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Journal of the Coalition for Education in the Outdoors

Spring/Summer 2005 Volume 15, #1


On All Nine Legs - Teaching Outdoor Love to an Indoor World

A Tribute to Michael J, Cohen

by Janet Thomas

Taproot Editor's Forward:

Thirty-five years ago if one spoke about "ecopsychology" in environmental and outdoor education circles, few took the speaker seriously and many "raised an eyebrow" and found a reason to go elsewhere. Such was the reaction often received by Michael Cohen at conference, workshops and other professional gatherings when he offered lessons designed to help people reconnect with the "intelligent nurturing power of Mother Earth." Arguing that humans had to once again "fall in love with the planet before they could save it," Mike's work was criticized as lacking good scientific evidence.** Some or us, on the other hand, listened and encouraged Mike to continue his work; and, unlike the biblical prophets who did not live to see the fruits of their work, Michal Cohen has gained international recognition for his teaching by prestigious organizations such as the American Psychological Association and the United Nations.

Using ecopsychology as a theme, this issue of Taproot rightfully begins with a salute to Michael Cohen. Janet Thomas provides readers with a well-written overview of Michael's life and work in On all Nine Legs-Teaching Outdoor Love to an Indoor World.

Like Cohen, in this issue Jeannette Armstrong sees a form of insanity that grips modern cultures ­ a sickness that can only be cured by reconnecting with the natural world that nurtures us. As a Native American (Okanagan) Armstrong provides an outsiders view of the "wild and insane" lifestyles lived by humans in an consumer-oriented world.

  -Charles Yaple, Ph.D., Editor
Professor Emeritus, SUNY Cortland.
Executive Director, Coalition for Education in the Outdoors.

This issue of Taproots also includes the "Practioner's Corner" where seven of Mike Cohen's best nature-reconnecting activities for strengthening natural senses are offered for the reader's use. Also reviewed as resources are Cohen's books:
The Web of Life Imperative: Regenerative ecopsychology techniques that help people think in balance with natural systems
Reconnecting With Nature: Finding wellness by restoring your bond with the Earth


** Cohen says we're in big trouble because hard science embraces incomplete facts that produce limited thinking, stress and pollution. For example, although thirst is seldom included in ecological science as being part of the water cycle, Cohen insists that in ecosystems the sense of thirst is just as real, true and factual about water's role in nature as is the fact that water exists, evaporates and that it runs downhill. He says, "The dominant authority of hard science considers thirst to be a 'sense, feeling or sensation' and omits it as valid evidence because it's 'subjective.' My work is a science that revives and includes thirst and, in addition, 47 other natural sense facts that we are similarly taught to ignore. But, because our thinking ordinarily omits them as as valid phenomenonological evidence about how the world works, we desensitize our minds with detrimental insensitivity and mental illness. Our thinking seldom makes whole-life sense, rather we distort that reality and produce our unbalanced ways and their discontents. Obviously, our half-truth thinking can't solve the problems it produces."


Taproot, June, 2005

On All Nine Legs-Teaching Outdoor Love to an Indoor World 

by Janet Thomas

with educational links added by Michael J. Cohen, Ed.D.

(For best results read through this article in full, then return to links of interest)

Michael Cohen, psychologist, educator, folksinger and eco-renegade, is on a mission. He wants us all to go outside to play-and to stay there until we reconnect to the nature in our nature, to the natural systems that shape us, nurture us and develop us into the most human of human beings. He sees our attachment to indoor living as an addiction to that which actually causes much distress in contemporary life. We addictively isolate ourselves from the nature of one another and insulate ourselves from the inherent joy and well-being that is our natural birthright. The great outdoors is our greatest teacher, he says -and his passion about this has remained unabated for more than half a century. That for the past ten years he's been getting his message out over the Web, and spending much of his time indoors, in front of his computer, is no problem for Cohen. He's simply applying his web-of-life principles to the World Wide Web. Besides, he still sleeps outside in a wild area. Which means he's spending a lot more time outside than most of the rest of us.

Although we are part of nature, most of us learn to spend, on average, over 95 percent of our time and 99 percent of our thinking separated from, and out of tune with, nature's beauty, balance, healing, sustainability and restorative powers. According to Cohen, this is a profound loss and we are traumatized into denial. We deny that we are rewarded by our daily indoor lives for fearing and exploiting, rather than embracing and learning from nature. We deny that we are psychologically addicted to nature-disconnected lives that produce personal, social and environmental dysfunction.

In his online-Web world, Cohen focuses on an educational program that offers both elementary and advanced degree training via Project NatureConnect, a workshop and internet program for socially responsible environmental education. The courses send participants outside to have natural attraction experiences and then back inside to write about what happened. Group participants share their postings via email on a regularly scheduled basis; and because the postings involve personal experience as well as observations about nature, they bond their group through a natural intimacy as well as through learning. This connection, through nature and technology, creates an astonishing atmosphere of trust and acceptance. As the students learn, so they teach one another about both nature's ways and their own.

Project NatureConnect started in 1985 as workshop program based on activities that became the foundation for Cohen's book, How Nature Works-Regenerating Kinship with Planet Earth. He'd already written two other nature books: Prejudice Against Nature: A Guidebook for the Liberation of Self and Planet and Our Classroom is Wild America. It was also the year he conceived the symposium, Is The Earth A Living Organism? for the National Audubon Society whose Expedition Institute Program he founded in 1968.

The natural progressions through Project NatureConnect courses are a result of painstaking development. Cohen, who is most of all a scientist and was trained as a biologist and counselor, learned the hard way not to ask too much of his students too soon. One of his early instructions was to ask students engaged in nature activities to ask consent from natural systems to be there. It was an unnerving proposition. "I had to move it further into the course," said Cohen. "Otherwise people would get mad and quit. Even the most passionate nature-lover has a hard time with this one. They think their presence in nature is a right and the U.S. Constitution unabashedly agrees. However, natural systems tell a different story-about co-creating and coexisting with nature."

The challenge is to treat nature, within and around us, with respect and courtesy, to acknowledge nature's "space" as we would acknowledge the privacy of a friend whom we might be interrupting. By articulating the question: Do I have your consent to be here? we articulate relationship, partnership and consensus. We also bring ourselves, Zen-like, into the here and now, that elusive present moment that so many of us have a hard time finding-particularly in this age of future shock and awe. Our techno-mobility has us careening through our lives with hardly a backward reflection. Connecting with nature stops the propelling of time, we get anchored in the sustaining nature of nature's grace. It's like entering a great palace full of timeless treasures and priceless bounty, we'd better find out if it's okay to be there and then how to be there without destroying that which we deeply love.

Asking for consent is both simple and complex: It might be easy to say the words, but it can be hard to listen for an answer; because once you learn the non-verbal language of natural systems, sometimes the answer is "no." What this clarifies is our ambivalence and gets to Cohen's most basic teaching: it's all in the attraction. If a stately Douglas Fir doesn't want me to stick around, it's likely because I'm not feeling so stately. My real attraction might be to that big rock I'd like to crawl under. Perhaps I'm having a bad day and am attracted to hiding and being nurtured-instead of being reminded of all that I'm not. This attention to what, precisely, we are attracted to is a fundamental element in Project NatureConnect. By honestly discerning what it is we are attracted to in nature, and why, we increase our self-knowledge and at the same time we are nurtured.

This happens over and over with Cohen's students. His program archives are loaded with moments of student insights that enlighten and at the same time deepen their bond with the natural world; they become partners in awareness. Their individual lives become richer and more metaphorical. As a result, they are less likely to exploit the natural systems inherent in Mother Earth, the neighbor next door, or their pet dog. It's a healing and a learning process; and as reflected by the plight of the world we are in, we need both badly. "First of all we have to love this planet. We have relearn over and over how to fall in love every day with being here; and then we have to name it, know it, own it and decide to preserve it," said Cohen. "Because we will only save what we love. It goes beyond what we know; it is a passion fueled by what we feel."

Cohen is nothing if not passionate. An eco-psychologist who has been working in outdoor education since 1949, Cohen has lived, worked, researched and taught in deep relationship with nature since 1959. He was introduced as a "maverick genius" at the 1985 Bureau of Applied Sciences International Symposium on the Promotion of Unconventional Ideas in Science, Medicine and Sociology, on the Isle of Wight in England; where he was also described as "the reincarnation of Thoreau as a psychologist." In 1994, he received a World Peace University  Distinguished World Citizen award for his work in environmental education. He completed his tenth book, The Web of Life Imperative in 2003.

But it was a teaching experience in the Grand Canyon in 1966, that taught him the profound lesson that shaped his life and his work. In the midst of a thunderstorm, with the red canyons running red with rain and the entire landscape pulsing with thirsty vigor and vitality, Cohen sensed the life in the planet. In an essay in "The Soul Unearthed" (Sentient 2002), Cohen writes about that experience: "The living planet's biology, geology and chemistry are its metabolism; night-day, night-day, its heartbeat. Warm evaporating inland seas serve as kidneys; air and water are plasma. In congress, all aspects of Earth compose a planet-size intelligence, a wise gigantic self-regulating plant cell whose life approaches perfection. The cell knows how to organize, preserve and regenerate itself and how to create its diverse life without pollution, war or insanity."  

Throughout his life as an educator, Cohen has worked to translate the founding passion of this experience into a scientific approach to help us reconnect with the intelligent nurturing power of Mother Earth. His Natural Systems Thinking Process is a blueprint for bringing together the natural multi-sensory awareness that deeply bonds us with the earth and the analytical abstract reasoning that bonds us to our thoughts. Experience through the senses he calls four-leg awareness; the understanding through the mind is five-leg thinking. Our survival, and the planet's, depends on a synthesis of these two ways of experiencing life. Through Project NatureConnect training, students are taught to distinguish between these two perspectives and find solutions that honor both -nine leg thinking.

Cohen illustrates his call for nine-leg thinking with the following story: If you look at a normal four-legged dog and count the tail as a leg, how many legs does the dog have? The new brain knows for sure: five, of course. The old brain knows equally for sure: four, because a dog only has four real legs, of course. The challenge, says Cohen, is to incorporate both brains into the decision making process. The part that knows instinctively that our bond with nature is where we are fundamentally, if mysteriously and inarticulately, sound and secure; and the part that can name things and understand them. "If we can't integrate these two ways of knowing, we'll destroy the very nature of our existence," said Cohen, who communes daily with the turkeys, raccoons, eagles and seagulls in his neighborhood.

I asked him how education can have an impact on preserving environmental integrity into the future? "We've got to start with natural systems thinking," he said. "When we learn to relate cooperatively and creatively with the natural systems around and within us, we reduce our personal stress and start to heal ourselves and our environment. But we have to spend quality attraction time outside-with the real dog." 

Natural Systems Thinking Process translates into using nature's grace as a model for behavior. "Nature doesn't make a mess," said Cohen. "It continually generates, and regenerates itself through a vast natural web of cooperation and consensus. Nothing works in balance unless it all works." Throughout his professional life as an eco-psychologist, he has worked to encourage a paradigm shift in thinking that would steer us all forward while still looking backward. Our new brain, he says, is so busy in the hypothetical landscape of hi-tech categorizing and scientific progress that it has lost touch with the intelligence of the old brain-the one that gets happy satisfaction from sniffing a flower without needing to know it's name. 

Cohen is also renown for the seemingly limitless number of folksongs he can sing at a moment's notice. At age 75, he's vitally involved with Project NatureConnect's day-to-day activities-which involve email communication with students around the world; he hikes regularly in the mountains and performs as a folksinger several times a month.

Most recently, Cohen developed ninelegs.com, a website that encompasses the five-leg work of Einstein and the four-leg awareness of Thoreau. It is based on the webstring model that is the foundation of his work. "Earth is a global ecosystem and we are part of it," said Cohen. "Through the natural web of life strands, called webstrings, or webloves, Earth communicates with us, and all other beings, in supportive ways. Webstrings are nature's voice calling out in attraction. They are the basic natural forms of love we all share with one another and our ecosystem. They contain the unifying logic of nature that our nature-conquering society teaches us to ignore."

Through reconnecting with nature we can replace our ignorance with the wisdom of natural attraction and expand and strengthen our relationships with the earth and one another. This can only happen if we go outside enough and use our time outside effectively in ways that restore our bond to four-leg knowing. And sometimes it might take five-leg analysis to get us outside where we belong. As far as Cohen is concerned, nine-leg experience can begin with either four- or five-leg perceptions, but it takes both to get us there.

"A human being is a part of a whole, called by us -universe-, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest... a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."
- Albert Einstein

"In wildness is the preservation of the world."
­Henry David Thoreau

"Nurture your felt love for nature. Never deny it. That love is nature's voice, our origins in nature, the eons, the purifying intelligence, beauty and diversity of natural systems sustaining us in their perfection."
­Michael J. Cohen


Visit, online, the Practioners Corner section of Taproot, where Cohen presents seven practical activities you can use and teach.

Dr. Cohen can be contacted at 360-378-6313, nature@interisland.net

Continued discussion of Cohen may be found in Janet Thomas's book "Battle in Seattle"

Janet Thomas is a free-lance writer and editor who lives in Friday Harbor, Washington

Books by Michael J. Cohen

Website Links

Contact for Taproot and Coalition for Education in the Outdoors

This issue of Taproots also includes the "Practioner's Corner" where seven of Mike Cohen's best nature-reconnecting activities for strengthening natural senses are offered for the reader's use. Also reviewed as resources are Cohen's books:
The Web of Life Imperative: Regenerative ecopsychology techniques that help people think in balance with natural systems
Reconnecting With Nature: Finding wellness by restoring your bond with the Earth




















































































































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The Natural Systems Thinking Process

Dr. Michael J. Cohen, Director

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