Revealing Men
Revealing Men
Men’s Relationship to the Natural Environment

Mark DeVries, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist who has studied and taught on the topic of ecopsychology (the study of the emotional bond between humans and the Earth) since 2000. Randy Flood, host of the Revealing Men podcast and Director of the Men’s Resource Center of West Michigan is a psychotherapist focused primarily on male socialization and issues that affect men. The two have known each other for a number of years and have joined in several extended bike excursions. Flood begins their conversation with a quote by the writer Wallace Stegner: “[all of us stand] somewhere on a long arc between ecological ignorance and environmental responsibility.” DeVries — who forwarded the quote to Flood — says he found himself reflecting on “what might that arc look like …. what might a stage[d] model of environmental ecological awareness look like.” More than an interview, this discussion illuminates how men’s sense of masculine identity can have an impact on their relationship to the natural environment. You can hear the conversation in its entirety on the Revealing Men podcast on Spotify, Google Play, Stitcher, or Apple.

Stages of Environmental Awareness

The conversation begins with DeVries describing what he perceives as three stages of environmental ecological awareness—estrangement, derangement, and engagement—although he tells Flood, “I’m not sure I want to call them ‘stages’ because I think we all embody these at different times.” He encourages Flood to weigh in on his work saying, “This is largely theoretical; empirical only in terms of what I’ve observed. It’s not been subjected to research and that kind of thing. This is very speculative. So, we can play with it.” And, although his work is about how men and women interact with nature, for this discussion DeVries and Flood focus on men.

DeVries sees estrangement as a lack of awareness of our relationship to the natural world and the environment. “Much of our existence,” he says, “is in a state of complete ignorance or indifference to the natural world.” Some of us even find ourselves afraid of nature. This is in stark contrast, as Flood notes, to when nomads and wanderers or gatherers had a “greater somatic sense of what environment they were living in — the wind and the sound of trees.” Derangement is as it sounds, “the use and abuse of natural resources without any sense of what the endgame is and the fact that we’re destroying ourselves when we do this,” DeVries explains.

Engagement, DeVries says, involves activities in the natural world; even including hunting and fishing and hiking and mountaineering and exploring. He talks about being a “Shackelton geek” and his fascination with stories about engaging with the natural world in a way that challenges people. “But,” he says, “there’s a regarding of the natural world there as something that is to be controlled, and conquered, and dominated. In a better way than exploiting it, but yet there’s kind of a domination model there.”

Flood references a bike trip he and DeVries took along the Katy trail in Missouri where Lewis and Clark are memorialized: “We walked around and read all kinds of plagues on Lewis and Clark and we’re like ‘man, these guys were badasses.’ And there’s a way in which that masculine energy is beautiful and wonderful; you know the courage to explore this untamed land and climbing over mountains [with] all their gear and people …. we were a little humbled by that, but we thought ‘What a great celebration of masculine energy.’” He continues, “you’re also saying there’s tension here because there’s this dark side: once men can claim a land, or possess it, or control it, then they can take it too far.”

“Exactly,” DeVries responds, “That’s exactly what I’m saying.” “I want to honor Ernest Shackelton and his ilk. [His] story is a story of incredible endurance and leadership… it’s an inspiring story. And that’s the bright side. It’s not all dark.”

A New Type of Relationship with Nature

The term “stewardship” is often used to describe an ideal relationship with the earth. More often than not, however, it’s interpreted as “dominion.” DeVries asks, “what if it were more about caring, cultivating, nurturing?” What if it was less about a stewardship ethic and more about reverence? “If we move toward reverence,” he says, “I think we begin to see that we are not apart from nature but that we are a part of nature … that’s something we really need to recognize.” Flood adds, “Once we discover something as humans, we want to capture it, possess it. But there’s this movement eventually into integrating it and seeing it as having a relationship with something rather than something we are conquering or overpowering and possessing.”

This concept, however, can be a stumbling block for men. “…. We think of ourselves not as dependent,” DeVries says. “In fact, for men, dependence is a negative. We’re taught not to be dependent. But what if we regarded ourselves as interdependent? I think that’s really the move that we need to make.” Flood brings up Paul Kivel’s concept, “Man in a Box,” and the stereotype of a “real man.” “So, a real man wants to be in control, wants to dominate, wants to be independent, doesn’t want to have emotions, per se.” That idea of maleness can make it difficult to see any value in engagement.

DeVries agrees. “What you allude to is there’s a dialectic there; there’s a both/and. I think we need to recognize the positive contributions of traditional masculinity which have been protection of the family, the community (I’m talking traditionally now), providing, producing, those kinds of things, those are all positive. But when that’s the only side of the dialectic then we run into the problems that have been associated with this traditional one-sided masculinity.”

Integrating Masculine and Feminine Energies

Part of Flood’s work in men’s support groups and individual therapy is to help men develop greater insight and emotional intelligence. To recognize and appreciate both masculine and feminine energy. Masculine energy— i.e., Shackelton, Lewis and Clark— was necessary for the period of time when humans needed to go out and find land and tame it. But now, Flood and DeVries suggest, we’re at a critical stage where feminine energy is required in order for us to survive and be a sustainable species. They are not suggesting that masculine energy is bad. Flood says, “People get stuck in that gender binary. … it’s recognizing the strength and beauty in both of those energies. … there’s a dark side/shadow side to both of them but you’re needing to integrate and then respond to the context of what energy is needed in that moment.”

Flood describes a bit of his evolution this way: “I found the environmental movement to be initially an inconvenience. … Why can’t we just do what we did when I was a kid and take it out in the back in a burn barrel and … hairspray cans blowing up … having fun with it, you know! I took it as being an inconvenience. Even little things like we shouldn’t litter. I was a teenager. I know I littered. …. Moving toward a masculinity for me, where I was caring about myself and caring about others and getting connected to the importance of empathy helped me move into caring also for the movement and being more cognizant of that and being more accepting of that.”

DeVries picks up on the word “empathy” and shares a story of when he was in his pre-teens and not being able to stop an older boy from torturing a turtle. “I was horrified but I was also immobilized. I had no idea what to do. I had no idea how to respond. …I felt powerless. And I think at that point in my life, I was beginning to develop an empathy for creatures. …But I think empathy for living things, empathy for the earth, is part of this.”

For Flood, having empathy for nature doesn’t mean he won’t continue to hunt and fish. “I do find some masculine energy in being able to harvest my own food, hunt for it, work for it, gather it myself,” he says, “…. I don’t want to kill gratuitously just for the sake of experiencing my power and control over something.”

Lessons in Empathy from a Boy and a Roseate Spoonbill

Nearing the end of their conversation, DeVries shares part of a story written by Cary Tennis (SUN magazine, Sept. 2012). The story is about the destruction of a wetlands—nesting grounds for the Roseate Spoonbill— just off Anna Maria Island in Florida. Tennis’ family used to pass by each year when he was a boy. And then, one year, the wetlands were replaced by concrete sea walls and the birds were nowhere to be found. DeVries explains that when he first read the piece, he felt as if it described the destruction of the earth.

“The boy was a natural pantheist, ecstatic among trees and in creeks, a little poet exploding with a pre-intellectual consciousness of oneness. But he had also seen the unbridled power of men to wreck whatever they cared to wreck; to take whatever they cared to take; to dig and plow and rake and blow up and haul away whatever they chose. The power to tear into the turkey leg, to tie the dog to the truck bed, to chop the chicken’s head off, to string fish on the line, to kill the deer and strap it to the hood ….”

DeVries comments: “[h]e’s talking about that traditional masculine energy, which you and I have talked about, there’s not only a dark side to that, there’s a legitimate side to that as well. But this is him as a little boy observing this. And he’s talking about the next spring he goes and the Roseate Spoonbill birds are gone. They’re gone. And he misses them.”

“This was no rape of the body; this was no physical violation. But the boy’s body was so undifferentiated from the body of the earth that it was a violation nonetheless. He should have been stronger. He should not have been so poorly differentiated. It was the poet in him; the capacity to merge with the larger whole, to disappear into his experience of nature. He should have been better able to handle it, but he wasn’t.”

Reading the story again DeVries says, “I’m aware of my feeling, my fear of being dominated by the masculinity that he’s talking about … Because I’ve never fully identified with that. …it evoked that feeling of difference from that form of masculinity.” Flood notes the struggle the boy experiences between feeling one with nature and then, “almost questioning – having shame – that he wasn’t enough differentiated from it. He was feeling it too much.” Flood sees this struggle as similar to the challenge of being a part of or apart from our environment. “The early stage of approaching environmental awareness was about being apart from (estrangement) and now we’re at being a part of (engagement). How do we do both?” he asks. “That’s our challenge.”

Men and Environmental Awareness – a Work in Progress

When we talk about men’s relationship to the environment, it’s important to note the role positive masculinity has played in creating the world as we know it. From blazing trails across the wilderness to plowing fields for food, and discovering natural treasures. But we also need to acknowledge the shadow side of masculinity. The side that wants control and power and dominance for the sole purpose of performing masculinity and gratifying our masculine ego without awareness of costs or impact.

Flood and DeVries encourage men to move away from an outdated and limiting version of masculinity. In his work with men, Flood helps them learn to change their focus from only conquering the outer world to including discovery and exploration of their own inner world and emotions. And, although they aren’t seeking a greater environmental awareness at the time, Flood sees the positive impact his clients’ personal healing and growth have on their overall consciousness regarding the reverence of life outside themselves.

Contact the Men’s Resource Center online or call us at (616) 456-1178 to learn more about our work with men through individual counseling programs and men’s support groups. Also, feel free to reach out if you have questions about this segment, ideas for a topic, or would like to be a guest on the Revealing Men podcast.