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Healing relationships and building trust in the more-than-human world

Robin Wall Kimmerer once asked:

"I wonder if much that ails our society stems from the fact that we have allowed ourselves to be cut off from that love of, and from, the land"

It’s an enticing question. Could our greatest predicaments - from conflict, political and social polarisation, and climate and ecological collapse - stem directly from our centuries-long disconnection from the rest of the living Earth? If so, could processes which invite us to remember our inherent belonging to the rest of Nature not only catalyse the shifts in consciousness needed to reverse the climate and nature emergency, but also act as a conduit for healing wounds and building trust among our own human communities?

In other words, could nature connection be a medium for peacebuilding?

To suggest that civil conflict in, say, Sudan or ethno-religious strife in Iraq could be solved through nature connection would, of course, be a reductionist fallacy. It would also grossly overlook the hardship and suffering faced by those entangled in these conflicts. These are multi-faceted phenomena with a complex web of root causes, from state failure and foreign interference to climate change and competition for power and resources.

The purpose here is not to delve into the causes of violent conflict – much has already been written on the subject. Its intention is simply to ask if common ground can be found in our universal belonging to and interconnectedness with all life. Although this may appear, at first, a philosophical and abstract discussion, it has the potential to yield very tangible – even transformational – outcomes.

John Paul Lederach – whose work has profoundly influenced the field of peacebuilding – once affirmed:

"To survive our woundedness, we need […] an earth-bounded ethic of peace. An ethic that nurtures compassion and courage. An ethic that affords the deep reflection and sustained conversations that binds wounds and heals relationships.”

Earth-bounded approaches to building peace already exist in one form or another, each drawing on a rich tapestry of experiences, knowledge and wisdom. These include:

  • Experiential Peacebuilding, which is arguably the most striking expression of this. Developed by the Outward Bound Centre for Peacebuilding, it combines experiential learning in Nature with peacebuilding theory, pursuing “peace through the practices of wilderness compassion”.

  • Joanna Macy’s The Work that Reconnects, a framework whose central purpose is “to help people uncover and experience their innate connections with each other and with the systemic, self-healing powers in the web of life”.

  • The Eight Shields Philosophy, a nature-based mentoring and community building framework, which views peace “as a state of connection with oneself, the natural world and other people.”

Forest Therapy

Another practice which I believe has much to offer the world of peacebuilding is relational Forest Therapy. As conceived by the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy, it is fundamentally about the cultivation of relationships; with ourselves, with other humans and with the rest of Nature.

Though Forest Therapy’s benefits are manifold, perhaps its most valuable contribution in the context of this discussion, lies in it being a conduit for cultural repair. In the words of the ANFT:

“We understand the main purpose of Forest Therapy as being a vehicle for accelerating cultural change in the interest of community, reciprocity, and love”

How so? Relational Forest Therapy is, by its very nature, an experiential, embodied practice. The experiences which arise in Forest Therapy are complex; wholly authentic and unique to each person and to each moment. This makes articulating in abstract terms its value as a practice for peace, challenging, simply because it is something to be experienced rather than merely intellectually understood.

In essence, relational Forest Therapy uses a framework called the Standard Sequence, which weaves elements of a rich and varied lineage together. These include Jungian psychology, Vision Fast philosophy, Taoism, Zen Buddhism, Deep Ecology and Council practice. The Standard Sequence invites us to slow down, awaken our senses and connect to the intelligence of our bodies and our hearts. In doing so, we are brought on a liminal journey, to a place which straddles the Tamed World in which we live and the Wild World from which we sprung. It is here that transformation can be born. Prejudice, identities and notions of separateness – bound up in the Stories we come to hold as objective truths – start to dissolve. In their place, reciprocity, gratitude and a sense of interbeing – all rooted in relationship – can blossom and become our guides. We come to acknowledge that we are all, first and foremost, bodies, just another ecosystem in the unfolding web of life. This is our primary identity and our primary reality, common to us all.

Charting a way forward

The practices alluded to above all share a common thread: a belief that peaceful relations between human beings are rooted in “right relationships” with the more-than-human world. If we are to heal the divisions, wounds and traumas which perpetuate violent conflicts between us, the more-than-human realm of Nature is where we should begin.

To quote Robin Wall Kimmerer again:

“In a time of great polarity and division, the common ground we crave is in fact beneath our feet. The very land on which we stand is our foundation and can be a source of shared identity and common cause”

It’s almost as if the Earth is calling us back, offering us a canvas onto which we can fashion a more harmonious world.

The intention here is not to create something new for the sake of it, nor to claim that bringing people back into right relationship with Nature is the answer to the woes of the world. It’s simply to offer some insight into how doing so could be a profound source of healing and wisdom for people and communities stricken with distrust, polarisation and violent conflict.

With gratitude,

George Biesmans, Summer 2023,

Written on the unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples (Vancouver Island)

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