The power of place: Protest site pagans

Research has established that spending time in the wilderness can have profound effects on people. This “wilderness effect” (Greenway, 1995) usually occurs in truly wild places like the Grand Canyon, but my research shows that it can work it’s magic in more urban environments.

Comfy chair in a field

Home comforts

I describe this process in my article on ‘The power of place: Protest site pagans’, which has just been published in the European Journal of Ecopsychology. The article expands on several themes I’ve explored here, notably Eco-Paganism, the spirit of place and the cognitive iceberg. It’s based on my research with protest camps activists and describes how spending extended periods of time in nature can catalyse profound personal change.

The article also explains the model of embodied situated cognition that I’ve described as ‘the cognitive iceberg’ in several posts. In the last section I use the cognitive iceberg model to provide a partial explanation for how the wilderness effect works. I think it works really well as a companion piece to my chapter in The Wanton Green, which is now available.

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7 Responses to The power of place: Protest site pagans

  1. Robert Greenway says:

    It is gratifying to see “the wilderness effect” understood, utilized, and expanded — though I am uneasy with the concept of “the ecological self”, as it tends to perpetuate the duality between nature and psyche (long discussion deleted here!)

    What I would suggest is that “the ecological self”, such as it is, is comprised of not only of intrinsic connections with the natural world, and the embodiment of such connections, but of social connections as well. In the now-ancient wilderness-effect research we did in the 1970′s and 80′s, it became clear that not only being there (in pristine wilderness settings), and vigorously arousing our bodies to get there, but the “tribal” social context were all equally important. Faces shining around a fire, night after night, aroused ancient memories, and a very current bonding .. etc. My guess is that it is this social component of “the wilderness effect” that is being aroused in the occupy/protest sites around the world. A band of sisters and brothers, often in considerable danger, realizing the essentiality of helping each other out. Perhaps it shows us that the healing of our various fabric-tearing dualisms — pulling cultures apart, splitting lives from economics, and from both constructed and natural contexts — can happen, or at least begin, anywhere. In any context, natural, urban, in the bedroom … etc. (Which reminds me …. the greater the age-range of protesters, perhaps, the more the social-component of “the wilderness effect” will emerge (though that may be merely a self-serving comment!)
    RG 11-30-11 Port Townsend, Washington, U.S.A.

  2. Hi Robert,

    You write:
    > I am uneasy with the concept of “the ecological self”, as it tends to perpetuate the duality between nature and psyche

    I don’t use that term myself, partly because the concept doesn’t match my experience and research. On my understanding of embodied cognition there is a fundamental integration between what we conventionally understand as “self” and “world”. I suppose it boils down to much the same as you say above.

    You write:
    > What I would suggest is that “the ecological self”, such as it is, is comprised of not only of intrinsic connections with the natural world, and the embodiment of such connections, but of social connections as well.

    Exactly. This is pretty much what the enactivist model of embodied cognition claims.

    You write:
    > My guess is that it is this social component of “the wilderness effect” that is being aroused in the occupy/protest sites around the world.

    That component was certainly apparent in my fieldwork on UK protest sites. I haven’t spent enough time at the London Occupy site to say how important it is there, but I’m intrigued by the possibility.

    You write:
    > the healing of our various fabric-tearing dualisms — pulling cultures apart, splitting lives from economics, and from both constructed and natural contexts — can happen, or at least begin, anywhere.

    Agreed, but teasing out the mechanisms of that process is another matter! I talk about ‘processes of connection’ in the article. These are processes by which we can become aware of the intrinsic connection(s) you talk about. These processes include the wilderness effect, the felt sense (Gendlin, 1978), ritual (broadly defined), meditation and entheogens, all of which are found on woodland protest sites. But several are apparent at places like Occupy London. My list of ‘processes of connection’ is far from complete and I haven’t discussed the “tribal” social context that you’ve highlighted. I missed an important element there – thanks for flagging it.

    You write:
    > the greater the age-range of protesters, perhaps, the more the social-component of “the wilderness effect” will emerge

    Maybe. I’m 52, so would I’d like to think so!

  3. Here is an ‘off the cuff’ response that Robert sent to me by email:

    Hi Adrian,
    since you invite it, a few further thoughts, re “The Wilderness Effect” and the current protest movement. I’m glad to have a reason to re-think these concepts, some of which get used as convenient labels, masking the almost infinite complexity of the psyche, and its (her, his!) relationship to context.

    For me, it makes sense to keep “the wilderness effect” focused (a la Gendlin) on experiences in actual wilderness. Just a move to avoid confusion. For there is “an effect” that could be linked to any context — “the urban effect”, “the cathedral effect”, the “mass ritual effect” (football!), and so on. My belief (you may call it “hypothesis”, if you must) is that, because we live in a time where cognitive dissonance, linkages splitting into ubiquitous dualistic modes of thought, and so on, any re-linking gives emotional charges, usually of pleasure.

    The nostalgia with which Boomers link their wondrous days of protest with current protests is a case in point.

    I think the linkages, except in cases of extreme isolation (and possible “Vision Quest” experiences) can reveal single connectivity — with “nature”, or more pantheistic interpretations. But even the common two-week wilderness excursion has a complex of connections comprising “the wilderness effect” — and as I mentioned, and as you’ve been exploring, these include at least connection with (1) the natural world-as-found-in-pristine-condition; (2) one’s own urbanized body; (3) the “tribal” or “social” aspect — which is accentuated by not having electronics to escape into, having the common (and ancient) experience of the fire, having a sense of danger requiring group solidarity, social rituals (music!), eating together, caring for one another …… in other words, a resuscitation of communitas.

    Looking back, this all seems very obvious, but at the time we were happy to define “the wilderness effect” simplistically –as just being in the wilderness!

    I’m sure there are constantly shifting contexts into which the many lines of development unfold — very complex (Wilber, by the way, attempts to deal with all this complexity in his various maps). And I’m certain that kids growing up playing vigorous games, or in ghettoes vs. tree-lined streets of suburbs, or in Mumbai, or garbage dumps of Lagos, or wherever — these contexts, comprised of various strands, will provide “grounds for adaptation” that will shape the psyche in very diverse ways. (This is why an environmentalist struggling to save, say, a apiece of wilderness “as essential for survival” will receive a blank stare from an urban high-rise you very much. And so on.

    My point with regard to the urban protest movement — somewhat reminiscent of the ’60′s and 70′s protests — is that the feeling of exhilaration probably has little or nothing to do with wilderness, and everything to do with a resuscitation of community which, interestingly, lurks not far below the surface. (And, politically — I’d guess we’d all assume — this sense of community runs smack into the dynamics of an exploitative capitalistic society — the very opposite of a cooperative society. I think it is well worth considering just how “invisible” a loss can become (such as the loss of Community in our society), yet how close to the surface it is, when given an opportunity to emerge. This is likely to make those profiting from the relative loss of community very nervous indeed)

    So anyway, I didn’t mean to go on so long — but I’d call it something like the “contextual effect”, rather than “the wilderness effect” — just to avoid confusion.

    Now, to submit to “the farm effect” ….. covering the growing beds with polyethelene so the perennials won’t freeze as the winter comes on. Controlling the effects of “nature” …..

    Robert

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  7. Yessy says:

    I feel very grateful for this proaentstien. I’ve heard Dr. Siegel in person and in several webinars, and I am continually learning from what he has to offer. What a great gift to us all, that Dr. Siegel can admit to foolishness and go on to describe some of the things that therapists do in sessions that might seem wise to us at first, but on reflection are actually springing from something other than wisdom. Foolishness is such a GREAT term Dr. Siegel’s use of it is itself wise, as it shows a capacity for being mindful of what one does and at the same time practicing self-compassion for what is at base very human behavior. People EXPECT therapists to be wise, and you know we don’t like to disappoint. How to practice wisdom and self-awareness while maintaining attention on the CLIENT’s needs is a balancing act that may be one of the skills that a therapist gains over time.Thank you, Dr. Siegel, for being wise and human. And sincere thanks for the many resources offered at the end of the session.

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