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The Healing Power of Nature

Dr. Aron Steward

Dr. Steward (left) and SLT Executive Director, Kristen Sharpless, at SLT's 2019 Annual Meeting and Celebration.

Dr. Aron Steward - a VT psychologist with expertise in violence prevention, health & wellness and alternative therapies - was the guest speaker at SLT's 32nd Annual Meeting and Celebration held on September 22, 2019. Her remarks about the ability of nature to heal and inspire based on her time working with youth at Vermont's Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center were exceptional and struck a powerful chord with those in attendance. Dr. Steward generously agreed for us to post her remarks here for everyone to read: 

Thank you for having me, I am grateful for this opportunity to speak to you.

I was raised on a small farm in Plainfield, but I left for nearly 18 years to complete my education and gain experiences in cities, larger prisons and jails, and better understand the impact of community violence.  The family farm is still the most beautiful piece of land I have ever seen and most of my early memories are of traversing that farmland with my sister and hearing farmers talk about land.  As I was traveling around the country working in large concrete cinder block buildings with tiny slits for windows, when people asked where I was from, I told them Vermont, and the topic of land always came up.  People outside of Vermont have seen pictures and heard stories.  People always said, that is such a pretty place, isn’t it?  People always talked about the mountains, the trees, the snow, the farms, and the maple syrup.  As they asked me questions, I conjured up images of our family farm and I could authentically say Vermont is the prettiest place in the world.  

As a young person talk therapy didn’t work for me so there is substantial irony in me being a psychologist and therapist.  During adolescence my mother brought me to see a therapist after my dad died.  I did not speak one word during the entire session.  Never answered any of the therapist’s questions, not one.  There were no words for the pain I felt.  Thankfully my mom then brought me to see an art therapist.  I never said a word, but I colored, plato’d, pipe cleaner’d and painted.  The following several years I spent wearing enormous overalls covered in clay, in and out of the pottery studios through the end of high school, undergraduate and the beginning of grad school.  Working with clay, I recovered from the loss of my father.  Each beautiful sculpture or pot that came out of the kiln repaired me.  Every time a piece shattered, and I moved forward I practiced growth and resilience.  This experience taught me that sometimes we need alternatives to western ideas of therapy.  Sometimes we need the oldest forms of therapy, the ones that come from the earth, to heal.

As I moved through graduate school for psychology, I looked hard to learn the alternative corners of the field.  As my desire to work with a dangerous population grew, I leaned in as far as I could to the edges of treatment.  I wanted desperately to know how to help people when we were not sitting across from each other in an office speaking. I knew that the people I wanted to help would never be sitting in a comfortable private practice office with sunlight streaming in the window and comfy chairs.  I needed to know the strategies that would help me treat the population I was born to serve, the most traumatized, the most mentally ill, the most dangerous, the most unloved.  These strategies became important as I provided therapy in bathrooms, cells, hallways and closets in the prisons.  And as I provided therapy on the streets and in parks in south central Los Angeles. And the reason why I have built a yoga and meditation program in every treatment environment I have ever worked in. Working in jails and prisons helped me understand that jails and prisons don’t provide the solution that people thought they would.  They make people worse, more dangerous and less equipped to be in the community.  My mission became freedom of those that have lost it.  Very often those that have lost their freedom to incarceration lost their freedom long before to substantial trauma. For our most traumatized people, talk therapy is a nearly insurmountable challenge. Healing, at least initially for our most traumatized community members is in movement, music, silence, theater, dance, art, and animals. 

There are reasons for this.  Neurobiological reasons.  We don’t store traumatic memories in the same way we store other memories. We can’t, because when we are experiencing trauma, our brain’s cognitive and executive function control board, the frontal lobe is offline.  When we perceive threat, and our limbic system is mounting a fight, flight, freeze response we are not thinking that through.  We are not making conscious choice. We are not weighing out the consequence, we don’t have the time or capacity.  These decisions are automatic and because we do not have access to our cognition, we are not making meaning of the experiences using narrative or word.  The way we perceive trauma is through imagery and the gathering of sensory information.  That is also how we remember trauma, in short snippets that do not line up linearly but rather are a jumble of time, experience, and senses.  This makes verbally processing profoundly complex and compounded trauma through words nearly impossible.  

In 2014 when I returned to Vermont to take the role of Clinical Director at our state’s only locked juvenile facility, Woodside, I was so happy to be home.  I was relieved to be in the mountains and seasons but surprised to find there were no alternative services available to the youth at Woodside.  There was no dance, music, art, yoga, meditation, mindfulness, or animals.  To truly offer children the opportunity to rehabilitate we needed all those tools.  I built partnerships with community agencies to provide all those services and by the time the first year was done we had people coming and going from the community bringing those tools in for the youth that were placed there.  The children grew immensely in participating in these alternative services.  Their faces lit up, they smiled and laughed, some who had never spoken, conversed with the animals.  They became stronger as people and as a group and the staff became stronger alongside the youth.  

In September of 2017 I began attending the Snelling Center’s Vermont Leadership Institute.  In my cohort of leader learners was Kristen Sharpless.   I loved her from the very first moment we talked.  For those of you that don’t know me, this is a pretty big deal because I don’t get close to very many people.  My husband likes to joke that we get invited to a lot of people’s houses because of him and we don’t get invited back because of me.  But I adored Kristen.  What I was most intrigued by is that regardless of what we were talking about in our leadership institute, Kristen could highlight an environmental point that no one had considered.  She could bring any concern, need, platform, policy or value back to the land.  She knew all the birds flying outside of the windows at each of the retreat venues.  She always knew which direction we were going and which mountain or lake we were facing.  One time she showed everyone a video of a goshawk diving sideways through a teeny hole and she was as pleased as if her team had won the Olympics. Her foot ware was always practical so she could spend her breaks outside breathing fresh air and hiking while I hunched over my cell phone and read emails from work.  Her work was the Earth.  I realized the passion I feel about people suffering with mental illness needing treatment, Kristen feels about the animals, the land and our Earth suffering from climate change, pollution, and overuse of the land. Kristen was kind and thoughtful and I trusted her.  Naturally when she asked to come and see our juvenile facility I accepted immediately.  

Before our meeting, Kristen said she wanted to bring the kids something.  She asked if she could bring them a bird feeder.  I accepted but simultaneously thought silently to myself, I don’t think this group of kids is going to be that interested in watching birds, unless it is angry birds the video game.  All the kids missed electronics, but none had ever mentioned birdwatching.  It was the freezing cold part of the winter, deep snow, and icy air, as Kristen arrived at Woodside.  She brought with her a bird feeder, birdseed, a bin of binoculars, stuffed birds that sang their own song when you squeezed them and a color chart of the local birds around the facility.  Kristen mentioned that after the tour, she would like to teach the kids a class on birds.  I accepted again even though this time I said out loud as a warning, “you know these kids can be difficult if they are not interested in something.”  “They might give you a hard time.” I warned.  “I will sit in just to help with behaviors.”   

Kristen agreed, we had a plan. 

One of the kids gave Kristen a tour of the facility and then we gathered up a group of kids and together sat down in the conference room for our class.  The entire time Kristen talked, not one child interrupted.  Not one behavior I needed to address.  Hands were raised for questions, and there was full on attention.  They were mesmerized.  The binoculars and the birds that sang sealed the deal.  Kristen became an expert and a celebrity in one fell swoop without even trying.  The staff came to try out the binoculars too.  Staff and kids looked for birds outside our conference room window.  I saw shared humanity and excitement between the staff and youth.  As a treatment opportunist, I was always looking for something to motivate children and captivate their attention.  It landed for me in that moment that birds and the natural surroundings were another tool.  

After we walked outside, Kristen in her smart warm winter boots, I in my high heels, Kristen gave us advice on where to hang the bird feeder we hung it and Kristen left.  A few short days later, I received a written note from one of the children.  He asked if he could become the birdfeeder filler upper.  He was a youth who we had not been able to motivate to level up in the program.  He was disinterested in everything up until that point.  BUT he wanted to feed the birds and that involved him working toward outside privileges which he was, after several months finally willing to do.  I told him, if he leveled up, he could be the one to fill up the bird seed.  I refrained from pointing out my shock that this is what motivated him.   We started buying more and more bird seed and he leveled up and became our birdfeeder filler.  

The Director of education started having teachers do bird curriculum in their classrooms and the youth started researching birds in individual learning projects.  At the kids request, we bought suction cup bird feeders to attach to the outside of each of the kid’s windows.  We used more and more bird seed.  I mentioned to Kristen that the birds had taken off and that the facility needed bird seed and she put me in touch with the Audubon center.  Around that time, we had a youth that was very scared of being in their room.  The youth didn’t feel comfortable with the door shut, didn’t feel comfortable going in their room, didn’t feel comfortable because they were lonely and scared and had a horrific trauma history.  I asked the staff to help the youth make a list of things that could support them.  On the youth’s list was a robotic breathing/purring cat, time playing the guitar and 2 suction cup bird feeders.  I approved all of them.  Almost immediately we saw a marked improvement in the youth going in and out of their room safely, reporting a decrease in unsafe thoughts, reporting less desire to harm themselves or others.  The youth would spend hours watching the birds with the breathing purring cat on their lap.   

We bought more bird feeders and more birds came.  We got assigned our own Audubon center person who came once per month and brought bird seed and a bin of binoculars.  She would take the youth outside into the recreation yard and they would birdwatch.  Youth in the highest level of care in our state, inside a very tall specially built fence, birdwatching.  As Kristen had explained to us during her class, Woodside is in a special birding zone because we are in a marsh.  We had some special birds.  The kids I loved the most in the world were getting to see something extraordinary and they felt it.  They loved it.  They each chose a bird that was their totem and created posters in science class which we hung up around the facility.  They competed to be the person to fill the birdfeeders.  They communed with nature and a higher power.  The following spring some of the kids helped the staff plant perennial gardens surrounding the entrance because they thought the birds would like the ambiance.  The facility started looking more beautiful.  The birds started coming more and more.  The assigned person from the Audubon center wrote an article about her experience at Woodside because of how touching the experience was.  She said she learned that the kids were just good kids in terrible situations and that couldn’t have been truer.  

I learned so much from this experience.  I learned again as I have countless times before, that there are people like Kristen that will help me help others, just because it is the right thing to do.  I learned that kids are moved, motivated, and enamored by nature, even in this day of technology.  I learned that living breathing fluttering birds can be enough to make someone want to live who didn’t.  I learned that the Earth can support me in my path toward social justice and community wellness.  I learned that the land that was my first 16 years of life, is still all around me and still healing.  I learned that it will take all of us sharing our hearts and vulnerabilities to heal what we have created and that it is in the tiniest feathered bodies that for some, healing begins.

Please know, that no one wants to be violent and dangerous.  No one wants to hurt others.  No one wants to be incarcerated.  In many years doing this job I have never known any of my clients to be desiring the lives they are living.  Please also know that it is our shared responsibility to help those that have been harmed repeatedly as children.  If we do not, our next generation of children will surely be harmed and the pattern will continue to replicate in larger and larger ripples.  When we feel like we do not have enough to give, let us be relieved to know that we merely have to use humanity to offer freedom and nature.  Vermont’s toughest youth have reminded us that a little bird seed and a bird feeder goes a very long way toward loving kindness and healing.  

Dr. Steward is currently Chief of Psychology at The University of Vermont Health Network - Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital and resides in the Burlington area with her family.

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