I began my studies in clinical mental health counseling this fall. I’ve been learning dozens of theories, from Freudian psychodynamics to Rogerian person-centered therapy. But long before I began my studies in counseling, I studied botany and ecology, herbal medicine and permaculture. I can’t help myself; my understanding of people as ecological beings filters through and colors everything I am learning.
Permaculture, for those who are unfamiliar with the term, is the study of ecological systems and their application to human designs. Many think of it as a gardening system, and it is: a wonderful design-based system for the creation of self-tending perennial food forests. But permaculture principles, based as they are on years of studying ecology, apply to most of human behavior–from the way we grow our food to the way we build our cities and shape our lives.
I’ve found myself quietly ignoring psychological theory and applying permaculture principles to my studies instead. It seems to me that there is only one system we know of that is entirely self-sustaining and functional under all conditions, only one that accounts for every life and death and galaxy and virus. Why not study that, instead of a man from Vienna, if I want to know how the mind works?
I first studied permaculture design at the Findhorn Community in Scotland. My instructor, a sharply intelligent and endearing woman named Jane, led the class one morning to the garden we’d built, only to find the community geese grazing on our carefully-planted greens. We all stared at one another, aghast at how much damage they’d done. But Jane smiled with satisfaction and announced:
“Next lesson: the problem is the solution!”
It was hard to see any solution in the utter devastation those voracious geese had wrought. But we thought about it as Jane explained this core permaculture principle to us.
We see it in nettles, she said: the juice of the nettle leaf heals its own sting. We see it in poison ivy that springs up on wounded land, keeping people away until the forest heals and this “problem” plant is shaded out by climax trees. We see it in land too swampy to plant: when dug into a series of swales and raised beds, the ‘chinampa’ system, as it is known, turns marginal land into a rich garden that out-produces any other.
Then Jane told us about weeder geese. Weeder geese are birds raised from the time of their hatching on a diet of invasive weeds. When set free in the garden, they eat the plants they’ve been trained to love, weeding and fertilizing the garden in the process. The problem is the solution.
I see this in counseling too. Isn’t the very archetype of the wounded healer a solution within a problem? And I’ve witnessed again and again how the simple acknowledgement of pain begins the process of unraveling it. I’ve seen annoying symptoms resolve into profound insights, and hurtful conversations become catalysts for incredible growth.
While I was at Findhorn, I took a course in ecopsychology. One morning our teacher handed out two photographs. They were a matched set of abstract images, oddly ugly fractal lumps with tentacles twining to the edges.
‘What do you think these are?” she asked. We ventured our guesses, from oil spills to bacteria. All of us assumed that we were looking at two photographs of the same thing.
“One is a magnified picture of a cancer cell,” she told us. “The other is an aerial photograph of Los Angeles.”
I have always remembered this.
About a week ago I learned the alarming statistic that the county I reside in has one of the highest cancer rates in the United States. There is a suspected link between the high incidence of cancer and the proliferation of Christmas tree farms in the area, farms that use large amounts of carcinogenic pesticides. When I tried to research this I could find no information linking the two, but it is not a difficult leap from mountains filled with neat rows of heavily-sprayed trees to contaminated groundwater.
I thought immediately of those photographs. What could the solution possibly be in this problem, so many people dying between rows of poison-sprayed trees and water unsafe to drink?
Well, there’s the tree itself. Pine trees produce pycnogenol, one of the most potent antioxidants we know. Pycnogenol scavenges free radicals that can result in cancerous mutations. And there is pine needle tea—rich in vitamin C, another powerful antioxidant. You can drink it or bathe yourself in its steam to sweat out toxins. Then there is pine pollen, which contains over 200 bioactive nutrients and compounds that help regulate liver function and support and rebuild the immune system. What else? Well, pine pollen promotes production of endogenous antioxidants that protect our DNA against radioactive particles.
Then there’s the idea of Christmas trees. Pagans brought evergreens indoors at the winter solstice to symbolize renewal and the return of the light; when Christians co-opted this tradition, that essential meaning remained–the return of light and hope , in green boughs and in the body of a tiny child.
For many of us, Christmas trees bring up memories of family and warmth and community; they might be the only connection many of us have with nature that deep into winter. Might the solution here be a conscious integration of that meaning into daily life? A steadfast commitment to community, to the return of the light; a renewed relationship with nature? If our lives held that meaning already, we would not be polluting our groundwater with symbols meant to get us there.
But there is also cancer itself. How can cancer be the solution? Those photographs, of the cancer cell and of Los Angeles, were both portraits of unchecked growth. Come to think of it, the Christmas tree farms that sprawl all over the mountainsides have a similar appearance. Unchecked growth—a cell that refuses to die or cooperate, that hijacks its living host and grows until life cannot continue.
Is there a way that we, as a species, are refusing to die or cooperate? It’s not hard for me to perceive the human species as a cancer on the face of the earth, growing and spreading without regard for our host.
Perhaps we need some unchecked growth in the other direction—toward integration. Perhaps we need an unchecked spread into community and symbiosis, some unchecked reverence for this planetary system we are undeniably part of.
I know there are deeper lessons here that I cannot yet see. It is hard to live in a place so beautiful and so wounded, with breathtaking vistas and water too poisonous to drink. It is hard to face the mistakes we’ve made. And yet I believe there are answers here—to all of our illnesses, body, mind, and spirit—if we are brave enough to look.