The New York Times Sunday Magazine’s feature story on ecopsychology provides a fascinating look at an effort to bust the discipline out of its urbane native milieu and drag it into the woods for some Outward Bound-style enlightenment. Daniel B. Smith’s piece finds ecopsychology in an early and emergent phase, in need of many astringent slaps of scientific rigor, but the basic idea is simple and intuitive enough: modern ecological degradation and estrangement from nature can combine to drive people half-way down the road to Crazytown, instilling depression, stoking anxiety and relentlessly grinding the sharp edge off sufferers’ IQ.
As I read the piece, I was not surprised to find Portland portrayed as ecopsychology’s key American incubator. Even though ecopsychology’s inspirations may strike hard-science types as slightly bong-watery (cf. the work of Theodore Roszak, a prime example of the ‘60s breed of zany-minded scholar/genius), this new green therapeutic paradigm is custom-cut for Portland. Local therapist Thomas Doherty, whom Smith quotes at length, runs a pioneering ecopsychology-based practice and publishes the subdiscipline’s first peer reviewed journal; Lewis & Clark College is among the handful of institutions offering relevant courses. In a more general, zeitgeisty sense, even Portlanders who have never heard of ecopsychology consider it perfectly acceptable to go stare at ferns after a tough workday.
I myself am totally simpatico with ecopsych’s inherent Left Coast moss-pondering. I grew up among the dry pines and forbidding mountains of Montana and enthusiastically adopted the sodden maritime Northwest. I don’t know if I’m capable of living in a place where forest management isn’t a major policy issue. The notion that exposure to the natural world—broadly defined—is key to mental health and cognition just seems like common sense. Smith’s article cites the work of U-Michigan researcher Marc Berman, which suggests that immersion in a forest environment improves focus, memory and other cognitive function. For that, we can apparently thank nature’s “soft fascinations”—the babbling brooks, the infinite regress of trees—as opposed to the sharp edges and blaring sounds of urban life. (This brings up an added bonus, because “soft fascinations” sounds like a particularly unfortunate and hilarious soft-porn genre; next time you feel depressed and dull-witted yet can’t make it to a woodland trail, try repeating “soft fascinations…soft fascinations” over and over again.)
Portland likely makes ideal habitat for ecopsychology because—for reasons involving climate and geography, but also decades of nuts-and-bolts local policy decisions—this city is woven through with soft fascinations, and maintains a much closer and more dynamic relationship with its rural and wild hinterlands than most.
Granted, scientists need to do a lot of work on these findings and inclinations. But it all passes the visceral test, doesn’t it? Ecopsychology’s insistence on a link between nature and mental health; Berman’s findings on the environment’s affect on intelligence: both just feel true. At least to me. I just spent three years writing a book about weird participatory sports, and ended up concluding that the “participatory” component is far more crucial and interesting than the “weird.” Contact with the ambient world gives sport (or any outdoor activity) much of its aesthetic value, and the mental and intellectual benefits outweigh the physical. A run, a hike or a bike ride fosters a complex mode of thought at once immediate and abstract, hyper-alert and meditative, linear and non-linear. To quote Turgenev’s classic Sportsman’s Notebook:
…You walk along the forest’s edge, you watch your dog, but all the time images and faces of the beloved…keep coming to mind; impressions that have slumbered for years suddenly spring to life; the imagination hovers and darts hither and thither like a bird, and all the memories it evokes move and stand so vividly before your eyes.
Turgenev addressed this particular passage to “lovers of nature and freedom.” If the ecophyschologists are right, he should have added “sanity,” as well. Our consciousness evolved in nature, and we need to keep it rooted there.