Category Archives: Ecopsychology

How nature increases health, productivity and wellbeing

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhere do people currently experience nature in Australia? What activities, groups or organisations are involved? What are the new opportunities in this space?

As Richard Louv has extensively documents in The last child in the woods, saving our children from nature deficit disorder, future environmentalists are formed through childhood experiences of play in nature.

And as Common Cause research into values shows, engaging intrinsic values primes people to care and act on behalf of the environment. Nature connection engages the following values:

• A world of beauty
• Unity with nature
• Protecting the environment
• Care for future generations

I am fortunate in my work at ACF, to have the opportunity to explore some powerful questions about how we can be more effective in our work, and how social and cultural change relates to our environmental goals. One of the question we’ve been exploring this week is where the opportunities lie to reengage and animate people in their connection to the natural world.

The “great outdoors” is an Australian myth and reality, rated highly by Australians when they talk about what makes this country unique.

Healthy Parks, Healthy People is an extensive literature review, by Deakin University in 2002, updated in 2008, examining over two hundred studies indicating significant human health benefits of contact with nature.

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Why you should let your kids do dangerous things

Kids playing with fireAs paranoia around kids’ safety grows, kids become more cut off from their environment. Gever Tulley wants to shake things up.

His number one recommendation? Play with fire.

The mysteries of nature and physics revealed through fire can only be understood by playing with it. As he told Babble,

“When you don’t let kids climb trees or you don’t let them put their arms out the window to feel the wind, you’re actually preventing them from developing interest in the world around them.”

Tulley, a computer scientist and sculptor, runs the Tinkering School, a US summer camp where kids can deconstruct appliances, climb trees and build wild structures with power tools.

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On being lost and found in the mountains

Written as Victorian politician Tim Holding was rescued, lost on Mt Feathertop.

As Tibetan mystic Milarepa said, “Deep in the wild mountains is a strange marketplace where you can trade the hassle and noise of everyday life for eternal light.”

And you can trade your everyday perception for a fresh take on your self and your place in the world. Mountain-climbing exploits are often told as a quest to conquer nature with the mountain as trophy.  But delve a little deeper into the vast bookshelf of mountaineering stories and you’ll find obsessive quests for things more intangible, even to the protagonists themselves.

Mountain landscapes are repeatedly described as sources of personal inspiration and renewal. For many climbers, the landscape is not something to conquer, but something to respect, even something to enter into in a way that transcends the self. And underlying the narratives is the idea that an acceptance that the natural forces of land and weather are infinitely more powerful than human will is a crucial part of the bargain the climber enters with risk.

In the words of mythologist Joseph Campbell: “[T]hough terrors will recede before a genuine psychological readiness, the over-bold adventurer beyond his depth may be shamelessly undone.”

Our assessment of risk – and our place in the world of ecological life – has come askew. We have come to consider ourselves as separate from the more-than-human world. We consider that we live in a technological, ethical, and cultural order that is not constrained by ecology. Animals, the world and its atmosphere exist in an ecological order that is not constrained by ethics.

We systematically overestimate human knowledge and control. We have forgotten that as in mountain climbing, humility in the face of nature is appropriate, that it does not diminish us as human beings, and that it is, in fact, a characteristic of a hero.

As the enormity of the risks that really do threaten us bank up, we focus on eliminating smaller, more identifiable risks with greater and greater zeal. Maybe Tim Holding should have taken an emergency beacon to make it easier for rescuers to find him. But maybe we’re missing the bigger risks our behaviour creates, because they are not so obvious, because the consequences happen at another time, in another place, or to another generation.

Most of us now live in a world of endless comfort. A person who chooses to venture into wild nature is acclaimed as a hero or derided as a fool. Either way, they’re considered a freak. This polarised response admires heroes who dare to leave the comfort of ordinary life, and on the flipside, disapproves of personal risk-taking so intensely that it borders on a kind of moral panic. Tim Holding is copping both admiration and the tut-tut.

In times past, unsuccessful adventurers like Ernest Shackleton or George Mallory could be forgiven poor preparations, hubris, and insensitivity to the wild place, and hailed an heroic failure. But in the age of Gore-tex and the Global Positioning System, such failures are not tolerated, especially if the unsuccessful adventurer needs the help of others to escape a self-imposed predicament.

Whether triumphant, disapproving, or something in between, the public seems fascinated by wilderness risk-taking. Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer’s account of the 1996 Everest tragedy where eight climbers died, sold millions of copies, and, bizarrely, seemed to increase business for adventure travel operators. Everyone wants to go to Everest, where despite oxygen tanks and safety ropes, it is still possible, even easy, to die.

Perhaps this fascination is a kind of tragic katharsis, as Joseph Campbell described in his classic explorations of the social role of myth, where the emotions of the spectator of the tragedy are somehow purged or purified through exposure to pity and terror.

Like me, when I walked 700 kilometres alone through the  mountains from Walhalla to Canberra, Tim Holding is both a hero and a fool.  We shouldn’t quibble over the cost of helicopters. We should thank him for allowing us to feel deeply the fear that all was lost, and then the love when all was found.

And we should relax our grip on the idea that wild nature is an inherently risky place where modern humans do not belong. Unchallenged, our perception grows flat and bland. Enclosed entirely in a word of human making, our solutions become predictable, our innovations self-referential.

I have hiked Feathertop in wintertime and there, my gaze, and somehow my whole self, was drawn into the million diamonds embedded in the fabled cornice of windblown ice and snow flowing in a magnificent feathered crest along the mountain’s spine. It looks more like a huge, foaming, snap-frozen wave than a ridge. And below it, the exhilarating space in my peripheral vision where the ground usually is. This combination of exquisite detail and massive depth of vision made me feel expanded, my senses refreshed in the beauty of the world.

If we want to survive our species’ dark night on the mountain, we need to reclaim this wonder. We need to disrupt the imagined separation of  human and nature, and reclaim the overlap, extending ethics into ecological realms, and ecology into human realms. Our technology can help us, but we must  integrate our technology wisely into the world of ecological life and to succeed in this we must also transform ourselves.

If our political leaders want to remind themselves that such transformations are possible by getting themselves lost in the mountains, I’m all for it.

Peak Experience

A solo traverse of the Australian Alps Walking Track
First published in Australian Geographic

Before I left for my 700 kilometre mountain trek, a dubious friend asked if I was taking a Walkman. “There’s music out there,” I replied, hoping I would have the patience to hear it. I didn’t even take a book. I wanted to see what would happen if I opened my senses to nature, alone for weeks with no excess baggage. What would I learn if I didn’t read, didn’t consume products, if I just walked and looked and listened?

Although I cried at the Jordan River, alone in my little tent as a thunderstorm poured on the blackberry-choked gully, and a yet-to-be-discovered leech sucked on the inner crease of my eyelid, I never doubted I would finish the walk. After all, 700 kilometres solo through the alpine wilderness was nothing more than one foot in front of the other. Wasn’t it?

Australia’s mountains are relatively low altitude, but the track climbs up and down the equivalent in vertical metres of four Mount Everests.

From my starting point at the old Gippsland gold town of Walhalla, the Australian Alps Walking Track passes over the highest peaks of Victoria, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory, before arriving in the outskirts of Canberra. Sometimes the track is a well-marked fire trail, flat underfoot. Other times, track is an overstatement – the walker must navigate isolated valleys crossed with misleading brumby trails, or battle dense scrub, scanning for the odd track marker on a tree.

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Solitary Man

Published in The Sunday Age

On the orange earth under the great big sky walks a man pulling a cart, a Jack Russell terrier scampering at his heels. He leans forward like a draught horse, his 93-kilogram body supported by a trekking pole in each hand.

He is walking towards the Tirari desert, east of Lake Eyre, where the average annual rainfall is less than 150mm, where the ground is stone hard or sand soft, where creatures hide all day from the sun.

While most Australians huddle around the edges of this continent the great centre has long gripped our unconscious. A wilderness that broke the hearts of explorers drawn, party after party, into its interior, bewitched by the notion of an inland sea.

But for Jon Muir there’s something else out there.

Muir packed fifty kilograms of rice, flour, muesli and breakfast bars on his home made “arid zone cruiser”. Luxuries are Fisherman’s Friends, a little chocolate and olive oil. Seraphine Snupesen’s rations are a bag of dry dog food. It also carries a video camera, a rifle and a container for up to 80 litres of water. He has no radio or phone, only an emergency satellite beacon. If Muir knew what would happen to his muscles in the months ahead he would have packed more oil.

It’s his fourth attempt to walk across Australia, unassisted, from south to north. His route uses no-one’s energy except his own. No roads, no tracks, no bore water, no locomotion. It crosses three dirt roads and just one bitumen road the entire 2500 kilometre trek.
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Walking on thin ice

Published in The Sunday Age
On March 5 two Victorian adventurers left the earth-bound world of Siberian Russia for the frozen Arctic Ocean, where pack ice drifts on the ocean, thawing, refreezing, shifting and jumbling. They hauled kayak-sleds, Jon Muir, solid and sure like a bear, and Eric Philips, wiry and keen like a kelpie.

Only one other Australian has walked from the edge of the ice to the North Pole and his expedition was resupplied five times. Muir and Philips wanted to become the first Australians to walk and ski, unassisted, to the top of the world. Well, that’s what they told their sponsors, but you suspect what they’re really seeking is harder to define.

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Wild awake! Ecology, philosophy & the sensuous World

Photo: Raoul Leuscher

I entered the forest searching for reconciliation between my former life as an athlete, and my present life as a journalist; between life outside and life indoors; between nature and culture.

I met a man who plays clarinet in a duet with a bird. (You must hear it to believe it!)

I met a woman, death rolled three times by crocodile, who escaped to reconsider the philosophy of “being prey”.

In the forests of northern NSW, I discovered a philosophy lived through, rather than despite the body.

It’s a story about our confusing relationship with our environment, and about the terror and the extraordinary sensory richness that coexist at the heart of nature.

This feature was broadcast on ABC Radio National’s Radio-eye documentaries and features program, with excerpts played on Triple J and ABC local radio.

Listen here, (46.43 minutes) and click read more for the transcript.


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A river runs through her

Photo: Augustusoz The Murray River at Sunnyside.

What happens to mind and body if you swim the length of a great river? The Murray Swimmer takes you down the contested waters of Australia’s favourite river, as described by a most unusual swimmer.

Marathon swimmer Tammy Van Wisse swam the Murray River from its mountain beginnings to the ocean mouth.

Over three months she felt the ecology of the river in her own body: when pesticides poured in she got a rash and became sick, salinity was as real as the taste of salt in her mouth, vibrations from great irrigation pipes gave her nightmares of being sucked up into them,

As a local warned her at the start, the river got into her blood (literally) and became her passion.

Now she is an ambassador for the river’s health and a favourite of the river’s people. What began as a sporting challenge became a journey into ecological awareness.

Listen here (18.27 minutes), and you can click through for the transcript below.


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Hunter, climber, dancer

This piece, broadcast on ABC Radio National’s Radio Eye takes us on a journey into movement and landscape with a hunter, a climber and a dancer. We meet three people engaged in three very different activities, which all lead to a surprising and intimate love for the Wimmera landscape in north-west Victoria.

The hunter, Jon Muir, has climbed Everest and walked to both Poles, but his greatest challenge was walking across Australia, surviving by hunting and gathering. He lives in the Wimmera.

The climber, Rob Leach, finds the intensity of life turns up to full as he climbs the red cliffs of Mount Arapilies, high above the Wimmera plains.

And the dancer, Tony Yap, has a whimsical, almost mystical take on this harsh landscape. A Malaysian migrant, he came to the Wimmera by accident, and while others farmed wheat, he danced.

Come with us as we explore the rhythms and textures of movement and landscape.

Listen here (37.08 minutes), and you can click “read more” for the transcript.


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