Working the Land, Working the Self: Understanding Healing and Embodiment Through Diverse Traditions

What is the story you tell yourself about who you are? Is it true? Is it time to change the story you carry within to align with your inner truth?

I believe that we all have inner wisdom and gifts that can be obscured by a sense of disembodiment— a deadening of one’s feelings as the result of trauma. One way to discover, or recover one’s embodiment, the life-enhancing function of the body, and increase our resilience is being present with the land.

Notice that I didn’t say spending time in nature. For, after all, you can spend time in nature while remaining distracted by self-negating thoughts. But the land offers an opportunity to return to healing and wholeness as well as the recognition that we are nature itself. The same sense of separation, loneliness, and fear that one can feel as a result of disembodiment can be easily recognized as allowing the desecration, pollution, and destruction that is done to the land. But in a world that increasingly pulls us away from the living, breathing world, how do we cultivate these experiences of embodiment, oneness, and interconnectedness?

Living in the Oakland, California, I readily have access to nature preserves, parks, lakes, the ocean, and mountains. But with the demands of daily life, it has become increasingly difficult to pause and take in the beauty of all that is around me. I am curious about the unique and complex history of the land of Bay Area. The urban environment is all the more in stark contrast given the woes that afflict the area- homelessness, income disparity, crime. “Cover a place’s history and vitality in asphalt, concrete or forgetfulness, and it returns an episode at a time in symptoms, in dreams, in folklore, crime, public politics or private fights until brought fully into the present through conscious reflection.” (Chalquist, 2007)

On a personal level, I was recently feeling emotionally drained and financially spent as I returned home from a series of family court appearances regarding my daughter. Rather than dwell on the events and the accompanying feelings of anger, fear, and worry, I spent the remainder of the day being brought fully into the present through intentional and right relationship with the land with the hopes that I would, in turn, return to intentional and right relationship with myself.

Indigenous peoples have long practiced a deep connection to community and to the land. Here in the Bay Area, these communities work to bring all people together to re-imagine a community that honors the land. They recognize that the land can facilitate our healing from colonization and genocide, a return to a different way to live and honor our ancestors and future generations. As an African-American woman whose ancestors arrived to this land via the TransAtlantic Slave Trade, I am in awe of their legacy of a deep, soulful connection to the land. They brought with them a profound relationship to nature that defended them against disease, hunger, and death. My grandparents were sharecroppers in Texas and Arkansas and learned to grow crops and raise livestock under the brutal conditions of extreme poverty, Jim Crow, and the harsh weather patterns of the deep south. My mom remembers picking cotton, peaches, and whatever other crop was ready for harvest in the fields with family and other neighbors. Sometimes the work would be completed in quiet concentration and at other times, someone would break into hymn to break the monotony of the back-breaking work.

bell hooks, in Touching the Earth, explained the connection between the earth and African-American people. She says that “black people must reclaim a spiritual legacy where we connect our well-being to the well-being of the earth.” (hooks, 1999) She also appeals to us to understand that the struggle for the survival of our ecology and the struggle to end racism are deeply interconnected. She goes on to describe that in living so close to nature in Africa, black people were able to continue to practice a deep reverence for the land in a foreign land. Like millions of black people, my family left the south for the north with the hopes of better economic opportunities and to leave the racial injustice behind. But many people have returned to the land of their ancestors, and hooks postulates that the desire to return is fueled by aligning the sensual beauty of the south, the fertile soil, and ancient trees that bore witness to the suffering of so many.

In preparation for my day working the land, I chose a pair of rain boots, old blue jeans and several layers of t-shirts to help me regulate my body temperature for the fickle Bay Area weather. I joined a work party that was in collaboration with an organization with a mission to democratize access to affordable, nutritious food. Our assignment was to clean the arbor area in preparation for a future water catchment system. Before we set off with our tools and work gloves, a ceremony and prayers were offered to the land and to the ancestors. The prayers were offered in the traditional way, in the four cardinal directions. The last lines of the prayer “and now we bend down and touch our mother the earth…And now we stand up and reach out and up towards our Grandfather who watches over us…” reminded me of the spiritual and uniquely intimate relationship with the land I was to experience that day and I felt a tinge of regret that I did not begin each day in this holy way. More than just an assignment, I was crossing a threshold from the mundane into the sacred.

As I worked that day, pulling at roots, hauling branches and chopping a dead tree into more portable pieces, I quickly forgot about what the previous weeks had wreaked and had no consideration for what the future may have held.  In other words, I was experiencing Marion Woodman described as “embodied essence”— experiencing myself and others in our full humanity. “Healing”, she says, “comes through embodiment of the soul.” (Woodman, 1993) I briefly engaged in conversation, but mostly worked in silence, entering quiet contemplation of the color of the wood or the leaves. I took care to be mindful to not harm the critters whose habitat I was disturbing, finding wriggling earthworms, nimble spiders, and a colony of ladybugs nestled together for warmth. “Treatment of the inner requires attention to the outer; or, as another early healer said, “The greater part of the soul lies outside of the body.”” (Hillman, 1995) What I had not noticed prior to that day was the amount of stress and distress I held in my body in the form of tension in my shoulders, belly, and lower back. By noon, I was hot and had shed several layers of clothes. Soon, dirt and bits of wood covered my arms. My boots were muddy and my jeans had a tint of brown dust along the front of my legs.

By the time the day had concluded, my face was covered in grit and my hair had become home to splinters of wood, flecks of dried leaves and perhaps a family of squirrels. But seriously, I felt strangely renewed by this baptism of earth covering, completely submerging any anxiety or ill-effects of my “real life.” James Hillman said that “the idea that depth psychology merges with ecology translates to mean that to understand the ills of the soul today we turn to the ills of the world, its suffering.” (1995) I had felt trapped, entangled by my life’s circumstances but began to see my experiences as ensouled by that old, gnarled, fallen tree. I chopped at it, with varying degrees of accuracy, and soon, bit by bit, it became manageable and right-sized for its next incarnation as fire wood and wood chips. My experiences, if witnessed with care and compassion, for myself and others, would be soon resolved, giving rise to the next series of events, requiring an equally appropriate response.

“To unite psyche and nature within a symbolic consciousness opens the door to a new awareness of self in nature.” (Perluss, 2007)  In this union, I was able to discern new meaning both in the inner and outer expressions of self. The beauty of working the land is that I was worked as well; my muscles and bones, my psyche and heart were transformed by the land, wind and sun. My connection to the ancestors and intention was fine tuned to be in right relationship with the soul of the world.

The day was an enriching and nourishing opportunity to explore an intimate engagement with the land and in reflection, served to support and enhance my awareness of my inherent interconnectedness with nature. Hogan writes, “we have been wounded by a dominating culture that has feared and hated the natural world, has not listened to the voice of the land, had not believed in the inner worlds of human dreaming and intuition, all things that have guided indigenous people since time stood up in the east and walked into this world of existence, split from the connection between self and land.” (Hogan, 1995)

Western culture has fostered a disconnection from any practice that may lead to a deeper sense of oneness with nature — from the foods that we eat that are often transported around the world to the sensual pleasures of the body with another body through eye contact, touch, and sex (as the virtual world becomes the chosen vessel of relationship) — that I fear for future generation’s ability to embrace the nature both within and outside of themselves. If we are to save the planet and therefore, ourselves, “we must learn to intuit the soul of the Earth, the underlying pattern of nature expressed through an astounding diversity of forms and species,” (Plotkin, 2013) and it includes court rooms, ex-husbands, earthworms, spiders, ladybugs and fallen trees.

Without a visceral connection to myself, I simply do not have the power to pull myself out of the quicksand of my obligations. Naming and valuing myself as nature gave me the courage to make difficult choices and to make peace with what was presently happening in my life. I am happiest when I allow myself time for self-care and time in nature, along with time to be with family and friends. As I reflect upon what it might look like to engage myself as nature — strong, generative, abundant, creative, life-giving — I remember that it takes time and patience to develop the skills to harness the heat and power of my core gifts. Until I learn and practice those skills regularly, I will tend to either suppress my gifts or express them in inappropriate ways. In fact, according to Perluss, “when complexes remain unconscious, they can have an enormous effect on our feelings and behaviors — interfering with intentions, blocking memory and cutting off the flow of creativity.” (2008)  In order to liberate these core gifts, it is essential that I find and build relationships with the various expressions of nature — people, trees, mountains, the ocean — who are capable of honoring those qualities within me.

Creating space to reflect on the experiences in the body and heart are ways to acknowledge our embodiment and to resist the forces that would otherwise ignore or dominate our bodies. By going boldly into the depths of the psyche, one can come to realize a deeper and more intimate relationship with the natural world that both surrounds us and is within us. The work can be incredibly meaningful and rich as well as therapeutic, illustrated in my case, as a source of healing from trauma and psychic pain. As I have embark upon this journey, leveraging the tools and techniques developed by indigenous and modern healers alike, I become attuned to nature and access wholeness for myself, my community and the world.


Chalquist, C. (2007). Terrapsychology: Reengaging the Soul of Place. New Orleans: Spring Journal Books.

Hillman, J. (1995). A psyche the size of the earth. In Roszak, T., Gomes, M. E., Kanner, A. D., & Brown, L. R. (Eds.), Ecopsychology: Restoring the earth, healing the mind (pp. xvii-xxiii). San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books.

hooks, b. (1999). Touching the art. In D. Landis Barnhill (Ed.), At home on this Earth: Becoming native to place, a multicultural anthology (pp. 363-368). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Perluss, E. (2007). Touching the Earth: Finding spirit: A passage into the symbolic landscape. Spring Journal, Issue 76, part 2, 201-222.

Perluss, E. (2008). Climbing the alchemical mountain: A story of initiation. Psychological Perspectives, 51(1), 87-107.

Perluss, E. (2018). Lecture on ecopsychology. Personal collection of E. Perluss, Pacifica Graduate Institute.

Plotkin, B. (2013). Care of the soul of the world. In L. Vaughan-Lee (Ed.), Spiritual ecology: The cry of the Earth (pp. 184-202). Pt. Reyes, CA: The Golden Sufi Center.

Sogorea Te Land Trust. (n.d.). Retrieved March 7, 2019, from

Woodman, M. (1993). Conscious Femininity: Interviews with Marion Woodman. Toronto: Inner City Books.