Photographs and reflections
I was kindly invited by Andreas Breden, a family therapist working in Trondheim, to spend a few days with his team to explore ecological ideas. Andreas is currently undertaking a Professional Doctorate in Systemic Practice, and I got to know him through some reading and writing seminars I attended. He later joined an Ecosystemic network that I am involved with and our friendship began to develop.
Arne Næss and Ecosophy
Andreas introduced me to the writing of the Norwegian philosopher and ecologist, Arne Næss, who I have found to be remarkably similar in his thinking to Gregory Bateson, the English anthropologist and philosopher whom I frequently discuss in my own writing. Næss described what he called ‘Deep Ecology’, a worldview that is remarkably similar to that offered by Bateson. Arne Næss felt that there must be a shift away from human-centred anthropocentrism to ecocentrism in which every living thing is seen as having inherent value. He argued that humans are part of nature rather than superior and apart from it, and therefore must protect all life on Earth as they would protect their family or self. Deep Ecology is contrasted with Shallow Ecology, which centres human beings as somehow more important than any other creatures or entities. Electric cars, greenwashing and so on might be thought of as Shallow Ecology. Another important contribution of Næss was the concept of Ecosophy, which (in my understanding), is an ecologically aware personal epistemology that sees all living creatures and entities as being of value. In effect, Ecosophy is Deep Ecology articulated in our thoughts and behaviour.
Meeting the team
A group of Andreas’ colleagues from a family counselling centre in Trondheim joined us for a few days. We all met at a centre in Dovre National Park, where a couple of park rangers, Tord and Esben, told us about the conservation of musk oxen, reindeer, arctic foxes and other species that are under threat due to increasing pressure on their habitats. I was curious about lemmings as they are the main source of food for arctic foxes and other predators, and the rangers said there wasn’t much research done on them. It struck me how we often focus on the big, impressive things, while the small and ordinary things go unnoticed; yet without these small things, the larger things would not be able to exist.
Edit: After writing this, I discovered that I had misunderstood Tord – Andreas has since told me that Tord was saying that research has been undertaken on lemmings, but it has not been possible to influence the cycle of lemmings, which can lead to instability of the food chain. Nevertheless, I do wonder if it is human nature to be attracted to the top of the hierarchy without appreciating that it would not exist without the lower layers.
The team of therapists were very experienced, with a range of interests and specialities apart from systemic therapy, including narrative therapy, running men’s groups and working with addiction. Many had international experience and worked with, trained with, or had supervision from some very well known therapists and theorists.
Not only were the team knowledgeable about therapy, but they were also keen to make links between psychotherapeutic practice and ecology. The first evening together, we met Andreas’ high school teacher, Truls Gjefsen. Truls knew Arne Naess and had written his biography. We had a fascinating discussion about the life (and personality) of Naess and the influence of both Gandhi and Spinoza on his philosophy. Truls himself had an interesting life as an academic, politician, author and activist.
The following day we met Gro Heitkøtter, the niece of the park ranger and photographer Norman Heitkøtter who was a very active campaigner for wildlife and the establishment of the Rondane National Park. Gro read out a moving section of Norman’s book Levende Fjell (Living Mountains), where he witnessed a young reindeer attempting to suckle from its dead mother and reluctantly had to intervene. When Andreas was a child, he met Norman when out walking in the Rondane area with his grandfather. Norman has left a lasting impression upon the mountains and upon Andreas, and through his story, upon all of us present. The concept of not leaving traces in nature resonated strongly.
For me, sharing these experiences and stories with fellow therapists was a gift. We were making connections between our relationship with nature and what we do to try to help those in distress, and perhaps, in the story of the young reindeer, parallels with our own lives, thoughts about how we might be no longer nurtured by a planet that may not be able to sustain us.
Walking in the mountains
We were guided by Andreas on a walk into the Rondane National Park and I was struck by the sense of space; the size of the mountains made me feel small and insignificant and left me with a sense of wonder and perspective. I was fascinated by small details, too; the reindeer lichen and tiny plants created another world within this stunning landscape. During our walks together, I was able to spend time quietly talking with different members of the team, learning about them, their interests and their deep understandings of relationships. These were special moments; humans connecting with each other in the wide and beautiful space.
Sharing and generosity
I was struck by the generosity of the team, which was demonstrated in many ways; with food, including homemade loaves of bread, preserves of cloudberry and lingonberry but more importantly by helping me feel included and with their sensitivity to talk, especially given my complete lack of Norwegian. It struck me how colonising the English language has been (and still is), and I felt humbled by their consideration and care. We ate together at the table and by a campfire; shared together and communed together.
Waterfalls and circularity
We saw several waterfalls on our walks, and after the team left, Andreas took me, along with his niece, to see the falls at Ridderspranget (The Knight’s leap), a small gorge in the river Sjoa on the outskirts of Jotunheimen National Park. The force of the water was stunning as the melting snow found its way down from the mountains on its way to the sea, perhaps to return, one day. The idea of circularity, and of our own lives being part of a bigger cycle was striking. Another image that will stay with me is how small trees clung to rocks. As Andreas told me, Norman Heitkøtter wrote: “All life wants to live”.
A letter to my friends
After the team had left, Andreas and I had some time together to talk and reflect on the visit, systemic therapy, and ourselves. He asked if I would write something to the team, and he let me use his computer to write the following:
Tusen Takk (A thousand thanks)
Andreas asked me to write some reflections about my visit to Norway. And now I am sitting here, in the Red Cross Cabin, wondering about how you all are today. I am drinking a hot black coffee, eating a biscuit made by Gro, and thinking about how sad I was to see you all drive away in that silver minibus. I’ve entitled this Tusen Takk as these are words I heard many times, and are perhaps the ones I shall always keep in my heart.
Many thoughts are swirling around in my mind, like the water at the foot of a waterfall, circling around and foaming, the currents meeting the resistance of the angular stone that contains the flow.
We are all caught in this seemingly endless loop of circularity, like water falling as snow that, melting, rushes to the sea, only to return to the land again at some point in the distant future.
We walked. We talked. We listened. We shared good food. We thought together. We became a new ‘we’, at times considerate, using language(s) with care, co-creating something that perhaps was only fleeting, yet leaving traces, like footprints in the lichen; deeper for some, shallower for others, but nevertheless real.
Words spring to mind, like water seeping up from the ground.
For you as individuals, with your lives and concerns, loves and your own hopes and dreams. For you collectively, as a team, bringing so much compassion, wisdom and, yes, skill, to your work with families. Hope for all of us, too, and our kin; reindeer, musk ox, the mountains. Not forgetting the lemmings!
I was struck by the generosity of all of you. Sometimes a gift; carefully prepared food, baked in an oven, cooked on a stove, or upon an open fire while the spray from a waterfall whipped around the smoke and flames. A pinecone. A piece of stone. A look of understanding. A joke. A story. Allowing me into a part of your life. I think of the generosity of this planet, too, and how it has been so easy for us all to take it for granted and take far more than we deserve.
Like so many of us, I have been touched by the pandemic. Still tired and carrying a deep sadness that emerged a few days after I was physically ill with Covid. This sadness has not left me, and I have chosen to integrate it; to allow it space inside me, to teach me. The time I have spent here has been healing for me. I feel lighter, yet I still retain my sadness for the world. And that is how it should be. You are individually and collectively healers. It is in your bones. Healing emerges from love, from being loved.
I have written about how the systemic therapy community adopted some of Gregory Bateson’s ideas, yet we neglected his ecological concerns. Bateson’s thinking about epistemology and ontology might have shaped our practice even more than the comparatively few concepts we took. With rising concerns about the impact of humans upon the environment in the era in which we live, described as the Anthropocene, perhaps now is the time for us to look both backwards and forwards to deepen our understanding of Bateson’s message. This visit has helped me reconnect with nature, with ecological thought and practices. The scale of the mountains was both calming and humbling. Many of my ordinary concerns seemed trivial in the face of the brooding presence of mountains and vast swathes of lichen clad moorland.
To adopt a cybernetic epistemology is to have a personal ecosophy that recognises all creatures and entities as kin. There are no ‘others’, there is only ‘us’, regardless of colour, gender or species. There is so much blame, hatred and greed in our human world. My sadness is that so few of us understand this and that we continue to threaten the ecology that we all depend on.
I have returned with a sense of kinship, not only with other humans but with everything in the natural world. To experience kinship is to express kindness.
Experiencing all others as kin and showing kindness may seem simple yet we inhabit a human world of dualisms, polarities and othering. Since my return, I have noticed an increased tolerance, more patience, and more willingness to slow down, to listen. Listening to the sound of rain on my windows, of the voices of others, and to the quiet sounds of stillness. More contemplative, I am more aware of how I feel and miss the cool, fresh air of the mountains. I have felt more connected with others and the natural world, and this connection will be in the heart and soul of my interactions as a therapist and as a human being.
I would like to finish this with a poem, not one of my own, but one shared with me by Andreas, that is included in the five-book collection “Kinship: Belonging in a World of Relations”, edited by Gavin Van Horn, Robin Wall Kimmerer and John Hausdoerffer.
A Prayer to Talk to Animals
Lord, I ain’t asking to be the Beastmaster
gym-ripped in a jungle loincloth
or a Doctor Dolittle or even the expensive vet
down the street, that stethoscoped redhead,
her diamond ring big as a Cracker Jack toy.
All I want is for you to help me flip
off this lightbox and its scroll of dread, to rip
a tiny tear between this world and that, a slit
in the veil, Lord, one of those old-fashioned peeping
keyholes through which I can press my dumb
lips and speak. If you will, Lord, make me the teeth
hot in the mouth of a raccoon scraping
the junk I scraped from last night’s plates,
make me the blue eye of that young crow cocked to
me—too selfish to even look up from the black
of my damn phone. Oh, forgive me, Lord,
how human I’ve become, busy clicking
what I like, busy pushing
my cuticles back and back to expose
all ten pale, useless moons. Would you let me
tell your creatures how sorry
I am, let them know exactly
what we’ve done? Am I not an animal
too? If so, Lord, make me one again.
Give me back my dirty claws and blood-warm
horns, braid back those long-
frayed endings of every nerve tingling
with all I thought I had to do today.
Fork my tongue, Lord. There is a sorrow on the air
I taste but cannot name. I want to open
my mouth and know the exact
flavor of what’s to come, I want to open
my mouth and sound a language
that calls all language home.
Copyright © 2017 by Nickole Brown. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on July 28, 2017, by the Academy of American Poets.