Healing in the Wild

The barnacle geese fly over gracefully in perfect symmetry, calling out to each other as they go. The winter sun is peeping through the early afternoon clouded sky. Benbulben stands in all its majesty clothed in yet another outfit of dappled light, providing a perfect backdrop for the bare barked trees which stand tall and dignified. The gentle lapping of the waves further enhances this symphony of my senses.

I have just finished a session with my client, had a good walk and am now having a light lunch as I prepare for my next appointment. It is so natural for me to work outdoors as a counsellor. I am totally at home in such a setting. Nature has long been a place of healing, nurture, growth, direction, new life and grounding. My outdoor office today is a very tranquil place to work, brimming with mystery.

I grew up on a small farm in Co. Down and from an early age I spent as much time as possible working on the mixed farm with my two brothers and father. Remembering those distant days through the lens of the seasons has provided a rich resource for me to assist clients explore their experience with the big themes such as birth, transformation, loss, longing and depression.

Winter was a time of frost, harsh winds, rain, deadness, clear blue skies, and a time to nurture and nourish the sheep and cattle who in those days stayed outdoors. I have visceral memories of wading my way through muck, experiencing delight when a good coat of frost provided a firm surface to tread for a brief period and feeling of delight as the sheep ran towards me because my presence meant food for them and their fear of man disappeared.

Spring followed with the new life of birds, lambs, and the indescribable smell of a newly ploughed land which provided an unexpected meal for the hungry crows. Easter was a time of sowing, a time of hope and new beginnings.

Summer memories include endless sunny days, the smell of newly baled hay, the joy of watching the potato stalks grow green and tall, and harvesting the sun kissed oats. The sheep now ran away when I approached because they no longer needed me for food!

Autumn was the time of harvest and abundance, the long wait was over, the ritual of threshing was such a community venture, a sense of belonging and success. Winter seemed far away even though the dew filled mornings and shorter days were a reminder of what was to come.

I am fortunate to have such positive memories of growing up on a farm. Little did I know at the time that these days were so formative and these agricultural memories and images would provide material for the educative aspect of my work as a therapist.  

Land equated to work for me in those days; land was to be worked and cultivated.  Not having ‘ownership’ of land in my adult life however, has invited me to have a different relationship with it. I may not own land now but in another way the land is my friend and a tremendous resource. I treat it as such and it responds. I have come to realize more recently that being in wild nature provides me with a glimpse of my soul. I do not say this lightly.

Several silent retreats spent almost exclusively outdoors, culminating in a 30 day silent retreat and an 8 day vision quest copper-fastened my connection with land as a place of nurture, spirituality and healing. My favorite way of being in the outdoors is sitting, whether it is under a tree or bush, half way up a mountain, at a rock face or in the comfort of a sand dune. These are places for me of healing and generativity.

Several years ago before I ventured out onto the land with clients I began to organize outdoor retreats with whoever might wish to come. It was not counselling as such, I referred to it as days to experience the healing power of nature, days which included themes such as anxiety, depression, abundance, grief, dreams, relationships and children in nature. More recently I named these nature experiences “soul days” as they facilitate participants to connect with their very souls.  

Providing an option to my clients to work outside developed naturally. A participant on one of these days who happened also to be seeing me for psychotherapy was very open to moving out when I sensed that it might be very fruitful. She had a natural affinity with wide open spaces and the particular issue she was working on leant itself to a mountain terrain. Working in the outdoors with clients soon became something I offered people on the first interview as a possibility.

Each season has its own particular contribution to the healing process. Winter is a time when we need to nurture ourselves, warm fires and warm clothing, good replenishing food. Light and growth are at a minimum, but clear frosty days and nights do provide a clarity and freshness which the human person longs for at times. It is a time of waiting in the darkness, a time to feel our pain and express it. Parker Palmer in his book” Let Your Life Speak” describes how in his home territory of the American Mid-West, newcomers often receive a classic piece of advice: “ The winters will drive you crazy until you learn to get out into them.”

We all have our inward winters- low esteem, loss of meaning, anxiety, fear of death. They have the potential of driving us crazy unless we get out into them and face the fear we most want to avoid. Clothed with a supportive environment, good friends and the empathy of a fellow human we can learn what they have to teach us.
We all know the experience of being stuck, getting nowhere, but spring follows winter, and we will come into a time of newness and change.  Of course new growth needs protection and new life can be snuffed out by a blast of wind or a cruel put-down. However we can begin again.

Summer arrives eventually, a fact which is often good to remember when we are in the depths of winter pain, a time of light and sunshine, growth and abundance. Witnessing this season of growth helps one to be aware of our human potential, our calling to be the best we can be, to be in touch with our creativity and uniqueness, to feel our joy and name what we love and appreciate.

Nature as Therapist

Bill Plotkin, author of ‘Wild Mind’ and wilderness guide asks “What happens when we allow nature itself to be the primary therapist or guide, while the human mentor or adviser becomes more of an assistant to nature, an agent or handmaid of the wild?”

As well as being a powerful container for painful emotions, and providing numerous therapeutic tools, being out in nature facilitates the human being getting in touch with their vital individuality which one might describe as the soul.

The simple act of wandering and being welcomed by the numerous inhabitants of the place we are privileged to walk in, using our senses to be curious and our hearts to be compassionate will enhance our well being and slow us down. Being in nature is a two-way process and it demands respect and care. Praising nature is easy when we come across a great view and we are in company but surely it can be done when we are alone. Often when a client makes a break-through, I alert them to be aware of nature praising and celebrating them.

I remind people often that the environment is well able to contain whatever they might want to throw at it. The outdoors helps us get out of our heads and into our senses and feelings. A strong wind holds no fear, angry waves rage and soothe. John O’ Donohue reminds us that walking by the ocean can really help to untangle the knotted mind. Anger and rage can usefully be explored in the wildness and expanse of the outdoors

Nature in therapy

The work of therapy I often describe as equivalent to the draining of a piece of land, digging, unearthing worms in the process, putting in pipes to take the excess water. We are invited to experience and express our feelings, prepare the land then for the new seeds of growth which needs careful nurture like any newly sown lawn. The whole process takes time and effort, patience and pain. The blocked water of anger sadness, and fear needs a way out, it wants to flow. Wild nature is a great teacher for human nature.

The following describes some experiences I have had with clients; the names are fictitious. The element of nature as therapist is clear.

-- Shame

We walk from our cars through a wooded area tuning into our environment using the senses of sight, sound, feeling, smell and taste. Black berries taste really well in autumn. Shame is named as something Rebecca wants to work on today. It resides in her chest area like a piece of hard clay. I invite her to walk for a while in silence and notice if anything in the area speaks of shame.

After a while she was drawn to a bunch of nettles. I ask her to greet the nettles as one would a human being, after all, this place is their home. She describes them as tall, elegant and beautiful. She sits for a period with them and then tells her story of shame to them. Silence follows and I ask her to listen well to see if the nettles want to say anything to her. “Blosssom where you grow” they seem to say. She notes that these nettles do not need to apologise for their sting and bad press. They stand tall and are totally transparent. We later do some integration work and Rebecca realizes that her shame holds her back from being the person she is meant to be.

-- Depression

Robert is depressed and anxious. Sometimes people are more comfortable talking when walking. An office can often be intimidating and clinical, and the client can feel very removed from the world of the therapist who sits before him. Being outside emphasizes mutuality of space, both have to endure the cold or rain, and both have to deal with the unexpected. Men often stand shoulder to shoulder in grief, and sometimes I find can talk more freely as they walk.

We are walking up the mountain road. Over the weeks he had not been able to take exercise even though he knew it would be good for him. So we do it together. I notice he is looking down all the time, and point out that he is limiting his vision to the stony path. I invite him to stop and look in the four directions. We do it slowly naming what we see, the wild Atlantic ocean, Slieve League in Donegal, Ben Bulben in its majesty and the adjacent river in full flow.

I invite Robert to practice while walking during the week. Each time he notices that he is looking down is another opportunity to lift his head again. After a few weeks of repeating this experience I invite Robert to walk with confidence and notice how his chest naturally moves out and his shoulders move back. Nature is so willing to assist the healing process. It was a joy to hear this man say at the end of one session “Success is no longer about money for me, but to be able to look people in the eye.”

-- Anger

One day Noelle wished to work on the anger which was dominating her. Her work had started at home where she had written a poem on her anger. I invited her to wander until she found an area, a thing, a place which seemed to be angry. Soon she stopped at a big tree. I invited her to read the poem to the tree with feeling and passion. Her voice was low and so I suggested she read it three more times and raising her voice each time. Soon her anger became rage which she was able to name and feel where this rage resided in her body

She moved on to find a tree which spoke of rage. It was a huge tree which had fallen and was rotting slowly. She stopped there and felt into the energy of this sad and raging object. Then she noticed a small tree which was supporting the rotting dead tree, observing that this tree was tired and under developed as a result of supporting the bigger one. The dead tree spoke to her of the danger of holding onto rage and how it had rotted as a result.

She recognized the part in her which was underdeveloped and stunted as a result of holding onto rage. Finally Noelle walked on as if she had left her rage in the woods; she felt lighter and picked flowers as she had done as a child.

-- Anxiety

Adam sat down beside an inviting stream and after a period of silence began to relax and was amazed at how tranquil and still this place seemed. Feeling into its energy he noticed the impact it was having on him. Later he expressed what a resource nature was in helping him to curb his anxiety. He needed to feel his feet on the soft earth, breathe in the fresh air and slow down. Often people walk in nature but are oblivious to their surroundings as they remain in their heads and continue their negative and fear-inducing thoughts. Sometimes we have to point out the obvious; when going for a walk, take time to let the place welcome you. After all it is nature’s home and in the human world it would be disrespectful to walk into a friend’s home and be totally pre-occupied with our thoughts and worries. Be present and listen.

Therapy and shamanic imagery

Animals can mean a lot for people in this work. One day with another client as she wandered through a wooded area, she was struck as she talked at the sight of three trees to which she was drawn. Each one reminded her of a different animal, one was a bear which spoke of protection and comfort, and another was an elephant which signified wisdom, and finally a lion embodying courage. Mary was in a very painful situation at that time and needed all three qualities in order to make her transition. The outdoors had helped her name these qualities, feel into each of them and view her situation from these perspectives.

Things to consider when working outdoors therapeutically

The therapist is responsible for the session and needs to be confident and attend to practical boundary issues. Other requirements include: drawing up a new contract which acknowledges the change of setting, awareness of health and safety factors, insurance and ensuring they have some training in this work. Moving out for a particular piece of therapy and then returning to the office setting can be all part of the healing.


Finally the natural environment lends itself to ritual which can form part of the session. Clients sometimes find it helpful to ritualize a new beginning or do closure on part of their life, to mark, acknowledge and /or celebrate a significant event. The language of symbol, gesture, image and metaphor help to avoid the traps of the thinking mind and make a desire become a reality.

The outdoors has so much natural healing available and sometimes we just need some guidance and encouragement. Working in it is not for everyone but those who have a natural affinity with the natural environment can often feel liberated and at peace there. One such person is the poet Wendell Berry who writes:

I come into the peace of wild things, who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief,
I come into the presence of still water and I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light.


About the author: 

Peter lives in North Sligo and practices as a psychotherapist, clinical and pastoral supervisor. He facilitates outdoor retreats and provides training in certain areas of psychotherapy. Peter has a M.A. in Applied Theology.
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