Ecological Psychology

What are the trees saying? I am listening closely. Listening, as I have been advised, with the whole of my being. Trying to hear a voice, this voice of the trees, this voice I’ve traveled so far to hear. And it has arrived, finally, wandering up through the branches, carried by the wind, this voice so very old. What is it saying? The message is simple and clear. It’s saying: “Hey buddy, you’re fucked.”

Fucked is truly what I am — though perhaps not technically. Technically, I’m bushwhacking across one of the planet’s last true wilds, lost in the southern portion of South America named Patagonia by Magellan. What I wanted was a place untouched by man or machine — a place that has never seen a can of Coca-Cola. Instead, what I got was caught in the worst storm in a decade: freezing rain, blinding snow, winds gusting up to a hundred miles per hour. And this would be bad enough, but the real reason I’m fucked is because ten seconds ago those same winds blew me straight off the side of a mountain.

Prior to that, we’d gotten seriously lost. Our guide, well, enough about our guide. He was as off track as the rest of us. So, not knowing what else to do, I spent a tough twenty minutes scrambling up the side of a waterfall. My hope was that the view from up top would be wide enough that I could sight our much-needed trail. But once up there, before I had time to even look around, a mean blast of cold air ass-smacked me sideways and the seventy pounds of dead weight in my backpack did the rest. I sailed off that perch and through the sky and landed midway down that waterfall, bouncing off who knows what and back into the air and through the sky and smashing face first into a tangle of shrubbery. There are leaves in my mouth and flowers in my nose and a shard of wood through my palm. I have come to Patagonia to get up close and personal with nature — but this isn’t exactly what I had in mind.

I guess if I were looking for someone to blame, I could start with British scientist James Lovelock. In the late 1960s, Lovelock began trying to untangle a peculiar mystery: how is it that life’s delicate balance remains so well maintained on earth? The earth’s temperature, for example, has essentially stayed constant for 3 billion years, yet during this period the sun’s firepower has increased by 30 to 40 percent. Both the chemical content of the earth’s atmosphere and the salinity of her oceans have also remained stable, despite entropy, the second law of thermodynamics, saying things should work otherwise.

Lovelock decided there might be a good reason for all this self-regulation, which he detailed in his 1979 book, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth: “The entire range of living matter on earth, from whales to viruses, and from oaks to algae, could be regarded as constituting a single living entity capable of manipulating the earth’s atmosphere to suit its overall needs and endowed with faculties and powers far beyond those of its constituent parts.” In Lovelock’s view, the earth was a “super-organism,” a cybernetic feedback system that “seeks an optimal physical and chemical environment for life on this planet.” He called the system Gaia after the ancient Greek earth goddess.

There has been a long, nasty battle surrounding Gaia with quasi-religious overtones and lots of belligerent name-calling, but some thirty years later, after much corroborating research and some error correction, what was once derided as a “New Age cult” has become almost-legitimate theory. In 1982, the late ecologist Paul Shepard extended this theory into psychology, proposing that if there are innate links between the planet and the human species, then those links should extend to the human mind. Shepard feared that by wantonly destroying the former we are simultaneously ravaging the latter — quite literally driving ourselves mad one clearcut forest at a time.

These ideas are now part of the bedrock of “ecopsychology.” Blending ecology, neuroscience, sociology, psychology, philosophy, environmental science, and other disciplines, ecopsychology concerns itself with everything from how to break the stranglehold of industrial society and reconnect with what historian Theodore Roszak (another of the field’s founding fathers) dubbed the “ecological unconscious” to strategies for overcoming the emotional trauma of confronting what Harvard psychiatrist John Mack once called “the agonizing murder of the life systems on Earth.”

I was seriously curious about ecopsychology but figured if I were ever going to really understand this stuff, it would help to witness such eco-murder for myself. So a plan was hatched. I would fly to Santiago and meet up with old friends and together we would light out down the Carretera Austral, Augusto Pinochet’s mad dream of a Southern Highway. We’d be traversing Patagonia’s Aysén Region, a name created by the Latin blending of the English words ice and end, meaning, quite literally, “the place where the ice ends.”

The ice in question belongs to what is now the Northern Ice Field and the Southern Ice Field, but was once one giant sheet of chilly misery. Millions of years ago, this sheet covered most of Patagonia, with the northern field being the upcountry terminus of that long, cold tongue. Today, with the glaciers in retreat, the northern field has separated from the southern and shrunk to about 1,600 square miles, but it still represents the largest swatch of contiguous ice outside the polar regions. Meanwhile, the Southern Ice Field remains the real monster: 6,700-plus square miles, the third biggest chunk of frozen water anywhere in the world, trailing only Antarctica and Greenland for total acreage. And it’s this ice I’ve come to see.

Nothing seemed more emblematic of eco-murder than the melting of the glaciers. So, over the next few weeks, I would fly, drive, boat, hike, and ride horseback from the rapidly shrinking Northern Ice Field to the rapidly shrinking Southern Ice Field, while putting into practice some of the basic premises of ecopsychology. My goal was to break through industrialization’s repressive barrier, connect with my eco-unconscious, and, hopefully, re-emerge whole. Or eco-whole. Or something like that.

Seriously, what could be so hard?

“That which we call imagination,” writes ecologist David Abram in his ecopsychology primer The Spell of the Sensuous, “is from the first an attribute of the senses themselves; imagination is not a separate mental faculty as we often assume but is rather the way the senses themselves have of throwing themselves beyond what is immediately given, in order to make tentative contact with the other side of things. . . . ” And, since humankind has disconnected itself from nature, if the goal is to make this tentative contact with the other side of things, many feel it helps to start in a place where nature is so completely overwhelming that imagination becomes the only recourse. Well, I found that place, all right.

What are the trees saying? They’re saying: “Hey buddy, welcome to Patagonia.”

First off, Patagonia is immense, as in “the Lord of the Rings prop department would like its sets back, please” kind of immense. Secondly, it’s oddly specific. The shrubbery is either shimmering olive or watery emerald, with nothing in between. The flowers are either, and only, sherbet orange or flaming red. The waterfalls and snowy peaks are pure white. The sky is royal blue; the lakes and rivers are turquoise. The Carretera Austral is volcanic ash and charcoal gray. There are no muddled hues, no middle shades, nothing that says you’re not actually in a cartoon.

Turns out I wasn’t in a cartoon, which is something I learned three days into my trip, atop Fossil Mountain. Apparently, hence the name, there are tons of fossils up there, and also a great view of the Northern Ice Field — the theoretical launch point of our trip. We set out hiking under foreboding skies. Not surprisingly, it started to rain. As we made our way above the treeline, the rain turned to snow. Winter’s worst was not yet gone from the tops of the Andes, so we were trekking across deep drifts and slick ice while ribbons of runoff grabbed at our boots. The snow started to fall harder, and the wind, as it often does in Patagonia, went berserk. By the time we postholed to the summit, forget about seeing the Northern Ice Field. The view was three feet, maybe, and we were soon hiding in a crevasse, barely able to see fossils preserved in the ice walls just inches away.

Patagonia is considered something of a paleontology wonderland, with most fossils found there dating back some 80 million years. I really wanted to touch “the other side of things.” Confronting the Cretaceous face-to-face certainly tests the upper limits of the imagination, but right then I was too busy trying not to freeze to death. Which is why I occasionally find ecopsychology naïve. When the only connection nature wants to make is a sharp left jab and a hard right cross, then the imagination most humans like best belongs to the guy who invented central heating.

Of course, almost freezing to death on Fossil Mountain is also part of the point. These days, we live comfortably in a climate-controlled world, cut off from wilderness and wildness, from the very unpredictability that, at least poetically, shapes our soul. This change is not without consequences.

In his excellent book In the Company of Animals, James Serpell, Director of the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society at the University of Pennsylvania, explains further:

The myth that humans were entitled to lordship over the rest of creation was a useful cultural adaptation that greatly facilitated agricultural and economic expansion. It allowed domestic animals to be regarded as objects and merchandise, and it encouraged an aggressive, exploitative attitude to the natural world. Wild animals which were deemed to be useless, or which made the mistake of competing with man on his own ground were universally classified as vermin that needed to be exterminated at every possible opportunity. And uncultivated areas, such as forests, moorlands and heaths, were viewed as bleak and hostile wildernesses that harbored blood-thirsty wolves and legendary monsters. It was man’s duty to tame such areas, to subjugate them and bring them under the yoke of human domination. In other words, the myth was important, and was defended so vigorously, because it had immense survival value.

If you’re looking for some historical mechanism to explain ecopsych’s fundamental principle — that the repression of our ecological unconscious is the root of our discontent — then our species’ blind acceptance of the myth of dominion is a viable candidate. Here’s why: Evolution designed the human brain to shrink complexity with categorization. Our brains slot everything into small boxes. Part of this comes from our primate ancestry in which divisions between “us” and “them” were often critical to survival, and part came about during the development of language when the act of giving names to things required us to first put them in categories. Since those categories were based on what we saw around us, early language was deeply connected to the natural world. The letter A comes from the Hebrew word aleph, which means, among other things, “oxen.” Which is why, when you turn an A upside down, you get a pictograph of an oxen head.

Paul Shepard realized this process of categorization significantly impacted the development of human intelligence for one simple reason: it wasn’t just that language was based on a connection to the natural world; it was that nearly everything else was as well. Humans spent 99 percent of their existence as hunter-gatherers, meaning the entire architecture of the brain had been built atop the scaffolding of the great outdoors. When Shepard talks about humans being driven mad by environmental devastation, he’s actually concerned with what happens when the very things that taught us how to think disappear.

For this reason, I decided to raft the Baker River, a magnificent torrent at the epicenter of the Patagonia Sin Represas (“Patagonia without Dams”) movement. The Baker is the largest river in Chile in terms of volume, and that volume plunges 105 miles from the middle of the Aysén region down to the Pacific Ocean in a blurry rush. In the 1980s, in an attempt to oust socialism and embrace capitalism, Pinochet sold the river to the Spanish company Endesa, who has since partnered with a Chilean utility and formed HidroAysén. Together they have plans for two hydroelectric plants here, and three others on nearby tributaries. Somewhere between six thousand and nine thousand hectares of pristine wilderness will flood, and the power will be ferried thousands of miles, via huge electrical towers, to an area north of Santiago. While Chile currently imports 70 percent of its energy, what strikes many as galling is that this area north of Santiago has countless active volcanoes, constant wind, and ceaseless sunshine — meaning they could easily use these renewables to serve this need and not destroy anything in the process.

The Sin Represas movement is dedicated to preserving this landscape — often described as South America’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — and blocking those dams. I hear about the dangers of these dams everywhere we go, and get an earful about Doug Tompkins, the founder of the clothing companies Esprit and The North Face, as well. Over two decades, Tompkins has accumulated up to 800,000 acres along the northern edge of Patagonia. Barring one errant tract of land, his purchases stretch from the ocean to the Argentine border, quite literally cutting the country in half. Even though he turned that land into a public park managed by an international trust, the resulting fight was bitter. For many years, Tompkins was a major contributor and vocal spokesman for the Patagonia Sin Represas movement. But lately, because other groups have stepped up (there are now forty-five organizations involved, including the international heavyweight, Natural Resources Defense Council), and because he is worried that his controversial reputation is hurting the cause, his leadership and his money have been in decline.

Not everyone is happy about this. Over breakfast one day, in a lodge on the shores of General Carrera Lake — both the origin of the Baker River and the second-largest body of water in South America — a massive cheer breaks out. People are shouting and singing and dancing and it’s not yet seven a.m. But it’s November 5, 2008, and news of America’s election has just reached Patagonia. Even the gauchos, the fabled Patagonian cowboys, are excited. One of them grabs me as I’m heading into the kitchen for coffee.

“Obama win?” he asks in broken English.

“Yes,” I say.

“Now you tell him to tell Tompkins off his ass.”

“I may not have that kind of influence.”

“Then the next time you come,” he says, “no more Patagonia. What then?”

Which is, after all, the point.

Throughout this trip, one bit of writing I keep coming back to is visual psychologist Laura Sewall’s essay “The Skill of Ecological Perception.” This essay examines our “psychic numbing,” a defense mechanism that “shields us from fully experiencing the latest reports on ozone depletion, increasing pollution, toxicity, poverty, illness, and the death of species.” To grieve this loss, some environmental writers call for dramatic measures, such as private mourning rituals, and the more public “Species Requiem Day.”

Sewall, though, takes a pragmatic neurobiological approach that may require a little background. Every second, our senses gather a gargantuan array of data — far too much for us to process. So our brains are constantly sifting and sorting, trying to tease apart the relevant from the ridiculous. Not surprisingly, basic survival needs take precedence. When examining the world, we generally notice things we are afraid of, want to have sex with, or might make a tasty snack. But this does not leave a lot of processing room for establishing subtler, more intimate connections to the natural world, particularly when combined with all of our other cognitive biases.

Sewall’s solution is the development of five perceptual skills designed to bypass these biases, overcome this psychic numbing, and reawaken “ecological perception.” I’ve been nurturing these skills on my trip through Patagonia, working my way through “Learning to Attend,” and “Perceiving the Relations” — both to help me realize that I am not separate from but rather a part of the world’s ecosystems — and am now paying close attention to “Perceptual Flexibility.” This third step requires, as Sewall puts it, “a fluidity of mind in which the magic of the visible world is revealed by relinquishing one’s expectation and nurturing a freshness of vision.” In short, the point is to be open enough to the natural world that the world begins to show you its secrets.

And, as we’re driving out of the tiny frontier town of Cochrane, I actually see, for the first time in my life, a chicken cross the road.

Villa O’Higgins is at the end of the road, the very last stop on the Carretera Austral, unlinked to the rest of the world until 1999. Taking its name from the military hero Bernardo O’Higgins, who helped liberate Chile from Spanish rule in 1817, this town of four hundred people is a collection of government-issue houses, most painted a two-tone red and blue, set in a small valley surrounded by the tail end of the Andes and the Southern Ice Field. Just beyond town lies Lake O’Higgins, South America’s deepest body of water.

We’d come here to meet a mountaineer named Hans Silva and explore an almost-unexplored peninsula on the lake’s southern shore, beneath the domed peak of Mount Colorado, at the edge of the ice field. By “almost unexplored” I mean that Silva had spent the past five years hiking this peninsula and charting the terrain, and his map is the only one of its kind. Our hope was to hike a route that Silva knew well, but that hope turned out to be snowbound and impassable. Instead, we decided on a “less familiar” path. I might have had the foresight to realize that anything “less familiar” in Patagonia is usually a bad idea, except that the night before we set out, I slept in an unheated cabin, and the temperature dropped by forty degrees, so other things were on my mind.

By morning, my limbs had frozen and a numbing sensation was creeping up my torso. The storm had not abated and the all-day boat trip to get us to Lake O’Higgins’s southern shore didn’t help to warm me up. The ecopsychologist William Cahalan found that using Gestalt therapy to help people reconnect with the “nonhuman world” has a tendency to bring up what he calls “the client’s relationship to ultimate reality, to all that exists, to what some would call the spiritual.” I’m mostly agnostic myself, but Cahalan has a point. With freezing rain and gusting wind and waves cresting near ten feet, the boat spends more time sideways than upright, and, like most of the other passengers, I spend that time praying for mercy.

Of course the boat crossing took too long and by the time we docked the possibility of our making it to our next stop — a hypothetical mountain hut five hours up the coast — was an impossibility. So Silva left us there, and came back a while later with a soldier driving a tractor hitched to a wagon. The soldier was one of the unlucky few stationed here to guard the nearby Argentine border. Somewhere close, the army had an old barracks. We had permission to sleep there. But first we had to climb into the back of the wagon and drive up a steep, bumpy road lined with cliffs. It was black night, there was no gate at the back of the wagon, and our driver was clearly auditioning for NASCAR.

The next day, I forgot about last night’s hell ride. Forgot just about everything. Two hours’ hike from the barracks, the enormity of the vistas had risen exponentially and I felt swallowed by the landscape, pulverized into unimportance. Was this the ecopsychological breakthrough I’d been waiting for? Did I sense a reconnection to the earth? No, I felt a deep-seated ache, an inconsolable emptiness. Who is this person putting one foot in front of the other? What is he really doing here? I couldn’t answer these questions. I’d vanished completely. Unfortunately, so had the trail.

We’d been following a cow path along a series of high ledges that overlooked O’Higgins Lake in the foreground, with jagged peaks behind it. Then the path was gone and there were only huge chunks of rock, small pockets of forest, and a bad guessing game. An hour later we still hadn’t found the trail. Meanwhile, the worst storm to hit Patagonia in ten years was beginning to make its presence felt. At fifty miles per hour, wind gusts felt like slaps from a frozen mitten; at one hundred miles per hour it was like being tackled by a chest freezer. It was dangerously cold, the trail was gone, and we clearly needed to find that mountain hut soon. I couldn’t think of anything else to do, so I decided to climb up a nearby waterfall to see what I could see.

“Reperceiving Depth” is Sewall’s fourth perceptual stage, and the hinge between psychological insight and environmental action. According to Sewall, we reperceive depth when we recognize that “we are within the biosphere, as opposed to on a planet.” I knew about this level of connection because there were currently a half-dozen ecopsychology tomes in my backpack. And it was this block of books that the wind caught and shoved sideways, leading to the environmental action of me sailing straight off that waterfall.

Nothing is broken, a minor miracle, but neither is a trail spotted. The bushwhacking continues, a freezing rain alongside it. By now, I am starting to lose patience with our guide. The problem is really cultural. Chileans are too polite to consider delivering bad news. Whenever I ask about the mountain hut, Silva smiles and says, “Just over the next hill.”

It takes eleven hours to go “just over the next hill.” We never do find the mountain hut, but we do stumble upon Licho Lagos, a hermit living alone in a shack on a cliff beside O’Higgins Lake. His shack is mostly a few wooden rooms built around a wood-burning stove. I park myself beside the stove and collapse. My plan is to lie very still for a long time, but Licho brews some maté and we stay up late telling stories. Much of southern Patagonia still works on the barter system, and the thing most valued here is a good story. This can mean anything from news from the outside world to the tale Licho tells me about a friend of his who ran into a puma while camping beneath Mount Colorado.

“Just near here.”

“Really?” I ask.

“La verdad,” he says, meaning “the truth.”

The fifth and final step toward ecological perception is “The Imaginal Self,” which essentially comes down to cultivating imagination. I consider asking Licho what he thinks about this step, but before I get around to it, he finishes his story. Apparently, the puma spotted his friend from a ways off and began creeping in slowly. He waited much of the night; the cat attacked just before dawn. It leapt at him with open jaws, but this guy was ready. Before those jaws could clamp down, he shoved his hand past the teeth, drove it straight down the cat’s throat, and on through its stomach. Intestines? Never mind the intestines. He grabbed that puma’s tail and turned the cat inside out.

“La verdad,” Licho says again.

I sleep that night on the floor beside the stove and awaken at four a.m., startled into consciousness by the radio playing full blast. It turns out that reception is best at this hour and, as luck would have it, this is also the hour they play chamamé, the native music of Patagonia. This music, too, requires a bit of imagination. Imagine a mariachi band trapped in a belfry, and you’re getting close.

To get away from the noise, I stumble outside and can’t believe the cold. Just as I’m about to run back to the stove, I notice an iceberg floating two hundred feet away, freakishly blue and the size of a parking garage. Before we went to sleep, Licho had told us that when his father first built the place, the Chico Glacier ended in his front yard. Thanks to climate change, that glacier has since retreated some thirty miles, leaving iceberg crumbs in its wake.

As I stand and stare, the iceberg starts to groan and wobble and calve. Seconds later, a gargantuan chunk sloughs off, sending five-foot waves in every direction. By this time, I’d already spent a few weeks trying to put Sewall’s steps to ecological perception into play, trying to feel a part of the biosphere, trying to understand environmental degradation as psychological turmoil, opening myself to the very devastation our species has worked so hard to ignore.

And this is when it all clicks into place — as I am watching the death throes of this iceberg. This is the real impact of industrial repression, the impact of our environmental arrogance. Once this meltdown is complete, it will not reverse. The freshly melted water will never become ice again, at least not in any time frame that is fathomable in human terms. What does it feel like to witness these end times? Awful. Like murder. Like I’m the one who is melting.

Five hours later, we’ve hiked to within sight of the Chico Glacier — our first glimpse of the southern ice we’d come this far to see. Our hope is to get a little closer, a few miles from here, after we jump in a rowboat, cross a small fjord, and reach a ranch. From there, we’ll saddle up some horses and ride up a mountain for the real big show. Except this is also when the storm’s worst shows up.

By the time we reach the ranch, it’s like blundering through a hurricane. Their radio tells us that the forecast calls for gusts up to 150 miles per hour. In fact, the boat that’s supposed to come pick us up the next afternoon has been grounded by the government for an unknown period of time. For a while it looks like our only way out is a two-day horseback ride through the storm, a daylong bus ride, and a succession of prop plane rides back to civilization. Then we get news about the amount of snow that’s supposed to show up and decide enough is enough — we’re staying put for now.

We make camp in a mountain hut — the long-elusive mountain hut — that sits at the edge of the lake. There’s an old stove inside, and we spend the first few hours stockpiling wood for what could be the long haul. Then the rain mysteriously stops and the clouds part and we drag our sleeping bags out onto a tiny beach. The world is awash in primary Patagonia colors, broken only by the twin brown coats of a mother cow and her calf galloping up and down the surrounding cliffs for, as far as I could tell, the sheer fun of it. Cows dancing up cliffs, like Fred Astaire on a ladder, for the sheer fun of it? I mean, who had ever heard of such things.

I watched those cows until the sun went down. I was so engrossed that I didn’t notice the storm return. By then it was so dark that it was hard to figure out exactly where I ended and the rest of the universe began. “Where does the ‘me’ begin? Where does the ‘me’ stop?” asks Jungian James Hillman in his essay “A Psyche the Size of the Earth.” And for the first time in a long time, I can’t even begin to answer that question.

Was this, then, the real moment of ecopsychology breakthrough I’d been seeking? Did my repression melt? Was my eco-unconscious unleashed? I don’t know. I know I got to see cows foxtrot on the side of a cliff in a place untainted by the soft-drink industry. I know that Patagonia is a place beyond imagination, and the same might be said for the boundaries of self.

Perhaps Lovelock is correct and we are all one organism. Perhaps Shepard is correct and that by cannibalizing the earth, we are eating ourselves alive. Certainly the idea that we’re fundamentally connected to nature seems plain old common sense. So maybe, just maybe, by cultivating the skills of ecological perception we can find a way to see these things, to notice miraculous value where today most see none. Whatever the case, I now know for sure exactly what John Muir meant when he said, “I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”

Steven Kotler’s articles have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Wired, GQ, and many others. He is coauthor, with Peter Diamandis, of the 2012 book, Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think. He lives in New Mexico.