by Jeremy Grisham

I can only define eco-therapy and what it means to me, by the impact it has had on my life.  When I realized what it is, then it became a tool and today I use that tool as a method with which I work to manage life with PTSD, depression—and everything in life that is stressful. Eco-therapy is a tool I use to better define who I am and who I want to be.  Like any form of therapy, this method will work for some and for others, not at all. In the end the type of therapy is not important unless it resonates with the individual. When used in combination with other forms of therapy, this form can make a tremendous impact on your life, your community and the environment.

Eco-therapy resonated for me.

I remember the day; when It felt like something bigger than myself and I found purpose again. It came to me when I was buried deep in a thicket of Knotweed, a particularly stubborn and aggressive invasive species of plant, which can be as beautiful as it is overbearing. I was with a group of students and this was our first encounter with this particular invasive plant.  As was the case I often drifted away from the others and wrapped myself in my thoughts, fears, and insecurities, working alone. Before long the laughter from my classmates and all their BS became faint sounds and I found that my only companions were the ghosts of my past, as I had wanted it to be, standing in a dense forest of this giant knotweed. I pressed the stocks down as was our mission, not breaking, just bending in preparation for treatment. Eventually I came across a juvenile Western Red Cedar, or the “tree of life,” but this one was closer to death rather than life. This tree was one of our most important natural gifts and here it stood, young and suffocating under the shade of the knotweed and wrapped tight, strangled by English Ivy. It looked how I felt inside, crushed under the weight of life after war, life in transition from the military and life without identity. I became incensed with anger and frustration and with a heavy hand, as was my custom (and still is), I focused myself into tearing away the ivy from the young cedar tree. I stomped out of that Knotweed like Godzilla through a defensless city. I was mad, frustrated at my current state of being, the current political climate, everything and everyone. The Knotweed represented everything in my life that I hated and the ivy was the noose used to hang me by it all. I didn’t care for myself much at that time and if this was the last good thing I ever did, then that tree would live.

By the time my tantrum had ended the cedar stood free from its captives, 3 feet tall, a new beacon of survival amongst the threats of life.  It felt as if a light from the heavens shown down on just the both of us, with that tree signaling the end of a storm that had taken it’s toll. At that moment the rage fell from my soul like shattered glass and it all made sense. I found a new mission in life and new identity, and, like my time in the military, I found that I could again be a part of something bigger than myself. It wasn’t the dramatic, instant change I describe in this article rather, years in the making, but change did come and the demons of my past have grown quiet in our advancing years. I have to work for the change to stick and I had to rethink my perspective on where I stood in the grand scheme of things. Is it rational to expect to save the world or does it make more sense taking small manageable steps in the right direction?

That’s what ecotherapy does. The work you put into it is noticeable, then and now. As I dive into a thicket of blackberry, hacking away and removing the plants from a native riparian zone, I emerge from the fight, cut and bleeding from their thorns—which I prefer—but having ultimately won the battle. Under my feet the blackberry stems lay on the ground in sectioned pieces turned to mulch. I have effectively reduced my enemy’s ability to wage war and I can see that change and I can feel it. When I come back in the fall and plant something meant to be there, I can see those new plants grow and sustain life, and I breathe their fresh air which washes away the dust of life. Eco-therapy has also allowed me to reconnect with the community. This isn’t a field overwhelmed with veterans, unfortunately, but, thankfully, more are becoming involved. And those I work with who are not veterans, I hope understand the power a veteran can bring to a project. I have seen veterans’ lives change for the better because they found for themselves what eco-therapy means. Self defined and realized. Veterans are becoming meaningfully employed, or they have better relationships with their friends and family and they have taken on a new mission in life honoring their service and accepting their new roles as civilians.

Is eco-therapy a new trend talked about without meaning? Not from my perspective. Is it a method to preach the danger of climate change and to force others into living differently? Nope. Just a tool, which happens to work for me and it may work for you also. Living differently comes in time and when working with the environment, eco-therapy heals more than just yourself; it heals that small parcel of land in which you work. While connected to the bigger picture, making those small changes makes a big difference for the individual, our community, and the environment as a whole. Eco-therapy is a tremendous and life-saving tool that I owe an incredible amount to. It may have literally saved my life. I know it’s saved others lives as well, as I have witnessed broken human beings become whole again, or broken habitats grow again. When I speak of eco-therapy it is much more than a phrase or a couple of words connected by a hyphen. It’s an emotion which evokes powerful feelings of hope and change for the better. Whether this is a tool for you is a question that only you can answer. I promise you this: there is always work to be done and if you’re willing to get your hands dirty and make positive change in your community, the benefits far outweigh any negatives. Come out and define for yourself what eco-therapy is and make a difference.  The Fall Duwamish Alive! event is coming around the corner, this October 19th, 2013 and I challenge you to define eco-therapy for yourself.

Originally Published by the Repetition and Avoidance Quarterly, Fall 2013
Veterans Training Support Center
Jeremy Grisham is a Field Coordinator for the Veterans Conservation Corps.
The Veterans Conservation Corps is a Duwamish Alive Coalition Partner, which hosts events during Duwamish Alive! at Hamm Creek.