Connecting with the
Environment—A First Step

I had a lovely experience at a recent workshop. There were two presentations on care of the environment. In the first one, two people brought up a bag full of medicinal and edible plants that they had gathered from the workshop site (Marin Headlands, California, USA). One of them spoke about how a first step in caring for the environment is to appreciate and connect to it. She passed around the different plants they had gathered and shared what was special about them. The plant that struck me1 most was fennel. The smell of its pollen was amazing, and I couldn’t help grinning at the idea that this expensive “gourmet” herb was growing wild and was freely available. The second presentation was about how awesome mushrooms are. The speaker shared how a company was using mushroom-farm byproducts as a replacement for styrofoam.

For most of my life I didn’t have attention for nature. This was because I’d been so beaten down by messages of hopelessness about the environment. I had also received a lot of fear-based messages. I’m the child of two physicians who worried about things like infectious disease and skin cancer.

I used to think that hikes and nature walks were unbearably boring. I almost never noticed the natural environment, other than the temperature and the rain, snow, or sun. I didn’t see the difference between walking around a city block and walking in the woods, other than that it was more convenient to walk on a sidewalk.

Then a year and a half ago, I worked in a public elementary school that focused on the environment. I co-taught with a teacher who would bring in leaves of different plants and ask the sixth-grade students to sit quietly with them for ten minutes—not writing, drawing, or talking; just being with the plants and connecting with their essence. Many of the young people were interested in the tiny differences among the leaves of the various chaparral plants. We would go on hikes in the Santa Monica mountains, and my co-teacher would declare a few minutes of silent time every now and again for all of us to notice what we saw, smelled, felt, and heard. It was wonderful to connect with the earth and each other, and I loved learning from the young people. (“Hey, teacher! This is a lemonade berry! You can eat it!”)

After getting lots of Co-Counseling sessions on how much I didn’t know (especially as I was their science teacher!), I started to have more attention for nature. I would pause in the middle of the street and say to my partner, “Whoa!2 Look at that plant. It’s so interesting. It looks like it’s crawling across the ground.” I think things shifted because of the wonderful contradiction3 of being around people who were so connected to and interested in the natural environment. The environment was no longer something just to fear or worry about. It became something to enjoy.

Being connected with the environment is a great first step for me, because it gives me a reason to take action for the environment, rather than doing it just because it’s the “right” thing to do—or ignoring environmental degradation because it’s too overwhelming and hopeless, or dismissing it because it’s not as urgent as “real” oppressions, such as racism and classism.

At the Young Adult Leaders’ Workshop in the Marin Headlands a few months ago, I noticed that we rarely needed anything to get our attention out besides looking outside and noticing what was out there and how beautiful it was. It made me wonder if life would be different, if we’d be less caught up in our distresses, if we had a chance to live where we could experience the natural world more abundantly. In addition to discharging on the scary messages I’ve received, I think it would be good for me to spend time in sessions just appreciating and connecting to the natural environment.

I’m curious to hear what others of you think. Have any of you worked in sessions on appreciating the environment? I’d love to hear anything you’ve learned or how it’s gone for you. Where have you lived (urban areas, suburban areas, rural areas), and how has that affected your relationship to the natural environment, if at all? How do you counsel on this?

Julianne Yulan Gale
Los Angeles, California, USA
Reprinted from the RC e-mail
discussion list for leaders of young adults 

1 “Struck me” means got my attention.
2 “Whoa” is an exclamation.
3 Contradiction to distress

Last modified: 2017-05-07 06:35:41+00