HEALING OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH FIRE: An Ecotherapy Case History

© 2021 Linda Buzzell

A lot of people ask me what an ecotherapy session actually looks like in practice and how it might differ from a traditional therapy session.  Like most therapists, ecotherapists deal with a wide variety of presenting problems and treatment methods, so perhaps there is no “typical” session, but I’ve put together a sample composite case history on one particular issue, based on a number of sessions with different clients.  Please understand that the “client” in this portrait is a fictitious composite, and doesn’t represent any individual.

G came to see me because he was feeling anxious and having frightening nightmares following the near-destruction of his home by a recent wildfire.  The dreams were of fire chasing him.

One of the basic premises of ecotherapy is that the rest of nature is alive, and is not just an inanimate “wallpaper” backdrop behind the all-important human lives in the foreground.  Therefore, I saw this as interpersonal work. “Fire” had spoken to G (in fact, to our whole community) in a shockingly intrusive way, both in his conscious life and in his dreams.  What did Fire have to say?

G and I met outdoors, at first looking up at the fire scars on the nearby mountains and then finding a comfortable spot in a garden “office” under a sheltering sycamore tree.

After G explained in more detail his concerns and what he wanted us to work on, we started out by exploring who Fire is.  We looked at Fire from many different perspectives – ecological, historical, mythological (the fire gods in various cultures), the impact of fire on human evolution (empowering us but still dangerous), plus G’s personal associations with fire.  We acknowledged Fire as one of the sacred four classical elements of nature, a powerful archetypal figure. 

We also looked at Fire as this powerful element expresses itself in California, where we all live in Fire country.  Now that global climate disruption is an escalating reality, we have a local fire season that lasts 10 months a year, so everyone in our communities is being confronted with the more insistent voice of Fire, not just G.

Ecotherapy focuses not only on the individual human-nature relationship, but also the collective experience.  So we looked not just at G’s own personal history and emotions, but also at the community’s historical and present relationship with fire, including the First Nations’ fire experience and practices and that of three subsequent settler groups. 

Psychologically, this shift to a collective, mythological, ecospiritual, historical and environmental perspective allowed G to view his “adversary” in a more dispassionate and even compassionate light, and he became fascinated with exploring his nemesis in a more analytical way.  He also felt less alone with his experience. He was now moving “towards” Fire rather than backing away in terror, and thus his anxiety levels began to lessen and he felt more empowered as we moved into the dialogue phase.

Through role play, eco-dreamwork and then journaling, G explored who or what this Fire was and what he/she had to say not just to G but to all of us in our geographical area.  Both personal and collective ecological issues began to emerge. For example, in one dialogue Fire was urgently demanding that G and his community pay more attention to how we are treating and relating to our homeland and the plants, animals and landscape of his neighborhood.

One of the very personal issues that arose for G in this dialogue process involved G’s anger and profound grief over the fire’s destruction of the wild garden on the edge of a neighbor’s large property. This was a beloved natural retreat he had visited many times over the years, a special place for his personal and spiritual ecotherapy.  Although he had tried to help his traumatized, grieving neighbor as best he could, he had been afraid to return to the garden since the fire as he “couldn’t face” looking at the destruction.

G did some role play and journaling as this garden, which he privately called “Eden,” allowing it to speak of its painful experiences during the fire. G also allowed the dying plants and fleeing birds and animals their voice.

Through the above processes, G was able to find the courage to plan a special visit into the fire-destroyed landscape he had so loved, to confront the actual devastation, bear witness to its ordeal, tend its wounds and reclaim its sacredness in his life. 

With his neighbor’s permission and involvement, he prepared a few ceremonial actions to express his feelings and participate in the land’s anticipated Phoenix-like resurrection from the ashes during the coming winter and spring.  He brought native wildflower seeds to put down roots in the hoped-for rains, and a few objects to leave on a stone under a charred tree in Eden to mark his reverence for this special place and commitment to its continuing care.

The experience of visiting the fire-damaged landscape he loved was very emotional, and G returned from it with a deeper relationship with his neighbors (both human and non-human) and a renewed promise to do his part to protect all wild places in his area. On a practical level, he also vowed to work with a local environmental group promoting traditional and natural methods of fire-mitigation. 

By this point in his therapy, G noticed that his anxiety levels had dropped and that the troubling nightmares had faded.  New dreams of Fire arose, but with a greater sense of ongoing partnership rather than the previous adversarial relationship.

Many other ecotherapy techniques could have been used, of course.  More work could have been done out of doors in parks or wilderness areas. Animal-assisted therapy, wilderness therapy or garden therapy might have been appropriate. Doing an assessment of G’s favored nature-connection methods and current lifestyle could have been relevant in different circumstances.

But whatever the specific methodology applied, the core work in ecotherapy is always the healing of the human-nature relationship at both the individual and collective levels.

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This article was first published in the Sept 2009 issue of “Santa Barbara Therapy News,” the newsletter of the Santa Barbara chapter of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists.