Self-Applied Ecotherapy

Taylor and I went out to the coast today. Our main destination was the trail to Drift Creek Falls, near Lincoln City. It was a lovely hike, and we made sure to detour up the North Loop to the old growth forest there.

Most of the forest, though, is newer growth, recovering from clearcutting in the timber industry. It was very easy to tell when we segued from the new growth to old growth. The most obvious sign, of course, was that the trees were much bigger, and spaced further apart. However, the underbrush, with multiple species of ferns, younger hemlock trees, salmonberry, and other smaller plants, was more varied than in the newer growth. The entire forest had a more completed look to it, more balanced to the eye. Conversely, the new growth had a bunch of trees mostly of the same age (no more than a few decades), a mix of hemlock and birch, and the undergrowth was mostly thick with ferns and other low-growing plants, and didn’t have a very well-developed middle layer with small trees.

On our trip down, I’d had a pretty rough day emotionally. I’ve been starting to wrestle with one of the deepest-seated pieces of bad conditioning in my head: perfectionism. The very short version of this is that I am incredibly hard on myself and push myself to reach impossible standards as a defense mechanism against criticism. I grew up with a lot of abuse from peers, and have continued to encounter people in my adulthood for whom it’s perfectly acceptable to emotionally abuse another person under the guise of being rightfully angry for some wrong that was done–even unintentionally. (It’s a pattern I’ve fallen into myself, but that’s a story for another time…) Anyway, what’s happened is that I learned to try and avoid this abuse of power through self-criticism, essentially trying to make an offering of emotional self-abuse in an attempt to placate anyone who might have been affected by a mistake I made, even one that was accidental. I just assumed that it was acceptable for others to react violently and aggressively when angry, disappointed, or frustrated, never mind the effect it had on me. Shouldn’t I be hurt, since I was the one who fucked up? Don’t we already live in a punitive society anyway, and doesn’t this fit that?

It’s only been recently that I’ve been coming to accept just how unhealthy this is all around, not just the coping mechanism I’ve adapted, but the abusive behavior in people in general. In the former, it’s a matter of harming the self emotionally for unnecessary reasons; my partner S. made the point that instead of tearing myself up, I need to be my best ally, since I have the most invested in my well-being. Therefore, I need to not be so mean to myself. And with the latter, the punitive behavior in others, just because a particular behavior is common doesn’t make it healthy. If I’m screwed up due to others’ revenge-seeking, and using others’ mistakes as an opportunity to blow off unrelated steam, or to otherwise ignore the effects their “righteous” anger has, I can’t be the only one with such scars.

And I was thinking about all this as I was hiking through that forest today, starting with the young growth, and then looping back into the old growth. I identified with the forest as I walked; here are the parallels:

–My emotional health and well-being is like the trees and other plants in the forest. They can be damaged, but the healing takes time, and more damage takes more time to heal. The most substantial parts of the forest, the trees, take the longest to recover.

–The demand for wood products, beyond what can be healthily supplied, is analogous to the demands of other people for emotional response from me beyond what is healthy for me to give. Forests are resources that can be sustainably drawn upon; so are emotions. Take too much, and you cause imbalance.

–Therefore, clearcutting the trees to maximize the immediate profit at the expense of long-term forest health is analogous to my tearing myself apart emotionally to procure a seemingly acceptable offering in the moment at the expense of my long-term emotional health.

–The young growth forest is analogous to the part that grows back to an extent, but historically has periodically been clearcut over and over again to make offerings to meet external demands. The old growth forest is the core that reminds me of what it was like to be emotionally healthy, and what I can be again, given enough time.

I can put the emotional clearcutting to a stop. But it will take time beyond that to allow the forest inside to regain old growth status. I looked at the young part of the forest today, and I saw that it was just beginning to really remember what how to be a forest; hopefully it’s protected now, since it’s a popular place to hike. The old part of the forest contained enough seeds of pioneer species to recolonize the land that had been ravaged by the timber industry and help the growth start anew. And I have, at the core of my being, memory of what it is to be healthy and whole. The pioneer species may not be as sturdy or long-lasting as trees, but they pave the way. As long as I respect my emotional space and give it the time it needs to recover, I can move beyond that disruptive, harmful pattern of emotional clearcutting.

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4 thoughts on “Self-Applied Ecotherapy

  1. Kenneth Rexroth (as I recall) observed something about forests that he claimed he learned as a young fellow from the Wobblies up in the NorthWest. This would have been early in the 20th Century when the Wobblies were active in logging and organizing.

    But I gotta say that I can’t track any source here.

    Anyhow, the Wobblie wisdom he shared is: The forest is a garden, not a mine!

    That, as you point out, work just as well for folks…

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