Catherine Jackson: You have written a new edition of your classic book, Wild Therapy. What prompted you to write this second edition now, some 10 years since the first, and how is that reflected in the content?
Nick Totton: I wanted to do a second edition because so much has happened in the field over the last decade. For example, rewilding was hardly heard about when I originally wrote the book – now it is very much included, notably in the new edition’s subtitle, Rewilding our inner and outer worlds.
I have added a whole chapter, ‘Wildness in the Anthropocene’, surveying the fantastic work that is being taken forward by people like Donna Haraway and Anna Tsing, which, among other things, is about finding ways to take on and live with the likelihood of catastrophe. This likelihood was of course already present when I first wrote the book, and this is one of the things that hasn’t changed. However, it has become a lot closer and more immediate for many of us. Some of what I wrote about it in the first edition felt very edgy and hard to say, whereas now I think it will be more easily read – perhaps more welcome, in fact, because, among other things, I talk about how therapists can and need to address the environmental crisis in our work. This is still quite a rare occurrence, it seems to me, but our clients increasingly need to feel that they can talk about these matters.
And, of course, we are still living in the dark shadow of COVID-19. Far from being followed by a ‘return to normal’, COVID seems much more likely to be the harbinger of a long-term change in human society, as global ecosystems come closer and closer to breakdown. COVID, like a number of other relatively new epidemics, including Ebola virus, is a zoonotic disease, meaning that it has jumped to human hosts from other species as a result of human incursion on wild ecosystems. In other words, it is a direct effect of our ongoing domestication of wildness – what some people call ‘plantationism’. Deforestation and monoculture planting increase the likelihood of epidemics because the complex web of species and habitats in a biodiverse forest or jungle acts as a filter. Monoculture causes specialised species to disappear, leaving generalists like rats and mosquitoes to carry disease into human habitats. COVID can therefore be seen not as a blip but as one of our final warnings, and this is the greater urgency that this second edition is trying to communicate.
CJ: To quote from the blurb on the back of the book: ‘In today’s Western, industrialised society, “wild” has come to mean dangerous, savage, crazy, out of control. This book celebrates wildness, both in global ecosystems and in the human psyche.’ You argue that embracing unpredictability and boundlessness is vital for our wellbeing and, in these times of environmental crisis, for the survival of humans and other-than-humans. Can you unpack that a little? First, what do you mean by boundlessness?
NT: I introduced this term a few years ago in critiquing the therapeutic concept of boundaries. The opposite of ‘boundaried’ is conventionally seen as ‘unboundaried’. I suggest replacing this with ‘boundless’ – an attitude to the client based in generosity and abundance, rather than suspicion and defensiveness. This is obviously related to the Buddhist sense of boundlessness. With a particular person at a particular time, a boundless approach might mean holding strict boundaries because the client needs them, rather than because they are of universal validity – another client might find them oppressive and unhelpful.
CJ: And unpredictability?
NT: Complex systems are inherently unpredictable, and small changes can have large effects – this is the well-known meme about a butterfly’s wingbeats leading to a hurricane. We simply don’t know what is going to happen, and this can cause us great anxiety. Hence, as individuals and societies, we try harder and harder to apply methods of surveillance and control, which always create new forms of unpredictability. Instead, we could try to process and move beyond our anxiety. Relax, nothing is under control!
CJ: And wildness?
NT: ‘Wild’ is a word that carries many charged associations, some very positive and some very negative. This makes it useful in prying open closed doors, individually and socially. The primary sense in which I use it in the book is complex. In the past, ‘wild’ often meant something simple, elemental, refreshingly straightforward, but now ‘wild’ is more likely to signify the irreplaceable richness and depth of the climax forest, constantly threatened with destruction. But wildness is also scary! The idea of ‘running wild’ contains both a fear and a longing, and the book is constantly playing with these different senses.
CJ: How do those together translate into a ‘psychotherapy for the Anthropocene age’?
NT: The surrender of control is what these three qualities have in common, which highlights an important argument within the therapy field between those who see the task of therapy as being to manage and regulate psychological states, and those who see its task as being to support clients in relaxing and allowing self-regulation to develop. This second approach is the one I favour, and it obviously parallels ecological themes – my whole argument in the book is that the impossible dream of total control has driven humanity since the Neolithic era, and caused enormous destruction to both the outer world and our inner worlds.
Many concepts from ecology translate very well into a psychological context. Another one is diversity, which I see as a fundamental requirement for good functioning on every level – the ecological, the social, the organismic, the psychological (for example, neurodiversity in the widest sense). I was just reading this morning about how the human diet used to be hugely more diverse than it is now, and how the demands of agribusiness are continually narrowing the range of crops grown. This is a perfect metaphor on so many levels!
So a psychotherapy for the Anthropocene age, which is what Wild Therapy is all about, is a therapy with relaxation, diversity and trust of spontaneous process at its centre.
CJ: I guess the key question for us all, and one that you attempt to answer in the book, is how do we ‘take on and live with the likelihood of catastrophe’? Psychotherapy is seen as, and sells itself as, a resolver of people’s emotional problems. Is the profession, generally, scared to address climate change because it can’t resolve this one? How do we ‘bring it into the room’ therapeutically, without lecturing, falsely reassuring or denying?
NT: I believe emphatically that it does belong in the therapy room. As with race and gender and many other issues, the starting point is to acknowledge the depth and tangledness of everyone’s feelings around it. If a client starts talking about how frightened they are around climate change, ‘Yes’ is the first thing I will probably say – ‘Yes, I am as well, yes, it’s huge and we feel helpless. Tell me more about your particular take on it.’ I might or might not suggest at some point that taking some sort of action, however small, can help us bear the situation.
It’s a huge personal challenge and a challenge for therapy to support clients in the task. There are two obvious ways of flunking the challenge, it seems to me – and I’m talking here both about people in general and therapists in particular. One way is, of course, to ignore, avoid, deflect, dissociate, deny. Many therapists still seem to be taking this approach, often using the tried-and-true tactic of reducing clients’ concerns to the individual and psychological – to paraphrase very baldly, ‘When you bring your anxiety about environmental catastrophe, I wonder whether you are really talking about how you feel affected by your difficult childhood.’
The other way of avoiding the issue is less obvious – what Winnicott calls ‘the manic defense’. It seems to me that some climate activists are in this place, trying to ward off grief and fear through constant activity, which inevitably leads to burnout, exhaustion and despair. The same applies to the empty invocations of hope that I so often hear – ‘We have to hold on to hope’; ‘I have to believe there is a way out of this.’ Hope of this sort can prevent us from processing our feelings and from acting creatively and realistically. In the book, I talk about the possibility of releasing hope, rather than either abandoning or clinging on to it – allowing both it and ourselves to float free.
What Haraway and Tsing, and many other writers, are trying to do is find a path to constructive action that recognises the extent of the damage that has already happened and is still happening. Hence Tsing’s concept of ‘life in capitalist ruins’, in her wonderfully titled book The Mushroom at the End of the World,1 built on the model of the ‘ruderal ecologies’ as they are known, that develop in degraded urban environments. Haraway, in her book, Staying with the Trouble,2 writes about ‘sym-poiesis’, or making-with, rather than ‘auto-poiesis’, or self-making. Her argument is that we have to be able to ‘stay with’ the reality of living and dying on a damaged Earth, along with all the other species with which we are inextricably enmeshed, as this is what will produce the kind of thinking that enables us to find ways to create more liveable futures.
CJ: You discuss how the psychological professions and theorists, including Freud, Ferenczi and Jung, have theorised ‘wildness’ – whether shunning it, embracing and celebrating it, or vacillating between them. Freud’s ‘wobble’ on this issue seems to me to echo his ‘wobble’ over childhood sexual abuse. Does that ‘wobble’ persist today, across the psychological professions, do you think?
NT: I think that’s well put, and for me that wobble has been amplified to the extent that it has ripped through the field entirely, creating two very different activities that both call themselves psychotherapy. One takes an expert position – something that the book talks about in several different contexts – with the practitioner distancing themselves from the client. The other increasingly sees the practitioner bringing all of themself, including their flaws and wounds, into the therapeutic process.
Science writers have coined the distinction between ‘expert systems’ on the one hand and ‘local knowledge’ on the other. Expert systems generalise and abstract, seeking a one-size-fits-all model that will apply in every situation. Local knowledge is highly specific to a particular situation and locale. One famous example is a study of potato growing in the Andes, where the farmer who knew every corner of every field in his locality and was able to adapt his farming practices accordingly far out-performed UN agricultural experts. The basic model here is that of time-and-motion – the industrialised process that tries to abstract from, and then make redundant, the skilled craftsperson’s implicit and embodied knowledge.
I see therapy as essentially a craft that recreates itself in each new client/practitioner relationship. Attempts to manualise it pretty much destroy the whole point of it, without even noticing. Put baldly, manualisation only works if you decide on a single goal for the process, while in reality each client has their own unique set of goals, many of which only emerge during the therapeutic process. The same can be said for growing potatoes, and human cultivation and industry more generally. It is not possible to live sustainably, as I explain in the book, by forcing everything down one route, following one set of rules that is insensitive to the locality.
This second approach is what I call ‘wild therapy’. Working outdoors, apart from its huge intrinsic value, is one way in which we can access wild therapy in the room. To unpack that a bit more, working outdoors can show us a new perspective that then allows wild therapy to happen in the therapy room. We start to discover what elements of the conventional therapeutic frame are actually just that, conventions – sometimes useful and sometimes not at all. We also discover how sturdy and robust the therapeutic relationship can be, how it can readily survive variations and interruptions that we might have expected to be destructive. One example I give in the book is the outdoor practitioner slipping over in the mud and being helped up by the client – a ‘breach of the frame’ that might seem terrifying in theory, but is actually a golden opportunity to explore power and privilege. Also, we experience how having the other- and more-than-human as co-therapist lightens the burden of transference in a way that can be sustained in ordinary therapeutic contexts.
CJ: I was very struck by your observation that the shift from foraging to agriculture had a major impact on human emotional development – we switched from emotional security to emotional insecurity – from peace-loving to competitive/combative, from matriarchal to patriarchal, from collective to individualistic, from egalitarian to hierarchical. Can you talk a bit about that? How can we soothe today’s societies when that insecurity drives our economies, international relations and social and other policies, and is leading us to calamity? I guess I’m asking, can we do it better, given where we are today?
NT: The point I get to in discussing this in the book is to ask what a wild civilisation would look like. In most contexts the two terms are antagonistic – civilisation attacks and represses wildness. But we have in recent decades started to notice traces of wild civilisations – towns and larger networks of people who were still basically foragers and gardeners rather than agriculturalists. The major examples are in the Amazon basin, where these cultures were more or less destroyed by epidemics that spread from Europeans even before the Europeans themselves arrived in the area. The jungle very quickly closed over the townships, and only now are we aware of them. And, of course, in the past such a culture could only exist in an exceptionally rich environment like that. But now we have the technical capability to make this happen on a larger scale, if only we make that choice.
But really we can’t know what wild civilisation would look like, because we are the children of domestication – firmly embedded in the mindset of domesticated civilisation. We can only fantasise about it, and fantasy is of great value – what Ursula Le Guin does in Always Coming Home,3 or Donna Haraway in the final part of Staying with the Trouble, wrenches open new portals of imagination. Anna Tsing’s ‘life in capitalist ruins’ is of course much easier for us to imagine, because we are already only a short step away from it. But that existence, which we will probably come to, is where Le Guin’s or Haraway’s futures are birthed – in the rich interstices of ruderal ecologies, where small and unnoticed people can survive and build something new.
CJ: In reading the book, I am also deeply struck by the way you locate the human species as just another living organism within the vast mycorrhizal web of all living organisms, animal and vegetable, that Earth sustains. You describe how the way we live now, which takes more from the natural resources around us and gives too little back, is destroying that innate balance of ecosystems, and impacting on human relationships and psyches. Can you talk a bit about this?
NT: Well, I guess there is a systemic tendency to rebalancing on every scale; so psychological and relationship ‘problems’ are perhaps solutions attempting to happen, trying to hint to us about what sort of change is needed. Or, at any rate, this is probably the most useful way to approach global symptoms of all kinds – what can they teach us?
This is the way in which I see individual symptoms as well, something I learned from the US author Arnold Mindell – to approach them as nudges, or sometimes hard prods, telling us that we need to change. As a very simple example that probably everyone can understand, a client keeps clearing their throat; after a while, I ask them to exaggerate the sounds they are making, and encourage them to get louder and louder until they are roaring; I ask them what animal they think they sound like, and they say ‘a seal’. After a bit, we start to explore what a seal means to them, and how they might bring more of that seal nature into their lives.
I would like us to approach environmental catastrophe in the same sort of way – to embody it and amplify it, and try to find out more about what it is demanding of us. On the rational level, the answer is obvious – decarbonise! – but it also needs to be understood as a symptom of the need for deep cultural change. The longer we avoid this, the more it will be forced on us, perhaps to the extent that humans will only survive as a few small forager bands.
CJ: And within a wild civilisation, will there be a role for the therapist, I wonder – as shaman, healer, spiritual leader?
NT: My own idea is that many of the people who currently function as therapists and so on will become able, and in fact required, to become something much more, something that embodies the true potential of what has become increasingly squeezed into a meagre and compromised shadow form. Psychotherapy is an increasingly inadequate container for enlightenment practices that are as old as the human race. The current crisis may be nudging us back into the real thing.
The ‘real thing’, as I see it, is the facilitation of growth: a very familiar concept from humanistic therapy, of course, but there it is understood as personal growth, part of the pernicious individualism that pervades not only therapy but the whole of Western culture. More and more I realise that what I am doing with clients is listening, looking, feeling for moments of deepening, chinks in the armour of individual personality, gaps in the fence. What I want to facilitate in clients – and, depending on where they are now, we may be starting a long way back – is the realisation that there are no individuals, there is no one that we ‘really’ are, no ‘core self’; we are just the constant play of light and shadows, forest leaves shifting in the breeze. I see this as very good news, but not everyone would agree!
Next in this issue
1. Tsing A. The mushroom at the end of the world: on the possibility of life in capitalist ruins. Princeton: Princeton University Press; 2015.
2. Haraway D. Staying with the trouble. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press; 2016.
3. Le Guin UK. Always coming home. New York: Harper & Row; 1985.