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