7: Flying Visit to Hong Kong 27 – 30 Jan

It was a bit of a stark contrast to go from Earthsong, NZ, to Peel Street in Central, Hong Kong. My cousin J kindly picked me up from the airport and took me to his spacious flat, with two resident cats and his cheeky, delightful teenage son Sam, promising to be home by 8pm – that’s reasonably early for him and his Chinese partner Amy. Normal working hours in HK. I peeked out from under the blind at the view from my window, a bit spooked by the people sitting at the balcony on the far left, staring into my room…..…..until I realised they were mannequins.


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Above is the changing-colour-view from the top of his street at night.

There are many great things about this city. In midwinter it’s a steady 20deg and sunny everyday. It’s incredibly colourful, such a sensory experience walking down the street, which includes all the latest modern shops interspersed with old spice shops, side street markets, shops full of ancient Chinese antiquities, and endless neon.

HK market

And then it’s so easy to get out of! Just a 20 min ride on a double decker bus from Central and you can jump off into a country park of forested mountains and have a day’s walk to the sea. Here is the rather hazy view from Violet Hill. Just like the Greek Islands.

Down on the beach at Repulse Bay there is an interesting sight: a large building with a hole through the middle. How curious. Think about how packed Hong Kong is, how valuable land is, how developers would want to use every inch of space with flats for more money. So get this: the hole is for the dragon to fly from the mountain to the sea.

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“Most feng shui practitioners examine the design and placement of buildings/objects to ensure they are created in an auspicious and harmonious way. Hong Kong has naturally good feng shui.  It faces the water and is protected by mountains behind and across from it. Legend holds that dragons live in the mountains and hold positive and powerful energy. This energy blows through Hong Kong daily as the dragons make their way from the mountains to the sea to drink and bathe. As Hong Kong expands, builders and architects create massive structures that potentially      “block” the dragons’ passage from the hills to the sea, creating bad feng shui and blocking the natural air flow through the city.  Thus, architects plan housing and office complexes with “gates” or “windows” allowing dragons to pass through the city unimpeded on their way to the sea.

Prominent architectural and building firms consult feng shui experts at every step of a project when building in Hong Kong.  Fosters + Partners incorporated feng shui principles when planning the iconic HSBC Hong Kong building….  Bank of China architect, I. M. Pei chose to ignore these principles at his peril.  Criticized for its harsh, knife-edged angles and screw shaped top, it supposedly “cut” into the good fortune of nearby neighbours. Coincidently (or not), the nearby Lippo Center tenant went bankrupt and the first governor of Hong Kong refused to live or work in nearby Government House citing the bad feng shui.  Supposedly, the two rods that stand atop Foster’s HSBC building are a classic feng shui technique of deflecting negative energy back to its source.  The rods point in the direction of the Bank of China building.” http://apassportaffair.com/2013/06/07/hong-kong/

On Tuesday evening J, Amy and I went out for dinner to a local Chinese restaurant although we didn’t choose this:

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On Wednesday J took the afternoon off and we went by Sampan to Lamma Island.

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 Cool dudes……..

Amazing that you can get to such a peaceful island with no cars in less than an hour from central Hong Kong. We had a long walk and I had my final swim of the trip. Chinese New Year was looming so decorations were everywhere (J’s pic). We returned on the ferry by night, the sky scrapers twinkling on the horizon.

final swim

HK chinese NY


An interesting fact: Hong Kong so packed yet the levels of street crime are so low. Why? I’d love to hear any reasons for this. You’d think with such a packed city it would be high.

It was a quick 48hr visit. Finally I was to board my last flight home. I was in the airport about to change my Hong Kong dollars when I caught sight of a set of keys in my purse. Whose keys are those, I wondered. Perhaps I had borrowed some and not returned them. After a minute or two of staring at the keys I began to realise, logically, that they must be my mine. Oh my God. I was staring at my very own front door key, with another key (which must be for my bike lock?) with no recognition. It was a very strange feeling. I stood for several minutes in the midst of a whirl of airport activity, loud speakers announcing the next flights, trying to take this in. It was the first time that I had a glimpse into the experience of amnesia, being faced with something or someone that you are told is very familiar, but not being able to recognise it.

Something must have changed inside, I thought. I’d visited many different places, there had been so much change on the outside. But I know from previous trips that the greatest culture shock is often returning home, where you expect everything to be the same, and it sort of looks the same, but somehow it isn’t because something in the perceiver has changed. I wondered what else had changed inside without my knowing. What was waiting for me on return?

Finally we were taking off, as usual my nose was pinned to glass like a small child all ready for the dramatic scenes. There were some good views on take-off of Hong Kong with its ever-present brown stripe of pollution.

But for much of the journey the world kept herself secret, shrouded under a layer of white cloud, with a few mountains peeking out. We seemed to fly much further north so when the cloud did clear it revealed the brown plains of Mongolia followed by frozen wilderness, mountain ranges striped with layers of snow in their valleys and winding white rivers. There appeared the occasional light in the dusk: what must it be like to live there? Hour after hour of wilderness: it was both chilling to imagine being in this place as well as heartening to see that this land-without-humans still exists, how easy to forget that this is out there when living in England. As we flew into the end of the day I was treated to several hours of gradually reddening sunset over ever pinkening clouds.

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6: Earthsong 20 – 27 Jan


After leaving Waiheke Island, my next stop was Earthsong – a very inspiring co-housing community based on permaculture principles. It was conceived and manifested by a small group of people in the late 1990’s (including Robin Allison, the partner of Amanda Garland who invited me to NZ). The history of Earthsong is one of determination to realise a dream; at one stage their builders went bankrupt threatening the survival of the whole project. But they managed to raise other funds and eventually Earthsong came into being.

Many things about this place inspire me. Most eco-villages are found in rural settings but Earthsong was intentionally urban, around 60 people living in 32 houses built on 3 acres of land. All cars are parked around the edge so the living space is quiet and safe for children to play. There is a communal space (above) where they eat together twice a week, have meetings, and share facilities eg laundry.

All their decisions are made by consensus – not majority vote. This means taking time to keep refining the proposal until total agreement is reached; differences in views have the chance to be aired and talked through, rather than a yes/no voting system which leaves, and probably sustains, rifts. I had the chance to participate in a workshop on this at the Heart Politics gathering, using a coloured card system where each of the 6 cards have a different meaning in both discussion and voting (more info here). It’s a very helpful way to keep discussion focussed in groups above 10. One of their decisions was no wifi in their communal space. Apparently one of their most contentious issues was how many cats to allow in the community!

Each house has a garden, and there are also communal gardens where food is grown and shared.

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Bananna flower                                                             Robin feeding the communal chooks

The fact that they are still a healthy, functioning community after 14 years is a testament to how hard they have worked on conflict resolution and making clear their intentions for five years before even moving in. This means that all new people joining are clear about what they are signing up for. So many communities start with idealistic dreams and end up falling apart after realising too late that their unarticulated visions were not aligned enough to make it work.       

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My time in NZ should be called: ‘Meetings with Remarkable Women’. Robin Allison is one of them. Here is a community that is built to help people and earth, a lifeboat for the future. She deserves a national award.

It just so happened that Mark Skelding (a psychosynthesis therapist and fellow ecopsychologist who I’d met at Heart Politics) was also staying a few nights at Earthsong. Mark and two colleagues have set up a 6 month Ecopsychology course in NZ, called Self and World, which is very similar to the 6 month Ecopsychology course I have been co-facilitating at Re-Vision, here in London. So we had a lot to share.

Staying at Earthsong was a blessing this week as I was due to give a public lecture “Eros, Animal and Earth” and one day seminar “Minding the Earth in the Practice of Psychotherapy” at Auckland University of Technology. At Robin’s house I had a desk overlooking the gardens with plenty of time to prepare. Both these events were well attended – a relief because they were scheduled on the equivalent of our August Bank Holiday Weekend. (See below for summary of points raised in discussion after lecture)

I began the talk by saying how conflicted I felt about flying to Taiwan and NZ. Many of my ecopsychology colleagues have taken a well thought through decision never to fly again, because it’s such a high carbon expense. To live within your carbon footprint allows (on average) one long-haul flight every 20 years. So some people disapproved of my journey: “Flying is part of the problem not the solution. Surely it defeats the point if your ecopsychology work damages the earth on the way?”

The activists I met in Australia felt it was OK to fly for the sake of consciousness-raising, but not for holidays. In Taiwan I was met with shocked laughter when I told them that some colleagues had been angry with me for flying there to work – for a minute or two they couldn’t take me seriously. This started many interesting conversations about the different ways in which each person might draw a line under what is and what isn’t acceptable for us and for the earth. How difficult and potentially divisive it is when there are no effective policy decisions about these matters.

The reaction in NZ was mixed. One man said “Why not charge the true cost of flying to those who fly?” In fact he was responding to my statement that I had donated £150 to Trees for Life, the only way I could find to try to make amends. He felt we should not have to take responsibility as individuals for this. I agree, but in the meantime what to do? Another person said she regarded flying as just another form of public transport – the planes will go regardless of passengers, unless of course there was a huge swell of people making a stand. I was touched that at the end of the evening several people came up to me, looked me in the eyes, shook my hand, and thanked me for coming all that way.

Other people have suggested using Skype, which is a great new form for giving talks abroad, but not for experiential workshops – nor does it offer that invaluable networking time inbetween scheduled sessions. A comment from another colleague:

“Personally I think it is of considerable potential value and existentially valid to undertake such a journey. When one thinks of the millions of mindless flights, surely it is good for there to be some mindful flights amongst them. And a remarkable learning opportunity for you, Mary-Jayne.”

I just don’t know the answer anymore. I want to assess each situation rather than have a fixed opinion. This is a harder place to inhabit. On this occasion I thought I’d make more difference by going than by staying – and who knows whether this decision was ‘right’.

After the lecture I offered a one day seminar for 14 therapists, a chance to talk about how these issues come into our practice. It was a bit of a chaotic start as several interesting artists had arrived on speck from the other side of Auckland – but they couldn’t attend as they were not practising therapists. What a shame. They hadn’t read the flyer!

After the lecture and seminar were over Robin took me to Fairy Falls, part of the Waitakere Ranges just 40 mins drive from Earthsong. We had a spectacular walk through rainforest, meeting black tree ferns and huge old Kauri trees.

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And as you can see from below, I did actually meet a fairy at Fairy Falls, a little unsteady on her feet.

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As well as a ghostly ancestor below the water….



For much of the time we were on our own as we walking through the bush, and then a couple appeared on the path from the opposite direction. They turned out to be old friends of Robin and I was introduced as an ecopsychologist. “Mary-Jayne Rust?” they exclaimed excitedly. “We’ve just downloaded the American anthology Ecotherapy (Eds Chalquist & Buzzell) onto our kindle, and we’ve been reading your chapter.”  What a totally random and synchronous connection, I love it! So we invited Steve (a green politician) & Diedre (a family therapist) to the talk on “Introducing Ecopsychology” I was giving at Earthsong that evening, a relaxing supper session with a small group.

During the talk and questions/discussion I noticed that Diedre had a glazed look on her face. Was she bored I wondered? At the very end I caught her eye and she slowly wandered over to me. “That was wonderful” she said, “I could have listened for hours” and then told me of some of the connections she was making. So her glazed look was not boredom but the look of slight shock/amazement when insights come that were just waiting to happen. This is one of the best bits of communicating Ecopsychology. It’s also a good balance for other times when people in the audience want to shoot the messenger, or come up with strange and bizarre questions, or change the subject completely! Over the years I’ve come to realise that it’s really very difficult inviting people to think and feel about climate change and the state of the planet. The subject matter arouses very strong feelings of hopelessness, anger or fear which can then go into defensiveness and polarisation, or a feeling of madness in the discussion. So it’s been an interesting journey finding out how best to do this.

At the end of the evening one of the younger women asked me to say some more about telling your ‘Earth Story’. I mentioned in my talk how psychotherapy has created a culture of telling and exploring our human story: the story of our human relationships from birth onwards. Of course our lives are much wider than the human. We have relationships with everything and everyone around us from the moment of conception: the land we are born into, the trees and animals we form attachments with as children, the landscapes of play (gardens, beaches, parks and more) peak experiences in the wilds of nature. All these are part of child development, as well as adult mental health; when children are deprived of a relationship with the rest of nature that may also form part of adult mental illness.

The questioner said she felt sad that the sharing group at Earthsong had stopped some time ago and she spontaneously invited anyone to join her the next morning to share their Earth Stories. I was so pleased to see that a seed had been planted here.

The next morning was my very last day in Auckland and I was invited back to Waiheke Island to spend some more time with Louise. The local train was replaced by a long and winding bus journey from Earthsong to the ferry which gave me a chance to see more of Auckland. Many migrant workers were catching the bus to work that Sunday morning. A young Chinese student sat next to me on her way to work in a café. We struck up a conversation, she was studying Chemistry and Environmental Sciences at AUT, and she asked me about my journey. She became very interested in ecopsychology, and took various website addresses away with her. I love the randomness and mystery of such meetings, it’s one of the great joys of travelling. Who knows where those seeds will blow to and what might germinate from a chance meeting on a local bus.



Questions and themes raised after AUT talk

When you have children you have an investment in the future and you can’t be ambivalent.

What is someone’s “Earth Story” – what do you mean?

Earthquakes (in Christchurch, NZ) have brought an awareness of the state of the planet into the therapy room.

Taking abusive youth into the bush – it ‘held’ their work.

In NZ there is a term ‘Raving Greenie’ used to describe environmentalists. There is so much projection going on here, onto those trying to campaign for a healthy planet.

It is still a problem to be different here in NZ – there is contempt for being Green.

Why not charge those who fly the true cost of flying?

Pakeha (white community) in NZ don’t want to have the conversation about our place other than it being a resource.

Global dis-ease is a fear of feeling, particularly ‘negative’ feelings. The work is about facing into the despair.

What supports us to look into our fear?

  • a peer group
  • Connecting to other therapists
  • Ecopsychology courses – and access to funding
  • Ecotherapy support group (there is one in Auckland)
  • Going to Sydney where therapists dare to be political

The personal is political – it’s time for therapists to talk in the media.

Feeling, thinking and action: NZ’ers put action at the top and shun thinking and feeling. It’s an anti-intellectual culture. It’s good to be here, in this talking space.

Facebook – I know it’s full of terrible things but it’s also a place where I find a lot of positive things going on in the world.

The term ‘ecopsychology’ is a turn off

Community gardens deepens community and connections to nature.


5: Waiheke Island 13 – 20 Jan

After a week of Heart Politics I was racing up to the top deck of the ferry, on my way from central Auckland to Waiheke Island. Aren’t ferries so exciting? The city fades into the distance, the great expanse of the sea horizon appears ahead, the wind and salt spray is in my hair. I realised that I’d barely stopped talking with people from 7am – 10pm at Heart Politics and it was time to draw a long breath in this blustery sea air and frazzling sun.

I’ve relished the many journeys within this long journey: flights, ferries, buses and walks are precious time alone, being with the fresh memories of what has just been. And then the movement, smells and visuals between each place set off many trains of thought, sparking memories from past journeys, weaving together past and present.

I’ve learnt to take care of this liminal space. If the ‘leaving and arriving’ is seamless, the experiences of the place left behind may become blurred or lost, like waking too quickly out of a dream. And how easily the last place can be romanticised when the slippery shadow elements slither out of sight. As I met each new place, with its array of colours, sounds and smells, I’d try and sense whether this land was welcoming me or not.

Awaiting the ferry is a rickety bus which winds around the north of the island. Everything is on a small scale, just 8,000 inhabitants. There is a feeling of trust here, people chat together on buses and in shops, things are often left unlocked, and it’s so easy to get around on footpaths or buses. I’m heading for Palm Beach where a friend from London, Rosie Walford, is living in one of these houses at the top of the hill below.

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Rosie and I met through ecopsychology about 15 years ago, and she came on one of the courses that I ran with Dave Key in Scotland. Not long after that she moved here from Islington. Not a bad swap don’t you think?

My arrival wasn’t perfect timing as Rosie was due to leave in a few days for a 3 week working trip to India. One of those weeks she was co-facilitating a Be The Change Journey  for those in the business and corporate world who are looking for more satisfying ways to make a difference in the world and unsure how to make the career change. They travel through India visiting pioneering change-makers, with career coaching on the way, integrating an ecopsychology perspective. A quote from Rosie just yesterday – inspiring or what?

“Our first visit was to Ghandi’s ashram and this had a hardened CEO in peaceful tears before 10am on day one. We all served in a pay it forward cafe, did playback about the most acute moments of connection with our humanity when visiting the slums, and, in quizzing a fearsomely competent woman running a huge mobile-health-learning programme funded by Gates Fdn and BBC, recognised that our skills and aptitudes could contribute to positive change if we wanted them to. It was hard to prepare people for the inevitable bump of their return to home. Many have made changes large and small already.”

I stayed in Rosie’s ‘sleep out’ behind the house, a tiny cabin with a view (below) over the garden and sea. What a treat, just a 5 min walk to the beach, swimming every morning.

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There was much activity on the Monday evening when I arrived as Rosie and her partner Meggan were extracting the honey from their beehives. Each frame was a slightly different colour, taste and texture, some like dark Manuka honey, some lighter and sweeter – and some had already set.

They have a small garden with so much happening: they make their own olive oil from a few olive trees and grow plenty of veg and fruit, including lemons, bananas and figs, just beginning to ripen.

One day we walked over to meet her friends Bas Sharp and Louise Marra. Louise has designed a poetry walk around her garden with the intention of connecting people to place. She led us to 12 different spots and then read us a poem which had emerged from each place. And what a garden: the views are beautiful enough to weep for.

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Louise commutes into Auckland for her work in the NZ government. She brings radical thinking and experiential exercises, some inspired by her Maori roots, into her work with government ministers. She also runs a business called Spirited Leadership through which she offers a course called Leadership NZ for general managers and chief executives. This includes her own version of The Council of All Beings, an exercise designed by deep ecologist/rainforest activist John Seed. This enables humans to step into the shoes of the other-than-human world and hold council about the state of the planet. Yet more inspiring work!

rosie and louise

Two amazing women: Rosie left, Louise right.

Later in the week Louise took me to Stony Batter, a Maori sacred site littered with giant rocks from volcanic eruptions more than 8 million years ago.

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On the way home we visited a therapist friend who had put her life’s savings into creating a beautiful round adobe house. The visit was tinged with sadness however. This woman had put so much effort into building an inspiring sustainable house and life, and into communicating ecopsychology over the years. Now she felt despondent that the many projects she had created to inspire had not made the difference she had hoped for. The NZ psychotherapy community was not interested in ecopsychology, she felt. Oh, the same story again, the disillusionment and losing heart of those who have been doing great work for the earth for a long time, and who are now achingly tired.

I heard a similar story from an ecologist friend of Louise. He was so in touch with the loss of species and the changes in habitat due to climate change, overwhelmed by the scale of the task ahead. He didn’t see much chance of us getting through this, with a serious, if not terminal, diagnosis from climate scientists, the doctors of the earth. “Where do I find hope?” he asked. This was a question I was asked many times on my travels and a difficult one to respond to. Excuse me if I go on a bit of a ramble here, as I find this question very compelling.

I agree the situation looks hopeless. To take the radical measures to cut carbon emissions everyone has to move extremely fast, now. The interesting thing is that it’s technically possible, but psychologically impossible – ie we’d need global agreement and enormous collective will and effort and I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

But despite this hopelessness, I don’t feel hopeless. Maybe ‘hope’ isn’t even the right word? From a Buddhist perspective hope is building an expectation for the future and distracts from the present. Whatever the future holds, the place where I find hope, (or maybe solace?) is in the many stories about facing death that I have heard in the last few years.

A friend I met recently told me that her teenage son had died very suddenly. As if the grief were not bad enough, she became very isolated when those around her simply couldn’t bear to be close to such unbearable loss. But she somehow found in herself an unwavering trust in her own process of grieving. She wasn’t sure where this came from, she said. She sobbed for months, going on years, often shaking in convulsions. After about 3 years a deep joy began to rise up inside her which gradually began to grow – and I could see that from the moment I met her. Something in her eyes, I think, told me that her joy had come out of suffering, compassion, and that she had earned an enviable fearlessness.

Thanks to my friend for this story about what grows out of the dark night of the soul. It’s what all the spiritual teachers say: facing death is what brings awakening and I fondly imagine what might happen if we were to collectively face into the possibility of our species death. Collective grief and awakening?

Another story: a friend of mine was given six months to live. After the initial shock and grief, she set about putting her affairs in order – not only her practical affairs, but unfinished business with friends or family, making amends where she could. What does it mean to sort out our unfinished business with the earth – to make amends, to apologise and to repair? This gives me solace: if we get it right in the present, both practically as well as in our relationship with the earth, the future will take care of itself.

In her book ‘Dying to be me’ Anita Moorjani describes her struggle with lymphoma, until she was in the very last few hours of life, her body riddled with tumours the size of lemons, with her family gathered around her. She spontaneously had a lengthy out-of-the-body experience in which she learned the root causes of her cancer; she then chose to return to her body, astounding the doctors with her complete recovery in the following months. Here is a brief version of her story.

Nothing is certain. Who knows what miracles may happen in this highly complex web of life. I find this a comforting thought, although perhaps living with the unknown is harder?

And then one more thing: the Paul Hawken speech at Bioneers conference is one of the most inspiring things I’ve heard in a long time, reminding us that there is a grass roots movement that does not get seen in the media, but is rising all over the world.

So I wonder about the relationship between hope and death. And I wonder about your responses to the question ‘Where do you find hope?’

Ramble over!

The photos here make it look as if the Waiheke was all sun and blue skies. In fact the weather was very changeable, with high winds on many days. So I took that rickety bus again to various spots on the island and enjoyed some very gusty walks alone by the sea. The coast path reminded me of Cornwall, through woods, along beaches littered with large tree limbs tossed out of the sea, and the occasional bench in a sheltered spot overlooking the green-turquoise ocean.

On my return home one day I got chatting to a woman on the bus, as you do. She had moved to Waiheke (north of North Island) from Christchurch (South Island) as she could no longer bear the trauma of the ongoing rumblings of the earth. But she also told me about the community that had spontaneously sprung up in response to the chaos in that city, so many innovative and interesting ways in which humans are helping each other cope in the aftermath of the earthquakes. Heartening.

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After Rosie had left, Meggan (another amazing woman!) and I had long conversations about her work with the elementals of the land as well as speaking with plants: her work is moving in the direction of herbalism. She also took me to their community cinema – a large room stuffed with old sofas – is this groovy or what?  We watched ‘Philomena’, what a brilliant film, very highly recommended. But an odd experience to enter the cinema in bare feet, out of the heat, and be taken into the dark and cold of the UK and Ireland, a prelude to my imminent return.

waiheke cinema

One of my last experiences on the island was an ayurvedic massage from a friend of Rosie & Meggan. After she finished, Nicole asked me how I was getting home and I told her I would enjoy walking the 2 miles, even in the cool drizzle. “No that’s impossible after such a long massage” she said. “I’ll move my next client and take you home”. I did protest very hard……. but in the end she insisted on bundling me into her car and I gladly accepted the Great Generosity and wonders of living this island life.

It was a wrench to leave this magical island and the friendships that were beginning to form. The weather helped: as my final day progressed it became cold and rainy making it easier to say goodbye. I retreated into reflection inside the warmth of the cabin on my last ferry ride back to Auckland.



4: 3 weeks in Middle Earth 4 – 27 Jan

As I sped through the verdant rolling hills of New South Wales on my way to Brisbane airport (with temp of 42deg), I wondered whether I’d ever return to Australia. I love the humid heat, the cacophony of birdsong, the unexpected meetings with wild animals and the abundance of colour. The wild life force feels so very strong here.

Yet there is a deep sadness within the human community which I was reminded of briefly on New Year’s Day. I’d gone into Byron for a swim and from a distance could hear distorted music blaring out of a parked car. Getting closer I found a group of aboriginal people looking ‘out of it’, some drunk, spilling onto the pavement. No-one paid them any attention, as if it wasn’t really happening. Yet I imagine that everyone witnessing this scene found it a painful one, being reminded of the tension between the no-worries-white-surfing-culture on the coast, and the aboriginal distress buried somewhere inland, in the land. From time to time that terrible distress bursts out and ruptures the Eden-like scene on the coast. It’s not only extremely disturbing to see their struggle, but it also rumbles something deep within, it’s a mirror for what has been done to the indigenous self within everyone.

I remember this from ten years ago when it took a while before I began to hear the underbelly of the happy white people, many of whom were in search of their origins somewhere in Europe, as if they were cut off and bleeding at the ankles, not yet rooted in the land. Always in the background is this nagging feeling of not belonging, of living on stolen land.

These themes continued into my journey in New Zealand in different ways. I arrived into much cooler air and a gentler land, greeted by Amanda (Garland), an art psychotherapist and ecopsychologist colleague/friend from the UK who returned to settle in NZ a few years ago. Amanda is the person who invited me to offer some talks and a seminar in NZ, and looked after me so well while I was there.

We drove to her home Earthsong, which is a co-housing community in the suburbs of Auckland. This is a diverse group of some 60 people from young to old – all with the intention of living sustainably and in community. Amanda now shares her life with Robin Allison, the co-founder of this community. I returned to Earthsong towards the end of my stay in NZ and I’ll tell you more about that in the next letter.


Heart Politics Gathering: The Power of Nature and the Nature of Power     8 – 12 Jan

A few days later it was time for The Heart Politics Gathering which was held by the sea in Huia, about one hour’s drive west of Auckland. It was the 25th anniversary of this gathering, a 4 day event which attracts a wide variety of New Zealanders (including children and teenagers, two with special needs) concerned about current issues such as peace, social justice, community, family, education, indigenous and the environment.

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This event is similar to The Ecopsychology Gathering in the UK which I’ve been involved in organising, now in its 3rd year. However it was obvious from the integration and polished facilitation of Heart Politics (HP) that they have been at this for much longer than us! The opening ceremony included welcoming in the four directions (earth, air, water, fire), thanking the earth, as well as introducing ourselves to the large group which fluctuated from around 45 – 60 people.

We had ‘home groups’ towards the end of each day, a small group in which we could discuss things more intimately. I loved the way this home group came together: we all chose from a range of six love poems , put a tag around our neck with the poem on it, then wandered about to find our poem mates.

In our home group we had Logan, a teenager and Tui, a 12yr old girl and it was so interesting to hear what they made of HP, how they thought it was cool to express your feelings, sadly unlike their experience at school where many children are bullied for this. The smallest children, Izzy and Sky, had the job of gong-ing at the end of sessions and there is nothing like naked fairies coming into your home group giggling wildly and shouting “Dinner Time” in your ears.

2014-01-12 14.03.23

Also in my home group were two Maori women – Carol and Iona – so I learned something of Maori culture. Their tradition is to share your Whakapapa which starts by telling of the place of your tribal area – starting with mountain, then river, then sea. Next comes your ancestral canoe (how you arrived) your tribe, a significant ancestor and at the very end, your name. Since I come from the flat lands of Norfolk I discovered that ‘mountain’ really means ‘your land’.

It has been heartening to feel part of a culture, albeit briefly, which embodies the knowing that humans are part of the land. The Māori word for land, whenua, also means placenta. All life is seen as being born from the womb of Papatūānuku, under the sea. The lands that appear above water are placentas from her womb. Traditionally, the whenua (placenta) and pito (umbilical cord) of newborn babies are buried in a significant place. This practice reinforces the relationship between the newborn child and the land of their birth.

In many ways ecopsychology is an attempt to re-discover a modern indigeny. As Jung would say this is about getting to know the two million year old person within. But at times it felt awkward to be talking about ecopsychology beside Maori people who articulate our human relationship with the land with so much more eloquence, sophistication and ancient wisdom.  I often wish we had more of an intact indigenous culture here in the UK. Yet the tensions that are inevitably there between the Pakeha (people of European descent) and the indigenous Maori, from so much painful political history, mean that it is far from straightforward for the Pakeha to learn their ways.

The Maori language almost disappeared and then events in 1980’s shook everyone up with a Maori uprising in protest against their appalling treatment at the hands of the white government, the last straw of a long and painful history. Since then there has been a slow turning around of the situation. While there is still so far to go, there is a good deal of integration between Maori and Pakeha cultures, especially compared to the situation in Australia. There was even a move recently to educate children in both languages, but this has so far proved a step too far for the white government.

On Thursday, the second day of HP, we started with a dawn swim from the front door of our bach (NZ cabin) below.

four of us in bach        2014-01-12 08.09.03        2014-01-09 06.14.15

           Iona, MJ, Amanda, Robin

Then we went to the first event of the day, a social dreaming matrix at 7am. For those who don’t know this tradition, it’s a space in which anyone can come and share any dream or any fragment of a dream in the large group. The dreams are not interpreted individually, but are understood to be reflections of what might be happening in the unconscious of a community event or conference. Often there are uncanny resonances between the dreams; sometimes people come thinking their dream isn’t relevant, and then suddenly realise that it ties in with what others are sharing. Associations to the dreams are also invited. A record of the dreams was kept for anyone interested.

The next morning session was the 3 guest presenters. The first was Jenny Ritchie an assoc professor at Unitech, Auckland who supports early childhood educators and teacher educators to include an awareness of cultural, environmental and social justice issues. What surprised me was that Jenny included references to The Myth of Progress as well as quoting many well-known Ecopsychology writers, such as David Abram, Thomas Berry and Theodore Roszak.  I began to wonder whether my talk would be much different!

During Jenny’s talk the weather changed and the heavens opened. Rain poured onto the outdoor marquee which was on a slightly sloping paved area, and we quickly had a stream running under our feet. So we had to pack things up and sit close together to keep dry and to hear. By the time Jenny had finished speaking the rain had stopped. Everyone stood up and sang a Maori song which honoured what she had given. What a beautiful way to close.

Next up was myself, and I was relieved that the sun came out so that I didn’t have to shout to the audience. I talked about the shift from “power over Nature” to “power with Nature”. How had western culture come to this place of wanting or needing power over Nature? What does it means to come back into power with nature in our modern world?  I was taken by surprise when, at the end of my talk, Carol from my home group led everyone into song once again. It was very moving. There were so many songs from both Maori and white culture throughout the gathering.

The third speaker was Iona Winter (below), a Celtic-Maori psychotherapist specialising in the sexual abuse and trauma field. Iona spoke very personally about how she had found her way into this work while she was weaving a bag called a kete out of NZ flax.  In Maori culture this is traditional work for women, and is associated both with ritual and convention about preparation of the materials and also with women sharing stories and wisdom as they work together. It poured with rain once again. The Maori say that rain is a blessing. I believe for the English the sun is a blessing?

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On Thursday evening David Jacobs showed the film River Dog. This film was one of the winners of the sustainability film challenge for young people The Outlook for Someday, promoted by David Jacob’s company. This film inspired an interesting discussion circling around the question, “How do we talk with those who continue to damage the earth and show no interest in changing their ways?”

River Dog describes how Grant Muir, a farmer outside Wellington, is trying to protect the river on his land from being destroyed by cattle grazing which results in phosphate pollution from cow poo and stripping riverside bare of green foliage. While he is successful at doing his bit, his neighbouring farmers won’t change their ways and they’re at loggerheads.

So every day he takes his pack of dogs down the river to chase away the other cows. Wellington Council seems to be on the side of the farmers and is ineffective in protecting the river. The situation has become so bad that Muir is now being assaulted by his neighbours, who are frightened that changes will mean loss of profit. He is clearly exhausted and feeling very much on his own and some say he should just sell his farm and move on. But he won’t desert the river. This is a microcosm of what is happening in the whole of New Zealand, a situation which has become much worse in the past 10 years due to more intensive farming.

Some were quick to point out that Grant Muir’s situation and how he has been gradually drained to total exhaustion is what the Maori (and other indigenous peoples) have endured for centuries.

An interesting comment was that recent research has shown that organic farming is more profitable. You’d think this would inspire the farmer to change – yet it seems not. Here is a good example of the psychological at work: a fear of changing ingrained habits. Possibly this is made worse by the increasing attempts to try to make them change, so that even if they want to change their minds it may be experienced as losing the battle, a climb down, involving humiliation.  Not easy for a macho farming culture.

Someone else commented was that this cannot be done alone. Grant Muir seemed to be setting himself up as the lone male hero, doggedly continuing in his fight…. taking him right back into the old ways of trying to conquer the other.

I followed this up with a workshop in which some people had a go at role playing the different characters engaging in conversation. Very quickly they reached stalemate and another interesting discussion arose about the feelings that such confrontation arouses in both campaigner and farmer (who stands for ‘those who resist change’). It is so easy to get into a ‘them’ and ‘us’ situation, to brand the other as the enemy, to get into a stand-off. So how to skilfully engage in dialogue as a community where all sides can feel safe enough to empathise with the other? Campaigners know only too well that it takes a great deal of time, energy, psychological skill and patience.

The same questions were being asked when I visited Hugh and Nan Nicholson, the couple who were at the centre of the 1979 campaign to save the rainforest trees in Terrania Creek, not far from Byron Bay, NSW, Australia. These rainforest activists saved that big tree that I so fell in love with – and thanks to that community’s action, so many other big trees were saved in that area. Recently they had been involved in a successful anti-gas fracking campaign and were eager to hear what I had to offer to say about communicating with the gas companies.

Many of the HP community have a great deal of experience to offer on this. Some ideas I’ve gleaned:

– to be able to step into the shoes of the other which begins to break down ‘them’ and ‘us’

-forget trying to change anything or anyone, just start by getting to know the other and finding common ground

– finding inspiring examples of change in action which can dissolve projections onto “the green movement” eg Robin told me that many people are resistant to living in community, as it’s associated with ‘hippie lifestyles’. But visitors to Earthsong soon see that it’s a diverse community like anywhere else – a teacher, a family judge, a therapist, an architect, someone who works for Auckland council – anyone who wants to create a safer and better life;

-understanding just how difficult it is to change – and the more we are told to change, the more we might feel resistant to it;

-there is a challenging exercise offered by ecophilosopher Joanna Macy called ‘Bowing to our Adversaries’ which honours all the things we learn from those who hold radically different points of view.

I’d love to hear more views on this.

Back to Heart Politics! After the talks much of our time was spent in ‘Open Space’ where anyone could offer a workshop or topic for discussion into allotted times. I took part in a Mindful Walk in Nature with Iona (similar to the work that I and others are offering in the UK) slowing down enough to notice the connections between inner and outer nature. I had a touching moment when I was quietly sitting outside thinking fondly about The Women’s Pond at home, imagining cycling there, arriving to see my friends swimming amongst the moorhens, geese and ducks, sitting on the bench and looking out to the view across the heath. When I came out of my reverie there, out of the sky, came a mallard winging its way towards me. It landed a few feet away from me on the tiled floor, and waddled up to say a quack hello. After a few minutes it waddled off again and took off into the air. I haven’t seen a mallard in NZ before or since.

On Friday evening we had The Sharing Circle, a formal space in which the large group gathered to share their stories. In the Maori tradition the Hui could continue all night. Many white people spoke of their distress about not knowing where they come from, not knowing where they belong, feeling disconnected from the land. I found this interesting: I know very well where my roots are and where my family comes from, but it doesn’t follow that I know where I belong, nor does it mean that I am therefore connected with the land. Another person spoke of how she was brought up in a racist family who taught her to disrespect Maori people. And so much more, on into the night.

On Saturday evening, after more workshops, we all let off steam with a spectacular cabaret, great singing, and a touching play from the youngest participants Izzy and Sky. They had created a zoo with various adults dressed up as animals and they asked each in turn if they wanted to be free. They all did! Yeay!!

The ending ritual went as smoothly as the whole event. It was only afterwards that, to our horror, we discovered that a group of older teenagers had been bullying some of the more vulnerable ones. One of them even used a mock gun to frighten a child. By the time we knew this the gathering had dispersed, and it left us shaken up, wondering how it could have come about that the large group had not known about this as it was happening. For me this was especially sad as Logan had been one of the teenagers who was bullied, and he hadn’t said a word about it in our home group.

On leafing through my images of the event afterwards I found this one below – a beautiful sunrise, a swim at dawn, and lurking in the clouds is the shadow of the event, a man with a gun facing to the right (emerging out of the top of the dark cloud).

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This was a disturbing image to be left with after such a great event and it is curious how such an unexpected ending can cast new light on what has come before, on the whole story. I realised there had been little tension over the 4 days together, unusual for a large group. There was talk of the many arguments in the HP community in previous years; perhaps now it was in danger of being an institution, a nice supportive community where the grit had been displaced? Were the children acting something out about the nature of power for the adults?

This incident has really given me pause for thought, so this is a bit of an epilogue! Bullying is “power over” and endemic in a culture which is driven by “power over”; is it a reaction to powerlessness? Along my travels I’ve heard many stories of powerlessness and how difficult that is to bear – both a sense of personal powerlessness in the face of climate change as well as the disempowerment of political failure.

Rosalee, an old timer at HP, was telling of her involvement in an anti-mining campaign in the Coramandel Peninsular. A group had worked for 20 years to create government policy to protect the land. At the last minute the government had put in a small clause of a few sentences allowing mining to take place, effectively undermining all their work. Unbelievable really – but it seems like this story is a microcosm for what is happening all over the world. (There are many successes of course, but because they don’t get reported much in the media, it’s hard to see what the balance looks like).

It made me think about, how do we live with powerlessness, without it turning into bullying or infighting within organisations? What sustains us in dark times? This relates to the two questions that I heard most often on my journey: Where do I find hope? What can I do that will make a difference?

Getting on top of powerlessness and despair is understandable – but is that going back to “power over nature”? Most of the great spiritual teachers say that facing into death, surrendering to the unknown and seeing the powerlessness of the ego, is what brings awakening. It seems to me that climate change opens a door to that, to a collective species-near-death experience and a potential collective awakening. But perhaps it’s not a door that many people will walk through willingly?


“Relax. Nothing is Under Control.”



3 Solstice in the Land of Oz 17 Dec – 4 Jan

2013-12-24 10.55.20        2013-12-24 10.54.59

It’s irresistable to get up at dawn. The light is coming through the frangipani tree in full pink blossom, it’s branches winding their way through the verandah. The first birds are sounding their notes: the cackle of the kookaburra, the sublime liquid sliding song of the Australian magpie, the resonant single notes of the butcher bird, all so different to the dawn chorus at home.

Yesterday the kookaburra paid a visit. It felt like The King had arrived as he sat on the frangipani trunk about 4ft away, standing a foot high with his five butcher bird companions twittering around him. We had a few moments of eye to eye contact before he flew off – and I flew off to get my camera.


From time to time a flock of bright rosella parrots arrive in the tree opposite.Then the unmistakable call of the whip bird sounds. These are my favourite companions in the early mornings. You can hear a glimpse of the Australian Dawn chorus here.

I have met many other creatures along the way: an echidna in the local woods  (about 3x size of hedgehog) – one of few mammals who lay their eggs. Walking home from the beach yesterday I stopped in my tracks as I realised a snake was crossing my path. It continued straight up a brick wall! Wallaby on the right.

S       snake        2013-12-31 15.53.18 (3)

 Nature is so lush here (100” rain per year), so many bright flowers, so wild. A few days ago we visited a place called Minyon Falls (waterfalls in the wet season but dry as a bone now), with high cliffs and a path which takes you down and down and down into a hot, humid, primeval, sub-tropical rainforest full of palms, tree ferns, strangler fig trees, red lilli pillis and more. The cicadas were almost deafening as their zzzzzzz echoed off the valley walls. Here, in this still forest, I met goannas 5ft long, a python, and many very beautiful, very ancient HUGE rainforest trees. Dinosaurs could appear at any moment.  I LOVE THIS PLACE. It reconnects me to a wild, primal and ancient part of myself.

                                                                 goana            rainforest

 In 2004 I was here in this very same place when I met a gigantic tree – who you will see below. Returning in Jan 2014 I was eager to be reunited with this Great Being again. I shot off like an arrow from a bow as soon as we arrived, with John and Helena lagging behind. Not far into the walk I came upon a large tree which had fallen across the path and it was quite a challenge to either climb over the enormous trunk leaning at a precipitious angle, or to walk up and around through the bush. Helena decided not to continue, and they went back to find a waterfall and pool. That left me excited by the prospect of walking alone, no longer having to slow my pace in line with my friends.

I had not realised how much I longed to see this tree again. Perhaps I felt a little shy to admit it. As I breathlessly made my way through the rainforest I wondered whether the tree had become larger than life in my memory, and would I recognise her when I found her? I passed tree after tree, no she wasn’t here, she wasn’t there. An hour or two passed. Eventually I started to walk uphill and it began to dawn on me that I had MISSED the tree. Oh NO! How could I possibly have missed this enormous being? But it was true. I was now climbing long and hard and coming into different forest; there were no more large trees, but now eucalyptus and other smaller trees with peeling bark, a cooler breeze circulating, and suddenly the car park appears. Oh NO!

John & Helena appeared, it was time to go home. I made light of it, it was too much even to admit to myself how devastated I felt not to see this tree again, and maybe I would never return to Australia. Besides the calamity of missing the tree, I felt there was an uncomfortable lesson in here for me about walking too fast and missing what was in front of my nose. A very basic lesson for a very seasoned ecopsychologist: SLOW DOWN!

We returned home to the comfort of Byron Bay and the next day I started to hatch a plan. Perhaps I could borrow the car and return to Minyon Falls? I bumped into a Norwegian woman who I’d met a few days earlier, and she was enthusiastic to join me on an early morning trip. So 2 days later, on my final day, we left at 6am with me in the driving seat.

 The rainforest was steaming after a heavy rainfall the previous night and the moment we stopped for breath in the humid valley leeches jumped onto our skin and started to suck. We started the walk from the other end this time, and of course I was looking out very carefully. We walked on and on and the tree didn’t appear. Two hours passed. I began to wonder if she had fallen down. I had emails composed in my mind to the forestry people asking when this giant had died. Eventually, as I rounded one of the last corners of the forest walk, there she was, large than life. Reunited at last. I wonder if the tree recognised me?

                                Z1N1treehugger 1               2014-01-03 08.33.45              Z1n

                                                           Feb 2004                                                                        Jan 2014                                                                inside the tree

Not such great meetings were with the red ant who bit my toe – telling me to get off his home – and made his presence felt for several days. And the mosquitoes who are after my blood at dawn and dusk.

The clear turquoise sea continues to refresh my spirits everyday. Some days it is raging with white horses and I can hear its roar as I wake up in the early morning. Today, New Years Day, it was calm as a mill pond, with sleeping bodies strewn about the beach after a night of revelry.

I’m staying in Byron Bay, NSW famous for swelling from 18,000 people to 1m over New Year. It’s the eastern most point of Australia, a peninsular that sticks out into the Pacific with plenty of currents, winds, surf and dolphins.

My friends John and Helena live on the edge of town.  I met them at Schumacher College in 1992, and then stayed with them in Ladakh the following year. They set up ISEC (International Society for Ecology and Culture) www.localfutures.org  a green NGO, after witnessing the rapid changes that the Ladakhi peoples were going through due to the influx of tourism and the new pressures of western ways. Their films are worth watching if you haven’t yet seen them: Ancient Futures and The Economics of Happiness.

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Here they are with an Australian friend Carol Perry (right), one of the founders of Dharmananda, an eco-Buddhist farming community which began in the early 1970’s.  Many of the community were away so we were invited to pick aubergine, peppers, leeks, lettuces, beans, and the yummy fresh sweetcorn from their abundant garden.

While we were sitting on Carol’s verandah beside the forest, an interesting discussion arouse about how conflict is managed. One of their recent debates which split the community was whether to use Round Up (herbicide made by Monsanto) on their land. I’ve heard several people here talk about the many, many hours of human labour it takes to keep veg patches and gardens clear of unwanted (and huge) plants as the growth is so abundant. So the decision was eventually taken to use very small amounts of Round Up, judiciously, to free up time. Another heated debate was whether to eat the animals on their farm and their decision was yes. So Carol said at the beginning that she didn’t know whether they could call themselves a Buddhist community any longer as they now kill cows.

An even more heated debate arose among us about non-violent action, when John talked about the points raised by Derrick Jensen in his book Endgame. He argues that most people who call themselves pacifists may actually use violence in extreme situations, for example in defence of their children. So, he continues, if we acknowledge that we are part of the earth, and the earth is being attacked, poisoned, and more, is violent action justified? Everyone around the table immediately rose up in defence of non-violent action and John was left trying to hold a position of ‘I’m not trying to defend violence, but given the state of the planet, I think Jensen’s questions need to be thought about and answered more carefully’.

We have visited a number of their other friends who live in various parts of Byronshire. Some of the same people who defended the ancient rainforest trees against loggers 40 years ago have been involved in a very successful campaign in The Channon against gas fracking, which was supported by nearly all the local community.  The company had to withdraw their plans. This was inspiring to hear about.

Many of their friends have built their own houses using wood or adobe walls, with compost toilets – sustainability all so much easier in this climate which is warm most of the year.  Imagine having this view to wake up to in the morning from your verandah……….

mullum to bb

It has been a quiet time here, a chance to slow right down. One of the things I love about travelling is that it brings alive a child-like quality of being present in every moment. There are so many new things to see. I feel like I’ve been away for 10 months, not one. Each night I fall into a deep sleep, full of the sensory impressions of the warm day. Each morning I wake up eager to hear the birds again. The different phases of the day are accompanied by the change in tone of the cicada. Right now they are gently singing in the evening.

2 Ecopsychology in Taiwan Dec 5 – 16 2013

As I exited from customs I was heart-warmed to see two grinning Taiwanese women holding a board with my name on. They recognised me from my picture. Soon we were driving through the warm evening air towards Taipei city – although they think it’s cold. They dropped me at a rather chic hotel and I found myself sleeping on the 16th floor, feeling a bit ungrounded and in awe of the strange surroundings so not my style!

Breakfast is buffet style Taiwanese food: spicy fish, beef, pork, and a range of vegetable dishes. It’s a good job I always did like eating supper for breakfast. Late morning I wandered out of the hotel into a warm sunny day and headed for the local Xintian Temple which has a beautifully ornate Chinese style roof with curly ends and many carved animal figures.

Xingtian_Temple_DSC02312 (1)            healing at Xintian

There were people prostrating towards the god of the temple, Guandong. The custom is to greet the god, tell him where you come from and what you wish for. On each side of the temple there were women dressed in long blue Chinese style robes who seem to be offering some kind of energy work. I found a local man who told me that these women can take fear out of your body. This seemed like a good idea with 10 days of lectures and workshops ahead.

I wandered back to the hotel to meet Yu-Su, a dance-movement therapist from southern Taiwan. She trained at Goldsmiths College, London for 3 years, and during that time she came on a 1 week course on Ecopsychology that I taught with Dave Key at Schumacher College, Devon. So it was very good to spend the evening with her and to be able to ask her more about psychotherapy in Taiwan. There are quite a number of therapists trained in different modalities – but only a few art therapists and dance therapists.

It was a good job we were together for supper as the menu was entirely in Mandarin and little English spoken. I was surprised as I imagined Taiwan, with it’s technological and industrial advances, to be much like Hong Kong. But in fact this is not an international destination, the other travellers at my hotel were Chinese and  there was not another white person in sight.

Saturday: Taiwan is a volcanic island with many hotsprings. So this morning Yu-Su took me to a hot spa in the north of Taipei where we could bask in various baths of different temperatures. Then we went to Taipei University for my first talk: an introduction to the field of Ecopsychology, giving some case studies, to an audience of therapists.  This was part of a conference on Mental Health.

Here I met Chun-lin for the first time – we had been emailing each other for at least a year to plan my visit. He is a psychiatrist, a member of the Taiwan Jung Development Group and the co-founder of The Society of Wilderness (SOW) – the largest NGO in Taiwan with some 10,000 members, founded 20 years ago. He has generated alot of interest in Ecopsychology in Taiwan. Then, when John Seed (an Australian rainforest activist) visited Taiwan 2 yrs ago, he recommended Chun-lin to get in touch with me.  Very exciting for me because, as far as I know, this is the first time that the field of Ecopsychology has started to grow outside of the white western world. (For those who don’t know the history of Ecopsychology, it began in the USA in the 1990’s, closely followed by Sth Africa and Australia – all white cultures with access to large areas of wilderness. Most of the Ecopsychology literature has come out of the USA.)

Yu-Su translated my talk. I had deliberately used simple language but it’s surprising how difficult translation can be sometimes. I think the most tricky phrase was “We’re completely fucked” – a response from a client when talking about our future on the planet.

I’d been warned that audiences in Taiwan (as in many Confucian societies) would be keen for me to do all the talking and very shy to ask questions. So when I finished I asked them to talk in pairs and plenty of questions followed. Amongst other things, several people wanted to know about ecotherapy “techniques”. What I was struck by, however, was how similar the range of questions was to an audience at home. Chun-lin told me he was inspired by the case studies, as he had not heard such examples before. There are few therapists working in this way.

Sunday: It was an early start as I was being picked up by 7 people (including Yu-Su) from SOW and being taken on a 3 day trip into the mountains. They were just as excited as me, as none of them had been to the villages we were going to visit.

I think many people (including me before all this happened) imagine Taiwan as an industrial wasteland making endless plastic toys. But no! This is an emerald isle. We drove for several hours into mountains covered in great forests, around endless hairpin bends with spectacular views.  On the way we stopped off for lunch at a funky cafe where two young women were making such amazing food that I ended up being just like the Taiwanese and taking photos of everything (stopping short of posting it all on Facebook).

2013-12-09 06.57.45         cafe group

Finally we arrived at a village called Smangus – just in time for a quick tour given by a local chief. Here is a bundle of millet, their staple food.

2013-12-08 17.08.24           2013-12-08 16.58.45

There are 14 different indigenous tribes still living in the mountains of Taiwan (about 2% of total population 23m), with as many different languages. They still practice some hunting and gathering. Interesting that genetic tests have shown that the indigenous peoples of Taiwan are some of the ancestors of the Maori peoples.

The history of the country is complicated. Their first colonisers were the Dutch in 17th century, followed by the Spanish and then the Japanese in late 1800s (who took many of the huge trees), followed by the coming of Chiang-Kai-Shek with Han Chinese in 1946. The official language is Mandarin, but there is also Taiwanese, and so many other languages I couldn’t keep count.

The indigenous peoples are still suffering from some oppression – for example much of their land has been taken and there is an ongoing struggle for them to get it back. It’s the same old story as for so many other first nation peoples around the world, although I was told that there is more respect for the indigenous peoples here in Taiwan than in most other countries, and that things have improved in the past decade.

Smangus is a unique village in the face of this oppression. Poverty was driving people into the cities to find work but they returned to the village in bad shape and the tribe was dying. Around 1991 the chief dreamed of the ancestors who told him in the dream that there was a group of sacred trees located to the east of Smangus, and that the trees would help the village to flourish. Others in the village also had dreams about the future of the village. It did not take long to find the trees which are red cypresses, 5km from the village along a track. The tree named ‘big master’ is 2,500 years old with a perimeter of 20.5m and a height of 35m.

Many people started to come to see the trees, and some of the villagers built guesthouses; but this created competition and undermined neighbourhood relations. So the tribes people decided to create a collective, most households joined, and to this day the village is run cooperatively and sustainably. This has attracted alot of attention with Taiwan and beyond. There is a film about the village called “Smangus: A year Beyond the Clouds”.

On both evenings our group met with the chief and priest of the villages around a fire; most of what they wanted to tell us about was the story of their relationship with the land. For example, the government has made a rule that absolutely nothing can be taken out of the forests – which might seem like good protection from one angle. But for thousands of years the Tayal peoples have only ever taken fallen trees to build their houses and make fires; that is their rule: to never cut down a live tree. But now they can be fined for taking fallen wood and instead are forced to use imported materials to build their houses. There are countless similar stories, and it is very hard for them to fight their case in the courts.

Another interesting issue is their religion. Christianity appeared about 100 years ago, brought in by missionaries. However, they seem to have found a way of weaving together their own indigenous belief systems together with Christian beliefs. They are still in the process of transforming many the Christian stories into their own, based in their own land; so the mosaic figures around the churches are in Tayal dress, and inside the church is a cross made out of sheaves of millet, their staple diet and sacred food (below). Some of the Tayal say that there were so many different belief systems among the indigenous peoples that Christianity has been unifying. It’s hard to really know what is going on beneath the surface in a two day visit.

Monday: Another very early start as we walked several hours to visit the grove of sacred Cypress trees. The temperature was much cooler up in the mountains compared to Taipei city, much like walking in English October. It was beautiful to walk through swaying bamboo forests, creaking as they rubbed together in the wind.

2013-12-09 08.01.03           2013-12-09 10.12.02

The signs at various point were carved in wood and I was able to literally get a better feel for the mandarin characters with my friends translating each one. How interesting to find an image based language. Despite being so familiar with this text from Chinatown and films, I realised I had never stopped to take it in. The much more symbolic, conceptual alphabet written from left to right along the page seems in keeping with the western left brain rational way of seeing. Whereas the image based characters going from right to left and bottom to top seems more right brain intuitive. I felt inspired to learn it….but what a task!

Food in the villages was an experiment: pigs trotters, jellyfish, pigs intestines, thousand year eggs, pickled pears, and who knows what else didn’t get translated. Good job I’m handy with chopsticks too, as I didn’t see a knife and fork for 10 days.

Later that day we drove to another village and met up with a woman (below, right) who had been involved with SOW, but who had then married a Tayal man.

mountain group         2013-12-10 09.22.38

The indigenous peoples rarely marry the Han Chinese. Very sadly her husband died 2 years ago so she is struggling to be part of the community, farming the land using permaculture and Shumei agricultural methods, and bringing up two young sons – not an easy life. But she does have the most beautiful cabin on her land for anyone wanting to come and volunteer for her, so if you know any willing Wwoofers, it would be a very interesting place to stay.

Tuesday: We drove back to Taipei stopping for countless photo sessions. The views were stunning…. here is a sea of cloud below us.

sea of clouds        woman in hotspring

Further down the valley, at a river crossing, someone knew of a hotspring.  So we all went down to the river beach to find this small pool of boiling water by a fast flowing freezing cold large river. An older Taiwanese woman was there in her bathing costume, practising her daily ritual of immersing herself in the spring waters. It was so hot that I could only soak my feet.  Great the way the photo (above) has created her very own sunbeam!

Wednesday :  Back in Taipei, in a different hotel with an airless room looking straight onto another building in the middle of the city. The next few days were filled with more talks. Today I spoke on ‘Recovering the Indigenous Self’ to a group of 80 people in the Psychology and Religion Dept at Fu-Jen university. We were joined by the vice-president in the front row in his suit and tie, and translated by an eminent professor who seemed to turn my talk into an academic speech. At first I couldn’t work out what was going on – one of my sentences seemed to be followed by a long paragraph from him. What to do, when I couldn’t understand what he was saying?!!  This was a difficult situation, which ended in having to spontaneously cut my talk by about half – a steep learning curve about working with a translator.

talk at Fu Jen uni

Thursday: Chun-lin and Yi-ren took me to a dormant volcano. By now the weather had turned cold, and the mountains were shrouded in mist, so when we approached the hissing volcano we could not see the steam. But then as if by magic, the clouds parted just enough to see the crater surrounded by a yellow line of sulphur, with great lines of steam pouring out.


Afterwards we stopped off at a fruit stall and I sampled some new fruit: jujube, which are just like green apples without the eye on the bottom; starfruit; tiny little mandarins; pickled green mango and pears; and plenty more.

We then went to visit the land of Winkey, a professor of ancient Chinese philosophy, where was a tiny temple devoted to the land god with many animals and mythical creatures on the roof.

SOW talk

On Thursday evening I spoke on ‘Consuming the Earth’ to a group of about 50 people at SOW, a interesting audience both activists and therapists and I’m not sure who else. My translator was Yi-Jen, a woman who I had met when she was studying the one year Masters in Holistic Science at Schumacher College.

SOW talk 3

Left to right: head of SOW, Yi-Jen (translator), MJ, Chun-lin (host)

Friday: I spoke to a smaller group of people at Taipei Medical University on the links between Medicine and Ecology translated by Yi-ren, who had spent 10 years going back and forth to London doing a PhD at UCL. Now his studies were in the area of the spirituality of indigenous peoples of Taiwan. Oh so very many interesting people to meet, and not enough time to really stop and have long conversations with them all.

Saturday and Sunday: I ran a two day workshop for 50 SOW activists. My translator Dawa was a very interesting young woman who had spent 10 years in the USA, part of which was training at Tom Brown’s tracking school. She had then married an American man from the school and they had both returned to Taiwan to offer Vision Quests on a piece of land that she had inherited from her grandfather. We had some great conversations during breaks.

The weather had truly made a turn for the worse and it just poured with rain for the entire weekend. Nevertheless, they were keen to carry on with the outdoor exercises I’d planned.


Conferring with Dawa, the translator

One of the people who attended was a publisher who had already negotiated the rights with Karnac to translate the Ecopsychology anthology into mandarin that I edited with Nick Totton: “Vital Signs: Psychological Responses to Ecological Crisis”. They were hoping to complete this by 2015, and there was much arm twisting to persuade me to return for the book launch.

At the end of the two days of workshops there was a nice surprise. Everyone had written a little card to give to me, and they spontaneously got in line for hugs. That was a great way to end.

On Sunday evening I delivered my final talk to the Jung Development Group. I always knew I would be tired at this point, but when I arrived in the room and sat at the podium looking through my notes I was really so tired I wondered how I would string a sentence together.  Of course I did manage it, but it was far from my best performance – frustrating, given this was my favourite subject. I plan to write a paper on this and will post on my website in due course.

All in all, it was an AMAZING experience. I loved every second. Thank-you to everyone in Taiwan for inviting me and especially to Chin-lin who put so much hard work in to making this happen.





1 Flying High: Journey to Taiwan Dec 2013

25th February 2014

 It seemed like I was preparing for this trip for an age. There were so many emails back and forth for about a year with my hosts Chun-lin Chen (a psychiatrist in Taiwan) and Amanda Garland (a psychotherapist in New Zealand). Before that, I had agonised at length about whether it was right to fly all that way, to spend so much carbon beyond my footprint. This was a very difficult decision (more about this in Letter 6) When I eventually decided to say ‘YES’ I donated £150 to Trees for Life and hoped that my visits helped something or somebody somewhere.

I couldn’t believe it was finally time for take-off into a clear blue late afternoon. The lights of London were beginning to twinkle as we crept into dusk and I got my bearings enough to see the M25 and the straight line of Edgware Road. Suddenly Alexandra Palace came into view and then I could spot Queenswood in the distance, the large area of ancient forest beside our home in North London. I felt tearful as I thought of my beloved partner Adrian preparing supper on his own. I waved good-bye for 8 weeks and soon we were heading out over the Suffolk coast and across the sea towards Moscow. Sitting back in my seat I was filled with anticipation and awe about what lay ahead, appreciating the miracle of the age we live in and what journeys are possible.

It was a short night as we headed east and I had little sleep snatched in between films. Eventually I sneaked the window cover open and suddenly light is flooding in. It’s dawn over the Tibetan Plateau. WOW. WOW. WOW. Flying is so spectacular. Down below are snow covered mountain ranges slowly changing into desert, dotted with the occasional turquoise lake. A memory from 2003 is stirred when I travelled to the salt lakes of Ladakh near the Chinese border on my way down to northern India. It was sensitive country, and we joined a band of nomads who were making their way to tents in the desert where the local rinpoche was holding a ritual and giving blessings. As I scanned the desert below I wondered who might be stirring on this December dawn in this similar land.

The map told me that Darjeeling is nestled in those high mountains over there. As we continued a set of mountains came into view head and shoulders above the rest. Everest? I think so. I thought of the people climbing that mountain in that very moment. There are so many different lives being passed over when up in that metal box in the sky.


The desert below gave way to more mountains, and then desert again. In the middle of the desert appeared strange large green/turquoise rectangles with tiny turquoise canals around them. What on earth are these? Later I discovered from Adrian that it’s a Lithium plant. Ugh. A whole lake has disappeared and turned into this, for our benefit?

The air hostess appeared and told me very politely to put my window cover down as people are still sleeping. It is 1am UK time. I obey, but as she wandered off I sneaked it open again. How can I NOT watch this spectacle going on below me? Signs of human habitation appeared in the Himalayan foothills of western China. There are tiny villages in the valleys with winding roads over the mountains. I imagined what it must have been like for the Tibetan refugees to walk for weeks over this terrain. More villages appeared, followed by terraced hillsides.

A quick glance at the map and it told me that Guilin was in the distance. A few minutes later and YES, there it is, those mysterious mountains were rising out of the morning mists, the subject of so many Chinese paintings. I can’t believe this very mythical landscape is before my eyes. (Below is my own pic, as well as pics of what I knew was under those clouds but couldn’t see.)

guilin from air       guilin_wallpaper-wide           guilin

I want to stand up in the plane and shout “Hey WAKE UP everyone, LOOK. Here we are flying in this iron bird at 30,000 ft travelling at 500mph, it’s -60deg outside, and Guilin is over there…..It’s a MIRACLE”. For a minute I am present to the darkness inside the plane, to the ongoing snoring, to the screens showing a multitude of films – before I return to this most glorious dawning land as it changes each moment. A good metaphor for our times perhaps?

The mountain villages gave way to agricultural land and soon we were passing over industrialised China. The mountains are mined, and there is much industry by the river. Then it was time to make our descent to Hong Kong. This is such a cleverly designed airport with rest areas overlooking the great Buddha mountain. I felt relaxed enough to take a snooze before catching a plane for Taipei.

NB: Several people have commented on how great these pics are, and how did I do that? I’m sorry to tell you that 3 of 4 are not mine –  to get this clarity would mean standing on the wings at much lower altitude…..!