For Environmentalists, to Love a Place Is to Preserve It

04/05/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I do not have classic fear of flying. But I do have separation anxiety -- about being disconnected from the earth. Last time I faced the prospect of a long flight, I wrote this poem.

It is good to love a place

It is good to have a backyard
that knows your footprints
that has fed you and become
part of your flesh and bone.

It is good to have a place
where you raised your children
and made love outside
in the afternoon, where you

know the animals and birds
where the heavenly blues
have finally bloomed outside
the bathroom window.

Today I stand in the backyard
and put down my roots.
Tomorrow I fly over an ocean
to another place in this round world.

If I should find myself falling
in a bit of metal crammed with fear
I will close my eyes and be back
in my good place, my backyard.

In his excellent article, "Is There an Ecological Unconscious" (The New York TImes, Jan. 27, 2010) Daniel B. Smith quotes philosopher Glenn Albrecht's definition of the term "heart's ease."

People have heart's ease when they're on their own country. If you force them off that country, if you take them away from their land, they feel the loss of heart's ease as a kind of vertigo, a disintegration of their whole life.

The article goes on to survey the growing field of ecopsychology and to posit the question of how to restore not just individuals but communities and regions to ecopsychological health.

My home region New York State's Hudson Valley, is an incredibly and increasingly fortunate place from this perspective. Pete Seeger and many other grassroots activists continue to work to restore and preserve the area's natural resources and beauty. Since 1963 Scenic Hudson has been creating parks and hiking trails on both sides of the river. Dutchess Land Conservancy helps preserve open and agricultural land. In recent years, community supported agriculture has burgeoned in the region. Last summer Poughkeepsie's old railway bridge was transformed into a New York State Park called Walkway over the Hudson, connecting people from all over the region face to face with each other -- and with the river itself.

The Hudson Valley has advantages that many regions do not. It is undeniable that money and other resources flow from New York City upriver with the tide. In the other direction, organic farmers have a ready and affluent market in the metropolitan area. In contrast, much of the rest of rural New York, though just as beautiful, is economically depressed; jobs are scarce, services minimal, many former village centers have been all but abandoned, and school districts span enormous distances.

Ecopsychological health involves more than living in a beautiful place; it's about the relationship between a place and all its inhabitants: elemental, plant, animal and human. The human beings need a way to work and live sustainably. There is a growing awareness that the way we build human communities matters. High rises can box and alienate people. But so can suburban tracts where everyone has their acre of chemically enhanced lawn and must commute by car.

Sixty-five years ago my mother-in-law Olga bought a farm in rural Dutchess County where she started High Valley School, which we now maintain as a not-for-profit community center. Whenever adjacent land came on the market, she bought it to preserve it. This land is now in conservation easements. She also wrote into town zoning law a provision for cluster housing: people living close together and preserving common open land.

At High Valley there are no extraordinary views or remarkable species, but there is heart's ease, not just for those of us who live here but for the many people who visit. Last fall, we realized we could no longer care for Olga in her home. All of us dreaded her separation from her land. When I walk in her gardens now, I am struck by how strongly I still feel her presence. She has adjusted well to her new place just across the river. As she has for several years, she sleeps a great deal. She denies dreaming, but when I asked her if she travels when she sleeps, she said, "Of course!" I suspect that often when her eyes are closed, she is back in her good place, her backyard.

For more about Elizabeth Cunningham and The Maeve Chronicles, visit