Healing through nature and implications for an ethics of care for nature





Almut Beringer, Ph.D.

Dept. of Outdoor Education and Nature Tourism

La Trobe University, Bendigo

P.O. Box 199

Bendigo, Victoria 3552, Australia

Phone: +61 3 5444 7487, Fax: +61 3 5444 7848




Paper presented at the

8th International Symposium for Society and Natural Resource Management/Caring about and caring for nature

Western Washington University

Bellingham, Washington 17 — 22 June 2000







May, 2000

BEING MOVED BY NATURE: Healing through nature and implications for an ethics of care for nature


"The sensation of movement (being moved) by nature is something very freeing for a person trapped in a recalcitrant body, e.g., flying in a glider or riding a horse or in a boat down a river."

Study participant, living with paraplegia for 12 years after a road accident


"I think I’ve become more concerned about nature generally. Partly because I know what joy it gives me, partly because I know from personal experience that once something is taken away or lost it rarely or never comes back."

Study participant, living with incomplete quadriplegia after a hanggliding accident




A life crisis can profoundly affect one's relationship to self and others. By implication, one's relationship to nature, it seems, would not be left unaffected. On the other hand, the healing effects of nature are well known and documented. The dynamics of healing, i.e., how nature experiences facilitate the healing of physical and/or psychological trauma, are not well understood. Further questions in need of research are: what effects do healing experiences in and through nature have on a person's environmental ethics? Are healing and caring for nature related, and if so, in what ways?

A qualitative study sought to investigate how a traumatic life event (spinal cord injury) might affect a person's relationship with nature and what role nature experiences played in the healing process (adaptation to physical disability). For the research participants, nature experiences provided an important means to come to terms with a changed body, and to accept physical limitations. Being in nature was valued as a way to 'forget' one's disability. 'Not being able to get close to nature' and the inaccessibility of many natural areas was experienced as the main barrier to receive the healing that being in nature can provide. The experience of loss, grief and healing catalyzed a deepened commitment to caring for nature.

The question how nature heals will be discussed by presenting components of a theory of healing which emerge from this study. Implications for research and theory of an ethics of care for nature will be drawn.

BEING MOVED BY NATURE: Healing through nature and implications for an ethics of care for nature

Nature heals. This has been known and experienced by many individuals, in many cultures, throughout time (e.g., Burns 1998; Morris 1996; Porksen 1994; Schipperges 1994). That nature heals is reflected in such practices as naturopathy and homeopathy; seeking guidance via vision quests or times spent in solitude in wilderness settings; or engaging in outdoor recreation such as backpacking or canoeing to restore one’s mental-emotional state and/or to exercise the physical body. Outdoor adventure therapy and wilderness therapy rely on the restorative effects of natural environment to facilitate interventions toward positive change. Nature heals, yet how this healing effect occurs is a question which continues to beg systematic and thorough inquiry. We lack research, and thus, understanding and appreciation about what contributions nature, the outdoors, make to outdoor adventure therapy, and what gifts natural environments have to offer for our healing and well-being (e.g., Kaplan and Talbot 1983, McKenzie, in press).

The dynamics of healing -- how does nature heal? -- was the guiding question for a small qualitative study. In addition to providing insights to this research question, the data revealed effects of such healing on a person’s relationship with nature. In particular, the study showed that experiencing healing through nature may initiate or strengthen an ethic of care for nature.

The study

For my study into how nature heals, I chose people who have suffered a spinal cord injury (SCI). A spinal cord injury is a traumatic, life-changing event. The physical trauma of SCI, resulting in physical disability due to irrevocable neurological damage to the spinal cord, is accompanied by a psychological trauma. From the SCI literature, we know this psychological-emotional trauma is, in essence, a sudden and involuntary change in self-image which requires an identity transformation process. This identity transformation process asks the patient to psychologically move from being a healthy, often physically active person to becoming an injured hospital patient, to becoming a physically disabled rehabilitation patient. The process of identity transformation concludes with the affected individual reconciling themselves with being a more or less healthy wheelchair user in the community (ref.). Part of this identity transformation process is adjusting to a changed body and to changed functional, and consequently, often also changed vocational and recreational abilities. How do nature experiences and outdoor activities facilitate the described identity transformation process? How do nature and outdoor activities help individuals with SCI come to terms with their changed body and abilities? How does a person’s relationship to nature change as a result of becoming a wheelchair user? And what may we be able to learn more generally about the healing process, and how nature facilitates this process? These questions guided this exploratory study.

I interviewed five individuals, 4 men and 1 woman, except for one all in their early forties [min.: 42, max.: 45, mean: 44.25; data not available for Marc]. I recruited them through advertisements in the newsletters of the ParaQuad Victoria (Paraplegic and Quadriplegic Association of Victoria) and the Australian Quadriplegic Association Victoria (AQA), an advertisement at Sailability (Victorian Yachting Council, Albert Lake Park), and by word-of-mouth through Wheelchair Sports Victoria, Bendigo branch. All of my study participants were wheelchair users and had lived with their spinal cord injury for a minimum of 10 years (max.: 23 years, mean: 15.8 years).

All of the study participants were active in the outdoors prior to their SCI; some had sustained their injury during cherished outdoor pursuits. Thus, all had some form of relationship with nature prior to their injury. All of them attempted to re-establish that valued connection with nature after their rehabilitation, and met frustrations in doing so, for instance in fighting the authorities to pay for a handcranked pushbike as part of his rehabilitation so that one of the men in the study could, once again, enjoy bike-riding in the bush with his kids. Gardening, bike-riding, sailing, site-seeing, traveling, and perhaps most of all, sitting and observing nature were outdoor or nature activities my study participants engaged in.

Due to limitations of time, I can neither address all the relevant themes in detail and nor can support all themes with data. For the more crucial themes in regard to development of an ethics of care, I have selected a few pertinent quotes from the interviews to highlight the thematic findings of this study.

Results/Working hypotheses generated through this study:

A number of themes emerged from the data in relation to the challenges of sustaining a SCI; the rehabilitation process; the effects of SCI on one's identity and life in general; what it means to be a 'disabled person' in our society; the lessons and redeeming qualities that may be learned by living with paralysis and 'being disabled;' and the life changes that a SCI may result in. Furthermore, themes about nature experiences and outdoor pursuits emerged from the data that are not specific to people with SCI. While all of these are interesting in themselves, I will focus my presentation and discussion on those findings that speak directly to the two research questions, and on the effects of individuals’ experiencing healing through nature on their environmental ethics. For reasons of time, I can neither discuss all of the themes, nor support all themes with data. Further, I had to limit the data to a few examples for the themes more relevant to the implications for an ethics of care.

Re: (1), Change in relationship to nature

-- What are the effects of physical and/or psychological trauma on an individual's relationship with nature? --

1.1 'Distanced' nature

Not being able to 'get close' to nature -- to trees, streams, rivers, or onto the beach — due to the enforced use of a wheelchair contributes to the psychological pain of physical disability. Yet if one is not able to 'get close' to nature, it is also difficult to stay 'in touch' with nature, particularly when the experience of SCI spans many years. TV documentaries, photos, and memories of enjoyable experiences in the bush prior to injury substitute for 'the real thing,' but can not replace being in nature fully.

"… there’s a boardwalk I can go by the river and that’s quite difficult, it’s quite difficult to get close to things, and that’s one of the places where I can get close to the water, so I really love going down there… (Susan 9.9.99, p. 6).

"…it’s lovely by the lake, you know, the boardwalk being built all the way around is just wonderful because it means that people in wheelchairs are going to be able to access right down next to the water which is really important… (Theresa 15.11.99, p. 7).

"… it was wonderful to go along the boardwalk and get easy access to the sandy beach along the river for the first time in 15 years" (James 29.10.99, p. 5).

1.2 Becoming an active observer

Part of successful adjustment to physical disability after SCI seems to be a successful movement from being an active participant in physical outdoor pursuits to being an active observer of nature; i.e., directing one's activity from the outer physical level to the inner, mental and emotional ones. 'Sitting and watching' can become very rewarding.

"I am content to sit and watch the sights around me. For instance, at Eagles’ Nest where I had my accident I love sitting at the lookout and watching the waves crashing into the rocks and beach, or looking at the wind patterns on the sea. Just marveling at the coastline formations and wondering at the power of time and the sea — it’s amazing and humbling" (James 21.10.99, p. 3).

"… I just drove through for 20 minutes and sat in the car for 10 minutes and looked at the mountains and I felt better, you know, so even though I can’t climb them I can still take them in and appreciate them in some way" (Susan 9.9.99, p. 7).

1.3 Heightened sensitivity toward the natural environment

An increased sensitivity to nature and environmental issues may result from SCI and subsequent physical disability, catalyzed by the experience of loss and of 'preciousness what we have.' Having to slow down and having time to reflect may also contribute to greater sensitivity. Age, previous interests in environmental matters and learning about nature need to be taken into consideration.

"One aspect of the trauma of an acquired disability is the realization that the world still turns, the birds still sing and the warmth of the sun seems somehow different. … you don’t need to acquire a physical disability to appreciate nature, but for some people it can be a wake-up call" (Marc 31.8.99, p. 1).

"I think I’ve become more concerned about the environment generally. Partly because I know what joy it gives me, partly because I now know from personal experience that once something is taken away or lost it rarely or never comes back" (James 21.10.99, p. 2).

Re: (2), Recovery from SCI and adjustment to physical disability

-- How does nature heal? --

2.1 SCI trauma

The physical trauma of SCI is accompanied by a psychological one: cognitive-emotional dissonance caused by a changed self-image. In addition, having become a ‘disabled person’ meets with negative perceptions from others and society at large. This dissonance and negative projections require resolution (healing). Nature experiences/outdoor pursuits can accelerate or hinder this (positive versus negative facilitation). The psychological-emotional trauma of SCI can be long-term, and immune to healing.

Positive facilitation:

2.2 Transcendence

Nature experiences and/or outdoor pursuits have a 'transcending', a 'normalizing' effect. In spite of difficulties accessing natural areas and getting around in a wheelchair, individuals seem to be able to forget their physical limitations, if only temporarily. The ‘transcendence effect’ manifests in the feeling of freedom, freedom from mobility support and/or personal assistance, freedom from others’ attitudes regarding physical disability, and freedom from having to plan because of access issues.

"The sensation of movement (being moved) by nature is something very freeing for a person trapped in a recalcitrant body, e.g., flying in a glider or riding a horse or in a boat down a river" (Marc 31.8.99, p. 1).

"Get out and enjoy it at every opportunity, it makes you feel alive and allows you to escape the chair for short periods" (James 21.10.99, p. 5).

"… my experience on the bike was freedom, not being in a wheelchair, it’s a pushbike, I mean it is a wheelchair bike but it’s not a wheelchair, it was a bike and I got out and I could keep up with other people on bikes…" (Matthew 15.11.99, p. 16).

"In nature it does not matter who you are or what you look like, there is no pressure to perform, respond, react, you are not measured or compared with others. Birds and animals still come to you. I could not help but smile when the Rosella flew down and perched on my outstretched finger, this living thing didn’t hesitate, was not shy or embarrassed, was not concerned about political correctness, no ulterior motive, it was just there, that’s all, on my finger" (Marc 22.11.99, p. 1).

2.3 Being versus doing

It is not so much what is done in nature — the activity -- as that it is done, that persons with SCI get outdoors. Physical activity in the outdoors helps in getting to know one’s abilities and limitations; done with others, it helps in maintaining social relations. Simply being in nature or the outdoors is more important than the particular activity individuals choose to engage in, and contributes to healing.

"… now it’s just being amongst nature, I suppose, just letting myself be there. It is healing… . I guess it’s just allowing myself to be outdoors and being in the garden… (Susan 9.9.99, p. 9-10).

"… you go bush now and sit in your wheelchair or sit in the car and just nothing on [no radio], you go, ’this is beautiful, this is just so beautiful,’ you look at it and you think, ‘well, aren’t I so lucky’… (Matthew 15.11.99, p. 20).

"… we’ve got a handcranked pushbike now so Matthew can still go up … it still gets him back out doing the things he did, particularly since he used to bike-ride with the children… (Theresa 15.11.99, p. 3).

2.4 Service

Experiencing the inaccessibility of natural areas and human-made environments may lead individuals with SCI to active political involvement toward change and other forms of community service. Helping ease difficulties for other wheelchair users via (voluntary) service facilitates recovery and adjustment by giving a sense of self-worth.

Negative facilitation:

2.5 Limitations

Attitudinal barriers toward people with disability due to ignorance or lack of goodwill heighten the experience of disability. Such negative attitudes often manifest in physical (architectural) barriers, resulting in natural areas and outdoor places being inaccessible to wheelchair users. Not being able to go to places results in frustrations and heightens the experience of physical disability.

"I’m mad on sport, love being outdoors, I love the bush." "And that’s difficult because it’s so inaccessible at times, that does make it hard because Matthew loves to go out into the bush" (Matthew and Theresa 15.11.99, p. 11).

"If you could change anything with regard to your relationship to nature, would there be anything and what would it be?"

"It would be being able to have access to more places, … to places that are, that I can’t get to at the moment, onto the beaches, by rivers, that’s the main thing…" (Susan 9.9.99, p. 10).

"I feel frustrated when access is denied, especially when it’s due to poor planning or sloppy application. … If access is denied, I feel cheated, … (James 21.10.99, p. 3).

"I find the access is terribly hard and that is very frustrating to say the least… (Tom 15.9.99, p. 1).

2.6 'Absent' nature in rehab

Nature experiences and outdoor activities did not feature prominently in study participants’ hospital rehabilitation program. All of them, however, missed being outside and wished for and appreciated contact with nature during this trying time. The memory of significant outdoor experiences substitutes being outside somewhat, and seems to have an effect in recovery.

'Building blocks' for a theory of how nature experiences contribute to healing aspects of the psychological-emotional trauma associated with SCI:

The working hypotheses summarize what we can learn from these findings of how nature experiences/outdoor pursuits contribute to healing aspects of the psychological-emotional trauma associated with SCI. Asking, what can we learn from this study more generally takes the working hypotheses to the next level of analysis. This does not mean the findings from this study are generalized beyond the 5 participants; it does, however, invite us to check transferability: to investigate whether these findings apply to other populations. The following list of interpretive statements -- not in any particular order -- may serve as 'building blocks' or 'foundation stones' to begin building a theory of how nature heals (see also Roberts 1998).


Nature provides an experience of continuity and stability

"the world still turns, the birds still sing"

• Support

Nature experiences/outdoor activities provide the opportunity to engage in social relationships and feel supported

"it still gets him back out doing the things he did, particularly since he used to bike-ride with the children"

Positive environment/positive feedback

The outdoors is a non-judgmental, non-condescending, non-pitying environment

"Birds and animals still come to you."

• Perspective

Being moved (embraced) by greater powers (beauty, physical forces such as the wind or plant growth) puts oneself, one's challenges and life in perspective; ‘humility, gratitude’

"wondering at the power of time and the sea — it’s amazing and humbling"

"…you look at it [the bush] and you think, ‘well, aren’t I so lucky’."

• Exploration of self and body

Outdoor experiences provide the opportunity to explore a changed body, new movements, and to develop a new self-image or recapture a previous one; 'I can still bike ride with my kids, be an outdoor person'

"it still gets him back out doing the things he did, particularly since he used to bike-ride with the children"

• ‘Slow down’ effect/Opportunity for reflection

The wheelchair may prevent one from physically 'getting close' to nature; however, paralysis also forces one to slow down which gives the opportunity to reflect. 'Sitting and watching' also enables 'closeness' to nature, albeit of a different (inner) kind.

• Continuation of valued relationship/Freedom from fear

Nature/outdoor experiences allow one to renew and continue a relationship with nature which existed prior to injury. In contrast to pre-injury human relationships, there is no fear of non-acceptance.

"In nature it does not matter who you are or what you look like, there is no pressure to perform, respond, react, you are not measured or compared with others."

• Inclusiveness/(Self-)Worth

Being able to be in nature, alone or with others -- because access has been made available and it is 'safe' -- transmits feelings of acceptance and worth; one can feel included in society as a worthwhile member, despite physical disability; 'someone's thought about people like me and extended effort to make it available for wheelchair users to come here'

"the boardwalk being built all the way around is just wonderful"

• Transcendence/Freedom/Merging

Nature/outdoor experiences provide an opportunity to 'forget' one's self-consciousness of a damaged, changed, possibly hard-to-accept body because nature is 'larger-than-human;' possibly because nature stimulates the disintegration of boundaries between body/self and 'other,' thus, one's body awareness merges with awareness of the 'larger whole'

• Peace/Rejuvenation

Nature, in general, has invigorating, rejuvenating, calming effects

'natural high'

Not from the data, therefore in parentheses:

(• Non-institutional environment

Recovery/rehab occurs in a non-institutional environment)

•(One-pointed focus

[Adaptive] Outdoor activities force one-pointed concentration on a task, thereby restricting awareness of the [limited] body)

By drawing on ecopsychology and ecospirituality, the data from this study can be interpreted and summarized as follows:

• Regarding recovery from SCI and adjustment to physical disability:

Nature/outdoor experiences contribute to healing the psychological-emotional trauma associated with SCI by assisting in a necessary identity transformation. Nature/outdoor experiences facilitate (expedite?) this process by enabling affected individuals to explore a changed body and develop a new self-image in a non-judgmental, non-condescending, non-pitying (i.e., a negative) environment. Further, nature/outdoor experiences enable individuals with SCI to confront the 'outside world' (in the form of nature) without fear of non-acceptance. They are empowered by experiencing the continuity of life, and by experiencing non-threatening relationships (with birds, the river, the ocean). In short, nature and the outdoors provide an environment of positive support, together with the beneficial effects associated with nature in general (tranquility, peace of mind, etc.).

• Regarding how nature heals:

Nature (as the study participants understood it) heals via 'radiating' and transmitting 'higher' qualities -- acceptance (versus non-acceptance), love (versus fear), tolerance (versus judgment), patience (versus 'being a burden or nuisance'), peace (versus anxiety and worry). By being in such an environment, a person may (subconsciously) absorb these qualities and extend them to her/himself (i.e., be more accepting, more loving of a hard-to-accept body or body parts, less fearful of what others may think, more tolerant of what life has become, more patient with the journey of healing, at peace with what has happened).

Nature heals by providing opportunities and challenges for inner (spiritual) growth. The 'higher' qualities are latent in everyone; thus, all of us respond to them on some level of our being. Sensing them in and through nature (if only subconsciously), these 'higher' qualities within are stimulated and a person may begin resonating with them. Hence, nature's 'calming, invigorating, rejuvenating, etc.' effects.

Nature heals by empowering individuals with SCI to explore a changed body and changes in physical functioning in a non-judgmental, loving environment, thereby providing support to face the world as a 'disabled person.' This empowerment comes not so much from doing (engaging in activity), but more so from being in nature and thereby, being able to (unconsciously) 'take in' the 'higher' qualities.

Nature heals by invoking memories of joyful experiences in the bush prior to injury, especially if affected individuals return to cherished places. Nature heals also by invoking traumatic memories when affected individuals return to the place where the accident happened. The role of memory -- joyful or painful -- in healing needs to be explored further (see also Bertrand 1997).

Discussion: Implications for an ethics of care

The ethics of care for nature has largely been explored in the context of moral development research and theories, in particular the Kohlberg and Gilligan frameworks (e.g., Beringer 1992, Britner 2000). Gilligan's (1982) ethic of care has enabled us to understand and give voice to what might be going on when individuals express concern for the natural environment. Moreover, Gilligan (1982) has perhaps provided a template for how individuals may learn to care for nature. Exploring an ethics of care for nature via moral development theories is a worthwhile endeavor, if we take into consideration that relying on a moral development framework devised via human-human morality may blind us to dimensions of morality that may be unique to human-nature interactions (for more depth on this see Beringer 1992).

As this small study, exploratory with regard to a research question somewhat unrelated to environmental morality, shows, an ethic of care for nature may have stimuli not necessarily captured in traditional moral development theory or Gilligan's ethic of care. The experience of grief or loss of what is regarded precious (namely the ability to walk and/or use one's hands) can trigger, as James' example shows, compassion for what is going on in the natural world and a desire to counteract environmental degradation. Further, having experienced the joy that comes from being in nature, James wants to preserve it for the future, for others. Grief and joy, which can be considered to be opposing and/or complementary emotions, seem to be critical to this study participant’s environmental ethics. James’ experience suggests it behooves environmental ethicists to explore these two emotions with regard to their potential implications for an ethics of care.

We know from the ecopsychology literature that grief over what is happening to the Earth can be a powerful motivator to care for nature, care which might be expressed as contributing to healing environmental damage (Barrows 1998; Clinebell 1996). Ecogrief, grieving for nature and about environmental destruction, for instance, over losing a favorite play space or over the logging of old-growth rainforests, is an experience most, if not all of us, carry within us (Beringer 1999; Sardello 1995). Grieving for nature can be interpreted as symptomatic of the development and presence of an ecological self (Macy 1991; Mathews 1988; Naess 1989), of experiencing one’s identity intimately tied to the natural world. The pain of and in the natural world is felt and experienced as one’s own. However, due to cultural biases, it has been very difficult to verbalize and therefore, also to acknowledge such feelings. The loss, grief and mourning literature as well as the many approaches in grief work and counseling are mute on ecogrief (Beringer 1999). Ecogrief is not only an underestimated phenomenon in our society, it is also a silenced and neglected aspect of our experience with the natural world. Consequently, the relationship between ecogrief and an ethics of care for nature opens up an almost untapped research agenda.

Grief for nature based on intimate connection(s) to the natural world, i.e., an ecological self, may be one avenue to stimulate caring for nature. James, however, demonstrates a second possibility: that of experiencing grief confined to the self and unrelated to nature, and then transferring those feelings toward the Earth. This adds another dimension to ecogrief: compassion for the Earth and care for nature arises not from the direct painful experience of loss in the natural world, but is transferred to nature out of personal pain. The circle of ethical concern is extended outward, from self to nature, as Noddings (1985) describes, and is predicated on the cognitive ability of perspective-taking and the emotional ability of empathy.

Grief, in particular ecogrief, may have been largely overlooked as an impetus for an ethics of care for nature to date. However, the intimate link between loss and morality, between grief and care is clarified and substantiated by etymology (see also Gottlieb 1999). As Thomashow points out, caring "implies nourishment, support, stewardship, and healing — acting with deliberation, mindfulness, and understanding" (p. 167). To care, however, also means "to grieve and to lament" (p. 167).

To include the experience of ecogrief in the study of an ethics of care for nature seems timely and warranted. Furthermore, experiences of healing through nature seem untapped opportunities to explore the question of reciprocity in the development of an ethics of care: in how far is it necessary to experience and to know being cared for by nature to extend care toward nature and the Earth (Martin, pers. comm.)? Future research on how healing relates to an ethics of care for nature can draw on medical studies that have looked at how suffering is embraced with care and compassion when medicine is conceptualized not exclusively as a science, but as a healing art (e.g., Pedziwiatr 1999). Further, medical ethics can illuminate the ethics of care in healing, and its characteristics (e.g., Carse 1995). Both research in ecogrief and healing seem open treasure boxes to complement research on the ethics of care for nature via moral development research and theory, and to substantiate and/or refine our understanding of the development and practice of an ethics of care for nature.


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