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Learning From Leaves: Transformational Ecopsychology

- Mark Morton Glasgow


This author took the Project NatureConnect/Akamai University and Portland State University accredited nature medicine course “Organic Psychology Elements of Global Citizenship” with an online cohort from three different continents.  This paper answers the question, does this course for whole life sanity live up to its promise to increase personal, social and environmental well-being by offering healing school educating, counseling and healing with nature activities that help us create moments that let Earth teach?  By nature, an open-minded skeptic, trained in the scientific method, this author is apt to question assertions that cannot be backed up by empirical evidence.  In reviewing cohort healing training participation, their initial motivations were examined to determine if in view of the stated course description, those motivational needs were positively addressed.  The course content, the literature and especially comments made by cohort members in their weekly assignments all provide hope that together we can give rise to a revitalizing, more conscious relationship with nature, ourselves and others.

Learning From Leaves: Transformational Ecopsychology

What madness is ours that moves us to destroy the world we live in, other species, one another and ourselves?  What fury is it that provokes such violent and unmotivated destruction of nature?  Has human-generated violence irreparably damaged the reciprocal cause-effect informational loop between our genetic system and the environment?  Can the damage be halted or better yet, reversed?  It all seems so inexplicable from any rational point of view and gives pause to consider why it is happening and if and how can it be prevented?  These are provocative questions requiring a new awareness and above all, practical solutions if we are to avoid an apocalyptic environmental nightmare largely of our own making.  There is an alternative, one that teaches a simple method of consciously reconnecting with nature, called Natural Systems Thinking Process (NTSP) developed by the distinguished Ecopsychologist, Dr. Michael J. Cohen. 

The following excerpt from the book Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, speaks to the heart and mind of anyone familiar with NTSP:

I asked the leaf whether it was frightened because it was autumn and the other leaves were falling.  The leaf told me, “No. During the whole spring and summer I was completely alive.  I worked hard to help nourish the tree, and now much of me is in the tree.  I am not limited by this form.  I am also the whole tree, and when I go back to the soil, I will continue to nourish the tree.  So I don't worry at all.  As I leave this branch and float to the ground, I will wave to the tree and tell her, 'I will see you again very soon.'”  That day there was a wind blowing and, after a while, I saw the leaf leave the branch and float down to the soil, dancing joyfully, because as it floated it saw itself already there in the tree.  It was so happy.  I bowed my head, knowing that I have a lot to learn from the leaf (Hanh, 1992, p. 17).

According to Dossey and Muller, Cohen has provided an environmentally sound, hands-on educational process that consciously reconnects us to the often ignored source of spirit and wellness found in nature (as cited in Cohen, 2003, pg. i).  The course description promises to educate participants in mastering the therapeutic science of Applied Ecopsychology.  By learning to create moments that let the Earth teach, the course assures increased personal, social and environmental well-being.  This restorative thinking skill claims to strengthen more than 50 natural senses to reasonably embrace their nurturing origins in the balanced, self-correcting and renewing ways of natural systems within and around us.

In contrast with NSTP, most academic scholarship in ecology is rife with intellectual politics far-removed from the field.  Nature and ecology occupy yet another battleground to be fought over by those with political, philosophical and religious axes to grind (Soper, 1995; Biro, 2005).  Even a word as simple as nature, is accorded sixty-six different meanings (Lovejoy, 1948) not one, deriving from nature proper.  Defining nature evokes impulsive and contrary stances based on one's academic, political or religious point of view. Intellectual and geographical historian David N. Livingstone provides an outline defining just three of the ways of representing nature, “so that we can begin to cut a path through this forbidding terrain (italics mine, 1995).”

Even language itself is now subjected to literary analysis in efforts to analyze the ways in which literature effects and reflects the relationship between humanity and the biosphere (Bennett & Royle, 2009).  It may be that such approaches will serve to identify and characterize our descent to such a state but one might question the value of illuminating our madness without resolving it.  This is exactly why Cohen's provocative approach and proven methodology offer a practical solution to all who have ever seriously entertained the idea that nature has a voice and wisdom to share with all who care to hear it. NSTP teaches us to pause while listening carefully, to understand the leaves are indeed teaching, and eventually, to register their message.

This author took the course with an online cohort from three different continents and is prepared to answer the question, does it live up to its hype?  By nature, an open-minded skeptic, trained in the scientific method, he is apt to question assertions that cannot be backed up by empirical evidence.  In reviewing cohort participation, their initial motivations were examined to determine if in view of the stated course description, those motivational needs were positively addressed.  The course content, the literature and especially comments made by cohort members in their weekly assignments all provided hope that together we can give rise to a revitalizing, more conscious relationship with nature, ourselves and others.

What motivates one to learn from leaves by adopting the Natural Systems Thinking Process?  Several motivations come to mind, the need for change, alienation from nature, a need for healing and social problems.  Sustainable development, for example, now attracts increasing attention worldwide, due much in thanks, to Al Gore, the Nobel Prize and Emmy Award winning, American environmental activist and former vice-president.  Gore narrated the Academy Award-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, which served as a wake-up call to many of us, for whom environmental issues and sustainable development were the nerdy fodder for futurist scientists, think-tank technocrats and Greenpeace activists.  However, this is no longer the case; fueled by the growing concern over the accelerating impact of global warming, sustainable development has become a fashionable topic, one which though multi-dimensional in nature, attracts an ever-increasing amount of rhetoric and commentary.  This need for global change mirrors the need for personal change echoed in the following comments of cohort members in their first assignment:

I had resigned from 35 years in the corporate world.  I resigned because I had decided that I would rather starve than continue working there.

I decided that I was a square peg trying to fit into a round hole and decided that it was time to find more fulfilling work.

The young boy, now a young man living in a big city had made his acquaintance with fear, pain and the stressful sense of feeling alone and isolated.

With each decade that passes it is clear that we have become more and more disconnected from our source.  From the foods we eat to the video games assimilating outdoor activities our children play there has never been a stronger need to give humans a tool to open up to the beautiful intelligence that surrounds us in nature.

The sense of alienation from nature, our own selves and others, ranks high in motivating participants seeking a resolution to their growing sense of estrangement from the natural world.  The notion of alienation is unusual because it requires an attempt to explain a widespread, subjective and somewhat indefinable feeling, while critiquing any society that regularly produces it.  What is indisputable is the connection between feeling alienated and modern man's depersonalizing experience of living in an increasingly urbanized, impersonal, industrial-technological world.  The destructive social effects are also undeniable: depression, anxiety, hopelessness, substance abuse, dysfunctional relationships, co-dependency, consumerism, violence and suicide.  Again, we find a correlation between the macro and micro, reflected in the following cohort comments:

Although I am “successful” by societal standards, I feel disconnected, of little value, alone, and unhappy.

I am spiritless in a corporate environment.  Lies are truths. Truths are lies. Depression results.

Cut off from my roots I felt dead to myself, dead to others and numb to the world.

There were shadows of random violence and substance abuse in our home, leftovers from the generational trauma and displacement of my mother's ancestors.

I too, have suffered the feelings of alienation you mention and like you, I realize that to save other's, we must first save ourselves.

Only by making a genuine reconnect to nature, will such materially motivated, consumer oriented addicts have the opportunity to regain their mental and emotional health.

Our culture's nature conquering stories cut us off from our source.
Appallingly, most children are beaten by their parents when they are very young to make them obedient.

My abusive parent had such rage, and for a child to sense this rage, they assume the abusive parent wants them gone yes and the child also feels somehow responsible,

Healing is another element of ecopsychology and one that we all need for at one time or another.  In assessing their ability to help persons, healers of any modality, must understand their client's situation, the terrain within which they live and above all, they must remember their ethical obligation to do no harm.  Interestingly, in the native-American Okanagan language, each syllable of the four syllable word for insanity communicates a significantly ecopsychological element, the lack of which, indicates a disconnection from the web of life (Rozak, 1995; Conn, 2005; Cohen, 2005).  According to Conn, the syllables have the following meanings:
1st syllable - “talk, talk inside your head”
2nd syllable - “scattered and having no community”
3rd syllable - “having no relationship to the land”
4th syllable - “being disconnected from the whole-earth part”

A study undertaken by the Canadian government pointed to the effect of rapid social change on the mental and physical health of its citizens (LaLonde 1981).  According to the study, some of the social change was attributed to technological innovation, but significant disorientation and alienation were attributed to changing social values emphasizing private pleasure over obligations to the common good, inducing stresses with serious health consequences.  If this is not a telling indictment of the disturbing status quo in which the Earth and its people now suffer, let us once again, have feedback from the cohort:

Nature is forever true to its purpose and always confirms the way.  When the mind becomes still, the heart speaks and nature confirms. 

I think that people can speak and listen to words endlessly without it having as much influence on them as a single experience.

No doubt words offer an enigma when removed from the heart; they support the materially conditioned mind's ability to divide us from the vital aspects of our being.

My greatest comforted moments have all been non verbal…It took me years of telling the story of some of these experiences to integrate them fully.  But the experiences themselves, those moments when life stops, and then goes on again in a totally different way, were all non verbal.

Webstrings test the limits of my powers of description to the point where I am left outside of language and feel my five-legged ego dissolving into the apprehended.

We are in dire need for contact with each other and with other living things.

Community is not something to be taken lightly. It is built and maintained by deeply and profoundly respecting its right to exist along with the human and nonhuman entities that make it up.

Dear L, M & R,  Today, you guys made me weep but the weeping was not from brokenness, it was from wholeness.  Thank you and I commit to all of you again and again and again....

I appreciate that you expressed to D. your sadness in her leaving.  And that you are able to express to M. a webstring of attachment for him to be here in the group with us.

First let me thank you for your continued buttresses my resolve and draws me ever more closely into the bosom of our fledgling community, consciously binding me to the beauty of all who voluntarily reside here.

Thank you for being present and redeeming my sense of hope that we, as human beings, will look into the mirror to know who is responsible for the current state of things.

This gratitude reminded me of when I first stepped on the land of my farm as a visitor… I felt such happiness; I felt that the land welcomed me.

When we moved here the land had been brutalized and stripped of all topsoil; it was so sterile that not even a lizard was left alive.

When I am lying on the ground, looking at the sky, I am part of an amazing part of a part of a part…

Ignoring the right of all nature, animate or inanimate to be accorded the respect I would like to receive, threatens webstrings, individual and collective well-being.

The heartbreaking reality is that modern society has desensitized these natural attractions to the point that most of the people I meet are so out of touch with this wisdom within them that they have become addicted to destructive habits.

Webstrings are expressions beginning and ending with me incorporating all that is.

Increasingly, our planet is deteriorating ecologically and is inhabited by people who are psychologically troubled (Brown, 1995).  Comments from the cohort seem to mirror Brown's statement:

Last year I was asked to go to another city to assume the role of manager of a facility as the manager was being let go. When I arrived I saw a group of wounded broken people.

His pain was intense, his mind bothersome and that former connection with nature had almost died. Cut off from his root he felt dead to himself, dead to others and numb to the world.

Many people live in fear of the future, of the state of the environment etc. I know some activists that are so scared that they are not doing anything!

In other words I was defining myself by what I had accomplished. I really didn't have a clue who I was.  When I got right down to it I discovered that I was miserable, had been struggling with a lot of depression and fatigue but compensated by doing “things' well.
The contradiction of living like that was exhausting.

Children are forced to accept very early that these cruel acts were normal, harmless, and even good for us. No other species inflicts such cruelty on its offspring. It's no wonder that our individual and collective relationships are so fraught with violence and abuse.

What are the irrational forces that attract people to their personal and environmental bad habits?  Is the self really the Self and is our psyche really the Psyche?  Does healing require a conscious reconnection with nature that transports us beyond the narcissistic fascination we have developed with the notion of I, me and mine?  These are fascinating questions that NSTP seems quite capable of resolving based on cohort comments:

This metamorphosis of human arrogance and greed into nature's impartial benevolence requires much more than anything we have in our philosophy; it requires a direct injection of new knowledge and understanding.

When I go out into nature, I go with an open mind, admitting that I know nothing. In my humility, I can surrender and accept the teachings that are offered. I return home knowing something that I did not previously.

Being part of the group impacts my physiology of relationship, when I read your process, and join my own to your learning - I feel soothed, and companioned in the same way I do in nature.

Finally, my friend's early experiments affirmed the value of NSTP's potential, reminding him of his direct participation in the flow of life.

I trust Nature will attract my consciousness to verbalize webstrings in a way that others will know the value of Natural Systems Thinking Process.

I grew a layer in trust of nature to meet both my physical and emotional needs. I grew a layer of belief in my life purpose.

I realized that my self-worth can either be enhanced or diminished by my trustfulness or distrust of nature, the more authentic my degree of trustfulness, the greater my sense of self- worth.

In one flash of nature catalyzed insight, I immediately sense nature's beckoning call like the prodigal son too long separated from his birthright.

The social toll due to violence and neglect is highlighted in recent research in neurology and cardio neurology which shows that emotional deprivation in the early formative period of childhood results in specific and apparently immutable compromises in neural structure and function (Pearce, 2005).  This tragedy is compounded by further research on grown men indicating those from a neglected childhood were unresponsive to close positive relationships, implying possibly a lifetime of social isolation and emotional poverty (Pearce, 2004).  Research with mammals establishes a link between any mammal's emotional state during conception and gestation and the quality and characteristics of the offspring to which she gives birth. Biochemical and molecular research have shown that all biological organisms, including humans share the will to survive.  This fundamental survival drive is built into every organism and is referred to as a biological imperative (Lipton, 1998).

The fundamental drive to survive can be subdivided into two functional categories: behaviors supporting growth and those supporting protection (Lipton, Bensch and Karasek, 1991).  Growth-related behaviors include activities associated with seeking nutrients and supportive environments for personal survival and the seeking of mates for species survival.  Protection behaviors are those activities employed by organisms to avoid harm.  Interestingly, studies on molecular control systems indicate that when an organism is forced to protect itself, growth pathways are shunted.  In human beings, this behavior occurs as the organism perceives the negative, flight or fight extreme of the two polarities appropriately described as love and fear (Lipton, 1998).  Lipton is correct in pointing to a new vision which requires “turning away from the Darwinian notion of the "survival of the fittest" and adopting a new credo, the "survival of the most loving!”  Cohort comments seem to indicate that nature nurtures when parents cannot:

I share a painful childhood history that drove me outdoors early in my life, vestiges of the difficulties my own parents faced growing up in their own birth families.

I found in the natural world greater comfort, warmth and solace than was available at home.
The woods, the ocean, the sky and the earth itself were therefore more of a family to me than my own family.

It is undeniable, the experience of reconnecting with nature, soothes the hurt child within, now an angry adult, who disassociated from the original cause, expresses their feelings of anger, helplessness, despair, longing, anxiety, and pain in destructive acts against, the natural world or against themselves.

My home life was stable and solid, and had random, deep violence as part of a 'discipline' structure.  So I felt safer outside.

Now that we have taken a survey of what motivates one to seek wellness through restoring their connection with nature as taught in NSTP, it would be interesting to assess outcomes.  Conn (2005) defines the theoretical base underpinning ecopsychology as one which recognizes the earth as a living system in which human beings, their psyches and cultures are an integral part.  The author, in defining the practice of applied ecopsychology further recognizes that the needs of the earth and the needs of the human individual are interdependent and interconnected.  Any consideration of the effect of nature on health must take into account E.O. Wilson's 'biophilia hypothesis' that human beings are innately attracted to other living organisms (St Leger, 2003).  This concept has expanded to suggest human health and well-being may depend on our relationship with nature (Robinson, 2009; Frumkin, 2001; Cohen, 2003; Jordan, 2009).  Multiple studies indicate the human need for nature is positively impacted by the favorable influence the natural world has on our emotional, psychological and spiritual development (Maller, Townsend, Pryor, Brown, St Leger, 2005). 

NSTP teaches how to reestablish our relationship with the natural world by engaging our fifty-three senses in consciously reconnecting with natural systems.  According to Cohen (2007) these natural systems “compost and transform industrial society's pollution of our mind and body into personal, environmental and spiritual well-being.”  Cohort comments reflected this process in practice:

Although I experienced the connection with nature I never realized that nature was within me and part of me.

My encounters with nature have always left me recharged, reintegrated and once again able to deal with the unnatural world that gave impetus to my nature-seeking ways.

To realise fully that we are all connected by and to the same webstrings will vastly improve our understanding and acceptance of each other.

I suppose nature, true to its nature, embraces all of us, and for me, its intervention in my life was crucial in my taking more responsibility for my choices. It allowed me to acknowledge that my wishes could be transformed into reality, in the form of a reconstructed home and family.

Repeating the exercise of taking time to connect to nature when I am outdoors is training me to note webstrings to sounds, colors, smells, textures, shapes, motion, warmth, cold, touch…I am filled with the attractions and become more aware, still, calm, connected, safe, inspired, confident, compassionate.

Undoubtedly, change will be necessary to undo the damage done by a lifetime of nature-disconnected activity. You are correct in realizing that by reconnecting to nature in a natural way, all that is necessary to heal, will in due time, be revealed.

In concluding, the author, a naturopath and educator, who has practiced yoga for more than 30 years, was struck by the following:

o    Nature has a powerful role to play in transformative healing work.
o    Nature offers a superior therapeutic setting to work conducted indoors.
o    Ritual is an important and vital element when working with nature.
o    An intrinsic respect for nature is a prerequisite for healing to occur.
o    The Natural Systems Thinking Process includes all of the above and promotes intrapersonal, interpersonal and environmental well-being.

A unique feature of Cohen's Natural Systems Thinking Process is that it can be practiced as part of a global network, linked by the modern world-wide-web.  Cohen's greening of technology, offers a growing ecological community, diverse opportunities including hands-on, Biophilia-in-action, classes, activities, research, scholarships, earth-friendly, jobs, careers, internships and teaching certifications.  For those of more academic bent, there are courses, undergraduate and graduate degree programs.  All are available online and scholarships are available for those who need them.  The global outreach of Cohen's initiative clearly distinguishes his work and resolves the major challenge of integrating what one has learned in nature on returning to society. 

Cohen's vision has extended to the planting of green virtual communities, linking individuals studying on courses offered by Project NatureConnect at the Institute of Global Education, a special NGO consultant to UNESCO.  Finally, it would be remiss to not give the esteemed colleagues comprising my cohort the last say; this work is dedicated to them:

There is power in the process, great healing and as we remediate damaged webstrings, we, others and the world at-large are all benefited.

The feeling of coming home into nature is one that I definitely want more of.

Thank you for revealing the webstrings binding us in mutual attraction. Your ability to mirror my experiences from a distance creates harmonic resonance and provides a palpable therapeutic effect evidenced in the way I feel.

Bathed in attraction to nature's beauty, poised between the sense world and the world of feeling and thinking, I find myself at rest.

Being grateful in nature is creating change from the bottom up.

I am learning how to consciously participate in natural systems, including relationships with other people, in life enhancing ways.

In opening up to and sensing the greater world of web-stringed intelligence, we harness the wisdom of the whole, while mirroring it in our intra-personal and inter-personal relationships.

Consistently reconnecting with nature, restores vitality, improves disposition and makes life worth living.

Conscious participation is possible through feedback from webstring intelligence; the intelligence of natural senses.  These senses are delicate and can be desensitized to the extent that they no longer work.  Natural senses can be enhanced by learning to listen and obey them.

I suddenly see that Nature actually communicated with me through my various senses and told me what she needed in a way that was as real as any worded language. 

There were grasses on a hill that were swaying in the breeze. I would watch them and rock slowly back and forth to their rhythm. The different colours and lengths reminded me that we are all different but can all be rocked by mother earth if we have awareness.

I was constantly working on myself using the views from this window to receive the gifts of peace and comfort and then I would turn away from the window and pass these gifts on to my (dying) cousin and a couple of the people who were there a lot as well.

When I consciously connect through Nature with the world at-large, peace, harmony and unity result.

I love this pond because it vibrates with life.  I love myself because I vibrate with life.

I love this place because it exudes a beautiful calm that seeps into every pore of my skin until it takes over my whole being. I love myself because I exude a beautiful calm that seeps into every pore of my skin until it takes over my whole being.

I love these trees because they are tall, overcome challenging placement and still thrive, share, create community and remain whole. I love myself because I am tall, overcome challenging placement and still thrive, create community and remain whole.

I am attracted to Ivy because of its teaching ability. I like myself because of my teaching ability.

Little drops of water wear away the stone and, collectively, introducing this practice into our lives and into the lives of others we can and will change the tide of history.


Bennett, A., & Royle, N. (2009). Eco. In An introduction to literature, criticism and theory (pp. 155-168). Harlow, United Kingdom: Pearson.

Biro, A. (2005). Denaturalizing ecological politics: Alienation from nature from Rousseau to the frankfort School and beyond. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press.

Brown, L. R. (1995). Ecopsychology and the environmental revolution: An environmental foreward. In T. Rozak, M. E. Gomes, & A. D. Kanner (Eds.), Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth healing the mind (pp. xiii-xvi). San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books.

Cohen, M. J. (2003). The Web of Life Imperative. Victoria, Canada: Trafford Publishing.

Cohen, M. J. (2005). The crisis identified in the Last Child in the Woods finds an adult remedy: Controversy flares as outdoor education introduces environmental sanity through Human-Nature Psychology. Retrieved from

Cohen, M. J. (2007). Reconnecting with nature: Finding wellness through restoring your bond with the Earth (3 ed.). Lakeville, MN: Ecopress.

Conn, S. A. (2005). Living in the Earth: Ecopsycholgy, health, and psychotherapy. In K. Fitzpatrick (Ed.), Consciousness & healing: Integral approaches to Mind-Body Medicine (pp. 530-541). St. Louis, MO: Elsevier.

Frumkin, H. (2001, April). Beyond toxicity: Human health and the natural environment. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 20(3), 234
Hanh, T. N. (1992). Peace is every step: Mindfulness in everyday life. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

Jordan, M. (2009, April). Back to nature. Therapy Today, 29-30. Retrieved from

LaLonde, M. (1981). A new perspective on the health of Canadians: A working paper (Working Paper ). Retrieved from Health Canada:

Lipton, B. H. (1998). Nature, nurture and the power of love. Journal of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health, 16, 167-180. Retrieved from

Lipton, B., Bensch, K. G., & Karasek, M. (1991). Microvesselendothelial cell transdifferentiation: Phenotypic characterization. Differentiation, 46, 117-133.

Livingstone, D. N. (1995, October ). The polity of nature: Representation, virtue, strategy. Cultural Geographies, 2, 353. Retrieved from

Lovejoy, A. O. (1978). Nature as aesthetic norm. In Essays in the history of ideas (pp. 69-77). Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press.

Maller, C., Townsend, M., Pryor, A., Brown, P., & St Leger, L. (2005, March). Healthy nature healthy people: 'contact with nature' as an upstream health promotion intervention for populations. Health Promotion International, 21(1), 45-54. Retrieved from

Pearce, J. C. (2004). Nurturance: A biological imperative. Retrieved from

Pearce, J. C. (2005). The conflict of biological and cultural imperatives. In K. Fitzpatrick (Ed.), Consciousness & healing: Integral approaches to Mind-Body Medicine (pp. 181-192). St. Louis, MO: Elsevier Health Sciences.

Robinson, L. (2009). Psychotherapy as if the world mattered. In L. Buzzell & C. Chalquist (Eds.), Ecotherapy: Healing with nature in mind (pp. 24-29). San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books.

Rozak, T. (1995, Spring). The greening of psychology: Exploring the ecological unconscious. Gestalt Journal, 18(1). Retrieved from

Soper, K. (1995). What is nature? Culture, politics and the non-human. Brighton, United Kingdom: Blackwell.

St Leger, L. (2003). Health and nature-new challenges for health promotion. Health Promotion International, 18(3), 173-175. Retrieved from

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Recipient of the 1994 Distinguished World Citizen Award, Ecopsychologist Michael J. Cohen, Ph.D., is a Program Director of the Institute of Global Education, where he coordinates its Integrated Ecology Department and Project NatureConnect. He also serves on the faculty of Portland State University and Akamai University. Dr. Cohen has founded sensory environmental education outdoor programs independently and for the National Audubon Society and Lesley University (AEI), conceived the 1985 National Audubon Conference "Is the Earth a Living Organism," and is an award winning author of "The Web of Life Imperative," "Reconnecting With Nature," and "Educating Counseling and Healing With Nature." A video about his lifework may be viewed at

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