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Opinion & Essays - Apr, 1999 Issue #57 

By: Rob Cooley, Ph.D
Catherine Freer Wilderness Therapy Expeditions
Albany, Oregon

It is not surprising that modern man has found wilderness such a source of solace, spiritual contact, and healing. It is our cradle and childhood. It has shaped us into the beings we are, as surely as our early years have shaped our personalities. Returning to it, we feel ourselves re-attaching to our roots, our natural state of being; “going home” to a situation where our essential emotions, behaviors, needs, and spiritual strivings make far more sense than they can in our urban worlds. 

Troubled adolescents living outdoors in small groups led by mature young adults, experience something very close to the lives of adolescents throughout our pre-agricultural history. Once they have gotten past feeling deprived of their urban comforts and a little afraid of the unknown dangers of the wild, they settle into a sense of secureness, an archetypal “rightness.” From there, they can reach to explore what the new/ancient world of wilderness has to offer them: access to the essential meanings of human life. It is revealed both by the natural world and by their inner lives. It gives a foundation on which to examine how their personal lives and values fit with the underlying structures of humanness. Probably all of us who are reasonably reflective experience some of this when we spend a week or more living simply in the wilderness. But the impact of wilderness is far more powerful for adolescents who are experiencing substantial difficulties constructing personal identities and finding meaning while navigating their passage into adulthood.

Healing Kids 

For the wilderness setting to have maximum benefit, several factors are necessary. The young people must feel, on the one hand, challenged and somewhat at risk, as any band of young hunting or gathering apprentices over the last few million years of history would have felt. On the other hand, they must feel secure within this setting: they need to feel supported and confident that they are being taught how to manage it competently. Unless they feel comfortable, the specific wilderness magic will not work. 

If the experience is only an endurance contest or is felt as significantly punishing and depriving, they may learn some useful behaviors (which they could do in a traditional hospital in- patient setting) but they cannot relax into this Homecoming and cannot reach their roots or discover their spiritual nature and capacities. If the experience is too easy, however, similar to a summer camp episode, they may learn some camping and social skills and some natural history, but they will not pop out of their suburban behaviors and assumptions to experience the deeper realities offered them by the wilderness. 

The youngsters must also feel confidence in their adult leaders. The leaders need to communicate wisdom in the ways of woods and of young humans, be firmly in control of the situation, warmly nurturing, and dedicated to the well-being and good teaching of their young charges. 

But beyond the human safety and environmental familiarity “secure” does not mean “safe,” exactly, for life in the wilderness and in the inner emotional/archetypal world never is wholly safe. Rather, it becomes embraced in a wilderness setting which becomes familiar and manageable, just as the youngsters’ inner lives are explored, made conscious, their currents identified, and tools for understanding and managing are learned. 

They learn to draw analogies: camping alone on a darkening, damp Oregon evening by a huge ancient fir amid the myriad small but now known and no longer frightening noises of twilight forest, kindling a fire, making light and warmth and a source of hot, nutritious food is a powerful experience. It is also virtually identical to the process of remembering, say, early sexual abuse and exploring later depression and self-destructive teen-years attitudes and behaviors, coming to understand how those things relate to each other, and how one can manage one’s life in new ways that are warm and nurturing rather than coldly, frighteningly self-destructive. In both cases it is the mastery of the darkness, using new knowledge and available resources to make light and safety. 

These young adventurers into the dimly known have done the outer work of coping adequately with the wilderness environment. They also completed the inner work of nurturing that personal adult flame of consciousness which enables us to see and manage and to usefully employ those inner forces which are our gift from our eons-long heritage as natural, spiritual beings. As they gain these mastery in these areas, many of the young people on our trips come to feel not only more confident, but more truly safe than they have felt for years, for now their safety is consciously in their own hands. 

Finally, to be fully effective, such programs must provide education and counseling which enable their clients to become aware of just what it is that they are experiencing, to reflect on it, and to consider how to apply it to their future lives. An experience of required behavior change is helpful. Far more helpful is an experience of self-understanding, based on new knowledge and insight leading the intentional choice of taking personal responsibility. Thus, mastering life in the wilderness can provide the keys to mastering life in modern society, but only if the participant is guided toward understanding how to use those keys. 

The effects of adolescent wilderness experience make clear the underlying value to our culture of wild areas, which is less obvious in adult recreational use. Wilderness has the potential to provide a kind of essential healing, through a partial return to our natural human eco-niche, that cannot be provided in any other way. Wild areas have other important uses; preserving habitats, species, and healthy aquatic systems. Yet it is essential for their long-range preservation that our culture fully grasp just how meaningful they are for humans, too: not just for recreation, but for kinds of basic healing and renewal that are vital to our success as a human community. 

Copyright © 1999, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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