POLYPHONYJournal of the Irish Association of Creative Arts Therapists
Observations

Reflection 1. In Here, Out There: Nature Connection

Published on Jun 16, 2024 by Áilbhe Hines

Introduction

This piece is the first in a series of reflections entitled "Potential Spaces in Virtual Places," exploring aspects of interdisciplinary expressive arts therapy in an online setting. I draw on a number of modes of practice when working online, and exploring Nature Connection has become a meaningful way to work with clients.

Access to the natural world and experiences alongside nature, as a means of fostering well-being, are well documented. Research is burgeoning into the psychological as well as physiological effects of nature connection. Three theories that relate to the idea of nature connection and well-being can be applied even in an online setting: the biophilia hypothesis, the attention restoration theory, and the stress reduction theory (ART, Kaplan and Kaplan, 1989; SRT, Ulrich, 1983 in Ratcliffe, E. 2021). However, benefits and change mechanisms should always be measured on an individual client basis, with continuous evaluation and suitable adjustments.

"Nature Therapy broadens the classical concept of “setting” as static, permanent, and under the control and ownership of the therapist (Barkan, 2002; Bleger, 1967). Rather, Nature Therapy relates to the environment as a live and dynamic partner in the shaping of the setting and the process (Berger, 2004). Nature Therapy develops concepts and methods that assist its operation in nature, while addressing ways that the unique characteristics of this independent environment not only can influence the therapeutic act but also can be used by the therapist to open it up to additional dimensions." (Berger & McLeod, 2006)

I often reflect on Robin Wall Kimmerer's work, which draws on Indigenous and First Nations teachings, introducing "Reciprocity." “Paying attention is a form of reciprocity with the living world, receiving the gifts with open eyes and open heart” (Kimmerer, 2013). Kimmerer invites us to become re-involved in our relationship with nature, from which we have become increasingly exiled and separated. There is an emerging body of research exploring the relationship between lack of nature connection and mental ill-health. “I wonder if much that ails our society stems from the fact that we have allowed ourselves to be cut off from that love of, and from, the land. It is medicine for broken land and empty hearts” (Kimmerer, 2013).

We are part of nature and can give and receive in a reciprocal relationship. These teachings remind us that nature (we) need notice and attention, especially in these precarious times. This rekindling, while in mindful awareness, can bring renewed well-being and meaning. This re-engagement via nature connection and in the spirit of reciprocity may be a way for clients to find healing and lead to a deeper understanding of self, relationships, and their ecosystems. We notice and give attention to ourselves while noticing and giving attention to the natural world and the more-than-human.

“The land knows you, even when you are lost” (Kimmerer, 2013).

In "Here, Out There," I present some interventions I have used when nature connection becomes a possible entry point for therapy with a client. The environments and ecosystems that clients inhabit can be coastal, urban, rural, semi-urban, or semi-rural settings. There is space for nature connection in all these scenarios.

SEEK

'Seek.' Client found artwork.

One of the pertinent outcomes of interventions utilising nature connection in creative arts therapy is connecting the client to the environment beyond, fostering a sense of belonging to a wider ecosystem. Another outcome is that the client, through nature connection activities, can learn to engage meaningfully with the issues and events in their own lives. It is important to note that these examples of nature connection in my online therapy practice are one part of the overall therapeutic journey with a client. Interdisciplinary modes and interventions are used at different times in online sessions, depending on client need. There is no set progression or template; rather, diversions and alternate routes are explored according to assessment and client feedback. Safe space and a strong therapeutic relationship are vital.

The introduction of nature connection to the client is in the spirit of "not an expert," "not knowing," but still open to exploring, asking, and reflecting. It is important to communicate to the client that it is not necessary to know all the names of birds, plants, or trees. Just noticing these things is enough to begin. They might notice a plant or tree, look at the sky, or observe the earth and its colors and shapes. They may feel a breeze, smell their surroundings, or hear sounds around them. Even urban landscapes offer possibilities for noticing, using all the senses. Over time, there may be an increase in knowledge about nature and the "more-than-human world." However, this is not the main focus of the work.

“I came to know that it wasn’t naming the source of wonder that mattered, it was wonder itself” (Kimmerer, 2013).

Some clients begin therapy online after a difficult period of mental and physical ill health. In this early phase of therapy, the client can be quite disconnected from the outside world and spend much time indoors. The use of nature connection comes in tandem with exploring the client's sensory and interoceptive awareness, their current feeling states, and accessing regulatory activities. This includes exploring their relationship to their physical and psychological challenges. Levels of knowing are explored.

I use this model of "knowing" within the expressive arts approaches attached to all the therapy work I do. We start with "In Here," then expand to "Out There," and explore the interplay between them. Often, a client will not have experience in expressive arts, but they can, over time, learn to use expressive forms to know more about themselves, both explicitly and implicitly. Alongside the client, we create spaces of reflection. This approach aligns with how the client may not know, be aware of, or understand all the aspects of their lives but is encouraged to look, inquire, and develop compassionate curiosity.

I have chosen only a few examples of the nature connection work I do and how I have adapted this for online sessions. With clients' permission, images and stories of sessions are shared in this piece. I invite you to pause and listen to the bird recording / look at the images. Here is a space for the reader to tune into the possibilities of nature connection and perhaps reflect on their own experiences.

Noticing

A simple Nature Connection intervention is to start by exploring the client's awareness of their place in the inside space of their home by noticing where they sit and the room they are in. Following that, they are asked to look outside their window for anything they might notice there. The client is invited to notice just one thing. This simple check-in activity can become a regular part of sessions and has often provided a valuable starting point for further interventions. Noticing, in a curious and compassionate way, can translate to how the client might view their own life story, fostering a curious and compassionate outlook. They develop the action of noticing and exploring the ecosystem they inhabit, as a way of developing their ability to observe and reflect on aspects of themselves and the world through which they move.

My reporting of what I also notice outside my window connects the client to the therapeutic space in a meaningful way. Comparisons and similarities are discussed. We create links between the therapy studio and the client room, through the screens of our devices and beyond. The client's "In here" world expands and is explored first through our connection through the screen in session and in guided processes of body awareness and regulation. They are invited to tune into themselves and to observe the room they sit in, eventually directing attention outside the window and beyond to "out there." This movement from "in here" to "out there" is symbolically an expansion and contraction. We work with distance and proximity, accessing the inner and outer worlds of the client. This practice of noticing is used throughout the therapeutic process, sometimes several times in a session. All sensory resources of the client are used in this work.

cycles and rhythms 2

'Cycles and Rhythms'. Mixed media.

T: You know the way we met up online and there was this consistent bit, of looking out the window, noticing what was happening out there. A small part of the garden or the landscape beyond, reflecting on seasonal changes, looking out from the window, where we made a small connection, even if you couldn't get out.
C: The view outside from inside. 
T: Sometimes it drew us into another conversation. Sometimes, we felt it was just enough to have that small regular exchange about this connection. It became something we did in each session in some small way. I am wondering what you felt about that or what was it like for you?
C: Yeah, that definitely helped, because like feeding the birds, for instance, I can sit inside and watch them and it's really therapeutic that way and since then it is. I still watch them. I still feed them every day. They're really great. So, I could just look out my window and do all that. Crows are funny to watch. Magpies are aggressive and mischievous but I feed them too. And even the drawings as well. We were doing the clouds, bits of the sky. You can be inside for that. Small circles on the page and painted a tiny bit of sky at different times of day. I did a few of them. Yeah, that was when I was finding it hard to go outside.

Zooming In, Zooming Out: Distance & Proximity

In some sessions, clients are invited to zoom in and out on various aspects of what can be seen, heard, or otherwise sensed. We have already practiced noticing one thing in sessions. The client is invited to become aware of the whole vista (the macro) and then try zooming in on a smaller part of that vista (micro). In all of these activities, we find ways to express and explore. A client might focus on a color or set of colors or an object or set of objects. They might notice a landscape feature, building, or part of these. They might look skyward and reflect on the whole sky or make artworks based on tiny parts of the sky. There are many possibilities. We use movement and image-making to reflect and connect. Photographs can be taken and shared on the screen and, like any image, can lead to insight and serve as an entry point to client material.

outside my window noticing

'Outside my Window Noticing.' Acrylic paint.

This activity is also applicable to a more urban environment, using the same guidelines of awareness. We establish within sessions that the client can choose at what level to engage with an issue or life story. We can use this activity to understand how we might approach what a client brings to a session. We approach each issue from a distance the client feels comfortable with and in their own time. We expand and contract according to what a client can bear and explore further using expressive activities such as writing, movement, or image-making. We do not have to deal with what might be an overwhelming whole. The client can feel in control of the distance of engagement, as well as the parts of their experience that they feel able to express and reflect upon within a session.

Nature as Metaphor

When using process-oriented imagery in sessions, an image may emerge that relates to the natural world and with which the client makes meaningful life connections. Discussing the qualities of the image can lead to unexpected insight and material for future work in sessions. A quote, text, or poem that references nature, but also contains a metaphor that a client can relate to, can also be a poignant tool of intervention. Nature connection as part of the work online can introduce the idea of metaphor itself. Metaphor is something that creative or expressive arts therapists introduce as a means of helping a client make meaning of the material they bring to sessions. It can add to the development of looking, reflecting, and self-knowledge skills that clients hope to develop as part of their transformation and assistance in therapy.

Rhythms and Cycles

The cycles and rhythms of nature may provide starting points for reflection. Seasons, day, night, dawn, or dusk are all useful points of departure. The cycles and rhythms of the natural world are a way for the client to gain insight into their own cycles and rhythms. Photographs, image-making, bodywork, and storytelling can all be utilised interchangeably as interventions within the theme of cycles and rhythms.

Sensory Connection

Sensory experiences where clients are immersed in nature can help nurture well-being. However, using audio, visual, and guided creative visualization as nature connection intervention in online settings has been a viable and successful tool with clients. Ten minutes of listening to birdsong a day has been linked to well-being outcomes. Sensory exploration has connected clients to nature and, in turn, has fostered curiosity about the more-than-human they encounter when they explore their environment. Listening to the sounds of the natural world can expand clients' sensory awareness.

“I close my eyes and listen to the voices of the rain” (Kimmerer, 2013).

One example is when I play my field recordings of birds or nature sounds within a session. In one intervention, I play a variety of different short soundscapes and finish the activity with a recording of a longer soundscape, perhaps a dawn or evening chorus or sounds from a forest or riverside. Clients are invited to listen with eyes open, closed, or relaxed. Clients explore this experience by making graphical representations or mark-making on paper. Materials and tools for mark-making can also be varied. Ways of making marks are introduced, and the client is assisted in creating a vocabulary of marks that can be used. Sometimes, we create movements that correspond to the sounds or marks made. We can mirror each other or witness each other's movements.

After the activity, we might identify the bird or nature sound, but what is emphasized at first is the sensory connection part and the expression of that via imagery, writing, movement, or mark-making. After participating in this activity, a client may recognize a bird song or bird outside their window or when they are out in their local environment. They might seek out spaces to explore more of this sensory connection. They may have stories related to particular birds. Other field recordings of natural spaces can elicit stories, personal encounters, and other connections from the client. These connections can lead to additional transformative expressive possibilities within sessions. Clients have reported after these activities that they are becoming more attuned to their environments. They are noticing new connections and are sensing their personal space and their surroundings differently. Short videos can be shared of natural environments, flora, fauna, or landscapes. Following the viewing, imagery, writing, and connection with the felt self can lead to insights for clients.

nurture birds

'Nurture Birds.' Pen and watercolour.

The interventions summarised above are also concerned with the quality of experience for clients who may not go outside for many reasons. It is hoped that this sensory work provides a way to connect, despite perceived and real barriers to participation. It opens up a portal into Nature Connection for all clients, whatever their situation, and this is a potential space that can be accessed authentically online.

Venturing Out: Encounters, Quests, and Instasculpts

Some clients may, if agreed, go out and engage outside. A client may take a walk in their local environment or sit outside their home and share that experience with me in the online session. Sometimes they take photographs of where they have been or what they have encountered. If appropriate, we agree on an activity or quest that they might embark on. The clients are encouraged to seek, discover, and share.

Quests

In sessions, we can agree on quests that a client can undertake. It might be to find a flower, plant, or tree. Other quests include finding a type of environment such as a wooded area, seashore, river, or hedgerow. One client reflects:

“Looking for Cleavers was good because I went out. I put aside a few hours of the day to go out into the woods and look for it. I had a thing to do. So that was good. And I really enjoyed it as well. So yeah. The wild garlic was there that day too. There is loads of it, and you can smell it.”

Instasculpt (Hines 2011) is an activity I have developed for both indoor and outdoor work and with individuals or groups. Objects are made available to create configurations that are improvised in the moment. In this context, after some Instasculpt activity being introduced within session time online, a client ventures out at another time and finds a spot to sit or stand, being present and observing what is in their immediate vicinity. They can utilise the zooming activity from earlier sessions. They notice possible materials that are right beside where they sit. Then, very quickly, the client makes an Instasculpt of objects or materials. The value of this activity lies in the brevity of process, the focus on an emergent rather than planned creation, and on playfulness. Land art or bricolage takes longer and can have the client caught up in the overall quality of the piece as artwork, which, although useful at times, is very different from the process involved in Instasculpt.

instasculpt

'Instasculpt.' Found materials.

Just like a scribble drawing or a mark-making improvisation, the client is encouraged to be in the present moment, expressing their here and now. If they can, they take a photograph of the Instasculpt. They might take a stick and place it near some leaves or cones. They may just use their hands to gather a mound or shape. There are a lot of possibilities. They might use a stick or their fingers to make a shape or set of marks in the soil, sand, or river mud. They may use stones to form a shape or word.

Knowledge Sharing and Co-Research

I provide the client with resources to listen to bird and nature recordings outside of sessions. If the client is interested, I also provide resources on how to identify birds, plants, and other elements within their environment. Sometimes we embark on a kind of co-research and knowledge sharing. Bringing nature research and discoveries into sessions with clients can foster an environment of two-way knowledge sharing. The client is informed that I am also learning new things about nature. I am curious and fascinated by it and our more-than-human relationships. Often, they share their unique knowledge, life stories, or discoveries, which can deepen the therapeutic alliance in sessions.

For example, a client shared pictures with me that they had taken of larvae on a tree in their garden. I did not know what kind of larvae they were in the session. The client found out they were Sawfly larvae and shared this research with me. Another example was when I shared a picture of a moth I had spotted on the Hawthorn, which we later identified as a Magpie Moth. I also keep a "notice in nature" journal. Sharing extracts of sightings and observations are useful in a storytelling mode for clients. They can participate in this "notice in nature" journal activity by verbally reporting or via expressive forms. Sharing the story of their ecosystem can be a route to sharing their life story.

Natural Materials

Inks, eco prints, papermaking, mono printing, cordage making, and seed planting, with natural materials or ingredients found around the house or beyond, can bring nature connection into sessions and have therapeutic outcomes. Clients are guided through the processes and encouraged to experiment. They use these inks and mark-making tools to make marks or expressive pieces that can be reflected on. They can cut up and collage paper or prints they have made. All of this activity can help build feelings of mastery and expand the experiences of clients in the use of expressive forms. If necessary, I have posted materials to clients to assist in these experiments. Clients choose to engage with this kind of activity at whatever level they feel able to. Some clients work alongside me in sessions with simple ink making, cordage making, papermaking, or printing, becoming sensorily engaged in the here and now space. Others continue to explore offline, and processes are shared of ink making, papermaking, cordage making, or printing as they continue these creative sensory processes independently. Clients photograph their processes and creations to reflect on within sessions. Seed planting has also become an interesting addition to the work. Some plants are successfully grown. However, not all seedlings survive, which has provided rich material to be expanded on in sessions.

ecoprint_1

'Ecoprint'. Various media.

“I like the nature side of it. Sometimes I just find it really hard to leave the house. So if it's just going to the garden or collecting plants to make inks or making art with nature and stuff like that was really beneficial as well because it got me out. It gave me a purpose to go outside” (Client reflection).

Considerations

A client can present with a fear of nature. There may be historical trauma, "here and now" access issues, or associated painful experiences. When introducing bird sounds, for example, there may be negative or positive associations depending on the bird and the client's past experiences. Certain environments may have negative associations for a client. As always, it is our responsibility to assess the suitability for intervention carefully. In a trauma-informed approach, we do not carelessly introduce anything to clients without some sense of their experiences past and present. However, a client's negative experiences with nature can become beacons and useful material to explore. It is also imperative to be aware of cultural and societal factors when considering using nature connection in sessions. Interdisciplinary practice calls for intersectional practice. Getting to know the client’s life story in relationship to nature helps formulate suitable interventions.

Final Thoughts

Overall, I have found that we can expand entry points into intervention for clients by bringing nature connection into sessions. Nature connection can provide meaningful ways to interact and deepen the therapeutic relationship. Using nature connection is a portal into the processes of noticing and reflection. The artworks created after these interactions and reflections add another dimension to the healing space online. Incorporating meaningful and accessible nature connection into online therapy spaces can lead to good therapeutic outcomes.

I have provided a few examples of how I bring nature connection into the interdisciplinary therapy space online, but the practice is continuously evolving. It is not something that all clients will align with, but generally, I have found that some aspects of nature connection can be brought into the therapeutic space online with a diverse range of clients. Although it cannot be denied that actual immersion in nature can have a healing effect, those with limited or no access to this immersion, for various reasons, can still benefit from alternative ways of experiencing nature in the online setting. New technologies such as VR will extend the possibilities of this work. However, until these technologies become more widely available, we can, at a very basic level using online platforms, bring nature connection into our work.

"If nature exposure can improve the mental perception of stress as well as physiologic markers of sympathetic arousal, it follows that this can have a myriad of implications on our healthcare and public health systems" (Shuda et al, 2020).

Acknowledgements

I would like to first acknowledge all the clients, the incredible humans, that I have been fortunate enough to work alongside. Without them, their courage, and wisdom, I would not be able to reflect on my work in such a meaningful way. I thank them for allowing me to share their work and for the creative evaluative conversations they have participated in, which provide me with rich opportunities to improve my practice. I would like to thank the Polyphony editors, past and present, who have worked hard to make the journal an accessible and nurturing platform. I also thank all the Creative Arts Therapists, past and present, who have passed on their learning and ideas. I acknowledge the many inequities that still exist in how we make therapeutic and nature spaces accessible and in defining such spaces. I am grateful to have been given access to such spaces but am also committed to being called in by the voices of those who have been marginalised. Finally, I thank the more-than-human world alongside which we can be endlessly gifted and healed. I pledge to always protect, respect, and reciprocate.

Áilbhe Hines

ilbhe HInes BIO PIC

Áilbhe Hines is an interdisciplinary artist and creative arts therapist. They are concerned with socially engaged interdisciplinary therapy practice, with the potential of creative arts therapies in diverse communites of care and with trauma informed practice.

They are interested in how artworks can consider knowledge/knowing and in the interactions between artist, viewer and the wider environment.

They experiment with ways in which communication of ideas through artforms can have multiple layers of meaning and affect.

Using poetry, recordings, film, written works, performance art, visual work, in-situ artwork and materials exploration, as a means of inquiry, research, creation and presentation, their work considers the ecological, relational and structural interactions that surround us and the intersectionality that defines us - as individuals, communities and societies.

Their works include improvisational durational works installed and/or performed in diverse, non-traditional arts spaces and contexts.

Objects, texts, materials and ephemera are worked with anew in these durational works, creating new objects texts, and ephemera as residue, to be brought into the next stage of inquiry and making.

Áilbhe is currently working on a series of reflection pieces for the IACAT Journal, Polyphony, and a new body of work, :Beyond the Anthropocene", partly supported by a much appreciated Arts Council Agility Grant.

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