The Wisdom of Elephants: Being the Best Mother You Can Be

Introduction:

La Leche National Conference 2004

I am a Psychotherapist with 26 years experience. I do individual long term work with all ages, groups with Junior school children adjusting to parent's separation / divorce, parenting groups and ecotherapy work. I have been involved with observing animals with social behavior - the Wild Dogs for 6 years, the elephants for 3 years, and more recently the dolphins and meerkats.

Preface:

I know you have had a weekend of many varied excellent talks. I am speaking from my own perspective as a psychotherapist and adding an interesting ecotherapy dimension, but I do not want to detract at all from a very important fundamental principle that I believe La Leche advocates:

When a baby arrives, they have to be the center of a mother's time and attention. Bonding and optimal health is facilitated by breast feeding for as long as possible, especially in the first year of a baby's life, and through the close physical and emotional contact and responsiveness that is critical in the first few years of a child's psycho-social, physical and emotional development. I hope to illustrate this same emphasis by taking examples from elephant and tribal communities, but I also go beyond that focus to encourage mothers to be the best they can be as they find their own intuitive wisdom and insight, their own creative and passionate selves, and through resolving their own early childhood mothering issues so that these are not imposed on the next generation.

  1. To be a good mother you need to be the right kind of person:

    I think good mothers are 'wild women''!

    What do I mean by a 'wild woman'? I don't mean a woman who is reckless, carousing, abandoning or chaotic, but someone who imbibes her feminine intuition and wisdom.

    Clarissa Estes describes the 'wild woman' archetype in her book, 'Women Who Run With the Wolves' in the following ways:

    (Archetype by the way is a collection of characteristics that describe a certain process of dynamic that is across time, race and culture and in this case, relevant to all women.)

    • keen sensing
    • having a playful spirit
    • a heightened capacity for direction
    • relational by nature
    • inquiring
    • possessed of great endurance and strength
    • deeply intuitive
    • intensely concerned with their young, their mate and their pack
    • experienced in adapting to constantly changing circumstances
    • stalwart and very brave

    These observed female characteristics constellated into the 'wild woman' archetype for Clarissa through her client experience as a Jungian analyst and storyteller, and as she observed the behavior of a pack animal, the wolves.

    The re-discovery of my own creative passion as a woman and as a mother also evolved through my psychotherapeutic work with people, as a result of the caring, guiding relationship of a strong, wise therapy mother, and the nurturing balance of wilderness spaces and an ironic awakening of how to behave in a more humane way through observing animals with social behavior - the wild dogs, elephants and more recently the dolphins and meerkats.

    Spending time with wild animals reminded me that our early genetic inheritance as humans evolved in adaptation to nature. Edward Wilson, world-renowned biologist, so aptly says:

    The human species has had some 3 million years of survival-programming in how to interact constructively with nature…love and connectedness with the natural world is rooted in our genes - as much a part of our history as love and bonding and having children. We know at a deep body-mind level, however dimly, that if we continue to reject this programming and do not establish a respectful interaction with nature, we will lose not only a vital dimension of our humanness, but eventually our planet home as a self-renewing, life-nurturing organism. 1

    Not only nature, but specifically animal behavior displaying sociality and pack caring caused me to reflect on how early man used to live: According to Marlow Morgan, author of a book called, 'The Mutant Message Down Under' when she describes her 3-month 'walk about' with an early man aboriginal tribe:

    'The lived fifty thousand years of existence destroying no forests, polluting no water, endangering no species, causing no contamination, and all the while they received abundant food and shelter. They laughed a lot and cried very little. They lived long, productive lives and were left spiritually confident.' 12

    We no longer have many tribal people to observe or emulate, so in finding our 'Wild Woman' roots, I don't advocate we behave like a wild dog or an elephant, a meerkat or a dolphin, but I do suggest that if we have the opportunity we observe them and allow them to re-awaken within us the memory of our own Creator designed species-specific ways of behaving that have become extinct or compromised and covered over with the dust of 'too busy' living and unhelpful values and pursuits. Linda Hogan, a woman who also learnt much about herself and the plight of our society as she spent time working with animals suggests that:

    "…animals show us that which is bedrock or cement in us: aggression, fear, insecurity, happiness or opportunity. Because they have the ability to read our involuntary tics and scents, we are transparent to them, and thus exposed - we are finally ourselves." 8

  2. To be a good mother, you need to realize the necessity of social/family support.

    When I observed the Wild Dogs taking care of one another as a pack I became keenly focused on the need for the nurturing of kinship bonds within my own life. Wild Dogs and Early Man only survived through taking care of one another as they did not have 'the equipment' to survive on their own. Although man is highly intelligent and the dominant predator on the earth, he mistakenly strives towards self-sufficiency, but we are not able to stand on our own. Many of us have lost a sense of security, few of us experience close family ties, and in rearing our children, especially before they are of school-going age, we often feel alone and isolated.

    If you observe elephants, dolphins or meerkats they raise their children together. Dr. Jean Liedloff, who wrote the book, Continuum Concepts' was so impressed with the harmonious relationships of the Amazonian Yequana tribe that she went to live with this tribe for two years to understand the secret of their content. She saw the significance of women raising their children together, the younger babies strung across their hips, as they enjoyed the stimulation of supportive social interaction and 'chit chat' as they worked and sang together.

    Recently my children and I were enriched by a personal tribal community experience. We were staying at a Tonga Village Bushcamp, built and supervised by a neighboring Zulu community. We went to the river to collect water in buckets that were transferred into large water drums on the back of a 'bakkie'. Our family, a friend, and several members of a Zulu family. All ages from the 8-year old who made her own special contribution to the 80 year-old woman who stood and laughed with a toothless grin, were involved in this activity. Each person had a valuable role to play as we formed our human chain from the water's edge to the 'bakkie'. There was much laughter as water splashed all over, and a deep sense of linking together. My particular place in the chain was between the mother of the family and her 8-year old daughter. This child, the youngest in the group, had a wonderful sense of mastery, value and belonging as she brought each small bucket-load of water to contribute to the water drum. She did this with willingness and pride, with timeless patience, and the joyfulness of being able to make a meaningful contribution to the survival of the family she loved.

    I reflected on how many 8-year olds have the opportunity of experiencing such a sense of competence, contribution and worth. Many 8-year olds who live in the city, walk into the bathroom, turn on a tap, and then go and sit in front of a TV.

    These people were not rich, the clothes they wore were thin and torn, but they had a relationship wealth that cannot be explained, only experienced. The Zulu mother and I did not even speak the same language, but in our hearts there was a soul connection. After this event she gave me the Zulu name, 'figela' - 'You've arrived'. She meant I had a place of belonging there, and she gave me a very feminine apron, the same as the one she wore as she worked. She had so little, but she gave so much. I was honored by this token of shared home-keeping and motherhood, both matriarchs in our own families.

    At Pongola Game Reserve, there are two herds of elephants - an 'orphan' herd and a 'breeding' herd. The 'orphans' have not experienced good mothering, their mothers and sisters were culled in the late 1980's at Kruger National Park - 'not enough land' they said. Ecologists and game reserve managers did not have the technology or wisdom then to cull whole families of elephants if they were gong to cull at all. Because of their ignorance small groups of 2 to 5-year old elephant calves were translocated from Kruger to various game reserves around South Africa. The ''Pongola Game Reserve orphans' initially grew-up at Milimani Game Reserve, 40kms away. They broke out of this reserve 16 times, and it is an interesting story as to how they arrived at Pongola. 15 months before 'breaking into Pongola Game Reserve they met Ingane, the dominant bull at Pongola Game Reserve, on their own home turf. Ingane, then an apprentice to an older bull, Jochum, who was in musth, broke out of PGR to seek elephants cows in estrous who would satisfy his testosterone- charged sexual needs. Elephants can communicate for up to 60kms in the right weather conditions with ultrasonic sounds humans cannot hear. Sounds they receive with their big ears and the large flat soles of their feet. That is how Ingane knew of the 'orphans' existence 40kms away. Ingane returned to PGR, and 15 months later the 'orphans' followed the same riverine route to visit Ingane. They broke into PGR and Ingane was there at the fence to meet them. They have never left. I think the 'orphans' have stayed because intuitively they knew they needed to learn good mothering behavior from the elephant cows in the breeding herd. Ingane took the 'orphans' to meet the breeding herd, but Buga, their matriarch, trumpeted rudely at them and sent them away. They were unwelcome in her elephant community because they were adolescents who had not been taught how to behave or where to feed. It was only when Aquilla, a second time mother in the breeding herd gave birth to her calf, Asterix, and Charm a first time mother in the 'orphan' herd gave birth to her calf, Charlie, within 3 weeks of each other, that these two calves wanted to play together and drew the breeding herd and the 'orphan' herd together. I know it has been a long story to illustrate a simple, but vitally important point - elephant mothers, like tribal mothers, realize the benefit of the mutual support they receive as they raise their young calves together.

    After reading Jean Liedloff's book I discovered a whole cybertribe on the internet who believe in the concepts the Yequana tribe adhere to when carrying out there relationship repertoires. Modern day mothers who are not able to live and work and raise children together in community because they are separated by geographical location, have formed their own advise and support giving tribal network via email. I recommend you visit this website: www.continuum-concept.org as they discuss nursing on demand, weaning, sibling rivalry and bullying, crawling and walking, colic and even mosquito repellants and many, many other parenting topics.

    Much research has shown that lonely people who have little social or family support experience the stresses of life more acutely resulting in further social isolation, poor reality testing, and sometimes even mental illness and depression. Evidence has shown that positive and supportive social and family relationships can moderate and lessen the effects of stress. Conversely the lack of external supports - either personal or material - can make a stressor more potent and weaken an individual's capacity to cope with it.4 We need each other to be good mothers. We need to acknowledge and evoke the support of family networks that are functional, and where they are dysfunctional or geographically absent mothers need to find nurturing groups of women, wild women, who are creative and intuitive in their child rearing philosophies and practises.

  3. Good Mothers Practise Continuum Concepts

    When I started observing elephant behavior in Pongola Game Reserve I was looking at the differences in mothering between those elephant cows who had experienced good mothering themselves, those in the breeding herd, and those who had not, the 'orphan' herd cows. I learnt much about mothering and re-membered that it was the cornerstone of both elephant and human societies - a primary task. One, Jean Liedloff highlights should be instinctive, more of a right brain function, but it has been increasingly handed over to the left-brain logic of the intellect. It is crazy to think that when we are about to become first time parents, we have to read a book, on how to do so!

    Charlie, the calf of his 'orphan' mother, Charm - feeds, rests and plays as his body and developing mind, dictate. Charm responds, but with little affection and not enough protectiveness, she allows Charlie within a meter of the game vehicle. Fortunately, this is a safe situation in Pongola where elephants are greatly valued and respected, but in a different place, this could be fatal!

    Constant was the second 'orphan' mother to give birth to a calf, but it was still born.

    (Interestingly, and as an aside: One of the keepers at the Knysna Elephant Park, where another 'orphan' mother recently gave birth to a calf made me aware that most elephant cows after they have given birth want to harm their new-born calf who has put them through such pain. It is the intervention of the matriarch and other elephant mothers that calm the new mother down so that her angry, fearful emotions are transformed into loving bonds between herself and her new calf. I often wander how Charlie survived, as Charm would not have seen or been taught this ritualistic behavior that would protect her new born calf.)

    For several weeks after the loss of her calf, Constant was grieving and did not want to be anywhere near Charlie. Subsequently, there was a complete turn-about, and she made up for her 'don't-come-near-me' attitude by becoming smotheringly close to Charlie, and murderously vehement if we were not at a safe distance from the little calf. Constant shows Charlie the physical affection his mother rarely succumbs to, but sometimes she also disrupts her normal bodily rhythms. When Charlie is tired and lies down to sleep, Constant cannot bear the calf body lying death-like still, and anxiously-urgently foot-kicks and trunk-nudges Charlie awake. Sadly, one reflects on how she must have stood hour-after-hour trying to bring back to life her unmoving stillborn calf.

    I would like you to watch a video clip of this interaction

    The 'orphans' are still learning to be good mothers. Fortunately, they have the breeding herd nearby to model on. Elephant cows within the breeding herd have experienced good mothering and allomothering. Allomothering is when the older sisters in an elephant herd practise taking care of their younger brothers and sisters. Responding to the needs and natural bodily requirements of any elephant calf is high on the agenda of the breeding herd, to the extent that all 38 of them may be on the move, and will stop and wait while one calf feeds or rests.

    In South America, the Yequana tribe, have like the elephants, retained the ancient wisdom of their predecessors. I have already mentioned that one is drawn to this tribe by their passionate, enduring embrace of life. One can't help but be amused at their laughter and encouraged by the cooperative harmony that holds them together. As mentioned earlier, it is not only their mutual support and interaction around child rearing practises, that feeds their contentment, but it is also the 'in-arms' experience every new-born enjoys.

    A child blessed to have a Yequana mother will be held in physical closeness from its birth. He will feed, sleep, wriggle and observe from the security of his mother's side as she continues her daily pursuits. He feels the rhythm of her body, sucks at her voluptuous breasts, and enjoys the stimulating sights, sounds and smells of her world. She in turn respects his bodily rhythms and responds to his need to sleep, to feed, to pee and to reach out and be curious. They 'dance' together and as she responds to his needs, she mirrors to him that he is worthy and that his basic God-created, species-specific needs are intuitive and appropriate. He, like the elephant calf, gets to know himself. The mother-child bond initiated in her womb, becomes affirmed and held inside him, as he grows and crawls away. Periodically he will return to her for reassurance. Even later in life when he is a grown man he will be competent and masterful, but will return to cry in her lap, or the soft embrace of his wife, when he is terrified or wounded.

    The children of most westernized mothers, obviously not those who hold to La Leche principles, seldom know the comfort of their mother's closeness or the reassurance of their own bodily rhythms. The child is born into a sterile world, and abandoned into a cotted space for cold, clinical comfort. He is not fed when his belly aches for hunger and his throat is hoarse from crying, but when it is 8.00am or midday or 4.00pm. In order to survive he learns to respond to his mother's regimented needs. His soul is crushed and his intuition is buried. He only knows his mother's world, not his own. How to make her feel secure and safe and in control. Later he is never sure of the fragile bond between them, only that he must be obedient, and that 'the bigger the hole in her heart, the greater the jewel in her crown' 6 he will have to be. He grows up not knowing himself, but is mastered by the ideologies, passions and needs of others.

    "I'm not suggesting you rush off and join an Indian tribe, but you can adopt some of their principles, and those advocated by the La Leche organization:

    • Take as much time as you can to be with your baby in the early years. The first two years are critical, so if you can take a break from work seize the opportunity with open arms.
    • Get support for yourself so that you are free to be a mother without having to do a million other things at the same time.
    • Find time for yourself.
    • If you have to work, provide thoughtful substitute care.
    • Scale down and live poorly while your children are young so that you can spend time with them.
    • Carry your baby on your body as much as possible. Put the shopping in the pram and have your baby in a sling close to you. I see Nils Bergman spoke about Kangaroo Mother Care, which I think may advocate the same practises.
    • Allow your baby to sleep with you for the first couple of years. It is comforting for the child and you won't have endless sleepless nights or crying jags which leave you feeling rattled and your baby bereft.

    "I see the consequences of inadequate mothering every day. At 18 or 20 so many youngster are still living at home, not only because it makes more sense financially, but also because they aren't confident enough to move out. It's as though they are hoping to make up for the nurturing they missed out on when they were babies. And, marriages fail because we are looking to be mothered by our partners who are obviously unable to fill the void we feel. So we move from one person to another hoping that they will heal the wounds we carry.

  4. To be a good mother, you need to resolve the inadequacies of your own early mothering experiences that you had as a child.

    As I enter into this discussion, there is no place for blame. Almost all mothers do the best they can to do right by their children, but our own mothers, and ourselves as mothers, all carry our own heritage of unhelpful emotional baggage.

    I had two parents, but because of their own emotional needs and issues, they did not 'have a mind for me' - they never really knew who I was or what I needed. I felt like an orphan. The attachment with my own mother was not good enough and was exacerbated at 10 years old when my parents were moving from one country to another and for the sake of convenience and an overseas holiday I was placed in a boarding school 2 countries away. After I was left in this strange school and foreign land, I did not see them again for 6 months! My parent's best friends and my grandparents lived in the same town where I was at boarding school, but they did not visit me once, weekend after spartan weekend I watched as others gleefully left with family and friends, and I was left behind. I thought there must be something very wrong with me, and the God I spoke to on many lonely days in the chapel became from then on my very best Friend! On my first 10-day holiday, I went to stay with my austere aunt and her bloated, red-faced drunken husband. I was relentlessly pursued by my testosterone-loaded adolescent cousin and spent most of those 10 days running for virginal safety, comfort-stuffing myself with chocolate easter eggs and being punished for my digestive indulgences by a groaning stomach and the most bile-tasting, puke-evoking medicine I have ever swallowed. The whole year was a horrible life-changing experience that critically transformed my perception of myself and of life:

    • From then on I thought people I loved, like my mother and others I risked get close to, would abandon me; consequently I became very insecure and controlling;
    • I felt fat, unlovable, and bad inside, etc...

    I don't intend to be self-indulgent, but what I am trying to highlight through this personal disclosure of part of my early life, is that to be a good mother, one has to deal with distorted perceptions of life, other people and ourselves because of our own mothering experience. If we do not do so we will pass on the same relationship issues and dynamics to our own children. In psychology there is a term called 'repetition compulsion', it describes the process we engage in when we re-create in our lives, circumstances, relationships and environment the scars of our own internal landscapes, with each repetition of the same similar painful situation we hope for a different, desired for outcome that is different to the early childhood original outcome. We long for healing from the pain, but the reality is that unless we resolve the past traumas in an integrated way that brings wisdom, awareness and understanding, and that leaves their influence in the past, we keep repeating them in the present. I don't think my experience of an abandoning and mindless mothering experience is specific to me, I think it is pandemic in our modern history.

    Jane Wheelwright Schmidt, co-author of the book, 'The Long Shore' together with her mother, Jane Hollister, talks about the double abandonment wound most of us in modern day westernized societies experience, she advocates:

    '...that much of Western psychology today focuses on the pain and anxiety of abandonment caused by children being separated too early from the 'safe place' with their mothering person (female or male)…Psychotherapy and other forms of psychic healing have moved into this breach, with their methods of providing a safe place, a re-creation of the original 'safe place' with the mother person (male or female). From this safe place clients can explore and find healing for not only the wound particular to their own life, but also the abandonment wound everyone shares.' 10

    What Lynda is referring to by 'the abandonment wound' everyone shares, is our innate, but ignored, predisposition to evolve together with nature. She is different to most westernized psychologists, and does not stop with the interpersonal environment when she considers human development, she also encourages us to deal with our state of eco-alienation. In other words, she suggests that normal human development is impeded not only by the un-meeting of appropriate early childhood needs, but also because we so seldom spend time enjoying a nurturing connection with wild nature. Possibly we need to consider that thousands of years ago our predecessors, who passed onto us their genetic inheritance, lived closely with nature as 'hunters' and 'gatherers'. These are our origins, the ways in which we as a human species adapted to the world around us. Lynda encourages city-dwellers to pay attention to this primal bonding need:

    'Alone in the wilderness we also experience fear and isolation, but we have a history of millions of years of relating to wilderness literally and bodily…. Entering the wilderness and its microcosms - (even) gardens and parks - gives us an opportunity to reconnect with this instinct and rest our fragile psyches from the exhaustion of trying to stay intact in the civilized world, which is so alien to many of us…Merger with a therapist can heal our abandonment wound, but merger with nature can reconnect us to the ancient roots of the Self as well.' 11

  5. To be a good mother you have to watch our for that which can plunder your natural Intuitiveness.

    Clarissa Estes begins her book:

    "Wild life and the Wild Woman are both endangered species.

    Over time, we have seen the feminine instinctive nature looted, driven back, and overbuilt. For long periods it has been mismanaged like the wildlife and the wildlands…as often as we turn our backs it is relegated to the poorest land in the psyche. The spiritual lands of Wild Woman have, throughout (modern) history, been plundered or burnt, dens bulldozed, and natural cycles forced into unnatural rhythms to please others.

    It's not by accident that the pristine wilderness of out planet disappears as the understanding of our own inner wild nature fades."5

    Richard Swift, journalist for the magazine 'Endangered Species' agrees, when he quotes:

    Richard Leakey, a leading anthropologist (who) says that the choices Modern Man has made is leading to a 6th Major extinction. Leakey identifies two ways in which species become extinct, they either fail to adapt over time to the demands of their changing environment, or they disappear 'en masse 'because of some 'cataclysmic evolutionary event like a geological eruption, climatic shift or some space junk slamming into the earth. This time Leakey marshals a growing body of evidence that another mass extinction of species is currently under way, and his time human fingerprints are on the trigger'

    Richard continues:

    '...we are pushing 100 species a day, 4 species an hour into evolutionary oblivion! Some are mega-fauna we know so well, the poster-children of endangered species: the elephant, the tiger, the rhino, (wild dogs), and the blue crane. Most are plant, insects, microbes and reptiles we haven't even figured out names for.' 21

    What is it that plunders / inhibits the development of wilderness spaces, and causes other species we share this earth with, and female intuition to become endangered and sometimes even extinct - never to recover or reappear!?

    Audience / Group discussion / participation:

    • Lack of value and worth unless you are materially valuable or intellectually superior
    • Greed as the result of emotional deprivation
    • Little sense of heritage or tribal continuity or community
    • Overpopulation
    • Pollution
    • Verify worth by being of benefit to others
    • Androgenous sex role stereotypes:

    A new mother, Joanne Fedler, who at the time, was a well-known South African businesswoman and feminist said:

    'I have learned that feminism is right, motherhood is possibly the most underrated and undervalued profession, and the state should pay mothers a wage to go bring up kids. When someone tells me, they're just a mother and a housewife, I now pay them homage, as I might have done pre-motherhood to a high-powered businesswoman or politician….Women with children are the unsung heroes of our world - something feminism taught me in theory, and which I only understood later on in practise (with the advent of her first child). And I have learnt that it is both unfair and magical that women are biologically the chosen people to bear children. I have lost a lot of my theory in the process and found a humility that reminds me that despite what I thought I knew, I really don't know much about anything anymore, except that teletubbies - Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa and Po, all love each other very much.' 2

    I learnt about a different kind of woman when I began my observations of the Painted Hunting Dogs. I watched as the Alpha female of the pack gave birth to her 12 pups. The Alpha male was in attendance helping release the pups, but mostly he was concerned with the well being of his lady. I noticed that this key-pack breeding pair, who in natural circumstances bond for life, were practising quite conservative male and female parenting roles. They did not both try to hunt for food or care for the pups, their roles were clearly defined.

    • Attitude of patriarchal dominance as opposed to matriarchal ways of sharing communal caring relating
    • Indigenous / tribal beliefs are lived experiences rooted in age-old wisdom; compared to the intellectual, philosophical, changing beliefs of Modern Man that are without history or a sense of continuity.

    'The Western mind has a way of living in the world that has broken the trust between humans and animals."6

    • Modern Man's disconnection with nature makes it difficult for him to understand and experience the importance of our complex interconnection with the web of life.

    "For 8 years, working with animals became the center of my life, the pivot point at which I learned to think, and because of this work I took a fresh look at the traditions of the past. I offered animals my time and care, bathing them, feeding them, cleaning their cages, removing the carcasses of their prey. It was hard work, dirty work, but in exchange they offered me peace and healing, a kind of knowledge that is still finding its way into words. I knew I was in the presence of intelligence, and I had to learn new kinds of behavior to be with them, a slowness, a stillness and inner silence that is no longer common in our fast moving lives, a careful watching to see if their health has improved or lessened. But mostly what I learnt turned me back towards the traditions of my ancestors and those of other tribal people to help me define the possibilities of the future and of the relationship between animals and ourselves."7

  6. One way of leaning about mothering can be through participation in an ecotherapy Program.

    Ecotherapy is a way of facilitating a journey of self-discovery, healing and / or maturation through self-reflection, group work and being in wilderness spaces. Ecotherapy does not replace ongoing individual psychotherapy when people have experienced early and / or pervasive childhood wounding or significant parenting inadequacies, but:

    1. It helps individuals become aware of where the wounding originated, or which layer of emotional healing to address first; and
    2. It offers a landmark wilderness group contextual setting to re-discover one's own intuitive self. It can offer an empowering life transforming experience that sets lives in new directions and gives us a sense of belonging to ourselves, the land and to other species we share this world with. The experience can re-ignite our own spiritual and creative passion that will not only influence our own lives, but the lives of our children and whoever and whatever we get involved with on our own patch of earth.

    My programs also specifically incorporate the observing and learning from animals with social behavior:

    • The Elephants at Pongola Game Reserve in the 'Wisdom of Elephants' program.
    • The Meerkats at Meerkat Magic Valley in Oudtshoorn in the 'Meerkat Magic' experience.
    • The Dolphins at Ponto D'Ouro, Mozambique in the 'Dancing with Dolphins' program; and
    • The Wild Dogs at Madikwe in the north-western Cape in the 'Wild Dogs, Wild Women' experience.

    "I have found that as I have been drawn to spend time with a certain animal species they have become like a totem to me, reflecting who I am and what I need at the time."

    "An Elephant totem reflects a need for wisdom, breakthrough and overcoming obstructions; Dolphin totems reflect a need for fun, sociability and the need to explore greater depths within oneself. Wild dogs reflect a need for the nurturing of kinship bonds and the Meerkats challenge us in teamwork and working out our own individual roles that contribute to group participation. "

    The theory behind ecotherapeutic practises are built on the extrapolation and integration of 3 theoretical models: The extension of Object-Relations theory, a Social Systems theory that includes an interconnectedness with all living things (the biosphere) as well as with the interpersonal community, and a spiritual dimension that is derived from the Psychology of Religion.

    1. The extension of Object-Relations theory:

    Object relations has as its' central theme the understanding that human personality and identity is formed as children internalize their most important 'objects' (their parents), and their relationship experiences with these 'objects', upon which they are initially - for better or for worse - completely dependent. 'Environment' in this theoretical context is the interpersonal relationship between the infant and their primary caregiver, especially the mother. It does not refer to the natural environment. Thus, the ecotherapy extension of this theory is to consider a person's relationship with both 'environments' as they establish their identity, in other words, as they experience

    "...the internalized unloving, undependable "bad" mother or loving, dependable "good" mother (as well as)… interact with the internalized fearful and threatening "bad" earth experiences and the security-giving, nurturing experiences with the "good earth". 26

    When we have poor mothering experiences we not only become alienated from ourselves and our own bodily functions, but according to ecotherapy paradigms, we also are predisposed to experience a situation of ecoalienation - a distancing of oneself from our inescapable life-giving dependence on nature, and ecophobia - the fear of acknowledging this dependence. Thus attachment and bonding with our own mothering person, when obscured, also impacts on our ability to access opportunities to 'be held' in the balanced, nurturing 'arms' of 'Mother Nature'.

    2. Social systems theory:

    Social Systems theory advocates that humans are essentially relational beings, and that our personalities are formed in and by familial and socio-cultural contexts. The ecotherapy extension of this theory is an understanding that we are also an integral part of nature. Brofrenbrenner (1979) 27, an ecosystemic theorist, describes human development as unfolding in mutually reciprocal, interacting systems, nested within each other. He labels these as the macrosystem (the world and our Universe), the exosystem (the socio-cultural, educational and political factors that impact on us), the microsystem (our family) and the ontogentic system (ourselves). The ontogentic system being central, and the ultimate context being the geo-physical world in which we dwell.

    In reflecting upon the Ontogentic system or our sense of self, Clarissa Estes advocates:

    The Self need not carry mountains to transform. A little is enough. A little goes a long way. A little changes much." 28

    When reflecting on the Exosystem, in other words the socio-political, cultural and educational institutions that colour our identities, hopes and desires, Jungian analyst, Steven Aizenstat (1992) encourages us to consider that:

    '...human behavior is rooted most deeply in nature's intentions…The rhythms of nature underlie all human interaction, religious tradition, economic systems, cultural and political organization. When these human forms betray the natural psychic pulse, people and societies get sick, nature is exploited, and entire species are threatened.' 29

    According to the ecotherapy extension of Systems Theory, the heart of human identity is defined within these interactive interpersonal, socio-cultural, political and educational relationships nested within our natural context. Hence, it is not suprising that family bonding can be enhanced when they connect with the earth community in caring ways: for example giving AIDS orphans lots of hugs and a day in their homes, or helping to clear a patch of invasive rooikrans in formerly pristine fynbos veld. I read some American statistics somewhere that the majority of families that stayed together were those that regularly went camping!

    Lynda Wheelwright Schmidt comments on what could be our lost heritage if we are not able to spend time in nature, or even worse, if there were no longer wilderness spaces to spend time in!:

    'The death of wildness would be an incomprehensible experience beyond cycles and rhythms of birth and death. It would be a sterilization, a one-sidedness as shocking as prison…The reason human-made, human-sized phenomenon (like a garden or a park) can work for us is that it is a reference to something greater, something infinite….A garden without a wilderness to refer to would no longer connect us to the infinite. The call to save the wilderness is a call to save us all…Because we emerged from the wilderness, we need to re-emerge with it to heal our feeling of abandonment'. 30

    3. The Psychology of Religion

    Ecotherapy upholds a belief that a central and essential dimension of being human is the capacity for self-transcendence and the valuing of spiritual insights and experiences. There are many different, very personalized, spiritual paths and beliefs that human beings can pursue, this is too extensive to extrapolate on today.

In Conclusion:

At the completion of this talk I would like to read to you the expressions of an evolving 'Wild Woman' and hopefully, sometime in the future, also a 'mother to be'. It takes us back, full circle to my first comment, to be a good mother you not only need to breasted, and raise children together in whatever way is possible 'in community', but you need to be a 'wild woman' - deal with the unhelpful aspects of your own early mothering experiences, gratefully rejoice in the good ones, and find again, or even more, your own feminine intuition and wisdom. It is piece of proes my 20-year old daughter wrote while sitting on a beach in Mozambique on our recent holiday where we swum with dolphins. This is the unabridged version:

Mozambique Magic

The tranquility of the open beach that curved into the arch of a dolphins back seemed to unlock a deep passion inside of me that had been aching to be unhinged. I felt alone and yet so full, bursting at the seams. My heart seemed to sing with the wind that threw my hair into the evening sky. I twirled around my pivoting in the sand that grasped into the warmth of the sun's sinking rays. I felt alive. I felt beautiful, immersed in a beauty that stole nothing from you, but instead made me dance. Not a dance that was choreographed, but a dance that expressed the rhythm of my overflowing hears, that displayed the exuberant joy of feeling complete, of feeling the Creator pulsating through his pure, unblemished creation, pulsating through me. My sarong wrapped around my legs as I spun or danced through the evening air, its soft breeze kissing my cheeks and hugging at my bare shoulders. As the gentle warm sea slapped against my ankles, I realized how aware I was of my body, and I knew me then, in that moment. I could feel the hairs on my arm as they reached out towards the disappearing warmth of the sun, I felt the warm breeze as it encircled my upper body and the cooler breeze that danced above the waves and around my calves. With my eyes on the pinky orange horizon my heart whispered and shouted as it leapt inside my body, which seemed to beat rhythmic synchronicity with the Creator's, my heart shouted and I deeply, intuitively knew this was me and I am alive, I am free. This feeling of freedom rushed through my body like a dolphin surfing through the barrel of a wave. It consumed me and un-leashed me in the same breath. I felt as if my whole body panted with this unique feeling, I breathed in beauty and exhaled stress. I felt like a captured animal that had been finally released out of his cage into its natural habitat, a hand-reared, caged bird that was given license to fly away. Although the feeling was new to me, it felt like home. Home, not in a place, but home in a feeling. That was how I was created to feel, this was what God originally dreamed for me. I was allowed to partake in a slice of Eden. I felt as if God was wrapping His arms around me. As the wind hugged my body, the sea lapped around my knees, the setting sun kissed my eyes with its beauty and the sounds of nature echoed through my being, I felt immersed in my Creator, wrapped in His love, and surrounded by His beauty and glory. My face was painted into a smile that was bursting at the seams. My heart was pulsating through my whole body. It felt like I was adding my own rhythm to the symphony that creation played, at last I was a part in the music, eventually I had found me, I found home. It was not a perfect me, but one that I knew, a me that I now loved and a me that did not need to do anything or be anyone or achieve anything. A me that could just be like an animal, that knows what it is, know3s its place in creation, knows its appropriate behavior. In this moment I felt like I knew me, without frills, without a mask, without any added extras. I ran through the waves, like a ray of light dancing through the leaves of a tree. I felt light and as if I could fly. Every part of my senses was immersed in this experience. I did not look back and harbour on some past event. I did not think to the future horizon or even tomorrow. I experienced the now for the first time. The breath of the sacred without regret of the previous or anxiety of the next.


1 Wilson, E.O., (1992), author of 'The Diversity of Life', quoted in Howard J. Clinebell, (1996), Healing Ourselves: Healing the Earth, pp. 41,42. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

2 Morgan, M., (1994). Mutant Message Down Under, p.111. Hammersmith, London: Harper Collins Publishers.

3 Hogan, L., Metzger, D. & Peterson, B. (1998). Intimate Nature: The Bond Between Women and Animals. New York: The Ballantine Publishing Group, Random House Inc.

4 Clarke-Stewart, A. & Friedman, S. (1987). Child Development: Infancy Through to Adolescence. New York: John Wiley & Sons Inc.

6 Miller, A. (1986). Thou Shalt not be Aware: Society's Betrayal of the Child. New York: Basic Books Inc.

10 Wheelwright Schmidt, L. & Hollister, J. (1991). The Long Shore: A Psychological Experience of the Wilderness, p.202. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

11 Wheelwright Schmidt, L. & Hollister, J. (1991). The Long Shore: A Psychological Experience of the Wilderness, p.202. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books

5 Estes, C. (1996). Women Who Run With the Wolves. Random House: South Africa.

21 Swift, R., Endangered Species, July 2000

2 Sunday Times, 10th January, 1999. (Brackets are words of writer).

6 Hogan, L., Metzger, D. & Peterson, B. (1998). Intimate Nature: The Bond Between Women and Animals. New York: The Ballantine Publishing Group, Random House Inc.

7 Hogan, L., Metzger, D. & Peterson, B. (1998). Intimate Nature: The Bond Between Women and Animals. New York: The Ballantine Publishing Group, Random House Inc.

26 Clinebell, H.J., (1996). Healing Ourselves: Healing the Earth, p. 28. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

27 Brofrenbrenner, U., 1979. The Ecology of Human Development. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

28 Estes, C., (1996). Women Who Run With the Wolves, pp. 211/212. Random House South Africa (Pty) Ltd.

29 Clinebell, H.J., (1996). Healing Ourselves: Healing the Earth, p. 35. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

30 Wheelwright Schmidt, L. & Hollister, J. (1991). The Long Shore: A Psychological Experience of the Wilderness, p.202. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books