(Re)membering the Ecological Self: An Autoethnography – Part 1

Well….it’s been quite some time since I’ve posted content on my blog! Much too long, actually. I’ve missed sharing my thoughts and feelings, my insights and intuitions, with you. But, I’m back at it! I hope to be posting more regularly once again.

The next three posts will present sections of a paper I wrote recently for a self-directed course I am taking as part of my PhD studies at Brock University. The paper is entitled: (Re)membering the Ecological Self: An Autoethnography. I hope you enjoy it!

ecological self

Creation – Photo credit: Gerald McDermott

“So you read my words
Sketched on the page
And learned of entanglement
Well, here now is my flesh
What say you, as I sing my song?
Where do you belong?” (Douglas & Carless, 2013, p. 93).

“Sometimes a tree tells you more than you can read in books” (Jung, 2002, p. 6).

This paper presents a personal narrative autoethnography of my evolving experience of “nature”[1]. I begin by briefly describing what an autoethnography is. I then tell my stories.

What is an Autoethnography?

Ellis, Adams, & Bochner (2011) describe autoethnography as, “An approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyze (graphy) personal experience (auto) in order to understand cultural experience (ethno)” (p. 273). Put differently, a writer uses autoethnography to shed light on particular components of her or his culture by describing personal experience(s) of, and in, that culture (Ellis, 2004; Holman Jones, 2005). In this way, autoethnography combines elements of both autobiography and ethnography (Ellis et al., 2011).

Autoethnographies can take several different forms. I employ the personal narrative form of autoethnography in this paper. Ellis et al. (2011) describe personal narrative autoethnography as follows:

Personal narratives are stories about authors who view themselves as the phenomenon …. Personal narratives propose to understand a self or some aspect of a life as it intersects with a cultural context… and invite readers to enter the author’s world and to use what they learn there to reflect on, understand, and cope with their own lives (p. 279).

I present selected stories of my experience of nature in this paper for the purpose of shedding light on Western culture’s evolving experience of, and relationship to, the natural world.

(Re)membering the Ecological Self

No Boundary

My first nature memory stems from my toddler years. My then stay-at-home mother would often take my sister (two-and-a-half years my senior) and I for summertime walks in and around our urban neighbourhood in west Hamilton. One of my mother’s frequent destinations was Victoria Park—a fairly large park located a few short blocks south of our family home. Victoria Park was, and is, beautiful. It contains ample green space and many wonderful, mature, ash, oak, and maple, trees. My mother recalls fondly how I would sit happily in my stroller upon arriving at Victoria Park, hands neatly folded on my lap, peacefully pondering the beauty of the natural world around me.

I viscerally remember those early nature encounters in my childhood park: the brilliant green grass, the dappled sunlight, the soil’s earthy scent, the gentle summer breeze. I also recall the overwhelming sense of well-being that would come over me in those moments. It was as if everything was precisely as it was meant to be. I was at one with nature.

One of my favourite theorists, the controversial psychologist C. G. Jung, describes a strikingly similar early nature experience in his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections:

I am lying in a pram [stroller], in the shadow of a tree. It is a fine, warm summer day, the sky blue, and golden sunlight darting through the green leaves. The hood of the pram has been left up. I have just awakened to the glorious beauty of the day, and have a sense of incredible well-being. I see the sun glittering through the leaves and blossoms of the bushes. Everything is wholly wonderful, colorful, and splendid (Jung, 1989, p. 2).

Back to my story.

Fast-forward a few years to middle-childhood and another meaningful nature memory emerges. I now live in Stoney Creek, a relatively small suburb located just east of Hamilton. It is summertime and my neighbourhood friends and I are bored. To occupy ourselves, we decide to build a tree fort in a small stand of scraggly Manitoba Maples we discover just outside the confines of our housing complex. Despite run-ins with several unimpressed authority figures and a few close encounters with rusty nails, our collective experience is fantastic. My most meaningful memories of that tree fort, however, are from times I would visit it alone. I recall climbing the fort’s flimsy ladder, finding a comfortable spot to nest on one of its higher platforms, and feeling a deep sense of peace. Supported by the tree’s strong limbs, enveloped in its protective foliage, I felt at home—safe and secure.

Adults living in Western culture often recall having childhood nature encounters similar to those I describe above (for example, Carson, 1998; Louv, 2005; Macy, 2007; Naess, 2008; Pyle, 1998; Sobel, 2008). Cultural historian Theodore Roszak (1992) notes that, generally, children “greet life, and especially the natural world around them, with an instinctively animist response. It is alive and personal for them. It has a voice” (p. 297). For the vast majority of their collective evolutionary history, humans experienced nature in this visceral manner throughout their lifespans (Glendinning, 1994; Roszak, 1992; Sampson, 2012; Vakoch & Castrillón, 2014; Wilson, 1993). Our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived for tens-of-thousands of years in intimate relation with nature. To them, nature was “an enchanted world. Rocks, trees, rivers, and clouds were all seen as wondrous, alive, and human beings felt at home in this environment….[it] was a place of belonging” (Berman, 1984, p. 2).

Humanity’s close nature connection did not last, however. Ecologist and psychologist Paul Shepard (1982) believes the human-nature relationship started unravelling 10,000 years ago when humanity opted for a more predictable, sedentary lifestyle among domesticated plants and animals. Another significant change occurred in the seventeenth century when reality was divided between mind and matter, brain and body, subject and object, by a small group of influential philosophers (Roszak, 1992). This psychic shift fueled the present-day industrial and technological revolutions: the natural world was no longer a community of subjects with which to belong, it was a collection of objects to measure, master, and manipulate (Berman, 1984; Berry, 1999; Kahn Jr. & Hasbach, 2013; White Jr., 1967).

Part 2 of this paper can be found here. The next section is titled: A Self, Divided followed by The Conflict Continues

[1] ‘Nature’ is a difficult term to define. Although we tend to think of nature as “physical features and processes of nonhuman origin” (Hartig, Mitchell, de Vries, & Frumkin, 2014, p. 208), it is in fact a social construct whose meaning varies, “across time, space, and the individual engaged in the defining” (Bratman, Hamilton, & Daily, 2012, p. 242). I embrace Richard Louv’s (2005) understanding of nature in this paper:

When I use the word ‘nature’ in a general way I mean natural wildness: biodiversity, abundance—related loose parts in a backyard or a rugged mountain ridge. Most of all, nature is reflected in our capacity for wonder. Nasci. To be born. (p. 8).