Earthworks offers courses, group programmes and individual therapy for resilience and recovery based in nature connection.
In this post, Bioregioning Tayside talked with Stephanie Gooding to find out more about their story.
Can you talk a bit about yourself, your project, and the journey you have been on to get to this point?
I’m a Counselling Psychologist with a special interest in Ecopsychology, which is concerned with the relationship between humans and the natural world and hopes to contribute to the restoration of those relationships to being respectful, caring and sustainable. I am offering the ‘Earthworks’ programme, a year-long course aimed at developing personal psychological resilience in a way that is interlinked with nature. The course gets people outdoors to a wide ranges of different natural environments, gives them skills and confidence to be in the outdoors and a way of more deeply experiencing nature. I also offer outdoor mindfulness training, through which people find a deeper appreciation of nature themselves. I offer 1:1 psychological therapy outdoors. I am now also extending the groupwork and I am offering to include women’s groups on healing from sexual violence and abuse, and groups on social anxiety and social isolation that will have outdoor and ecotherapy foundations.
Some background… When I originally picked my subjects at school we were pressured to think about what university course we would be applying for, and hence make career choices early, around age 14. My priority was to contribute as best I could to the environmental issues that I was confronted with as I became more aware of current affairs. I swayed between environmental science and psychology in order to understand people better, as people are the cause of the environmental degradation and pollution. Although that was my motivation for studying psychology, I did not find opportunities to return to this focus until recently, so turning my career to Ecopsychology feels a bit like coming full circle.
Alongside mainstream psychology I have also concurrently studied Buddhist psychology and indigenous psychology and trained in shamanic ways of practising healing. These have kept my ideas open to other ways of seeing and explaining things that people come to resolve in therapy, and different ways of resolving issues. Nature has always been my first source of comfort and inspiration in my self care and personal development.
What was your inspiration or motivation to do what you do?
I think two things, the first from my NHS psychology training, was an appreciation of the level of mental health distress in the population. An evident problem was the level of demand for services that was never going to be met by psychological services in their current form. Specialist 1:1 care is not possible to provide at the scale needed to meet the population need. This issue is visible in the statistics on waiting times, and patient reports of inadequacy of short-term treatment, and that many patients are offered antidepressant medication before they are referred to talking therapies which is not best practice but is due to waiting times and lack of availability of services.
This has led to developing more tiered allocation of services including alternatives for people with milder issues such as computerised cognitively behavioural therapy, group therapy and briefer 1:1 psychological support. These solutions are still from a medical paradigm viewing problems as personal vulnerabilities that can be thought about just like physical illnesses. This is problematic because mental illness (and physical illness actually) are not just individual breakdowns but symptoms of wider social issues, for example a heart attack is a personal event, but the number of people having heart attacks in Scotland is influenced by local culture, lifestyle and deprivation levels.
The level of need is not inevitable or natural but influenced by cultural factors such as deprivation, inequality, social breakdown and isolation and access to natural environments. In Counselling Psychology one of our core values is about antioppressive practice, recognising how the power structures of society contribute to the picture of an individual’s life and opportunities and working to remove those pressures and empower people.
The second thing, is the inspiration of a new wave of ecotherapies, outdoor and wilderness therapy, as well as a much wider sea of deep nature connection camps, schools and activities that have grown along with a new wave of environmental activism in response to the shortening time frame that we have left to potentially restore the ecological balance and secure human survival. This suggested to me a way that I could bring together my psychology practice with my shamanic work and Buddhist philosophy, by turning my practice to Ecopsychology.
What kinds of expertise or skills do you have or have learned that help you in your work?
To begin taking my work therapeutic sessions outdoors I got some practical training through the Ancrum Outdoor centre and Mountain Training as an outdoor leader with outdoor first aid. The training got me out walking more often and further than I had before, out for longer days and some solo wild camping. I also attended group days based on the ‘8 shields model’ (Jon Young) of nature connection mentoring. I became much more focussed on developing my knowledge of plants, trees, fungi, animal and bird species, and began more foraging and food growing, and began to learn some bushcraft. I also invested in Sharon Blackie’s (author of ‘If Women Rose Rooted’) training on Celtic mythology and traditional seasonal festivals, and the ‘Journey of Young Women’ training on mentoring and facilitating girls’ circles, and followed the mindfulness teacher training pathway. All of this was supported by a wonderful mentor, Margaret Kerr.
How would you describe your relationship to place or to the natural world around you and the environment you live and work in?
I moved to Scotland to attend university about 25 years ago but always found it difficult to feel that my roots were really here. Over the last 5 years or so that I have been walking and deepening my connection with the land here in practical ways, I feel I have been walking myself back into feeling of belonging. Growing food and foraging have been particularly grounding as such an immediate and basic way of staying in touch with the ever-changing conditions day to week to year. I feel incredibly privileged to have such easy access to such incredible vast open and wild natural places as we have Tayside. My relationship with nature is perhaps more like indigenous people, who recognise that everything is sentient and listening to the impressions the natural world is communicating back and forth. This is an aspect of the shamanic way, to treat all life forms as sacred and respect their teachings.
We are still enduring this terrible covid crisis and I wonder if you could think a bit about crisis, in particular the climate and biodiversity crisis which is another thing that feels very much front and centre in our lives. Does that inform what you do/does it impact you or the way you think about your work?
Certainly, I recognise the urgent need we have to change human behaviour towards the environment. While technical solutions might offer a temporary stalling of the worst of the crisis, I believe a lasting solution will only come through a change in consciousness – a restoration of deep caring relationships between people and other species that is alive to the instinctive feeling of distress in response to harm of nature, the feeling that abhors the kinds of harmful practices in farming, manufacture, transportation etc. that we currently tolerate with unconsciousness.
Are there top priorities around the climate and environment you think everyone should be focusing on?
Based on IPCC research my sense is that getting to net zero carbon emissions is vital in the next 20 years. Species extinction would also be my other priority problem, especially starting from the base of the food web with the insects. I’ve just done a course in beekeeping and discovered that wild bee colonies no longer survive without human intervention. It therefore is essential that we protect habitats and stop all use of insecticides, returning farming to organic and permaculture methods.
How do you feel about the future in the light of these crises? What about the past, how things have changed over time, does it inform what you do?
I feel uncertain. There is nothing to suggest that we should be hopeful for change as countries across the world sail past their internationally agreed targets. However the research suggests we are not yet past the point of no return, so I intentionally aim to cultivate radical hope (Joanna Macy) – continued aspiration and effort even when there is no rational reason to have hope. The huge growth of the conversation in recent years does give me a hope. In the 90s when I first began to be politically active environmentalists were stereotyped and dismissed as loonies, now environmental issues are in the mainstream media and environmental goals accepted by governments. I have hope this groundswell will translate into mass behavioural change.
Who do you draw inspiration and guidance from? Are there people showing great leadership in your field?
As mentioned my mentor, Margaret is a great guide and support. In literature, people like Joanna Macy, Sharon Blackie, poets like Wendell Berry, activists like Polly Higgins. Over the last year I have become involved with the Climate Psychology Alliance, and this community is a great source of inspiration and collective strength.
What does “community” mean for what you do?
I am hoping to develop more of a local community around nature connection practices (outdoor mindfulness, celebrating the traditional seasonal festivals, food growing and harvesting together, working shamanically with nature etc.) Community is a vital factor to making behavioural changes, it really helps to have a group who are all changing together and to feel that changes we make lend towards (and certainly not away from) a sense of group belonging.
Can you talk a little about the networks that you are part of that support you in what you do?
Climate Psychology Alliance is a network of people interested in the psychological aspects of the climate emergency, how to create and encourage behavioural change and remove the blocks that impede progress towards goals such as net zero carbon emissions. Based in the UK it is an international group, offering a knowledge hub, source of advice and information, disseminating research. We offer public talks on the psychological and social issues around climate change, and also 1:1 support for people affected by climate distress (particularly climate scientists and activists, who can receive 3 free sessions per year).
Are there aspects of the network which you think need changing or developing? Do you see a need for more cooperation between networks What might that look like?
We have natural links with some other community activist groups through members being part of different groups and initiatives. We have scientists engaged in research sharing findings, therapists taking these into practice, and people working in governmental roles too, so this network is well placed for effectiveness.
How is what you do affected or informed by the current political system? Or local/national policies?
Answered above in terms of theory, in practice there is no funding or support for training or delivery of ecotherapy services, or support for them to be delivered by the NHS. There is the social prescribing movement, but there is no framework or funding for the delivery of these kinds of interventions.
Are there things you would develop or love to do if resources were unconstrained or managed differently?
I would love to offer ecotherapy groups and courses for local communities at low cost or for free. Ecotherapy groups would have an aspect of personal resilience skills training, with deepening the relationship with nature and some behaviour change towards greener lifestyles. I would love to offer more support to activists and scientists, and young people facing the reality of the threat of climate change who are fearful for their future.
In your journey to where you are now is there a particular moment or memory which really meant something to you, energised you, or sparked something that stays with you? This could be anything!
Practising Joanna Macy’s meditations lying on the earth, and in response to my question about where to put my efforts to be of most support to the earth, getting the sense that I have to deepen my own way of living in tune with nature around me, to embody a way of being that is slower and more conscious of the sentience of other non-humans, more intuitive, more grateful and with deeper care and attentiveness. That whatever my work needs to become will arise naturally from there.
This need from the earth for humans to change their consciousness back to a way that is more like animals – to a sense of self that is more part of the living environment- has become my personal focus fitting completely with Joanna Macy’s idea of 3 types of activism: holding actions (protests and moves to stop environmental harm), building new solutions (from new business models, to new governmental and financial systems), and thirdly, and where I see my work, is around facilitating the change in consciousness to become part of the restoration of the relationship between people and planet. I am designing the ecotherapy work I offer around this aim.
You can find out more about Earthworks via this link here.