BUILDING RELATIONIONAL HOMES: ENCOUNTERING EXPANSIVE CONNECTEDNESS IN THE NATURAL WORLD
Holds a graduate degree in Psychotherapy and Spirituality, St. Stephen's University (Alberta, Canada). Nature engagement and connection are key features of his therapeutic practice at an adventure therapy program nestled in the Rocky Mountains.
The human relationship to the natural world resonates deeply throughout the very makeup of the human being, and its entire species. Just as a pebble generates so many ripples across a lake's smooth surface, there are many layers to this resonance, each yielding its own array of connections and meaning, along with a reflexive possibility of grappling with a sense of self that is more than mere individual: a self-in-relation. In all its diversity, particularity, and nuance, our relationship to our global habitat is as immutable as it is problematic in the contemporary world. An ever-growing consciousness of how global, industrial, commercial patterns of human living impact the natural world unearths the reality of a sobering and tragic disconnect with the environment that has hosted—and yet still hosts, our emergence and flourishing. This outward predicament mirrors tenuous inward realities; as the crisis with our other-than-human world becomes clearer, this way of framing Nature as other obscures essential aspects of the very relationship we have towards ourselves, confounding vital questions of what it truly is to be human. The ever-flexing, ever-moving, ever-dynamic processes of Nature are by no means restricted to our external environs, but in countless inscrutable ways they sustain life within our own bodies; an unmistakable wilderness churns within our drives, desires, and appetites, even as widespread struggles with excess and addiction reflect this broken relationship; the human spirit thirsts for untouched tranquillity, for freedom and for a soul connection with the great wide beyond. At bottom, the “great outdoors” is knit through the very fabric of humanity, reflecting the reality of a deeply troubled relationship.
Figure 1. Ripples on the shoreline of the Bow river at the place I frequently visited through my research
Conversely, human civilisation pulls incessantly towards greater control, quantification, and predictability, favouring the kinds of knowing that submit readily to analysis, dissection, enclosure. In contrast to the boundless and balanced interconnectedness of the natural world, the Anthropocene proliferates closed systems, borders, distinctions, and control. What forms of self can take shape under such enclosed systems? Atomising and dualistic patterns of reason transpose themselves upon persons themselves, infusing the socio-cultural networks in which they abide. This predicament and its implications are wide reaching, with many voices seeking to unveil the reality of modernity’s true impacts [5, 25]. As Taylor describes, the prolific and ubiquitous value of individualism in the West, “flattens and narrows our lives, [making] them poorer in meaning, and less concerned with others or society” [25, p. 4]. In turn, Western Psychology has born a long history of viewing its subject as individual, honing in on “intrapsychic dimensions” , to the neglect of the broader web of relations in which the person is held (e.g. social and environmental). Furthermore, dualisms between mind and matter , human and natural, inherently over-identify with ‘mind’ and ‘human’, contributing to broader, more insidious dualisms of self and other. All this remains walled off from natural affinities whose relations hold differences in dynamic balance with one another. Even as liberal and neo-liberal movements undertake critiques of hegemonic frameworks of the modern identity, deconstructing class, race, gender, and more [10,11]—an upshot here is the implicit erosion of “horizons of meaning”  that framed our relational existence, such that the individual is all that is left to construct an identity around. So much spiritual understanding of ourselves relies on these very horizons.
Here we encounter addictions, emerging under the weight of many conscious and unconscious, intergenerational, historical and experiential factors which gather, by modern reckoning, under one small roof. A great many influences converge within the atomized and isolated notion of the individual; in spite of these many, the burden of change in our Western context rests upon a singular, solitary, and isolated subject.
In light of this prevailing paradigm of independence and individuality in the modern self, the significance of relationship in the therapeutic setting is widely accepted as “the main curative component” [16, p. 357]. Self-in-relation, then, is of critical importance to the integration and wholeness that many therapies pursue. In this context, Adventure Therapy widens further the therapeutic environment to include natural experiential and relational exposures that engage the healing person in interactive experiences with others in a natural context . The open systems of the natural world thus provide ample and diverse settings in which the horizons of the truncated and overburdened self may expand in-relation-to.
Therapies intentionally set under open skies enlist our spirits to pull and enliven us toward expansive, transcendent and relational realms of being [8,23,29]; it is our spirits, at ease and at play within boundless environments that expand our consciousness to at once perceive the self as part of the greater and, in the same moment, the greater as part of the self. In place of dualism, a dialectic movement becomes natural within this widening of consciousness. Where this wide openness of the ecological world evokes possibilities of relational movements of self, here lies the dynamic—between home and wilder-space, in which this study takes root.
Figure 2. A false dandelion gone to seed in the Rocky Mountain foothills
The layout of this article mirrors the intention of the original research work it derives from emphasising points of contact, contrast, overlap and confluence in a weaving of discourses and sources that highlights contrast and dynamic. While the themes of the original work oscillated in a dialectic between belonging and agency, home and away, being within nature and nature within, the constraints here limit the discourse to themes of home and connection with Nature as the central axis. After outlining the research and experiential backgrounds to this article, I offer reflection, expression and analysis on the significance of home to creaturely beings, highlighting the dynamic interplay of shaping and being shaped by these intimate habitats. An authentic case example touches these themes to earth, fleshing out their meaning in vivo, setting the stage for the presentation of an expressive art piece that emerged through the journey of this work; this piece ties together the themes explored here.
Research approach, sources and procedure
Relationality is the central touchstone for this exploration of how connection and adventure within natural spaces build into a felt sense of openness, responsiveness and flow within the healing person’s self-world understanding. Connection and adventure feature within a larger dialectic of home and away, belonging and freedom, a part of and apart from, inclusion and differentiation. Here we approach the tension between these polarities as energised space, rich and fecund with relational possibilities of experiencing the other in self, and the self in other. In contrast to the sense of stuckness that characterises so much of human difficulty—particularly in addictions, these polarities naturally generate movement between a vital dynamic of differences, evoking relational interactions of stirring, activating, flowing and reciprocation. Nature is replete with seasons and cycles, and each system and dynamic is in seamless interchange with the ones around it; These rhythms are the very tempo for the dances of life and existence, immutably embedded within our nature as well, in spite of how our constructed time may attempt to diverge.
A relational-heuristic approach
Heuristic inquiry offers a fitting model that approaches knowledge in a personal way, fostering a rigorous process of exploration through natural movements and instincts of self in relation to the central question [13,18]. Being conscious of the individualising Western milieu, I further sought to balance this usage of self with an acknowledgement that Shawn Wilson , echoing Stan Wilson , makes in understanding the self-as-relationship: that “we are the relationships that we hold and are part of” [27, p. 80]. Importantly, in the Indigenous worldview that Wilson speaks from, this self-as-relationship extends beyond the Western interpersonal sense of self-in-relation [e.g. 24], to encompass a vital relationship with the land, and “all living things” . This paradigm strongly resonates with the relational currents of this undertaking, and with my worldview in general. In my own experiences around Indigenous ceremonies the phrase “all my relations” represents this sense of relatedness that I have with all the beings that sustain balance for the world I inhabit—these words honour all beings with which I am connected, and bear out a sense of reciprocal accountability. Respectfully, I acknowledge the depth that such Indigenous values hold in me, as well as the extent that my understanding and application of the heuristic methodology follows its influence.
I pause with care here to acknowledge the land upon which I write, think, feel and relate, with deep respect and admiration for the hereditary peoples of this place called “Mohkinstsis”, namely the Blackfoot, Tsuut’ina and Stoney Nakoda Nations. I am indebted to the teachings, ceremonies, wisdom and care of Indigenous Elders, who have provided guidance and permission for this research and discourse.
The research that underlies this article took root in three distinct sources: 1) the journaling and experiences of my participatory observation with the young men enrolled in the Shunda Creek program in the six months of my role as live-in student counsellor there, along with additional experiences as a student of psychotherapy; 2) the data of the adventure therapy experiencing scale (ATES) , collected from participants of Shunda Creek between April 2018 and April 2020, overlapping with my own time there; and 3) my own direct relationship with the natural world, held within memories, practises, and meanings that have long preceded this study. In the course of this work these have taken on a more intentional quality, which included several expressive pieces of art and poetry that have emerged organically throughout the process, one such piece is included and discussed here.
Taking Nature as a source in itself invokes the question of how it is that a human discourse on Nature can presume to speak for Nature itself. The posture taken here, which I strive to espouse, hopes to speak from Nature, rather than for Nature. The natural world lives through a humble instinct—an inalienable presence unto itself, so cleanly embodied. Vestiges of this instinct yet remain within our nervous systems, and our spirits; Its streams channel through the murky and mysterious worlds of our dreams; Its molten energy erupts in the untamable exuberance of our young. These points of connection mean that while the natural world is rightly other-than-human, it may also be a realm in which we participate without conscious awareness—a greater world of which we are little aware, and yet no less inextricably a part: a more-than-human world . The significance of phenomenological experience, instinct, intuition and tacit understandings—as an heuristic approach entails, are thus emphasised as sources of knowing that may never have lost their connection to the natural order; this realm in which we were originally held—and are yet still held, however unaware.
Participants and particulars
Our exploration of the significance of Nature affinity in construals and reflexive understandings of the self takes an important root in the adventure therapy (AT) programming of Shunda Creek. This residential wilderness-based program serves addiction recovery in young adult men (ages 18 to 24) for a 90-day duration . Treatment, both in camp and on trail, is overseen by clinicians and facilitated by experienced support staff, in an approach that strives to be responsive and empowering to the client. Shunda employs an integration of experiential and mindfulness-based approaches with a strong emphasis on group engagement, intention setting, and a progressive journey of treatment marked by initiation rites into next stages of treatment. Extended wilderness trips, both solo and in groups, are integral components of treatment, framed by preparation and intention setting in advance, and reflection and processing upon return, harvesting and integrating the experiences of this adventure.
Figure 3. Art therapy client overlooks rappelling opportunity in AT outtrip
The adventure therapy (AT) that informs much of the Shunda Creek program is a Nature-based therapeutic model using Nature experiences as a key factor of holistic healing . AT’s emphasis on “a prescriptive use of adventure experiences” [9, p. 1], has typically trended toward themes of action, intention and choice, and some have suggested that the nature-based element of AT remains under-recognised; yet more recently the impact of mindfulness practises in AT have become a subject of exploration . Importantly, a recent meta-analysis  finds a significant relationship between mindfulness and connectedness to nature, though no AT studies were represented. In light of the emphasis AT places on an active engagement within and upon the natural world, an important shift in our focus here brings Nature to the fore, viewing it as home, with the meaningful sense of connection and relationality that such an appraisal may evoke.
Several instruments routinely chart the progress and experiences of Shunda’s clients. Along with providing information for program improvement, the research offers therapeutic benefit through routine outcome monitoring (ROM) [3,20], as results and progress are reviewed and discussed with clients. The adventure therapy experiencing scale (ATES) is administered alongside an outcome measure of psycho-social stress (the OQ 45.2) at two-week intervals. The ATES measures the self-perceived impact of AT experiences for clients, and features Nature as one factor, alongside reflection, challenge and inter/intrapersonal factors. To understand the impact and effect of mindfulness experiences on the clients, the FFMQ is completed at the beginning and end of their stay.
My participation in the community of Shunda consisted in living at the camp 3 days per week throughout the research, during which I joined in most group programmed activities, including AA meetings, out-trip intention setting, community meetings, mealtimes, rites of passage (passage fires), out-trips and other aspects of community life. The breadth of my live-in experience of the program helped provide a strong participatory sense of the community. I kept a journal to document interactions, perspectives and experiences that took place in this time, particularly relating to natural interactions, ensuring the anonymity of others involved. This writing provided a kind of self-observation, reflecting on my place in the community, my own sense of self in nature, and checking myself for bias and an appropriate sense of distance, as an important aspect of my participatory role .
Figure 4. View from third night’s campsite on art therapy excursion with five clients
No place like home
“Nature is not a place to visit. It is home”
—(G. Snyder, The Practice of the Wild)
As we approach this important theme of Nature as a home I invite you, the reader, to take your shoes off, and imagine setting your feet down on a carpet of lush, soft moss. Perhaps you can imagine a gentle flutter in the air, accompanied by the bright and delicate welcome of chirping sparrows not far away. Grounded by earth, immersed in air, bathed in light. Find a comfortable position for your body and take a few deep breaths and allow your gaze to orient you within this moment. Notice any settling that might take place in your nervous system; perhaps you can find a home within this moment. Perhaps a home may be offered within the conversation that is about to transpire between the following thoughts, narratives and experiences I’ve strung together in this section. I hope that you can even begin to move about within these themes and ideas, perhaps branching off with some of your own. Please make yourself at home.
We begin here, with home, just as a tree begins embedded in the earth; grounded in place; secure and stable within a soil that will support its development. We are creatures of the earth and sky, of root and wing, and we begin now, as we began at the very first: rooted and embedded, enclosed within a warm safety; supported and assured. As perhaps you have already begun to experience, home is a powerful and ubiquitous aspect of our nature. It fosters a settling of the mind, heart and nervous system. A felt sense of ease supports the whole being. These senses of familiarity, safety and comfort that home engenders are by no means exclusive to the human experience, but are widely found within the more-than-human world. The digging, rooting, weaving, piling, and constructing instincts of living creatures show the vital significance in life’s often painstaking tendency to take root and embed within its environment.
This is a deep and fundamental characteristic of living creatures on this planet—this shared trait of taking root within place. Creatures of air, land and sea, we are all homing beings; And fundamentally the place in which we home—this ground of our being, is our planet. It can be said that the vast array of diversity that is homed within this world has been given birth to and parented by the totality of conditions of this planet—by this planet’s very nature, by its personality, by all its relations interacting and relating with one another in a diverse and grand ecology. This dynamic, balanced, all-encompassing personality of care and provision we call Mother Earth.
The significance of this parental relationship may be at risk of being obscured in our moment of history by a confusion of the scientific tongue, a pursuit of stark causation, and a reduction of the agency and personality of our cosmos to mere cause and effect; in a word, the exorcism of spirit from the cosmos, leaves nothing but hollow, empty matter to our minds. What is left for us if we have lost our sense of home within this world? And yet even for those supremely cultivated in Western scientific paradigms, a common experience for astronauts, projected into space and seeing our planet from outside itself is a deeply personal and emotional connection . In looking back upon the planetary globe that encloses all they have known so well, it is not the dispassionate, empirical view that so captivates, but an expansive feeling of affinity and solidarity that bears that essential quality of home. This overwhelming sense of “identification with humankind and the planet as a whole” is a common experience for astronauts, described as the “overview effect” [30, p.1].
As a critical aspect of this discussion, we must acknowledge a complexity in speaking of home. Notwithstanding the necessity of key supports for our development, and a sense that each of us, developing as we have, must have experienced some kind of a home, with some semblance order, familiarity, “normal”, and relative comfort; yet no home is ideal, and no one's development has been perfectly supported. Many have had to forge for themselves a semblance of protection and warmth within cold, unwelcoming and even hostile environments. Here this word may mean very little, or perhaps even something negative and painful. Home implies relationships, and where these have been neglectful or harmful, the notion of home may carry many painful and threatening associations. We must hold space for this pain; In this we acknowledge that our speaking of home is born on aspirational rather than descriptive tones, and attend to fostering feelings of safety, connection and belonging that exhibit the true meaning of the word.
Importantly, tracking this diversity in each unique subjective experience is poignantly relevant for those who would ally with the healing ethos of the natural world. Alongside significant differences in individual experience, the shelter of our human contexts so increasingly disconnects us from the elements of Nature, and the in-flux, untamed and exposed qualities of its open environments become enshrouded by apprehensions for many clients we work with. We must validate and accommodate these discomforts and fears, even as the work of fostering new connections with Nature bears such healing potential.
We explore the nature of home, and a home in Nature through an interweaving of contrasting textures of belonging and autonomy, receptivity and action, trauma and healing, fear and love provide a dynamic of depth, texture and complexity. Fear, friendship, freedom and flow are important themes within the overlapping and oscillating movements of the research discourse. In the full movement, these strong motifs, rather than being a contradiction may relate as in Nature, finding a balance of opposites; when one polarity belongs to the other, the energised movements between them create conditions for healing, growing, transcending; a synergy we might call “flow”. The crucial quality of a flow state  is relationally responsive interaction. Freedom lives within responsiveness. The care-free play of the raven amidst staggering gale-force winds bespeaks a sharp attunement between sensory and motor functioning, in one instance sensing a shift in the wind’s force and direction, and in the next responding with such exactitude as to meet wind with wing in seamless harmony. The prowess of this display does not belong to the raven alone, but in all these shared intimacies between itself and the tempest.
Figure 5. Raven soaring on mountain gusts
Home is both empowerment and belonging, as we seek to speak of it, not only housing relational movements, but like the self, it is composed of these very relationships, offering a dynamic flow within its stable, responsive and caring environs for a natural dialectic of relationality to take shape.
The transformation of space into place, environment into habitat, and location into home unfolds as the living space becomes marked by the distinct scent of its inhabitants. Home is a place marked by the nature and character of the creature that builds it, imprinted by the modes through which the creature relates to their ecological world for surviving and thriving. Home is more than a sheltering from elements and enemies, but radiates a felt quality of familiarity, safety and comfort. More than housing stores of sustenance, a home shares space with family and intimate relations, and even neighbours and non-threatening others. The muskrat for instance is known to share the warmth of its burrow with shrews, voles and rice rats in the cold winter months . In viewing the self as a context of relations, home in a very real way fosters the intimate relationships that make up the self; it is a dwelling both secure and stable, and in the same moment convecting a relational dance that sustain the vital movements of life. The self is made up of home relationships, for better or worse—in security and safety, and in chaos and unsafety, and the movements and exchanges that take place within them have both a formative and self-sustaining significance.
Hearth and home: A place of order and attachment
Entering this dynamic of home we notice how it holds the self in its need for stability, security, and safety. Its familiarity encompasses a family of vital and intimate relations that call the self into being, in turn reflecting it back to the self, in effect making it real. This reflexive environment is crucial for young development, echoing into maturity through important imprints on the internal realm, impacting a person’s felt sense of security and agency in the self-world relationship. Conversely, a home outwardly reflects the internal realm of the ones living there, whether bleak and bare, chaotic and cluttered, warm and personal, organised and controlled. Jung explores this connection between self and home in his own self-reflective work , imagining the building of self as a gradual construction of a mansion, adding room by room. Maintenance and upkeep of home reflects the significance of self-care, as the recursive dynamic transposes the care of one’s home into a caring, nurturing environment of the self—engendering the energised relationship between active and receptive polarities.
One client I journeyed with in the time writing—we will call Tamara, described her recovery from addictions as beginning with a walkthrough notification from her landlord. As she imagined someone else walking through her house Tamara realised she lived in a house that felt like a dump—“a house, but not a home”. This realisation worked its way out in a deep cleaning process that lasted days, and at its end, she marvelled at the way her now clean and orderly home changed the way her “family moved and interacted” with one another, making things feel more light, personable and cheery. As we explored, the condition of Tamara’s house reflected how she felt inside. In the aftermath of childhood abuse, neglect and the complex trauma of a prolonged abusive relationship in adulthood, she herself felt like a dumping ground for someone else’s trash. A thick layer of numbing mechanisms and escape strategies had proven adaptive in her short-term survival, but in the long run laid waste to her internal sense of safety and order. Top among these strategies was Tamara’s relationship to alcohol. Tamara’s recovery and healing is an ongoing work for her, but this awareness of how her sense of self is held and nurtured within her home environment was a key insight, and thinking of herself as a kind of home became an important metaphor for our work together.
From here she and I began to notice how rigidly enclosed we are in this therapy room—boxed in on all sides. As we work with what is present to us and what we have around us, this very room becomes a metaphor of our therapeutic milieu. In other moments we allow our imaginations to carry us out into the open air, where everything is touching everything else—everything is connected. This way of thinking broadened the resources available for Tamara’s healing beyond what is enclosed within the tightly sealed box of the self, to her connection with “all my relations”, drawing upon a plethora of supporting and reciprocal relationships—an open system. Impromptu sojourns into the mountains came alive as encounters with her healers and guides. At another moment, in session fostering thick, deep silence, yielded to the felt presence of her grandmothers and grandfathers in the room with us, blessing and supporting her healing.
As Tamara discovered, feeling herself an active agent in her home entailed a vital sense of empowerment. This quality of home as a place where a sense of control is exerted supports an important connection with one’s own power. This is particularly salient to marring experiences of disempowerment in upbringing, whether in childhood neglect, in direct emotional, physical or sexual abuse, or in witnessing any of these within the home.
In its optimum form, a key quality of home reflects back the purpose, action, movement, interactivity and creativity of its inhabitants—the scent of the self becomes an external sign that the self carries weight in the world, takes up space, possesses gravity—in a word: matters.
Building homeworlds: An expressive contemplation on the beaver’s blessing
The beaver became an important companion through the past year and a half of my life. The beaver’s resilient determination and quiet, steady provisions became thematic in my ongoing practice of riverside meditation that complimented this work. Its habitat was the context of many hours of stillness, self-reflection, and relational connection. The personality and spirit of this small, powerful being, within an unobstructed relational world made indelible impacts on my thinking, feeling, moving and being during this time. Beaver’s quiet, industrious presence accompanied my contemplations as home became their central axis, a touchstone for exploring its developmental, somatic, narrative and cosmological significance.
Beaver is at once a fastidious home-maker and formidable world-builder. Channelling the flow of the river, Beaver painstakingly constructs dams that curb its course, allowing it to run deeper and slower, generating a homespace for their family and relations; in so doing Beaver builds the entire world of pondlife that emerges in this enclosed domain. This water is not stagnant, but filtered slowly through the permeability of the woven construction of its dam. Although widely culled by humans for the way their dams flood lands that are otherwise “usable” to the Anthropocene of commercial interests, these floodlands become worlds of vital wetland habitats for entire ecosystems of life. This long-standing human conflict with such a formidable creator of natural worlds signals a competition between world builders: One innately observing the natural law imprinted within, proliferating the natural diversity and balance of the original world; the other rising up in sharp distinction—and disconnect—to its surroundings with the tireless modalities and rationalities of the Anthropocene. As the conflicts play out, landscapes trend in favour of static, inflexible topographies that cater to the purposes of only one creature.
Yet a semblance of some primordial programming within my own humanness remains: this peace and serenity I feel at rooting myself in that long, lazy shoreline on the Bow river’s edge, it nods at an enduring capacity to catch glimpses of myself as a part of a greater balance. My breathing slows and a gradual melting of tension takes place through my nervous system as I am met by an innumerable, often subtle diversity of sensations hosted here. I am met with a sizable collection of “beaver blessed” twigs and sticks—what last evening had been a veritable feast of meticulously nibbled outer and inner bark for this patient creature. This work here reassembles a careful peeling back of layers, to the nourishment of the heart, mind and spirit. Teeth deftly sinking through protective outer layers, finding the juice and softness of its hidden surfaces, puckering at the tannins, exploring by texture and feel... eyes are of little help—guided instead by the pull of thirst and an honest hunger that yearns for the rich, life-sustaining nutrients and sustenance—something of real substance.
These narrow, pencil straight, bare and nimble willow fingers are piled up in one spot, not fifteen yards from the beaver home I pass on my habitual path—a lodge whose gradual construction I observe across two seasons. Something about this pile feels as though it is being gifted, and I lay down tobacco in thankful return to this kindness of Beaver. Back in the domain of my own home, the offering comes together with ease in a union that feels as though the piece is creating itself through me. Rough yarn made of the wool shorn from the llamas that shared my childhood home by the river, and shards of reflective mirror join form with Beaver blessed twigs, creating a balancing system that will find a place above the entryway, greeting all who enter our home.
Figure 6. Art-of-Fact 2:
“Beaver’s Blessing” is composed of beaver-stripped willow twigs and sticks, a spool of llama’s wool, mirror shards, Beaver grass, and mud and root fibres from a beaver pond.
“Beaver’s Blessing” is a suspension of willow twigs textured by beaver’s teeth, delicately balanced with shards of reflective mirror and a nested feature of beaver grass. An interweaving of its parts creates sections of enclosure and open space, interacting with mirror pieces and yarn. This interweaving bespeaks an intimacy or interpenetration, wherein the being and position of one intersects with that of the other, generating relational space by this interaction.
At the outset “Beaver’s Blessing” asks something very challenging of its viewer. The careful eye glimpses an image of self in the reflective shards of mirror suspended in the balance. To see oneself in the shards, among their sharp, imperfect edges resembles a painful honesty and humility that honours a need for healing. These shards do not become unbroken, just as the event of wounding is never undone; the process of healing wounds leaves scars, and scars—if given voice, may come to speak of resilience and survival. Accepting the realities (but not conditions) of woundedness is an important condition of recovery, healing and renewal. The wholeness of healing is not an unbreaking of my brokenness; rather it is a process of careful balance through which the breaking is woven back into relation with the qualities of a greater fabric.
Disconnection from the body is a major obstacle to the relational world this body opens access to, and is often an outcome of shattering life experiences. In my clinical work a strong sense of numbness exuded from a young man accompanied by boredom and addiction that kept roots in a particularly tumultuous and chaotic past. He dropped many hints about violent experiences in his life, some inflicted on him, and many he had perpetrated; it was clear to me that he had been much wounded in all this, though the focus of his narratives centre on the things he had done. This focus appeared the function of a survival tactic of talking a big game, whole he took care to spare me the more indictable particulars. It would suffice for him to say that he had hurt many people, that he rarely slept, but that when he did it his “piece” lay under the pillow, under the constant fear of reprisal and revenge. His presence and demeanour strike my memory as being marked by a peculiar mix of magnetic charm, with deep, albeit understated loyalty towards his fellow bunkmates, those flat, deadpan eyes and that wry, chafing laughter. The numbness about him resonated as a great “boredom”—a word which often echoed through the halls of the addiction treatment centre where we met. Boredom is described in AA and other addictions literature as a hallmark companion of addiction. Yet the unspoken and largely unconscious truth of it is that the world is not boring, but that it appeared so to these young men because of the ways they adaptively protected and walled off their openness to it, severing connections and possibilities of joy, exuberance and passion that come with reciprocal participation in a greater realm.
The traumas, wounds and unsupported vulnerabilities of youth—both experienced and inherited, become the lens through which the self is confirmed of in relation to the world. As such viewpoints congeal and normalise on social and cultural stages, they contribute to overarching narratives of isolation and independence, as are so prevalent in the West. Some describe this as collective trauma [1,26], emphasising how traumatic reactions of fear, self-preservation and hostility imbed within the very language and paradigm of the culture. Perhaps to done extent these mirrored shards offer us a glimpse of ourselves living in a 'normal' that “shatter[s] the construction of the self that is formed and sustained in relation to others” [12, p. 51].
In view of how trauma and addictions “wall-off,” “hole-up” and constrict the self into smaller and narrower experiences, the negative space in this art piece bears a significant theme of permeability, and openness, taking place within frames of enclosure. Life experiences, histories and enculturated narratives of trauma and unsupported growth engender feelings of exposure and unsafety in the world. What a clever and adaptive instinct that leads this person to contrive for themselves a surrogate home of shelter and escape, even if this home is slowly looking them. They are homes constructed under the short-sighted influence of threat-avoidance and scarcity thinking, overemphasising the need for solid, protective and impermeable walls. No windows. No airflow. The inadvertent outcome is isolation and brittle rigidity. The “Brickwork” quality  of the Western paradigm bears an important parallel here, and yet the impulse to diametrically resist and oppose both these forms is itself a product of dualistic fear-based thinking. Rigidity and certitude are not softened through opposition and critique, but through inclusion and care.
Figure 7. Capturing this moment of demolition in downtown Calgary gripped me as a dramatic portrayal of the inability of a “brickwork” society to support the developmental needs of our youth. To me it evokes a sense of Cronus parenting, as industrial time threatens to consume our young.
Dualities and exclusion are features of a protective trauma narrative that construes the world as black or white: safe or threatening. Our own experiences become cast in this light, and what feels overwhelming and threatening—these shards of our broken histories, are adaptively excluded and avoided in the short-term. The upshot of our connectedness and relationality emphasises the crucial equilibrium between the polarities and extremes of any system we are a part of. Between one side and the other there exists a centre which holds balance. Balance begins to restore as both protective and exiled parts of ourselves, resigned as they’ve become to worlds of black and white, are invited back into one whole, held with love and acceptance within this home.
As Asiniwachi Nehiyaw writer Suzanne Methot beautifully expresses, with an emphasis on participating in the community of Nature,
“Being connected to community is about being related to and a part of something. This relatedness creates the experience of belonging, belonging leads to a sense of ownership, ownership translates into a feeling of responsibility, and responsibility creates reciprocity, which creates safety.” [17, p. 99]
The necessary safety that underlies our innate healing capacities are sewn into an awareness of belonging to a greater whole.
The mirror’s reflective quality parallels that beautiful way that waters interact with light, alluding to possibilities of a reflective awareness of ourselves and a restoration of fluidity and flow. In the redemption of our relatedness, signalled by a return to our embodied nature, these shards may be healed in all the ways they are received back into an interwoven community of meaning and experience.
Beaver’s Blessing, between the rigidity of its twigs and the pliant quality of its strings, holds together with both structure and flex. Its cohesiveness and balance are brought about through the natural law of gravity itself. Any movement and change on one side of the piece entails a movement and change on the other as well, and only in a careful accommodation of this dynamic is the balance of the whole realised.
An Earthen Heart, the Hearth of Home: Concluding expressions
The common letters of both “heart” and “Earth” are emblematic of the progressive creation of this piece; it first became apparent that the composition required a heart, and then later that this heart should be semi-permeable and partially enclosed in earth. The heart came about in connection with a felt need to incorporate an element of “beaver grass,” as we had used in the Sweat Lodge, and which I passed every day on my walk by the river. Considering how the beaver relates to this broad-leafed marsh inhabitant, collecting it in the fall and carpeting and nesting the interior of its home, I felt a sense of warmth and provision in it, and came to connect this as heart-material, relating the care and love of the homefires.
It is clear that warm, loving and supporting relationships are not a luxury of our nature, but a necessity. Extending this sense of care and nurturance to the relation of self in the natural world evokes the very real sense in which we are ever held and supported by our original mother. In the ways that home entails a dialectic of love and freedom, inclusion and differentiation, belonging and adventure, the heart of this piece, strewn through with threads of red and blue, both imitates cardio anatomy, and signifies the contrasting elements of water and fire. In water there is a softness, a coolness, a reflection and an immersive inclusion, and in fire there is a burning heat, a flare of action, a movement and a need for appropriate distance.
The viewer will notice how the heart in this piece is ostensibly on the right. Here the work invites one to enter into it, to view through it, and by so doing enact a direct transposition (not reflection) onto the self, that would correctly place the heart on the left. In contrast to a face-to-face analysis, which characterises the kinds of knowledge sought after in direct processes like interviewing, reading and dissection, for instance, Beaver’s Blessing invites the viewer into a participation with itself, to journey together through its oscillations and contours, facing the same way and sharing an encounter. Like this research, it does not yield a comprehensive and objective understanding, but only portrays and narrates through an experiential tableau. The crux of the invitation, in parallel with the ceaseless invitations of the natural world, is to co-create a tableau vivant as one begins living through it—moving out into a wide, wild world of first-hand experiences of finding and creating home in natural realms. Healing in Nature begins in opening to the flow of encounters in this abundant holding environment.
The final element to be included, then, was earth, and in light of the ways this piece came together it felt natural to somehow frame the heart with this element, particularly as we recognise Earth as home. Our experiences of home are both emplaced within the clay forms of these bodies—humans composed of humus, and located by the particular place we occupy on Earth. Yet while such an enclosed sense of place is necessary for our development, healing and flourishing, the permeability of this enclosure is equally vital, and so in Beaver’s Blessing the earthen feature wraps around the frame, denoting essential gaps through which both our sense of place (enclosed) and the sense of ourselves in space (expansive) can be recognised.
When first applying this layer of mud and fibrous root material, collected from the pond floor of the beaver’s lodge I often visited, it appeared dark and distinct, as it does in the photo included above. But as air began pulling at its moisture, the colour became more subtle and understated, yielding a humble grey tone. Something in this lays the course for our healing as humans. Moving from the attention-grabbing world of our constructed environments, into the subtle and unassuming communications of Nature means decentering our experience, and rediscovering the self as part of something greater. Such a movement from hubris to humus, reconnects our human nature into the seamless relationality of the Nature of which we are composed.
This article is derived from the explorations and findings of a Thesis research project found here: https://doi.org/10.7939/r3-yk5v-2296
Reference for citations
Reize, D. (2022). Building relational homes: Encountering expansive connectedness in the natural world. Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice, 3(1). [open access internet journal]. – URL: http://en.ecopoiesis.ru (d/m/y).