Healing Nature: Chicago Forum on Sustainability and Ethics

SUST major Jessie Crow Mermel attended the Chicago Regional Forum on Ethics and Sustainability at the Chicago Botanic Garden on October 16th. This guest essay provides a recap of the day’s events, along with some personal commentary and her original photographs of the Garden.

The title of the recent 3rd annual Chicago Regional Forum on Ethics and Sustainability, “Healing Nature,” can be read two different ways — “healing” could be read as an adjective or a verb, changing the meaning. Perhaps we should read it both ways – the act of healing nature as well as the quality of nature as healing to humanity. The various speakers approached the title differently based on their perceptions and their own work. Yet, several speakers noted that there is a call for mutualism, a call that reflects this marriage between ethics and sustainability.

The annual Forum on Ethics and Sustainability is co-sponsored The Chicago Botanic Garden and The Center for Humans and Nature. Once again, they brought together an interesting and eclectic group of regional and national speakers whose work is bridging the gap between ethics and sustainability. This year, the speakers also grappled with discussions of design and experimental science healing nature through phytoremediation, the connections between ecology and neurology, how city planning and landscapes affect psychology, nature’s role in health care and end of life care, equity and accessibility to nature, the restoration of nature and humanity, and the healing nature of poetry.

The event, held at the Regenstein Center at the Chicago Botanic Gardens, began with opening remarks from Sophia Siskel, CEO of the Chicago Botanic Gardens; Gavin Van Horn, Ph.D., Director of Midwest Cultures of Conservation and Center for Humans and Nature; and Brooke Hecht, Ph.D., President of the Center for Humans and Nature. They began the discussion of the theme for the day of how interacting with nature has psychological, physical, spiritual, and community benefits, but also nurtures connections that promote environmental ethics.

The highlight of the forum was the morning keynote speaker Laura Sewell, Ph.D. in visual psychology and neuroscience, director of the Bates-Morse Mountain Conservation Area in Maine, and author of Sight and Sensibility: The Ecopsychology of Perception. Sewell poetically explained how our experiences in nature positively affect our brain through neuroplasticity (changing synapses and neural pathways). She discussed the wide and growing body of research supporting the psychological benefits of being in nature, but noted that it is difficult to quantify this “wilderness rapture.” Along with stunning photography in her presentation, she quoted several of her psychology students whom she had recently taken to Grand Staircase, a 1.9 million acres wilderness preserve in Utah. Her students explained how nature heals so eloquently as a “returning to ourselves” that offers “no mirrors, but more reflection.”

Lewell’s talk underscored the importance of reciprocity — or mutualism — with healing and nature. She contends that nature and psyche are undivided and emphasized the interdependence between humans and the more than human world. She called for a “sensual engagement” – that retuning our senses to nature would help our awareness of our “embeddedness” in the natural world. Lewell claims, “Our wounded collective psyche perpetrates ecological damage from denial, anxiety, despair and shame and creates alienation from our deeply embedded natural self.” A return to our senses would bring healing to our “wounded psyche” and therefore would extend to the way we treat the natural world. She commented on how our society engages more with screens now and how it increases superficiality and threatens to affect our depth perception, in both a real and figurative sense. Her research and work truly embodied the theme of the forum. Nature is healing to humanity in profound ways.  However, it is essential that we work to conserve nature, not only because it benefits us, but also because it is ethically right to do so.

Also in the morning, William Sullivan, professor of landscape architecture at University of Illinois, gave a lively talk about his research on how the amount of greenery in Chicago public housing relates to well-being and community – the lower the economic status, the greater the benefit from green landscapes.

Frances Whitehead, professor of sculpture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, discussed her interesting path to sustainability through art and design. She presented the work she has been doing in phytoremediation through experimental gardens in abandoned gas stations in Chicago, among other projects. The interesting questions that Whitehead in examining in her work, based on her faculty bio are as follows:

  • What are the ethical underpinnings of one’s artistic/pedagogical process?
  • In an increasingly artificial environment, how can artists participate in the formation and improvement of the larger built environment?
  • What are the possibilities for creating a humane, sustainable, technological future, and what are the possibilities for artists to participate meaningfully in that process and in that culture?
  • In a world of such apparent complexity, and overwhelming capacity for information, what is role of the artist? What is the future of this expertise? What even, is the future of sculpture ?
  • What creative strategies can be used to address these issues?

After lunch, participants reluctantly headed back indoors from the gorgeous colors of early October, but were rewarded with the poetry of Kevin Stein, Ph.D., Illinois’ Poet Laureate and Caterpillar Professor of English at Bradley University. In addition to reciting poetry, both his own and that of children he had taught, he discussed how speaking of nature through poetry can be a source of healing.

The afternoon brought panelists to discuss the mutual healings that are possible between humans and nature – across generations and life stages. Keith Cerk, senior pastor of First Baptist Church; Barbara Waller, director of First Baptist Church Cool Learning Experience; and Dr. Martha Twaddle of Midwest Palliative and Hospice Care Center all brought their expertise to this subject. When Dr. Twaddle addressed what a perfect health care system would look like, she said that all patients, care givers and families would have access to gardens because they are immensely healing. Keith Cerk addressed equity issues in the congregation he serves. He urged well-meaning people who want to help to include the low-income and minority community in the conversations and plans. It is important to ask what they need, not tell them what anyone believes they need. Cerk is helping to develop vacant lots in Waukegan into open green space and community gardens.

The afternoon keynote speaker was Dr. Stephen R. Kellert, Tweedy Ordway Professor Emeritus of Social Ecology and Senior Research at the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. His talk was entitled, “The Human Need for Nature and the Restoration of Nature and Humanity.” His PowerPoint lecture outlined the copious research that is being done in how nature is beneficial to physical and psychological well-being.

Finally, Curt Meine, Ph.D., Senior fellow at the Center for Humans and Nature and Aldo Leopold biographer, closed the forum and welcomed participants to directly experience the healing aspects of nature through a tour of the gardens led by Heather Sherwood, Senior Horticulturist at the Chicago Botanic Garden. It was a spectacular day with autumn colors at their peak.

Experiencing the gardens in their splendor exemplified the notion of our “embeddedness” in nature and the healing aspects of that relationship. It also signified how exclusive the benefits of green surroundings are to the predominantly white middle and upper classes.  Many of the healing green spaces are simply not accessible to people below the poverty line. Everyone deserves to participate in the relationship to his or her human and more-than-human natural community. It is fundamental in the discussion of ethics and sustainability to create safe green space accessible to all, which encompasses and promotes both connotations of “healing nature.”

Texts and Photographs by Jessie Crow Mermel
Sustainability Studies Program, Roosevelt University
30 October 2012

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