Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers but as fountains of life (John Muir, in Louv, 2011, p.46).
Martin Roberts is an art therapist working in the Blue Mountains, drawing on his extensive experience in a range of art forms—fashion, costume, textiles, painting and sculpture are the foundation for his therapeutic work. As a member of the Wild Mountain Collective, Martin plans to work with others to develop workshops involving art and the healing power of nature.
With the emergence of an industrialised and urbanised world, much of our environment has been damaged or destroyed. Our consumer-driven economy has resulted in fast and stressful lifestyles that are increasingly disconnected from nature. Throughout my life I have resided in many different locations, but in each place, I have always sought out a green space where I could reflect and rejuvenate, away from the hustle and stress of the fast-paced, technology-driven and urbanised world we live in.
Ecopsychology looks at the relationship between human beings and the natural world through ecological and psychological principles. Numerous texts speculate that our current detachment from nature is a direct cause of the deterioration of well-being and social-psychological health. The Healing Forest (Berger & Lahad, 2013) is a program based on the theoretical framework of nature therapy, which combines ritual and art-making in a natural setting to improve resilience and coping resources in post-crisis work with children. The use of different art media was found to activate the body, emotions and imagination, with the creative process facilitating insight and positive change. In a short-term nature therapy intervention in Israel, elements such as the uncontrollable and dynamic changes of nature, in combination with spontaneous sand-play, aided work with people coping with psychiatric difficulties. These aspects were found to facilitate a way to bypass defence mechanisms and provide meaningful insights and growth (Berger & Tiry, 2012).
I hoped that by emulating his art-making processes, such an embodied connection to the earth would begin to illuminate the restorative essences that are central to ecopsychology. In addition to recording my experiences in a journal by taking notice of thoughts, feelings and somatic sensations while walking through the bush, I documented the artworks with photography and video. The method of using only found objects to create my artworks, without any damage to the bush, was central to the whole process, and I remained mindful of being a visitor in country and acknowledging the traditional owners of the land.
I realised that, once embarking on each walk, I was keen to quickly get as far into the bush as possible, away from other human activity. Particularly as I approached the art-making process, I had an intense yearning to be alone, and my need for privacy became increasingly important. The experience of looking for and finding somewhere new was thrilling, and the pure joy I felt doing this brought back memories of similar childhood experiences discovering the world around me. This was unexpected, and had the effect of focusing me in the present moment, where I was intrigued to find new pathways to magical places in the bush that had a spiritual significance.
Portal—The first piece I made, Portal, embodied a gateway: a dividing presence that one could look through or pass under to a changed world on the other side. This initial engagement with the art-making and the environment in search of nourishment was an important moment, and travelling through the portal took on significance similar to a rite of passage.
Each walk upon, entering that environment I immediately noticed a different state of being. My senses were significantly heightened, particularly my hearing and sense of smell, leading to an alert yet calm awareness of my location. The movement of the wind on the trees, whether it was a gentle breeze or a sudden gust, constantly coaxed me out of my head and back to my heart and the environment in which I was situated. This effect of mindfulness of the moment was very soothing, and a relief from any stresses I had been feeling before the walk.
Suspended Wreath—During my second walk I made Suspended Wreath: an extremely fragile ring of leaves floating in the branches, embracing a bush that was barely alive. Leaves rest next to each other, supported on spindly branches. It tells me how ethereal and transient is our presence on the earth, and how we need to protect this balance.
But also it shows how delicately fine-tuned are our relationships to each other, and how important they are in supporting us as social beings. Difficult to distinguish from the rest of the landscape, it honoured the environment as well as the process of self-care that I was undertaking.
This process of making art out of and in the bush I found enabled a deep level of connection with the environment, and increased mindfulness. As I explored each location I had chosen, I focused on the ground, searching for objects I could use to make an artwork. I found myself crawling on the ground, touching the earth with my bare hands in a way that was grounding, as well as being liberating and again evoking more carefree childhood days.
Infinity—During my third walk, this sense of connection created a space, which deep feelings of sadness filled, as I lamented the continuing degradation of our planet, and the resulting loss of species. My artworks presented a level of insight and understanding outside the purely verbal to me. They enabled awareness of thoughts and states that are unconscious, abstract, and better articulated through metaphor.
While on this walk I made Infinity. Fallen leaves are arranged into what looks like a fossilised prehistoric creature resting on the forest floor. By looking through an eye with a different perspective, it brings to mind continuous cycles of life and death, and the infinite nature of the world in which we are placed.
Ceremony—During my fourth and final walk, I revisited a track I had stumbled across previously. It was rarely used and only navigable because someone had marked it with pink ribbons. This time, I ventured further than I had gone before and went deeper into the bush.
The track went along the top of a ridge, and at the end was a small clearing before the bush dropped down into a wide-open valley. It was profoundly restful there; as I sat and took in the sights, smells and sounds while different birds came to enquire about me, I realised it held a spiritual significance. The artwork I made in this place , Ceremony, spoke to me of a place of gathering—somewhere that offered shelter from the elements and provided a formal space to honour our environment and us.
I found my experiences of making art in the bush to be uplifting, and profoundly personal and spiritual. The landscape and solitude provided much-needed relief from the stresses and demands of studying, working and living in a hectic world. Touching the earth in this way brought me a level of connection to the landscape that I may not have achieved by merely walking in that environment, and I noticed a distinct lessening of cognitive stresses and a greater connection to my heart and soul. There was a regressive quality inherent in much of what I did, as I experienced a reconnection to the joy and imagination I had felt as a child. The artworks themselves facilitated a deeper, non-verbal insight, and left a lasting memory of each walk and what I had experienced, to hold on to after I returned home.
Berger, R., & Lahad, M. (2013) The healing forest in post-crisis work with children, Jessica Kingsley, London & Philadelphia.
Berger, R., & Tiry, M. (2012) ‘The enchanting forest and the healing sand: Nature therapy with people coping with psychiatric difficulties’, The Arts in Psychotherapy, 39 (5), pp. 412–416.
Louv, R. (2011) ‘The nature prescription’, Nature principle: Human restoration and the end of nature-deficit, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, Workman Publishing, pp. 78-88.