By Shepherd Bliss
02 February, 2009
After farming for most of the last sixteen years in semi-rural Sonoma County, Northern California, and being raised partly on our family farm in Iowa, I have come to understand that agriculture can serve many functions, in addition to producing food, fibers, and beverages. Some farms--especially non-industrial small family farms--are places where working the Earth can be good for body, mind and soul. Farms can heal.
"I farm because it is my work, play, church, school, gym, and therapy," my agrarian neighbor Jeff Snook recently said as we exchanged food and plants, as we sometimes do. Farms tend to create relationships--with plants, animals, the elements, and humans--which can promote physical and mental well-being.
Agropsychology is a growing field of study, whose practice is called agrotherapy. For example, farming has helped me recover from post-traumatic stress from being in the military family that gave its name to Ft. Bliss, Texas, and having served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War era. Living on or even visiting farms puts people in direct contact with nature in ways that can improve mental health.
Though the words agropsychology and agrotherapy are bulky and relatively new, and perhaps a bit too academic, their practices are simple and ancient. Farms on monasteries and elsewhere have long been places in many cultures where people have gone for both physical and mental relief and healing.
Psychological literature documents that what has been called pet therapy and horticulture therapy can heal. Animals can help comfort people and draw them away from passivity and depression. Gardens are increasingly popular in hospitals for the beauty and healing they offer. People have long gone to nature and the countryside for relaxation.
Regular physical work--essential to successful agriculture—has been proven to enhance mental functioning and health and even extend one’s life span. It releases chemicals that make people feel better and stimulates a feeling of well-being.
“Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind” titles a popular anthology published by Sierra Club Books in l996. Its sequel “Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind” is scheduled to appear this May. It includes chapters with titles such as “Gardens That Heal,” “Horses, Humans, and Healing,” and “Tailoring Nature Therapy to the Client.” Trees, animals, rivers and other natural elements can make good listeners and great therapists. Simply watching and helping plants and animals grow and feeling seasonal changes can be nurturing and lift one’s spirits.
Though they do not use the word, recent articles in our daily newspaper, the Press Democrat, report examples of agrotherapy, including the use of animals for psychological healing. “With a year-old retriever at his feet, Iraq war veteran Christopher Hill slept soundly through the night—something the muscular Marine staff sergeant hadn’t experienced in four years,” reports a recent story headlined “Canine Compassion.” Animals can offer protection of both body and soul, and thus increase feelings of safety. Caring for them can help humans care for each other.
“Farm Sanctuary” titles a new book by Gene Baur, sub-titled “Changing Hearts and Minds About Animals and Food.” Long before the professional fields of psychology and psychotherapy developed, people knew that pre-industrial farms in agrarian communities could be sanctuaries where they could go for protection and recovery. Farmers used to have the highest life expectancy of any profession in the U.S., before the advent of chemicalized industrial agriculture.
Farms can provide healing fields—especially for those who have been on killing fields—for damaged animals, including humans. Farm animals and humans, as well as the wildlife that roams farms like mine, can benefit, comfort and even help heal each other.
The national group Farms Not Arms, which has active chapters here in the San Francisco Bay Area, and the related Farmers-Veterans Coalition help locate farms for returning veterans, who can find meaningful work and recover from the ravages of war. Various groups use the biblical concept “from swords to ploughshares.” Others affirm “from tanks to tractors.”
Chickens are the farm animals that I personally find most healing. At our Iowa family farm in the late 1940s, we did not yet have electricity. Instead of radios and televisions for entertainment, we had animals, which I still prefer to TV. They can be funny, as well as beautiful. I enjoy watching and hearing chickens dance, talk to each other, clown around, dig into the Earth with glee, and herald the dawn. Many adults could benefit from learning from chickens how to play more, which can be deeply healing.
Chicken wisdom is based on the alertness necessary for prey to survive. I sometimes take chickens as “Teaching Assistants” to my psychology classes at Sonoma State University, much to the delight of students. Learning how to lighten up, especially in the face of crises, can reduce stress and literally extend one’s life.
We can all benefit from having an animal of choice and a plant of choice. Near my chicken village is a field of boysenberries. The beautiful, sweet, succulent boysens are my plant of choice and chickens are my animal of choice; they help me heal better than any drug of choice.
I began writing about agrotherapy at a gathering of the Veterans’ Writing Group, which I have met with in the Sebastopol countryside for over a dozen years. Our book “Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace,” edited by Maxine Hong Kingston, includes essays, stories, and poems by some eighty veterans. My contribution is about sound trauma and working to recover from this post-traumatic stress of having sounds trigger my military upbringing and service. The serenity and peace of my farm, where I use traditional tools such as scythes and shovels, helps ground and heal me.
Support groups and writing can also be healing. The written and oral telling of one’s stories can be regenerative. It is important to discharge some things, rather than allow them to linger only within and thus damage the body, diminish the mind and erode the soul.
In the summer of 2007 I was summoned to Chile by an attorney to appear before a judge in the torture and execution of my friend Frank Teruggi in l973 by Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. The testimony went well, but after interviewing torture victims and visiting torture centers, I left earlier than planned to rush home to my small farm. I could not wait to be with my chickens, who welcomed me back with flapping wings and exuberant cackles, and to walk among the healing redwood, apple, and oak treess.
Sometimes dealing with people is just too much, especially when they are mean, cruel, and even deadly. Times come to take it to the trees, vegetables, animals, and elements. They can hold it. Weeds help me. Pulling them out can release anger — better than punching someone. Livestock appreciate attention and vigorous conversation. They bark, bellow, howl, scream, and make all kinds of sounds; they listen better when one yells back, which can be a release.
We live in an uncertain, challenging time of diminishing resources and a growing global food crisis. Many veterans are returning from wars, some with deep mental wounds. Those wars and their damage are likely to continue and perhaps even escalate as competition for natural resources, such as water and energy sources, expands. Farms can help returning warriors to re-enter civil society and be productive contributors.
We face unprecedented and unpredictable threats, such as chaotic climate change, petroleum and other natural resources depletion, vanishing pollinating bees, rising oceans, thinning forests, and a host of other dangers. Such perils are good reasons to grow some of one’s own food, which can also help relieve various forms of suffering. For those wanting to survive, growing at least part of one’s own food by gardening or farming would be prudent and help enhance one’s security.
What some people call a “Recession” seems deeper even than a Depression—more like a Collapse, which is likely to cause substantial financial, physical, and psychological damage to people. Farms, rural areas, and helpful agrarian communities can be good places to absorb the hits that are likely to come our way.
Connecting to the land and seeing beauty can help alleviate anxiety and restore a damaged soul. Farming and gardening can be effective therapy for the slings and arrows of bad fortune that befall people.
Plus that, instead of paying for professional therapy, on a farm one can have meaningful work, produce an income, and feed one’s self and family.
(Dr. Shepherd Bliss farms outside Sebastopol and teaches psychology part-time at Sonoma State University. An essay of his on agrotherapy was recently published in the new University of Hawaii Press anthology “Enduring War: Stories of What We’ve Learned” and another will be published in May in the Sierra Club Book’s “Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)