‘You’ve been feeding the ducks.’
The bird feeder turned, a bulky man in his fifties, caught between fight and flight. I had chased him across the park. All the way from the litter of loaves, crusty rolls and slices of bread around the pond.
‘Can I just make two points?’
Still no reply. It was half-six on a Friday morning, the grass covered in dew. Another dog walker over by the tennis courts the only other person around. I had broken a London taboo. Don’t talk to strangers, especially dark silent ones, in old belted raincoats, with hoodie tops and binbags full of bread.
I pointed at a French stick teetering on the edge of his sack, ‘Bread is not good for ducks…’
‘…Your second point?’ A clipped question, like a punch.
A soot black cormorant flew along the line of the river, thin wings flapping hard.
‘You’ve got so much bread there. You’re dropping entire loaves. The birds can’t eat it all, it gets left lying around for my dog and it’s not good for her either.’
‘Bureaucrats tell us all sorts. If the bread is good enough for us, then it’s good enough for the birds.’
‘Eh, white bread is not really that good for us either.’
He gestured at the park, spilling the stick loaf, ‘I’ve been here thirty-five years. Every morning I feed my birds. I’ve not seen you around here before.’
He was right. It was my first visit to Springfield Park.
Through the winter months I had walked my puppy in the nearby Finsbury Park. Milly was just over a year old. I taught her to fetch a ball and how to behave around other dogs. She had a lot to learn, as did I. The dog-training maxim was, ‘You train the owner, not the dog’. As Milly entered this world of headlamp dazzle and fireworks, I also entered a new world. A sensuous, earthly world. Long tucked up indoors, with central heating and television, I had learnt to prefer texting to talking and on-line shopping to the high street. Out with Milly in all weathers, wrapped up against the winter cold, I awoke from my techno-hibernation.
Winters were getting shorter. Walks with our moon shadows did not last. For a third successive year, March temperatures hit record highs. In the early spring warmth Finsbury Park filled with picnics, football games and tight rope walkers. A busy park soon became a littered park. Crisps and chips, half-eaten baguettes and kebabs. Family sized strawberry trifles, boxes of breakfast cereal, empty dog food cans. Even the binned scraps and wrappers got turned out overnight by foxes. Our morning walk was a smorgasbord of doggy delicacies. Milly took off after Styrofoam boxes, chased down carrier bags and hunted through the bushes for chicken bones, prized for their crunch. Pizza slices, French fries and worse gurgle-squeaked through her guts. Poo was a noxious sludge. The crowds were just not practicable. When I heard rumours of dogs poisoned on the nearby Parkland Walk, I gave up. It was time to move on.
On the internet, I found Lea-Valley Regional Park, a ten-thousand-acre “green lung for London” with “more open water than the Norfolk Broads”. A twenty-six-mile nature corridor of parks, meadows and marshes along the river Lea on the eastern rim of the city. A thin blue line and gash of green ran north-south on my London A-Z, an opening in the criss-cross urban sprawl. I had vague memories of green spaces glimpsed from flyovers on the North Circular. On my doorstep, just fifteen minutes on the bus from Finsbury Park, was an unexplored wilderness.
Springfield Park bordered the river Lea. I got off the bus and at the park gates let Milly off her lead. She gambolled away, head down, tracking scent trails. The view emerged through the trees, luring me to the top of a steep slope in the centre of the park. Over a gentle bend in the river were the wide flats of Walthamstow Marshes, a broad swathe of semi-rural wetlands plonked down in the middle of one of the most densely populated cities on Earth. An eighty-eight-acre site covered with rich-brown docks, thickets of reeds and tall marshland grasses. In a clear sky, sunrise ambers merged into violet peach. The height of the slope gave that trick of perspective that sometimes happens in London when you get above the rooftops. Trees take over. Pylons and construction cranes, tower blocks and church spires rose from a seemingly continuous tree canopy. I could just make out Epping Forest on the north-eastern horizon. Compared to the tarmac paths, flower beds and perimeter traffic of Finsbury Park, Walthamstow Marshes was a Serengeti. A green space within easy reach, that with a little imagination felt like the depths of countryside.
Once again, I was a dog-walker looking out across a wide countryside. A return journey of sorts, Walthamstow Marshes stirred up childhood memories. Linoleum green hospital corridors. A bed with metal sides. Adult whispers. Mum crying. A high vaulted church. Flower wreaths. What I still do not remember is being told Grandad had died. I was only eight. Four years earlier he had retired and got a dog. A black Labrador that me and my brother named Jet. Then he got another, which we named Jumbo. He spent hundreds of hours with those dogs, training them to sit, stay and come on command with a two-tone whistle that was always slung around his neck on a piece of black string. We went for walks together and something of his love of dogs rubbed off on me. When he died, Gran struggled to look after both dogs. Jet came to live with us. I got a new friend and a living connection back to Grandad.
I was first up every morning and out walking Jet in all weathers before breakfast and then again after school. Our house, on the edge of the village, backed on to an undeveloped waste ground of wild grasses, gorse and hawthorn thickets, beyond which were arable fields and a rocky outcrop, Binny Craig. The view from Binny Craig took in the length of the Forth valley and the first risings of the Highlands. A smear of battleship grey water, all the way from the flare stacks at Grangemouth oil refinery to the famous rust-red rail bridge at Queensferry. One spring morning on top of Binny Craig, I turned and found a hare sat beside me. A svelte, muscled animal just six-feet away, not much smaller than me. If it had been a unicorn, I could not have been more surprised. I had not heard it approach, nor had I ever seen a hare in real life. When it faced me, wide eyes drew me into a wild, vivid existence. Then it bounded downhill, making no sound. I watched it speed across the field and vanish into a hawthorn hedge.
The psychoanalyst Carl Jung was among the first to pioneer the healing effects of childhood memory. He discovered, through self-experimentation, that the vestiges of our history, ‘are not dead…but belong to our living being’ (1). In his memoirs, he recounts a long period of constant inner pressure and psychic disturbance, what we would today call a mid-life crisis. All his methods of enquiry resulted in no improvement and he came to a ‘fresh acknowledgement’ of his own ignorance (2). He decided, in the absence of understanding, to simply go with the flow of the psyche, trusting it as a natural process, submitting himself to ‘the impulses of the unconscious’. In a touching section he describes how soon after making this decision a strong memory arose, of a childhood obsession with building miniature houses and castles. The memory was accompanied with strong emotion and he thought, ‘Aha, there is still life in these things.’ After overcoming a good deal of resistance, the learned doctor swallowed his pride and returned to playing his ‘childish games’ (3). After lunch, weather permitting, he constructed buildings from stones gathered from the lake shore, playing until his patients arrived and sometimes returning again after the evening meal, ‘In the course of this activity my thoughts clarified, and I was able to grasp the fantasies whose presence in myself I dimly felt’ (4). I too had been drawn back in mid-life to replay childhood events.
Through that first winter in Finsbury Park I made a ritual of standing beneath a gnarled beech tree, on the scarp to the north of the park, with a view out towards Alexandra Palace. One day it felt good to pause there and I just kept going back. Stood still, I resist the manic rush in me to keep moving. I feel myself unwind, as if my brain has curled up at the base of my skull. I want more and reach out to touch the bark. I trace the fissures with my fingers. I listen to the susurration of wind through bare branches. I reflect on the quality of time this tree has, a rooted witness to the days and seasons, the dog walkers, squirrels and crows. I feel the tree time seep into me. Bewitched by this presence, the bark a sensitive skin, I drift back to a time when all objects held this fascination. A plastic football, a toy truck, a pencil case. Prized possessions that I fell asleep holding and woke up reaching for with my first thought. How I immersed myself in their look, feel, smell and touch, knew their every crack and smoothness. Objects of wood and metal and cotton fur, personalities with whom I conversed.
More than a recall of places and events, these memories had a felt sense that haunted me. I was returned to the perception of that earlier time, to see and feel and imagine as a child. A long-neglected way of being came back to life. Rather than lying on the couch with a screen, browsing for the perfect and satisfying news article that never came, I was once again out early walking the dog. In the park, it was cold and damp and dark and I loved it. My feet and legs were like a stylus tracking over the grooves of an old vinyl record, tracing back the lines of memory to my first estrangement from this earthly world.
I was lucky enough in my early years to have reasonable access to natural surroundings. In the countryside, with Jet, I grew up playing among the elements. I remember the mystery of a tadpole in a small pond, the allure of certain trees, and how periods of sitting around blurred into reverie and daydream. I talked to my imaginary friends and shared these relationships with adults, who seemed to understand. However, come a certain age, this enchanted existence became frowned upon, circumspect. The rules of permission narrowed. At school I was not asked about my encounters with trees. Education was about doubting my enchantment. I learnt about steam engines, water wheels and aeroplanes. The world was a machine not an animal. The only voices were human and those in books. I eventually became convinced that the world was essentially dead, unable to think or talk, just a bunch of stuff to dig up, cut down and utilise for human ends. My sensing aliveness atrophied. I got on with being a rational adult, living ‘in my head’.
The ecopsychologist, Theodore Roszak traces the lines of this eco-estrangement across a wider canvas than personal childhood. Rosak sees the enchanted perspective of childhood, not as a naïve phase prior to adulthood, but as a psychic inheritance from our hunter-gatherer ancestors. An ‘innate animism’ regenerated anew by each generation, ‘as if it were a gift, in the newborn’s enchanted sense of the world’ (5). Once upon a time, in pre-modern cultures, children were nourished to an adult maturity, through building upon rather than denying the living presence and voices of nature as an illusion. Long immersion in natural surroundings and initiation rites cultivated an embedded participation with the natural world. The idea of Nature as separate from Human did not exist. We were the sky, wind and soil. The animals were kin. We were in Nature and of Nature. An ecological harmony that lasted for most of our 200,000 years as a species. An enchanted life that is still in our bones. A psychic inheritance only recently obscured by cultural shifts, beginning with the advent of agriculture 12,000 years ago and then speeding up during the industrial revolution 300 years ago and now racing ahead at full pelt into a techno-digital future. The long period of dependence prior to adulthood makes human development vulnerable to such cultural changes (6). In the eventual adaptation by each generation to modernity our animistic inheritance, only briefly indulged in childhood, is now pushed into an ‘ecological unconscious’, a repression that requires, ‘a wrenching effort, and a painful one to maintain…we call that pain, neurosis’ (7). The route out of this alienation is, ‘to recover the child’s innately animistic quality of experience in fundamentally ‘sane’ adults’ (8). An eco-healing that is not the forging of an entirely new perception, but a recollection of what we once had.
My eco-encounters in the park with Milly came back indoors, into my work as a psychotherapist. I watched out for it in my client’s narratives and gave due attention when it arose. For example, the recovering alcoholic who noticed the spring blossom as-if for the first time, and asked his friend, ‘does this happen every year?’ The previously suicidal young man, who spoke to his dog one night, ‘How would you not want to live, with a moon like that in the sky?’ To acknowledge and invite description of such moments brought a validation to the experience. Maybe they were not so crazy after all? This permission often deepened the reflection, from a simple story to the quality of delight and wonder within the encounter, in statements like, ‘It was like living inside a movie’ and ‘I can see now what painters do’. In attributing meaning to the physical world, not just the ‘inner’ life of feelings and thoughts, these client sessions took on an explicit and immediate transpersonal, beyond-the-personal, emphasis. Nature encounters were quite literally taking these clients out of the confines of their centralised ego-concerns, into a magical participation in the world. As David Abram puts it, ecopsychology is about ‘turning psyche inside out’(9). We are within nature, of it and in it; as too ‘we are in psyche’, of it and in it. The world is psychological through and through, and we constantly create psyche through our interactions with each other, society and also the land, plants and animals. All of these connections change us and never leave us, least of all the living world. The careful tending of all these relationships is the task of psychotherapy.
The delight of my client’s eco-encounters was often mixed with a wary, ‘childish, I know’ or, ‘like I was a little boy’. It was not straightforward to open up to these nature encounters. My attention was going against the grain of a human-centric culture and years of dismissive rationalistic education. And I had played a part in perpetuating this eco-wounding. Prior to my more recent interest, I must have missed or ignored countless opportunities to receive my client’s eco-wonder. The previous focus in my work and training had been on human-to-human relations. That so many childhood memories occurred outdoors would not have interested me per se. What I had focussed upon was the human context of these nature stories. I had been interested in climbing trees and building dens as a means to escape a troubled household atmosphere, not for the fact of the tree or den itself. And the client who remembered collecting bugs in a jam-jar would have been asked who they did this with, not about the earwigs, centipedes and spiders. Or an adult phobia of mice was not about a mouse, but a symbol for autobiographical meaning, a projected childhood lack of safety, a fear of a critical parent. Of course, this is not to deny the importance of our early relations with care-givers. The physical contact, love and safety that infants need, the lack of which results in narcissistic wounding, is obviously important ground to cover and will very often be a useful focus in psychotherapy. However, this does not mean that the personal, historical and human will always be most important or relevant. To only focus on these familial connections, and to deny the wider resonances of the client and their world is a reductionist assumption that limits the client.
I’m writing this as I read a report in the Guardian of a viral video(10). A clip of pre-school children playing in a rain storm. The children, full of giddy, joyous laughter, slip down a slide into a puddle of mud. Pelted with rain they are soaked through and caked in dirt. Some of the children plough into the puddle head first, shrieking in obvious enjoyment. The clip is only thirty-three seconds, taken in a small town in New Zealand. In the first two days after being posted on-line the clip had been viewed over twenty-four million times, from locations across the globe.
Perhaps in our distracted times such YouTube videos are a kind of outsourced memory, a digital unconscious for those too busy to hear the quieter voices of the past. A way for psyche to grab our attention, a digital Gia that allows her to shout loud enough to give us pause, in the same way she once did through oral-stories, cave paintings and yes, rainstorms. Viral videos that, like Jung’s model castles, speak to our ‘dimly felt’ fantasies. Miffy Welsh, from the childcare centre that posted the video, made sense of the popularity as a reflection of people, ‘longing for their own lost childhoods, and the childhoods of their children, which are so dominated by screens.’ I find this double generational loss disturbing. Is the pace of cultural change so fast now that our own children no longer remind us of our lost childhood? And just what is it that we long for in our lost childhood? What is it that psyche is calling our attention towards in this video?
I imagine the video speaks in many ways, connecting with the personal memories of each of us differently. For me it was the taste of damp earth and wet clothes, of walks with Grandad, when he threw sticks in the reservoir for Jet to splash in after, and the raindrop patter on the old tarpaulin sheet we used to make a den. It reminded me of people and places, but more than any particular element, any one feeling or situation, the felt sense comes, I think, from the overall context of the video. The eco-context of the child, happily embodied, at play in an encompassing world that has not yet been cut away, deadened and disenchanted; not yet held back by the skin of modern alienation. And yet we know this will happen soon, as it did to us, and this brings the poignancy, the bittersweet feeling, the grief. These children are like an endangered species, rare even among today’s ‘health and safety’ regulated, screen-shielded children. To watch them play in their rainstorm is to kindle a longing for earlier times, when we knew this species well. A longing well captured in the images of these eco-children, not because our longing is childish or regressive, but because the children provide a link to our own once intimate relationship with the natural world.
That first morning as I looked out across Walthamstow Marshes, thinking about my eco-childhood, a crescendo of squawks called my attention back into the park. A frenzied collection of birds was feasting on a litter of breads around the pond. Canadian geese, mallard ducks, song thrushes, magpies and contented, cooing pigeons. Too many birds and too many species together in one place. A feathered dystopia, like walking onto the set of a Hitchcock movie. I imagined obese, diabetic ducks, wheelchair bound, connected up to dialysis machines. I’d just not come back this way again. I would keep going. I imagined crossing the marshes, going further and further afield. Maybe I could buy some land, put a fence around it. Ridiculous. I could not afford a private estate. I was dependent on the good sense of people not to litter foodstuffs. A good sense I could not take for granted.
Over to one side of the pond Milly lay on the grass, forepaws anchored around a slipper of Turkish bread, ears flopped down page-boy straight, a sign of contentment. I got within a few paces before she leapt away and gulped down the loaf and then several rolls before I managed to get her on the leash, slack jawed and bright eyed. I tied her to a park bench while I binned all the bread. Birds waddled out of reach like a crowd of drunks, high on refined carbs. Pigeons flicked chunks of bread over their heads, like a demented caber toss. A crow stood on a loaf, head-butting a hole into it. A movement through the bushes caught my attention. A man in a blue hoodie with two black bin bags. He turned and ran, spilling a trail of bread.
Allan is running an ecopsychology workshop 7th & 8th October 2017, "Re-wilding Imagination" - click here for information and to book.
(1) Jung, C.G. (1977) ‘Memories, Dreams, Reflections’, p197
(2) ibid, p197
(3) ibid, p198
(4) ibid, p198
(5) Roszak, Theodore (1992) ‘The Voice of the Earth: An Exploration of Ecopsychology’, p320
(6) Shepard, Paul (1995) ‘Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind’, Chapter ‘Nature and Madness’, p21
(7) Roszak, Theodore (1992) ‘The Voice of the Earth: An Exploration of Ecopsychology’, p304
(8) ibid, p320
(9) Abram, David (2011) ‘Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology’
Cowen, Rob (2015) ‘Common Ground’
Kingsnorth, Paul (2017) ‘Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist’
Rees, Gareth E (2013) ‘Marshland: Dreams and Nightmare on the Edge of London’
Totton, Nick (2012) ‘Not a Tame Lion: writings on therapy in its social and political context’