RE-THINKING ECOPOIESIS: QUESTIONING “NATURE” APPROACH. AN INTERVIEW WITH GRACELYNN LAU
In this interview, Gracelynn Lau talks about the experiences she has had that lead her to question her thinking about ecopoiesis and nature-assisted arts therapy. After spending more than five years living in an ecovillage and interacting with the neighbouring indigenous people, she has developed a perspective based on a decolonizing approach to ecopoiesis. Her involvement with the Work that Reconnects, the approach to ecological activism developed by Joanna Macy, has reinforced her sense that although it is essential to draw on the beneficial aspects of being in contact with nature, a truly ecopoietic approach must go further and work to transform our environment and ourselves.
Keywords: ecopoiesis, poietic ecology, decolonizing perspectives, ecovillage, expressive arts therapy, Work that Reconnects
Brief note about the interviewee:
As a transnational researcher, facilitator and expressive arts therapist, Gracelynn Lau has steeped in land-based experiential learning and creative community process for more than 12 years in the west and east coast of Canada and Hong Kong. Her expressive arts and sustainable wellness experience integrates into interdisciplinary research. She is currently pursuing PhD in Cultural Studies at Queen’s University. Her research intersects embrace social trauma healing, settler-migrant identity, and indigenous-settler relationship and investigate the use of expressive arts in community-based autoethnography research.
Stephen K. Levine (SKL): I'd like to begin with your telling us a little bit about your interest and background in the field of ecopoiesis? When did it begin and what forms has it taken, both theoretical and practical?
Gracelynn Lau (GL): I find this first question to be challenging already. Lately, someone doing postgrad courses on expressive arts therapy has asked me to give advice on the nature-related aspects of this work. To tell the truth, I've been criticizing my previous stand on the nature-based side of expressive arts; I find the approach too anthropocentric. My take on it has come more from posthumanist and decolonizing perspectives, so it may not be very helpful for folks wanting to build their work based upon "nature"...
But to make a long story short, my interest in ecopoiesis began with my work and life in the ecovillage movement. I have been facilitating the ecovillage design education curriculum and the Worldview dimension online course with Gaia Education since 2017; I have also been involved in facilitating the Work that Reconnects, a framework based upon deep ecologist Joanna Macy's work. So, when I first got into expressive arts, I was naturally drawn to any "eco" or nature approaches to poiesis. My doctoral research work in indigenous-settler relationships though, in the last couple years, has continuously challenged those previous perspectives. When I think of ecopoiesis now, I think of what is needed to be undone or not yet responded to before I can even think about shaping something into being... I'm not sure, am I answering your question?
SKL: You are raising several issues which could certainly go a long way towards answering the question I asked about your background. But I’d like to begin more with your own personal experience. I believe you have lived in an ecovillage for a long time. Can you tell us about that?
GL: Yes, I have lived and worked in an ecovillage education center called O.U.R ecovillage in Vancouver Island for 5 years. It was a life affirming/changing experience. I’m still grateful that I made that choice to quit my job in Toronto at the time, and move there. Before then, I was not aware of the global ecovillage movement. Ecovillages are intentional communities, whether traditional or urban, that are designed through locally-owned participatory processes in the social, cultural, ecological and economic dimensions of sustainability to regenerate social and natural environments. It’s like being in a “living laboratory” where you experiment with how people can live, work and learn together for a more regenerative future, but no one else can give you the answer except you throwing yourself in the mix to find out. Why would I quit my life in Toronto and choose a life with composting toilets, solar showers in the greenhouse and being surrounded by chickens and goats? My mom, who lives in an apartment building in Hong Kong, like many others, questioned my decision. It all began with ecofeminist theology. I came across ecofeminist theology and deep ecology between 2006 and 2007 when I came to Toronto for graduate school. I knew in my heart that I had to unlearn what I’d learned from civilization and relearn how to be a breathing human on the living earth. But my animal phobia made it impossible for it to happen. The calling stayed with me though.
In 2014, I reached a bottleneck in my work at the youth service agency and flew to Vancouver for a professional development certificate in horticultural therapy. Over a weekend trip to Vancouver Island, I found out that this ecovillage offers a 7-month permaculture training and natural building internship. All the years of volunteering at urban farms, getting over animal phobia, prepared me to say ‘yes’ this time. So, before the Spring Equinox in 2015, I found myself chasing wild turkey in the garden, shoveling manure for sheeting-mulching and crying and dancing in circles and ceremonies. Little did I know that a 7-month internship would turn into 5 years living, learning and teaching there locally and internationally, crossing paths with many regenerative hearts and souls. What did I learn from the people that I crossed paths with at the ecovillage? Oh my, answering this question could require a 5000-word article….
SKL: Am I correct in thinking that the ecovillage was connected with an indigenous community there? Was that what led you to taking a decolonial approach to ecology? Perhaps you could tell us more about your experience there in terms of its influence on your thinking?
GL: Folks from the ecovillage have had a long-standing relationship with the Quw'utsun (Cowichan tribes) since the 90s. Before starting the ecovillage project on the land, they asked permission from the Indigenous communities in the areas for them to do this work there. They received blessings from some of the Elders. Knowing that part of the ecovillage work is to unlearn ways of being from the mainstream culture and relearn to walk in right relationships with all beings, a sweat-lodge was built at the very beginning for ceremony. Each time when there’s an international Permaculture Design Course, they make sure that the knowledge keeper would come to bring people in, that participants would become conscious about their impact on the land. I guess because of this long-term place-based relationships that have been cultivating long before I arrived at the ecovillage, even when I was new to the land as an intern, I got to be invited to participate in family gatherings and various ceremonies on the reserves (about 30 mins away from the ecovillage). This is also largely because of the generosity and hospitality of the Quw'utsun people that we know. The first time I was invited to the longhouse for a ceremony, we feasted in the gym before going in. I sat at the gym wondering to myself: who am I to be invited here? My elder just said, Huy ch q'u (thank you) for being here. For an immigrant like me coming from cities like Hong Kong and Toronto, that’s just a humbling and mind-altering experience. It brought up lots about belonging, reciprocity and my responsibility as a non-Indigenous person.
But if you ask me what has led me to taking a decolonial approach to ecology, there are a few pivotal moments. I often find myself dancing at the intersection of systems and walking along edges of worlding. I must say a seed was planted in me way back through ecofeminist theology. Growing up in a Pentecostal Christian church, I had never thought about the ecological impact of my faith. I grew up believing that redemption and salvation concern only the heavenly matters - the above, the unseen and the spiritual - not so much about the living earth. In Sunday school we were taught that human beings have dominion over other living beings in the creation, that our cultural mandate is to multiply and subdue the earth. Ecology was for scientists, or for people who love hiking or birdwatching; and I wasn’t keen on any of those. Only once I was in my early 20s, I threw myself into theology and worldview studies at graduate school in Toronto, where I soaked myself in the work of feminist theologians such as Sallie McFague, Ivone Gebara and Rosemary Radford Ruether. Their work opened up a relevant theology that turned my Christian worldview away from heaven and towards the earth, as a result of which I began to see that all living beings are part of an immense web of interdependent relationships in continuity of the universe’s creative process. McFague’s The Body of God speaks extensively of listening to and caring for the earth as if the Earth were “God’s body.” It was a wake-up call for me. Until then I didn't realize that a human- and male-centered gaze had been constricting, and therefore limiting, the ways in which we experience God and the narrative of creation in mainstream churches. I was extremely lost. I had dedicated my life to Christian faith but I didn't know how to live as part of this interdependent web of all beings, let alone participating in the universe’s creative process. Waking up from a human-centric sense of self, existence and faith has set me on a “decolonizing” path.
A “decolonial” approach to ecology sounds like a fancy slogan. I believe we have to be very careful in what contexts, which geographical regions are we speaking about. “Decolonize” means differently depending on the cultural geographical context where we find ourselves, and thus should entails very different responses and responsibilities. For example, in the North Americas where the operating apparatus has been settler colonialism, to decolonize means repatriation of the land and ways of being. Whereas in postcolonial cities like Hong Kong, decolonize means something else. I could only speak from my experience. On a day-to-day level as a practise, it comes down to a ton of conscious undoing and unmaking, while creating reciprocity and choosing to re-village. It sounds easy but is incredibly uncomfortable. In a highly individualised culture that prioritizes efficiency, compartmentalizes and monetizes most aspects of life, it is easier said than done. If you look at the intentional community movement, 90% of intentional communities have failed. The years I spent at the ecovillage education center walked me through a lot of inconvenient unlearning, unmaking and undoing, and at the same time humbled me to experience the beauty of reciprocity that is not only possible but taking place in the living web of life all the time.
When I was the garden coordinator at the ecovillage, I would intentionally create “therapeutic moments” with volunteers and students as we organized the tasks in the greenhouse and the field. I saw my role as facilitating a process for them to listen to the plant beings and receive the medicine from the land. Things that matter would always come up to the surface as they worked with the soil. By observing the ways in which someone weeds the beds or waters the raspberry bushes, or the specific garden tasks that caught their attention, I could tell what was going on inside them. I also took people on nature walks at the back of the land, where they made land art installations, listened to the western red cedar, or just cried in the woods. I witnessed the transformative healing medicine of the land. Whether people struggled with suicidal thoughts, bereavement or schizophrenia, the land changed them in unspeakable ways as they stepped in regenerative relationship with it. But after I left the ecovillage for my doctoral studies in Kingston, Ontario, it dawned on me that I could not facilitate in the same way anymore. I was a new guest to the territories; the right relationships were not in place. I had to stop my practice, ask for permission, and listen humbly, it became clear to me that what we now call the “climate crisis” could not be talked about separately from hundreds of years of colonialism and the roots of “dominion-over” mindedness. I guess this is why I am growing to be more allergic to the term “nature-based” or “nature-assisted” therapy and questioning my previous practice: Is it facilitating the wellness of the interdependent relationships of all life? If it isn’t, where is the reciprocity in place?
SKL: You have been quite involved with Joanna Macy’s “The Work That Reconnects”. Can you tell us about that and the ways it connects with your other experiences and perspectives?
GL: Around the same time that my brain was in the blender with ecofeminist theologies and deep ecology, I came across the Work That Reconnects (WTR) at the Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We're in without Going Crazy book launch event in Toronto, where Joanna Macy gave a lecture in person (ten years later a revised version of this book has just come out this month). It was the first time someone told me that it is okay to feel the pain and anger I feel for the living earth, that it is part of the healing intelligence of the web of life activating in and through me. As these feelings arise from suffering with the earth, I can metabolize feelings in a held space with others, so that our hearts can remain open to find the next responses to act upon. I can learn to walk with a broken heart, for “The heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe,” as Joanna said. I joined a study group of Active Hope soon thereafter.
Joanna Macy’s work is grounded in engaged-Buddhism, deep ecology and systems theory. The WTR was developed out of Joanna’s “despair and empowerment workshops” in the 70s, and has its roots in her teachings. But over the last decades, with the collaborative efforts of others such as Molly Brown, Chris Johnstone and many facilitators, the WTR has become an open-source experiential group process (freely accessible online) for “the great turning” - the transition from the industrial growth society to life-sustaining societies.
What is the WTR reconnecting with? It calls the human in us to re-member that what we are is interbeing with the more-than-human beings, that our existence now is deeply interwoven with those who came before us and the future beings that come after our generation. As we find ourselves in the liminal space between the industrial growth society and life-sustaining societies, we’re simultaneously navigating three stories of our time: we are dealing with the business-as-usual that doesn’t want change; we are witnessing the unraveling of systems; at the same time, we are shaping “the great turning.” The WTR unfolds as a spiral practice to support one and another in this navigation through four stages: coming from gratitude, honoring our pain for the world, seeing with new/ancient eyes, and going forth. It is a spiral because it is not meant to be a how-to guide, but a continuous journey to deepen our re-membering as we meet ourselves and each other in the widening circle of all beings.
What I love about the spiral practice of the WTR is that from whichever stage we enter the spiral, there is always “going forth.” There is always something we can commit to acting upon tomorrow, even as the tiniest step, even if that action is undoing or unmaking something. It circles back to the reciprocity piece that I am concerned with. What has the healing of human mindedness brought forth in the widening healing of the web of life? I can only tell by the next choice I make in action and/or un-actioning.
However, there is a difference between not taking action due to numbness, feelings of overwhelm or helplessness, on the one hand, and consciously choosing to un-act, on the other. Earlier this year, I sat on a natural building colloquium panel discussion with other community-based natural builders. The topic was about climate change adaptation design. A city official asked us, how do you make people feel the urgency? How do you motivate them to respond? I responded to their questions by further asking: what is causing the lack of response? How can we be curious about that?
The work that helps us move through the pain/ numbness/ grief/ overwhelm we feel for the living earth so that we can restore our responsiveness, is very different work than the one that helps us to identify the steps of conscious doing and/or undoing as my part in the collective responses. They are different works. In my WTR facilitation, I bring in expressive arts work in honoring our pain/numbness/grief/overwhelm for the world. I find that our bodies know better about that which we are uncomfortable or unfamiliar with, where there are no words available. Whereas WTR also continuously shapes and challenges my understanding of ecopoiesis. Ecopoiesis speaks to the ways in which we find aesthetic/creative responses to the ecological challenges which we found ourselves in as a species. What am I shaping? Is the process of my shaping generating reciprocity in the web of life? Would the shaping better be un-shaping? If so, what would it look like? How can it be done?
These questions have come up a lot lately as I started to sit on the social justice committee of the WTR network, where we explore things that needed to be undone from within the practices and the network.
SKL: Can you tell us more about the social justice aspect of WTR and how it relates to ecopoiesis? I find that this aspect of our relation to the environment is often neglected.
GL: For me, WTR has always been about social justice. Addressing burn-out among dedicated social and environmental activists was the main reason why the spiral of the WTR practices emerged. Joanna Macy and Molly Brown’s Coming Back To Life provides the theoretical basis and easy-to-follow group work exercises for change agents to transform anguish and despair in the face of the social and ecological challenges.
The work of the social justice committee in the international network, though, is to address and rectify the ways in which oppression and power dynamics are operating from within the existing structure of the network. The committee only started two months ago. But a group of WTR facilitators has been self-organizing since 2017 and formed the Anti-oppression Resource Group. The group explores ways to undo oppression in WTR practices and facilitation by listening to harms that have occurred from systems of oppression replicating in WTR spaces. Their initiative collaboration has brought to life great resources on what and how facilitators can do differently. I find this work exceedingly important, not to call out or “cancel” each other, but to speak into life a culture that, as stated in one of the open resource documents created by this group, “love ourselves into who we are, knowing how conditioned we are by white supremacy [and other interlocking systems of oppression]” (see the document, “De-escalating Patterns of Harm in White Dominant Spaces: a guide for Work That Reconnects facilitators and participants,” at https://workthatreconnects.org/undoing-oppression/
Conversations such as this always point me to the direction of unselfing: what do I have to unself in order to be of service in a particular context? What am I not actively surrendering, and when do I follow my impulse to act? Similar questions arise all the time in my own expressive arts studio practice. I often find myself in the creative tension between decentering and poiesis. To be in the service of the work, I need to consciously “unself.” I have to get out of my way (and myself too perhaps?). In other words, I have to be self-conscious about not being too self-conscious. It sounds like a contradiction, doesn’t it? Interestingly enough, the decentering process almost always guarantees some self-forgetting moments in the art. The art takes me elsewhere where I am not, as though the “I” disappears and becomes the process, which is very similar to deep immersion in nature. You know those in-awe moments when you are like, I’m just as small as a drop of water in the ocean? Or, the air is breathing me through the oxygen released by the tree and I can just be one with nature cuddling this tree like moss forever? These self-forgetting moments are important in ways that restore the sense of sacredness and interdependence with all existence. In Joanna’s words, re-membering our “planetary self.” However therapeutic as it is, this is not enough. Just like in the expressive arts studio, decentering is only complete when poiesis is found, when I participate in the creative process from the place I wasn’t before. The image of ecopoiesis helps me through this endless wondering between unselfing and shaping. I think my frustration with the terms “nature-based” or “nature-assisted” expressive art lies in my belief that we must move beyond finding therapeutic inspiration from connection with nature, to finding aesthetic/creative response-ability as though our well-being were mutually dependent together, from a place that critically undoes our very conditioned (perhaps unaware) human-centeredness and thinking.
Stephen K. Levine
Ph.D., D.S.Sc, REAT, Professor Emeritus, York University (Toronto, Canada), Founding Dean of the Doctoral Program in Expressive Arts at The European Graduate School (Switzerland)
Reference for citations
Levine, S. (2022). Re-thinking ecopoiesis: questioning “nature” approach. Interview with Gracelynn Lau. Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice, 3(2). [open access internet journal]. – URL: http://ecopoiesis.ru (d/m/y)
In accordance with the Law of the Russian Federation on the Mass Media, the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Communications (Roskomnadzor) on September 22, 2020, the web-based publication - The peer-reviewed scientific online journal "Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice" was registered (registration number El No. FS77-79134).
“Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice” is the international multidisciplinary Journal focused on building an eco-human paradigm, disseminating eco-human knowledge and technology based on the alliance of ecology, humanities and the arts. Our journal aims to be a vibrant forum of theories and practices aimed at harmonizing the relations of mankind and the natural world in the interests of sustainable development, the creation of Eco-Humanity as a new community of human beings and more-than-human world. The human being is an ecological being, not separate from the world. The Ecopoiesis journal is based on that premise and aims to develop a body of theory and practice within that framework.
The Journal promotes dialogue and cooperation between ecologists, philosophers, doctors, educators, psychologists, artists, musicians, designers, social activists, business representatives in the name of eco-human values, human health and well-being, in close connection with concern for the environment. The Journal supports the development and implementation of new environmentally-friendly concepts, technologies and practices in the various fields of health and public life, education and social work.
One of the priority tasks of the Journal is to demonstrate and support the significant role of the arts in their alliance with ecology and the humanities for the restoration and development of constructive relations with nature, raising environmental awareness and promoting nature-friendly lifestyles.
The Journal publishes articles describing new eco-human concepts and practices, technologies and applied research data at the intersection of humanities, ecology and the arts, as well as interviews and conference reports related to the emerging eco-human field. It encourages artwork, music and other creative products related to eco-human practices and the new global community of Eco-Humanity.