How To Awaken Our Ecological Psyche
“Do you think crows are the smartest animals? What are the smartest animals? I bet it’s parrots, or maybe dolphins. No, no, it’s gotta be some kind of dog, Mama.”
This volley of questions from my 7-year-old son about a group of crows on a nearby power line early one morning caused me to reflect on how we are bathed in a human-centric worldview from the very start of our lives.
“What does ‘smart’ mean exactly?” I said. “Perhaps every animal, every being has its own unique genius. Do you think any animal is smarter than another, the way a spider weaves its intricately patterned web, the way an owl sees a mouse in the dark, the way a squirrel flies from branch to branch? It seems to me that there are so many ways of expressing intelligence in this world.”
Somehow we can only understand intelligence from a certain cognitive ladder that exists to always put humans on top. It is this human-centrism, I believe, that is at the very core of our ecological catastrophe. In addition to it being deeply problematic psychologically, when we do not value the lives of all beings, they become unfeeling and expendable resources for our ceaseless human consumption.
There is no doubt that practical, actionable changes to our everyday way of life are essential to creating an ecological civilization. Continuing to shift how we are commuting, shopping, eating, and farming is clearly essential. But beyond these physical acts, what are we doing to create an ecological civilization within our psyches? If our minds cannot conceive of it, we surely will not act to make it a reality.
We must begin by confronting how entrenched beliefs in human ownership of all places and things keep us foreign to and outside of the living world. We are not the Earth’s keepers or savers, just as we are not the Earth’s landlords or masters. The Earth provides for and nurtures our very existence—we must stop perpetuating the harmful illusion that we are separate from and superior to nature’s ingenuity. Clearly recognizing this human-nature split within our mindset is the gateway to other beneficial ways of knowing.
From there we can practice seeing ourselves as one kind of being within a much wider field of living kinship. At its foundation, developing an ecological psyche means that we are reclaiming and diversifying this sense of relational intimacy.
We can engage in simple rituals of reciprocity by finding a daily communion with the creatures, waterways, and stars that remind us something vibrantly alive exists beyond our limited knowledge and understanding.
Perhaps you are already in a loving relationship with a pet, a special tree, or a nearby river. Let us legitimize the way these things nourish and comfort us, and then seek out an even larger web of connection.
Beginning with the place where we live, we can practice rousing our fullest attention by learning its Indigenous history, both past and modern. Bringing a presence to the ground beneath our feet, we can study its slow, ever-changing geology, as well as the names of the plants and animals of the place we call home. We can engage in simple rituals of reciprocity by finding a daily communion with the creatures, waterways, and stars that remind us something vibrantly alive exists beyond our limited knowledge and understanding.
We can regularly seek out experiences that offer a greater perspective, reminding us of our small but unique niche within the mix of all creation. This is what draws millions of people to National Parks every summer or what puts us behind telescopes at 3 o’clock in the morning—the opportunity to feel humbled and awed, put back in place by the immensity of it all.
We no longer need to believe in the story of our separateness—shifting our belief of individualism into a life-affirming sense of belonging with all beings. Earth-honoring ethics are the wisdom teachings of Indigenous cultures around the world. But all of us are on the hook. It is the birthright and responsibility of all humans to come back into relationship with the Earth.
With an ecological psyche we awaken something essential within ourselves. Listening to our quiet biophilic longings, we find that our bodies and spirits are hardwired for wilderness and our cells, our muscles, our lungs have a memory of this: We are more sunflower, more thunder, more ocean tide than we are concrete. We have to rekindle this deep memory of where we come from. We are nature breathing, moving, trembling in human form.
Kendra Ward has been an acupuncturist and herbalist since 2003. She lives with her family in rural Vermont on traditional Abenaki lands.