Book review: “ENVIRONMENTAL ARTS THERAPY: THE WILD FRONTIERS OF THE HEART.” Edited by Ian Siddons Heginworth and Gary Nash, London: Routledge, 2019
Reviewed by Jamie Bird, June 2021
This review outlines the book “Environmental Arts Therapy: The Wild Frontiers of the Heart”, as reflecting the development of new health-promoting approaches and types of psychological support based on the alliance of nature and the arts. The book is comprised of twelve chapters, divided into five parts. Part one maps out the shape of environmental arts therapy in literature and within the contemporary history of art therapy as it is practices in the British Isles. Part two integrates the theories of attachment and childhood emotional development into the practice of environmental art therapy. Part three explores notions of the feminine and masculine as they appear within relationships with the natural world. Part four focuses upon the theme of natural yearly cycles and how they relate to psychological processes of change. The final part brings ageing and palliative care into the picture. At various points in this collection of reports and reflections about environmental art therapy, climate crisis and environmental is explicitly addressed.
Keywords: art therapy, environmental arts therapy, ecopsychology, ecotherapy, dramatherapy
Book cover of Environmental Arts Therapy: The Wild Frontiers of the Heart, Edited by Ian Siddons Heginworth and Gary Nash, Routledge, 2019
Environmental Arts Therapy (Heginworth and Nash, 2019) is a timely publication because of climate and environmental crisis has become a major cause of emotional distress across many age groups from many countries. Increasingly it is shaping political actions at a national and international level. It might be argued that the response made to this crisis will be a defining moment in contemporary human history, so anything that addresses the practical, political, social, psychological, or spiritual components of global heating and environmental degradation is to be welcome. From an art therapy perspective, especially welcome are those interventions that address the emotional consequences of these unprecedented and monumental events. Since Environmental Arts Therapy was first published, we have also seen the appearance of a global pandemic that has exposed how existing vulnerabilities and imbalances are magnified when large scale crisis appears. The pandemic has shown how interconnected human and other-than-human systems are as well as providing some glimpse of what collective action might look like.
The main impetus for the creation of this book was to bring together ideas and practices to emerge from the environmental art therapy training programme that has been offered at the London Art Therapy Centre, UK, since 2014. That training in turn, is informed by the work of Ian Heginworth, which is articulated within Environmental Arts Therapy and the Tree of Life (2009). A majority of the contributing authors are alumni of that training. The aim of the book is to demonstrate how art and drama therapy, when located within outdoors natural environments, can be applied within different contexts and with different client groups. It can be placed alongside other recent publications on the topic of the arts therapies and their relationship to the natural environment, such as Nature-Based Expressive Arts Therapy (Atkins and Snyder, 2018). Perhaps also to earlier, more explicitly psychodynamic works, such as Imagining Animals: Art, Psychotherapy and Primitive States of Mind (Case, 2005). It also sits well alongside publications that relate to the interface between ecology and the psychotherapies, for example Towards an Ecopsychotherapy by Mary-Jayne Rust (2020). Environmental arts therapy is defined as ‘an arts-based approach to working therapeutically in outdoor spaces and emerges from the creative exchange that has occurred between the ecopsychology movement and the arts therapies professions and communities.’ (Heginworth & Nash, 2019, p.2). To this is added that the ‘therapeutic combination of the arts and nature, human and other-than-human, is informed by a growing awareness and interest in the work of ecopsychology which considers our interdependency and interrelationship with the Earth’ (ibid, p.2). A fundamental principle that underpins ecopsychology, and ecotherapy, and in turn environmental arts therapy, is that there is a need to address the separation that exists within social structures and individual behaviors between the human and the other-than-human. That separation extends to that which appears between self and other, and to parts of the individual self. Ecopsychology seeks to create a reciprocal relationship between the human and the other-than-human. These are ideas that align with deep ecology (Naess, 1990) and transpersonal ecology (Fox, 1995), and which emerge frequently throughout this publication.
The book is comprised of twelve chapters, divided into five parts. Part one maps out the shape of environmental arts therapy in literature and within the contemporary history of art therapy as it is practices in the British Isles. Part two integrates the theories of attachment and childhood emotional development into the practice of environmental art therapy. Part three explores notions of the feminine and masculine as they appear within relationships with the natural world. Part four focuses upon the theme of natural yearly cycles and how they relate to psychological processes of change. The final part brings ageing and palliative care into the picture.
At various points in this collection of reports and reflections about environmental art therapy, climate crisis and environmental is explicitly addressed. A reconnection with nature is framed as an important counter to alienation and separation between the human and the non-human. This link between connection with nature and positive improvement to wellbeing and greater appreciation of the non-human world is backed up by the research carried out by others (Richardson, Hunt et al., 2019). Climate and environmental crisis is less evident in other chapters. However, reference to the value of making connections with the other-than-human world is strong throughout all the chapters.
One element that needs some further examination is the frequent expression of the idea that nature is associated most strongly with the feminine. Nature becomes gendered, and in this context, the feminine is contrasted with the masculine in ways that are used to contrast feeling and intuition with reason and cognition, or the wild with the tamed. The comparison often appears to rest upon Carl Jung’s theory of anima and animus and the supposed indigenous conceptions of Mother Earth. And whilst this is far from a new or unique perspective, it is important to be aware of both the strengths and the limitations of assigning a human construction such as gender upon the other-than-human. Whilst there is value in drawing attention to an attitude towards nature that is extractive, exploitative, and aligned to patriarchy, assigning a feminine quality to nature runs the risk of offering a one-dimensional view of the other-than-human. This is said to draw attention to a critique that can be made of much ecological thinking. There is a failure to achieve a more nuanced perspective in terms of not fully questioning what is assumed when using gendered terms to refer to nature i.e. mother earth or mother nature. It is possible to understand the sentiment behind this thinking: to draw upon what is not logical or rational; to value the emotional, the embodied, and the subjective. What needs questioning is the association of those qualities with one particular gender because of the philosophical problems in making that link (Lloyd, 1993). As Latour and Lenton caution when observing the gendering of Gaia, ‘[a]ny look at Hesiod will show that there is nothing maternal, womanly, or even godly in such a dangerous, archaic, cunning, and chthonic figure that precedes all the gods.’ (Latour & Lenton, 2019, p. 666).
There is little in the way of direct reference to issues of diversity within the book. There is though reference to indigenous believes, particularly Celtic rituals, and how these might contribute to the sorts of practices and rituals that appear within environmental arts therapies. This is not a major criticism, but rather a highlighting of the need for environmental thought and practice to widen its scope to incorporate the intersection of ecological and social concerns.
Many art therapists will appreciate the references made to attachment and to how natural objects can act as transitional objects. There is a much attention paid to safe ways of working outside. Many of the authors make reference to how they have given thought to how to contain clients and their expressions when working out-of-doors. There are parallels here with taking art therapy into refugee camps and other places of crisis (Lloyd, Press et al., 2018). Environmental arts therapy, and other nature-based expressive arts therapies, offer helpful foundations for considering how to use art therapy for the benefit of addressing the climate and ecological crisis. They demonstrate that it is possible to work safely as an art therapist within outdoor settings. They draw upon those fundamental features of ecological thought that is also evident within ecotherapies and ecopsychologies: the wilding of therapy; the re-connection with nature; the equal valuing of the human and the other-than-human. Each of these features are enhanced by the introduction of creativity and imagination, and the use of ritual. Both environmental arts therapy and nature-based expressive arts therapy attempt to learn from traditions of thought and ritual practice that either pre-date or run parallel to secular and modern perceptions of the individual, society, and of nature.
This publication adds to the literature about how art therapy can engage with both the physical qualities of natural materials, and the metaphorical qualities of the non-human and how that represents interpersonal and intrapersonal processes. It also adds to ideas about the role of the arts therapies within a collective response to climate crisis. Given the emotive nature of climate change and mass extinction, it is all too easy to lose sight of hope and courage. This important book goes some way to providing some solace. Not in the form of seeking mitigation or providing practical solutions, but through showing how art therapy can takes its place amongst other therapeutic responses (Bednarek, 2019) as they attempt to prepare, adapt and eventually recover from a changing relationship between the human and the other-than-human.
Atkins, S. S., and M. A. Snyder (2018). Nature-based expressive arts therapy : integrating the expressive arts and ecotherapy. London and Philadelphia, Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Bednarek, S. (2019). 'This is an emergency’ – proposals for a collective response to the climate crisis. British Gestal Journal 28, 4-13.
Fox, W. (1995). Towards a transpersonal ecology: Developing new foundations for environmentalism. Totnes: Resurgence.
Heginworth, S. and G. Nash, Eds. (2019). Environmental arts therapy: The wild frontiers of the heart. London, Routledge.
Latour, B., & Lenton, T. (2019). Extending the domain of freedom, or Why Gaia is so hard to understand. Critical Inquiry, 45(3), 659-680. doi:10.1086/702611
Lloyd, B., et al. (2018). The Calais Winds took our plans away: Art therapy as shelter. Journal of Applied Arts & Health, 9(2), 171-184.
Naess, A. (1990). Ecology, community and lifestyle: outline of an ecosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Richardson, M., et al. (2019). A Measure of nature connectedness for children and adults: Validation, performance, and insights. Sustainability, 11(12), 3250.
Rust, M. (2020). Towards an ecopsychotherapy. London: Confer Books.
Dr Jamie Bird
art therapist, Deputy Head of Centre for Health and Social Care Research
Reference for citations:
Bird, J. (2021). Book review, “Environmental arts therapy: The wild frontiers of the heart,” (Edited by Ian Siddons Heginworth and Gary Nash), London: Routledge, 2019. Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice, 2(2). [open access internet journal]. – URL: http://en.ecopoiesis.ru (d/m/y)
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“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.
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