen, unusual feelings and natural phenomena occur that may be terrifying. Drawing upon modern psychology and ancient native wisdom, in the following pages I will describe a psychology of nature kinship, and make suggestions about how to achieve it. The following pages also chronicle some my own growing understanding of the suitable answers to these questions, for in such a study one always finds oneself a research project, as well as a researcher.

"Again and again in the unorganized chronicles of American bird watching there is a fleeting episode in which the watcher is overtaken by a kind of surprised enchantment that leaves a seal on his mind and perhaps on his soul." (10)


In his autobiography, Voices and Silences, Actor James Earl Jones says, "I have always thought it quite wonderful and necessary to keep connected to nature, to a place in a country landscape where one can rest and muse and listen." (11) Research has shown that half an hour a week alone in a natural setting can have positive therapeutic value. Make a commitment to spend at least half an hour a week alone in a natural area. Don't take a book. Just sit or walk quietly and let your senses dominate consciousness. If you want something to do, take a sketchpad and draw. Once you feel you have left behind your emotional old business, your potential for finding beauty and wonder will increase. Each time you are alone, look for one natural object or creature that you feel drawn to. Take some time studying it, as well as reflecting on why you are drawn to it. Nature is a great mirror.



1) James Hillman The Soul's Code: In Search of Character and Calling New York, NY: Random House, l996, p.6.

2) This research is described in This World, May 15, 1983, in the story "The We-Never-Rest Society," by Kent A, MacDougall.

3) Abraham H. Maslow, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature New York, NY: Viking Press, Compass Edition, l971.

4) Samantha Dowdall, Roots of the Spirit: Accompaniments of Exceptional Human Experiences Occuring In Nature, doctoral dissertation. Palo Alto, CA: Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, l998.

5) Carl Jung ed. Memories, Dreams, Reflections New York, NY: Pantheon, l961, p. 6.

6) Ibid., p. 7.

7) Thomas Tanner, "Significant Life Experiences: A New Research Area in Environmental Education," Journal of Environmental Education, Vol. XI, No. 4 (Summer 1980), pp. 20-24. Also see: A. Sia, H. Hungerford, and A. Tomera, "Selected Predictors of Environmental Behavior," Department of Curriculum Instruction and Media, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, IL, 1984.

8) Gifford Pinchot Breaking New Ground New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1947, p. 40.

9) Mircea Eliade The Sacred and The Profane New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich, l959, p.12.

10) Joseph Kastner A World of Watchers New York, NY: Alfred Knopf, l986, p.3. 11) James Earl Jones Voices and Silences New York, NY: Chas. Scribner's Sons, l993, p. 358.

James A, Swan, Ph.D. - The author of seven non-fiction books about nature and the mind, James Swan has published over 200 articles in popular magazines including Audubon, American Health, Utne Reader, Intellectual Capitol, National Review, and Countryside. As the "Media Watch" columnist for North American Hunter magazine, he is the only outdoor writer/ movie critic in the US, perhaps the world. James is also an actor; a member of SAG and AFTRA. He has appeared in over 20 commericals and print ads and recent movies including: "Star Trek: First Contact," "Jack," "Murder In the First," and "Angels In The Outfield," and the forthcoming "Bi-Centennial Man,"as well as appearances on the dramatic series "Midnight Caller," "Jesse Hawkes," and "Nash Bridges," and the "Sightings" and "Ancient Mysteries" television series. James has taught natural resources, psychology and recreation at the Universities of Michigan, Western Washington State, Oregon and Washington, and anthropology at the California Institute of Integral Studies. He currently is a Research Adjunct at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology. He is one of the founders of the fields of environmental psychology and environmental education. From l973-l982 he was a counselor in private practice, working with a number of world class athletes. From 1988-1992, James and his wife Roberta produced five international symposiums, "The Spirit of Place: The Modern Relevance of An Ancient Concept." The programs, which sought to integrate design, psychology and native wisdom, took place in the US and Japan, included over 300 speakers, members of 25 native tribal cultures and drew 10,000.

James is listed in WHO'S WHO IN THE WEST, WHO'S WHO IN SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING, MEN OF ACHIEVEMENT IN THE WORLD, and WHO'S WHO IN SERVICE TO THE EARTH. In l992 the California State Assembly awarded him a special Certificate of Recognition for his work in environmental education as the rock and roll clown "Recycleman." James, as Recycleman, toured with an all-star band from 1990-93, rockin' in the three-r's -- Reuse, Reduce and Recycle to thousands, opening for acts including Pride and Joy and Gary Lewis and the Playboys.

Nature As Teacher and Healer by James A. Swan (Villard-Random House, 1992-- Nippon Kyobun-Sha, Inc., 1995 [Japanese edition]; July 2000 - -- revised edition) 321 pages $24.95 hardcover --

September 2000

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