By Catherine Rountree
Book Review | This edition features a recommendation of several books from Catherine Rountree, guest editor of the EEAI’s Spring 2020 newsletter. Catherine discusses the influence which some seminal works in ecotherapy have had on her personal development as a practitioner. Catherine is an EEAI member and a much valued volunteer (short bio available at end of piece)
I came to psychotherapy by a circuitous garden path. As a horticultural student over 20 years ago I looked up from the undergrowth and started to ask why we garden? Why do we spend public monies on creating public parks and displays? This was an unusual question for a soon to be graduated horticulturist and I was greeted with some quite eye-opening responses (and dropped phones) from our parks and wildlife staff at the time. Yet I have sought answers to these questions ever since and it has led me to further development and training in psychology, social and therapeutic horticulture and psychotherapy. One thing I did learn was that people using parks see desirability and attractiveness in quite different things to that which park designers see, and that has led me ever since to ask what is the customers perspective on my work and offerings.
My reasoning at the time was that if horticulture could demonstrate that it fulfils more than an aesthetic function then it could open up other areas of funding and demonstrate the essential nature of having greenspaces readily available to all citizens, especially in urban areas. I had a gut instinct, drawing on evolutionary psychology that it was logical that we benefit from contact with nature, but I could not at the time find any evidence to back my gut instincts.
Since reading Bateson’s wonderful writings in ‘Steps to an Ecology of Mind’ I have been excited about finding ways to include our sense of place in our habitat into my therapeutic work. We are actors upon, and we are acted upon by our surroundings as much as we are by our social interactions. I see our engagement in this world as being wider than human to human interaction, but these other layers are not always brought to the fore in our therapeutic engagements. I have been seeking ways to make this usefully explicit and available for dialogue for over 20 years. (Yes! I am a slow learner!!)
I have read the important 2009 book ‘Ecotherapy, Healing with nature in mind’ edited by Buzzell and Chalmquist. This offered tantalising glimpses and ideas without offering enough grounding theory to satisfy me. I am converted but I will not be swept along by blind enthusiasm. Perrins-Margalais et al (2000) have demonstrated that horticulture is deemed to have a positive impact on self-esteem, wellbeing and quality of life of people engaged in gardening activities. In my melding of different learnings and thinking, McCarthy’s (2004) idea of therapy creating a ‘fifth province1 place shares Kaplan’s idea (1995) of ‘being away’2 from the everyday. This being away from the everyday allows space for fresh thoughts and new ways of being and of engaging. Winterbottom (1998) quoted by Sempik et al (2003:18) suggests that gardens offer ‘an aesthetic, social and spiritual oasis’ which ‘create a social force, fostering memories and building meaningful memories. I suggest that combining green spaces with psychotherapy can build on this and create powerful vehicles for change and development in clients. The challenge for me has been how to combine these ideas with my own experiences as a person and practice as a therapist.
Jordans 2015 book ‘Nature and Therapy; understanding counselling and psychotherapy in outdoor spaces’ is a good read, but again it did not join the dots for me as it painted pictures but did not tell me what my canvas was.
The 2016 book from the late Martin Jordan in collaboration with Joe Hind ‘Eco Therapy, Theory, Research and Practice’ went a long way to rectify these blind spots. It laid out the ‘hows’ of ecotherapy, why it works, what it looks like, and importantly what happens next for the client in a clear and logical fashion. Finally a road map to think about drawing in ecological awareness and sensitivities to therapeutic work in practical and tangible ways.
I highly recommend this book to any garden designer or land owner who wishes to extend their business to include an ecological and therapeutically beneficial perspective. How we design public spaces has a significant impact on the social interactions that can occur. I extend this to suggest that we can contribute to societal development and change and to improvements in mental and physical health.
A recent publication ‘Nature is Nurture; Counselling and the Natural World’ (2020) edited by Megan E. Delaney is a clearly laid out ‘how to’ for different approaches of ecotherapy. I would recommend it as an instructive book for any psychotherapist who is thinking of incorporating ecotherapy into their practice. Some of the chapters were a little skimpy on detail, especially those looking at group interventions. Vital information such as ideal group size was not included. This is an American book, and I would like to read more of international and cultural differences in approach. This book failed to explore nor mention the impact of degradation of natural landscapes and the impact on the mental health of communities who live there, the impact that segregation and discrimination has had on native communities and the power that land based interventions can have to address these impacts. In Ireland I think that we could adapt the chapter on using nature based interventions to work with veterans and PTSD to work with our own indigenous Irish Traveller community who carry a lot of PTSD. I hope you do read both of these books and find them as practical as I have.
Mitten (2009) Measurement of benefits of nature engagement
1 Fifth Province; Mc Carthy (2004) refers to this as a metaphorical safe place co-created in therapy allowing space for ‘ reflection, for openness, acceptance and for emergent solutions’
2 Being Away. Kaplan (1995) The conceptual idea of escaping from everyday thoughts by engaging in flow activities that change thought patterns and preoccupations.
Suggested reading in Ecopsychology.
Buzzell, L. and Chalquist, C. (2009) (eds) Ecotherapy; Healing with Nature in Mind Sierra Club Books
Cornell, J. (1989) Sharing Nature with Children II. Dawn Publications. Accessed July 07 2015
Delaney, M.E. (2020) Nature is Nurture; Counselling in the Natural World. Oxford University Press.
Jordan M. & Hinds J.(eds) (2016) Ecotherapy; Theory, Research & Practice’. Palgrave Macmillan Press
Linden S. & Grut, J. (2002) The Healing Fields; working with psychotherapy and nature to rebuild shattered lives. In association with The Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. Frances Lincoln Press.
Mitten, D. (2009) The Healing Power of Nature: The need for nature for human health, development and wellbeing. Ferris state University.
Ogle, D. & Kyle, P. (2014) Investigation of Horticultural Therapy as a complimentary Treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Accessed 12.06.15
Radmore, D. (2010) Examination of the Biophilia Hypotheis and its Implications for Mental Health. University of Brighton
Sempik, J Aldrige, J & Becker S. (2003) Social and therapeutic horticulture: Evidence and messages from research. Thrive in association with the Centre for Child and Family Research, Loughborough University.
Catherine Rountree is a systemic psychotherapist living and working in the Midlands. She is a social farmer and uses horticultural therapy with groups in her A.R.K., a glorious mixed tapestry of broadleaf trees, vegetables and naturalising meadow where nature lives mostly as it pleases. www.midlandsfamilytherapy.com