Ways to Develop Your Ecological Self

Last week I promised you that I’d offer up some ways to develop your ecological self, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do today!

Just to recap, the ecological self (or ecological identity) occurs when you stop seeing yourself as a being separate from and superior to the rest of nature, and instead embrace your place as part of a vibrant and varied ecological community full of all sorts of beings and natural phenomena. The more you become your ecological self, the more you feel connected to and responsible for nature, not just out of a sense of self-preservation, but of an altruism toward the world and all its inhabitants.

Please remember that developing your ecological self can be a lifelong pursuit, so don’t come in expecting immediate dramatic results. What I offer here are some starting points; take them and make them your own, and add in your own personal twists!

Know thyself: Developing your ecological self involves a fair amount of self-reflection (not surprising.) When is the last time you really thought about who you are as a person, and more importantly why you are that way? You don’t have to lose yourself entirely in stereotypical navel-gazing, but try spending a few minutes a day contemplating your reasons for making a particular decision, or why you like a particular hobby or interest. This is not meant to be critical or accusatory! Instead, be neutral and curious, without judgement. Explore the paths of experience that led you to that decision or preference. Once you think you’ve hit a dead end, start over again with a different part of yourself to explore.

Here’s one possible conversation with yourself that could go through your head:

I’m very glad I stopped to help that little box turtle across the road today. I know it took some extra time and I was a little late to work, but it was worth it.

So why did I consider it to be more important to help the turtle than to be at work right on time?

Well, because I didn’t want that turtle to get run over. It’s a busy road, very dangerous for small creatures like that.

So I care about that turtle, even though it’s just an animal?

Well, yes! It’s another living being, and if it had gotten run over it wouldn’t have been for any good reason, not to feed another animal for example. And I’m sure the turtle would rather be alive than dead.

So I feel empathy for the turtle?

Yes! Very much so.

That means that I have the ability to care for other beings and to look out for their well-being. That’s a good thing to know about myself.

Again, this is just one example of how self-reflection can work. You can literally do this with any decision, preference or personal trait. Again, please be gentle with yourself; this is an opportunity to know yourself better, not tear yourself up for perceived flaws and mistakes.

Remember your roots: Think way back to when you were a child. Were there any natural places you especially felt drawn to? A yard, a park, a street gutter that wooshed with water any time it stormed? These places, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, can be a very important part of childhood development and your identity as a person.

Even if you haven’t been back to those places since you were young, and even if some of them may no longer exist, spend time thinking about them. Imagine being back there, what you saw, heard, felt, smelled and even tasted there. Did you pick wild chives and eat them, or run your hands through the long grass? Do you remember how the ground smelled after it rained, or how the place looked when the sun was directly overhead? Give yourself time to shake the dust off your memories and experiences; it’s okay if you can’t remember details right away.

Now remember how it felt to be in these outdoor places. Did you enjoy the sense of freedom and exploration? Was there a thrill any time you found an insect or other small being? Was it quieter than indoors? Did you look forward to going outside, or did you have to be convinced to leave behind video games, books or other distractions?

Hold on to any positive feelings you have about the places you grew up with. It’s okay to acknowledge any negative associations you have, too, but don’t dwell on them. What is it like to revisit the good things about these childhood nature refuges?

Go outside!: Now that you’re older, you don’t have to stay indoors all the time if you don’t want to. Assuming you’re willing and able, and you have a safe outdoor place to access, spend some time outside. Nearby nature is fine if you don’t want to take a road trip to the wilderness. Even sitting out on your front step and watching the clouds go by and the light change as the sun travels from east to west can be a great outdoor exercise. If you need to stay indoors for any reason, pick a window with as nice a view as you can get.

Pay attention to any non-human nature that you notice. You may see animals, even small ones like insects or birds. There may be plants around you, whether wild or cultivated. No matter where you are the weather’s always changing, and you can spend your time noticing in detail what the temperature, wind and precipitation are like. If you’re in an area that hasn’t been completely altered by development, you may still be able to notice some geological features and contours to the land. Water is especially delightful to the senses, whether a wild stream or an artificial fountain.

You can start with a relatively small amount of time, even as little as five or ten minutes. Set aside that time every day to be somewhere where there’s no roof over your head. You might take notes in a journal on what you notice from day to day, especially as the seasons change. And if you like, increase the amount of time you spend outside, at least on days where you are able to.

At least once a month, try to get yourself to a bigger or wilder location. For some people that may mean going on a long mountain hike; for others, that could be going to a larger city park rather than the smaller one right down the street.

One more thing to pay attention to: how do you feel when you have your outdoor time? Do you feel refreshed, or does it feel more like a chore? If the latter, why? Do you need to find a different place that’s more inspiring, or maybe just loosen the schedule and be more organic in your timing? How do you feel about the place you visit every day? Is it someplace you enjoy being, or do you yearn for something else? This is another topic you can journal on.

Get to know your ecoregion: Your outdoor space is just one tiny piece of a larger ecoregion. An ecoregion is a large area of land that has similar geological and geographical features, living beings and climate patterns; it’s smaller than a bioregion, but larger than an individual ecosystem. Even the most developed city is still in an ecoregion.

First, determine what your ecoregion is. Here’s a list of maps that include ecoregions both in the United States and beyond. You can get more details on the ecoregions of the United States here, and those of Canada here. The World Wildlife Fund site has a lot more information on ecoregions found worldwide; you may have to sift through the pages a bit to find your exact ecoregion, but between this site and the maps I mentioned above you should be able to get it sorted out.

Next, get to know your ecoregion through websites and books. When I’m trying to learn more about a particular group of species in my area, let’s say bats, I often search online for “Oregon bat species” or “Pacific Northwest bat species”. Bats are pretty cool as far as I’m concerned, but a lot more people think birds are even better, which means that while books on bats may be a bit thin on the ground, there are many field guides to birds in this area, many of which can be obtained cheaply at secondhand book stores and online.

You don’t have to start out with bats, birds, or even bees! Some people are very attracted to the wildflowers in their area, and use that as their foot in nature’s door. Others are fascinated by local weather patterns. Still others want to start at the ground level–geology! If you’re having trouble finding resources, see if there are any local hobbyist clubs or other organizations for people who are interested in the same parts of your ecoregion as you are. You can also contact your state’s fish and wildlife department or natural resources department.

Don’t just stick your nose in a book, though! Spend some time outside putting all that knowledge to good use. For example, every time I go hiking I keep a journal where I write down all of the animals, plants and fungi I recognize, even if I’ve seen them before. I also make note of ones I don’t yet know so I can research them when I get home. Over the years my lists have gotten much longer!

I also can’t recommend iNaturalist enough for those of you with smart phones. Yes, I know it seems counterproductive to talk about phone apps on an ecotherapy site. But it’s a wonderful tool for recording the species you see when outside. And if you don’t know what a particular animal or plant is, you can post it as an unknown species and other users will do their best to identify it for you.

All this natural history isn’t just to make you more knowledgeable, though! The more you learn about your ecoregion, the more connected you feel to it. And that can have some surprising effects on how you view the world. Read on…

Question authority: The model of the world we’re often raised with shows humans at the top of an ecological pyramid. Unfortunately we haven’t been very responsible in our supposed superiority. We’ve managed to do a lot of damage to the planet in the name of our own interests, and it’s obvious that this model isn’t working.

What if, instead of seeing humans as the most evolved species, deserving of a place on top of the world, we saw ourselves as just one of many amazing species that are the product of billions of years of evolution? After all, we are no further away from the first life form on the planet than a Douglas fir tree, or a soil microbe. Every species around today has been equally successful in surviving the travails of this planet to be here now.

Sure, we’re special–but so are all the other beings in their own way. And we’re all interconnected. None of us can survive without air to breathe or water to drink or food to eat–well, okay, unless you’re a tardigrade. But even the tardigrades can only go so long without these resources, and can’t live endlessly in a vacuum separate from everything else.

So try thinking of us instead as being in a great circle with all the other beings in your ecoregion. There are endless lines connecting species that interact with each other, and ultimately all are connected to all others, one way or another. We’re just one of many in this community, neither greater nor lesser. Like other omnivorous animals we need to eat other living beings to survive, but it doesn’t make us inherently superior. It’s just how nature is.

Who are you in that great interconnected circle? That is an important key to understanding and deepening your sense of your ecological self. Just as you’ve spent time sitting in contemplation of your self in other ways, take time to think about your place in your ecoregion as one of many beautiful beings.

Think like a mountain…or a cat…or a tree: One of the most difficult practices for many people is to get out of your own head. You know how we’re told to try walking for a mile in the shoes of another to (metaphorically) understand where they’re coming from? This takes it a step further, asking you to walk in the hooves, or paws, or fins, or wings of another being–or to imagine that you are rooted to the ground as a tree, or made of earth as a hill.

Some practices go into great depth in this regard; the Council of All Beings created by Joanna Macy and John Seed is a beautiful, if poignant example. You don’t need to get a group of friends together to create animal masks and speak in theatrical tones, though. All you need to do is remember your imagination, and think about what it might be like to be another being.

When I go out hiking in the Cascades, I like to imagine what it might be like to be one of the great Western red cedar trees I meet along the way. How would my life be different if, instead of traveling all around, I was born in one spot, and that’s where I stayed for my entire life? How would my understanding of that place deepen as I got older? How would I respond to threats to that place since I couldn’t run away?

I do this closer to home, too. Every spring I get annoyed at the tiny house ants that invade the kitchen. But then I think about what it is to be one of those ants. What if I were tiny, and one of a huge colony, all serving the queen? What if my one task in life was to bring home food to feed this vast community? A nice big shelter from the elements would be pretty nice, wouldn’t it? And huge stores of food, if I can just figure out how to get inside them. (This is usually when I stop and make sure all the food is in ant-proof containers and that I’ve cleaned the counters!)

By doing this, I am increasing my empathy for other beings, and this empathy is absolutely central to developing the ecological self. It doesn’t mean that I have to guilt trip myself for every carrot I uproot or every clam I dig out of the sand. It does, however, encourage me to be more mindful of my actions, and the wider-rippling effects each decision I make has on other beings of all sorts.

There’s no one right way to develop your ecological self. Your efforts may not have a major change on who you already are; they may simply affirm your decisions. Or you may make greater changes over time as you get to know yourself in more detail. Again, what I offer here are merely some starting points; you have a lifetime to become yourself on all levels. Enjoy the journey!