From ‘learning about’ to ‘learning from’ Nature

Meditation spring summer woman

This week in the Healing Earth, Healing Self Forum, my friend-from-afar, Alice Ashwell, writes to us from South Africa about how to weave a heart-centered and compassionate approach into the ways we see and interact with nature.  Please enjoy Alice’s wisdom on this topic as she shares her journey of moving out of hopelessness and anger through the practice of the Nature Solo.  Alice beautifully articulates how we can go beyond an intellectual awareness of environmental problems into a deep, mutually nurturing connection with the natural world.


When I first heard Chara Armon speak in the introduction to her Healing Earth, Healing Self Telesummit last year, I felt like I had met a soul sister. She seemed to be telling my story as she described the experience of fear, anxiety and grief that has gripped many of us as we have contemplated the rapid destruction of Earth’s bounty and beauty, and speculated about our chances of survival on this over-exploited planet. In her presentation she spoke of the need for greater intimacy with Nature at this time of escalating ecological crises. What especially resonated with me was her call to become more heart-centred and compassionate in our response to these crises.

Over the past few years, these two things – greater intimacy with Nature, and what I like to call ‘a return to heart’ – have been key to my own emotional healing journey. And because each one of us is part of Nature, when I heal, part of Nature heals.

I have always loved ‘joined-up thinking’ – the inter-connectedness of all things truly excites me. And so it was in the 1980s that I embarked upon a career in environmental education, where understanding the interconnections within ecosystems, and between natural and human systems, is key. But as the ecological crisis deepened, the focus of environmental education shifted from Nature experiences to more analytical issues-focused exercises. I found that the more I learned intellectually about the causes and effects of intersecting social, economic and ecological issues, the more complex and intractable they appeared. A Mad Max future seemed inevitable.

I did my best to live lightly on the Earth – ticking all the obvious boxes, like reducing consumption of ‘resources’, planting native species in our garden, recycling, eating organic food, flushing the toilet with water collected during my shower, teaching others about sustainable living, blah, blah, blah. But despite all these worthy suburban efforts, I felt myself slipping deeper and deeper into ‘ecophobia’ – a sense of powerlessness to make any real contribution to ‘saving the planet’.

I also felt a rising tide of anger towards ‘those people’ who just didn’t seem to care. Becoming increasingly desperate, I fell headlong into the activist trap of assuming that I was right, and judging others for being wrong. Ironically, my attitudes were contributing to the very sickness of separation that I believed was at the core of the environmental crisis.

At my wits’ end, I turned to Nature. But this time my gaze was not that of the scientist, wanting to learn ever more about Nature, but rather of the seeker, becoming open to learning from Nature.

Through retreats, a vision quest, and frequent solo time in Nature, I have learned the value of setting off in silence, with no destination in mind, sensing  with each step where to go. Eventually, having asked permission to sit in the place I feel is calling, I wait. Through the ‘inner-outer’ resonance of being co-natural with the world, invariably  something in the outer world engages with an aspect of my inner nature. I write freely, capturing what I observe. And often what comes is a gift of wisdom, comfort or encouragement. Sometimes I translate this into a poem so that it can be shared more widely:

This Nature Solo practice has been a wonderfully healing influence in my life, greatly reducing my stress and anxiety. Nature has quietly reminded me that life is cyclical, and that each stage is uniquely valuable – even apparently unproductive periods. Observing Nature has also reminded me of the immensely creative and restorative power of natural processes like photosynthesis (now that’s pure magic!) It is humbling to realise that, left to itself, the Earth will heal. So perhaps the best we can do as human beings is to do as little as possible! As the African proverb says, “The times are urgent – let us slow down!”[1] After all, there is nothing that is contributing more to climate change than the frantic pace of humanity.

There are many other everyday ways in which I am rediscovering an intimacy with Nature and a more heart-centred way of living. In the mornings, I love to greet the four directions before practising qigong outdoors, feeling the dewy lawn beneath my bare feet and the rising sun on my face. I have selected a ‘sit spot’ so that I can observe and record ‘nearby Nature’, and become more alert to seasonal changes and the plants and creatures with whom we share this space. And in my new career as a life coach, I invite my clients whenever possible to meet in a natural area where they too can slow down and experience Nature’s gifts of wisdom and healing.

[1] From a keynote address by Bayo Akomolafe at the Second Edition of the DEEEP Global Summit



Alice-Ashwell-Heart-of -Nature

My name is Alice Ashwell and I live in Cape Town, South Africa with my husband Pat Garratt. My love of Nature, and my personal and career journeys have led me to create the coaching practice, Heart of Nature.  I approach coaching by integrating three strands:
•facilitated nature experiences,
•the techniques and technologies of HeartMath
•Solution-Focused Brief Coaching conversations

As a child, I grew up at the bottom of the garden … exploring, catching frogs, following butterfly life-cycles, building bamboo shelters, and waiting for fairies to emerge from a hollow tree. Nature has always felt like home to me, a place where I can play, retreat, restore, rejoice. During my PhD studies, I investigated how teenagers in Cape Town felt about Nature … and found to my delight that a resonance with the Natural world is part of our experience of being human.

I know that Nature heals – facilitating nature experiences is one of the strands of my work.  Find me at



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