A Recent Interview With A Local Public Library
What Prairie Dogs Might Teach Us
There is a colony of prairie dogs in the lot next to where I work. Sometimes when it’s slow in the office, I go outside and watch them from the night entrance of the building. It’s a door which is around the back of the complex. The prairie dogs’ antics are quite entertaining. As much fun as they are to watch they are also a vital feature in the landscape of the American South West. Much maligned by ranchers and developers alike, they serve a vital purpose. They forage and clip vegetation to maintain their habitats. This affects the plant species composition leading to more diversity of plant communities. The prairie dogs' constant excavations encourages penetration and retention of moisture.
They contribute to the mixing of subsoil and topsoil while redistributing minerals and nutrients. (NPS).
I work at the local Detox unit. My work consists of monitoring clients who have been picked up by the police or are coming from the emergency room because they are intoxicated. Some are detoxing from smoking or ingesting unhealthy amounts of illicit drugs. We keep track of their vitals and wellbeing until they are healthy enough to return to wherever they came from. Many of them are chronically unhoused and addicted. Some are regulars here. It’s safe, secure, they can clean up (we often do their laundry or provide clean clothes). We provide food, water, juices, healthy snacks. Some of our clients show up after days or weeks on meth and have not eaten in days. We can help with finding treatment programs if they are interested or refer to local Twelve Step meetings if they decide that they have had enough. Those who decide to seek treatment are the exception not the rule. Our unit shares the building with our local Acute Treatment Unit for those experiencing psychiatric or psychological emergencies.
My immediate supervisor is a friend of many years. We know each other from the recovery community. I am in recovery myself from years of alcohol abuse and drug addiction. We both think of ourselves as committed to service.
Our conversations often turn to drug and alcohol treatment. In this neck of the woods there isn't much. 12 step meetings and ineffective outpatient programs is about it. "Bill" (not his real name), points out the window to the empty lot next to our building where the prairie dogs live and says, "That's where we are going to build our treatment facility".
I smile and nod. A bulldozer and what I call, "other weapons of mass destruction" would wipe out my little colony in a matter of minutes.
In my years of working with addicts and alcoholics, there is often a common thread in all the stories I hear. It’s often a life of hopelessness and despair. People talk of feeling like they don’t belong, have no stake or ownership in the greater community in which they live. Outcasts, they exist in the margins.
When I had been clean and sober for about six years, I knew I wanted to find meaningful employment. Not that what I was doing wasn’t. I lived in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada of Central California. I worked as a landscape laborer and became an irrigation specialist. In my spare time, I drove my little truck up to the high country and cut firewood in the forest. I sold it for extra cash. I also re-discovered my love for the outdoors. It only took a few hours to fill my little pick up with fire wood. I spent the rest of the day wandering the woods with my dog, Buddy.
After completing a NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) course in Alaska I went to work in Wilderness Therapy. I started as a guide working in remote parts of southern Utah. Eventually, I went to graduate school and became a clinician. The “Students” as we call them, who attend these programs are mostly adolescents and young adults. Some research suggests that Wilderness is a more beneficial and effective form of treatment than in-patient clinical treatment for a host of behavioral and other mental health issues.
Nature is both harsh at times and beautiful. Our students are pulled from their dysfunctional routines at home. They are separated from family, friends and their devices. Life becomes very simple and ordered by the rhythms of nature. Many of my students report that after spending 6-9 weeks out in the bush, they feel a sense of well-being they did not experience before coming to a program. They gain wisdom about how nature reveals and balances itself. They learn about self-efficacy and emotional regulation. They learn that nature is a perfect mirror for healthy and un-healthy behavior.
When their time comes to leave the program, many express reluctance to return to “normal” life. Huge public schools and shopping malls. They say that “normal” is stressful, overwhelming. Most of these kids come from large urban or sub-urban areas. Their only open space is the local ball field. Their access to nature consists of artificial lawns or athletic fields manicured and sprayed with enough toxic chemicals to drown a battle ship. Not a single prairie dog anywhere. My students often express anxiety with the thought of returning home. More stressed than they had when they first arrived in the bush. There is good reason for this. Research suggests that our disconnect from nature is taking a toll on the human psyche.
Here is what I wish my boss and his superiors would understand. Indeed, the western model of mental health treatment in totality needs to recognize that it would be counter productive to bulldoze my little colony of prairie dogs for a building. A structure that further separates people from wind and sky. How do I explain that? Sitting inside a room under fluorescent lights with windows that don’t open is part of the problem. Our detox unit is lit with artificial lighting. There is one large screen television, 210 DVDs and a few windows that don’t open. I work three –ten hour shifts and that’s about all I can stand. We call our office, “the fishbowl”. We have windows on three sides that look out in to the milieu and to the doorways leading to the dormitories and bathrooms. We have Closed Circuit TV that monitors the dorms, hallways, entry ways and parking area. I don’t see the sun when I am at work unless I leave my post and step outside for a few minutes.
There is a whole health complex and hospital across the street from this building. It’s less than ten years old and considered, "state of the art". It’s a modern hospital with all the amenities. It stands on land that once belonged to the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. The building itself sits in the middle of what used to be prime elk winter calving grounds and later became pasture for grazing cattle. Now, these meadows and pastures are surrounded by miles of pavement and there is a subdivision with an array of residences. The remaining pasture is currently up for sale and will eventually become an ugly sub-division.
The other day, I left the fishbowl and walked over to the backside of the hospital. There is a little contemplative garden and a “healing” labyrinth. Seems the labyrinth and garden design was “squeezed” in at the last minute. It's not easy to get to from the main part of the hospital. It's a long walk with no direct path or walkway. One has to navigate through a maze of various parking lots and zig zag the occasional sidewalk. Wouldn't be easy for someone in a wheelchair. The garden sits next to the ass end of the hospital where the generator, and heating and cooling units are. There is an artificial waterfall which is a nice touch. Research also suggests the calming effect of being near running water. The water fall is very difficult to hear over the din of whatever machinery is belching exhaust on the roof top.
I was there a day or two ago. It was a slow Sunday at the detox. I walked the labyrinth with the machinery as the background noise of my meditation. It's loud. I try to convince myself it's the sound of the river nearby. I did hear a little song bird above the din. I looked up into the canopy of the trees planted neatly in straight lines and saw a finch of some kind. And then it dawned on me. The hospital, the ATU, Detox, all of it! Everything designed and built to keep us healthy is the very thing making and keeping us sick. Some might argue this is by design. But that is for another blog post.
The irony of sitting at a computer staring into a screen writing this is not lost on me. In my mind, there is a much deeper significance to the existence of a small colony of rodents. Aside from the importance for the ecology but more difficult to articulate is that their very presence right where they are is profound. Obviously, my experience of them is subjective and personal. The prairie dogs signify resilience and survival. Humanity is NOT the all important apex species it thinks it is. Destroying the colony for a building that is supposed to heal our damaged psyche perpetuates the problem. It only serves to illuminate our warped perspective on health. It magnifies our dependence on an artificial lifestyle and economy.
|Sign in the market in Antigua. Basically telling thieves that shop owners don't wait for the police to arrive.|
|(photo taken from cycletrailsaustralia.com)|