Connecting You: Psyche and Nature with Chantel Thurman

Psychotherapist Chantel Thurman is our May speaker and workshop host. Read our Q & A for this, our last event of the 2016-2017 season!

Your bio says that you are trained as an animal tracker. Can you tell me a little bit about what that means and how you do it?

Wildlife tracking is the ability to notice and make meaning out of available, natural signs in a given landscape, which then tell a story of its inhabitants and their relationships. Sometimes, the sign we are looking at is an actual “track” (i.e., the residual mark of an animal’s footprint on the ground), but more often what we see are nibbles on vegetation, trails that wind through grasses, sometimes partial tracks, or even scat (poop). Literally anything can become the focus of a tracker’s attention. Over time, you become sensitized to what the landscape is holding in the form of these stories.

Tracking is an ability to “read” the landscape like an open book. Very advanced trackers rarely even look at the ground because they know the larger patterns and can anticipate movements and behaviors in a given place. These folks are often noting things that “jump out” as different (“off baseline”) because this is the landscape talking about something unexpected. Trackers operate like sleuths or detectives of the natural world. We love mysteries and can get swallowed up by a trail of signs and the promise of entry into worlds very different than our own.

I first learned to track by being around other more experienced trackers and just observing and hearing their stories. Later, I did more disciplined, focused study and tested for certification with an organization that has sought to re-vitalize and preserve this ancient art/science (CyberTracker). The real teachers (though) are the land and its inhabitants, and spending time in the field. “Dirt time” is what we call it in tracking lingo.

What is the relevance of animal-tracking in the modern world?

Great question. Even wildlife trackers sometimes wonder about this.

With the advent of advanced technologies (GPS, telemetry, scopes, etc.), it would seem to be outdated. You can learn lots about animals and their movements from the use of these technologies. What you miss though are all the nuances of that animal’s life and its environment. You would certainly miss all the intimate, sensual aspects of their lives and the pathways to empathy and cross-species cognitive/emotional resonance that can occur by physically inhabiting their places. Imagine if someone stuck a radio collar on you and then tracked your movements. How much could that data really speak to the depth and breadth of your lived experience?

Our modern human brains were built on this ability to track other living, diverse beings in a very sophisticated manner. This was one of our evolutionary advantages that allowed us to more successfully hunt (eat) and to avoid being hunted (eaten). And while tracking is still used for these purposes, it is now more commonly used to support field research, or for Search & Rescue or military operations. There is also a growing group of contemporary trackers (myself included) who track because we enjoy it. It is incredibly interesting putting together these puzzles of existence; more fun than crossword puzzles or Sodoku, I like to say.

I also think we track because it helps us feel connected again in a very intimate way with the rest of life on Planet Earth. We link up to our sensual, emotional and big-brained inheritance as human animals, and re-experience that feeling of: “I belong here. I understand this language of landscape and movement and co-existence. I am part of this. I’m not a bystander.”

How has tracking changed/influenced your understanding of the human psyche?

It’s made me acutely aware of how much richness we have lost in our typical contemporary lifestyles, and how psychologically isolated the human species has become from the rest of life on this shared planet (our common home). This isolation is very unnatural, painful and I think is the deeper, root cause of the environmental crises that are currently engulfing the planet. Tracking has also helped me to see how species-specific certain assumptions are in the field of psychology and elsewhere, and how much we still have to learn from other beings who are co-existing with us at the present time.

Your talk is titled “Splintered Psyches in a Splintered World.” Could you say something about each of those? How is our world splintered? What do you mean by splintered psyches?

Jung used the term “splinter psyche” as a precursor to his later concept of the “complex.” I want to compare the way Jung was seeing the fragmentation of the human psyche as a process and a condition, with the way that human beings are currently occupying the planet. It’s like the greater EarthPsyche has this human complex that is wildly inflated and posing a grave danger (or at least dilemma) to the EarthPsyche as a whole with its many interrelated parts. Physical/energetic Earth is currently responding with the signs and symptoms associated with global warming —more ferocious and frequent extreme weather events, for example — all attempts at re-balancing. But can this complex (the human species) be brought back into balance by the greater EarthPsyche? Or will the human complex take down the whole system and put itself out of a home in the process?

We know that complexes can be very powerful, self-destructive and take over entire personalities, organizations, nations, etc.  Questions that arise for me these days are: what do human beings really want in all of this? What are we seeking in our domination of this planet and all its other diverse life? What is at the root of this behavior? What are we truly aspiring to? These questions speak to the evolution of a greater human consciousness (and Earth consciousness, perhaps) that has yet to fully awaken and assert itself. I do feel it trying. There are birth pangs and death pangs happening continuously.

Your title also points to the world of Nature as restoring, or healing, the human soul. What are some ways in which Nature does that?

Studies show the reliable, calming (or regulating) effects of green spaces on human beings. We evolved in the context of close contact with biodiverse environments where we did not insulate ourselves much from nature. We sought or made little shelters for ourselves, but mostly we were in continuous, rich and intimate contact with the rest of the organic, natural world. So, this is the cradle that birthed our species and we are perfectly adapted to thrive in it, and with this level of proximity. Our original attachment environment was biodiverse and interspecific.

Even now, every time we allow ourselves to be in the presence of green life (plants, trees), we are in a profound and reciprocal relationship of carbon and oxygen exchange. We are literally giving life to each other. That registers and is felt at every level of our being, although we may not experience it consciously. Nonetheless, it is happening, and it has always been very deep and reliable – a secure bond in our species’ experience of being held and nurtured on Earth.

It is our present day challenge (and I believe our obligation and our great joy) to consciously re-experience these relationships and our interwoven place in the web of life. Traditional cultures have historically done and continue to do this, and we all have that in our ancestral inheritance somewhere. We need to find it again and live it in a new way. We need to re-member ourselves back into true health, wholeness and balance — in relationship with the rest of life.

Pets are becoming more and more important to more and more people. They are allowed on airplanes as emotional companions. In addition to their spouses and children, authors sometimes mention their pets in their book bios. What do you make of the popularity of pets in our culture?

They mirror us as both natural and domesticated beings — except they are (almost always) more natural than we are. They are a bridge between ourselves and other species and they help with that psychological isolation I mentioned earlier with regards to human beings. I love watching interspecies interactions in nature. I once watched a young cottontail (rabbit) trying to initiate play with a group of mature Canadian geese. The geese were very patient and tuned into this young, playful being and it was clear that there was effective communication and that the geese understood the cottontail’s bids for play and connection. It was quite seamless and beautiful to witness.

These types of experiences help me appreciate how interconnected life is on this planet, and how nourishing and important it is to break through these unnatural barriers we have imagined (and erected) between ourselves and other species.

Science and psychology seem to be catching up with Jung’s idea that there is a “natural man” within each of us, and that we need to give that natural or instinctual part of ourselves its due. How do we go about doing that? Do you see this as a next step in our evolution as individuals and as the human race?

First, I think we need to get into our bodies and out in nature more. We need to redeem the more relational aspects of our being, going beyond exclusively human-to-human relationships. We share so much in terms of our nervous systems and cognitive abilities with other species. Reconnecting here can bring us back into a healthy, vibrant relationship with ourselves and with life again.

Evolution loves to tinker at the edges and margins of life. Transformative level change happens (mostly) at a glacial pace, although there are examples of what is called “fast evolution.” We are a young species; only about 150K years old (give or take). What is most noteworthy about us is not really our cognitive capacity per se, but our social capacity — so that is where the changes need to be and are likely to occur. We are currently witnessing the precipitous rise of a certain domineering, alpha male type posturing — the so-called “strong man” — which is actually pretty typical stuff for primates. But we are also seeing our species’ other great tendency towards egalitarianism and high level social cooperation — a global human consciousness beginning to emerge. Our ability to survive as a species will probably rely on the further development of this capacity.

Today there is a focus on healing the planet and on trying to restore what we have damaged. That seems well and good, but surely there is another side to this. Wouldn’t a balanced interaction between human nature and Nature also require that we allow Nature to heal us? What is our responsibility in allowing Nature to heal us?

It’s a relationship, and like all relationships, it must be tended from all sides. I think healing is always reciprocal somehow.

This planet is the matrix of our being. We don’t currently have the ability to live anywhere else, although some people are working on that. We need this planet, but maybe this planet doesn’t need us? I think we have a role to play here but we have lost touch with it, and with it our sense of belonging and being home in the deepest, most fundamental sense. We are a restless species.

Reciprocity is the name of the game on Planet Earth. It is (in the end) the only system that really works here. The field of ecology illustrates this at the biological level of life. Everything else leads to unsustainable overshoot systems and effects. So, we have some decisions to make as a species. I like to joke: what do we — human beings — want to be when we grow up as a species?

I personally love it here. Earth. Can’t imagine a better planet. My son, on the other hand, thinks spending time on Mars sounds pretty cool. Maybe we can have both.

If we do though, I will likely only be visiting — don’t see myself buying real estate there.

Learn more about Chantel’s lecture and workshop and register now!






  1. sue Avatar

    Thank you for this fantastic evening.
    Chantels presentation was so delightful, intelligent, funny and thought provoking. I wish I could have attended the workshop on Saturday. Please bring in more speakers like her.