Bring Me the Ocean

Occupational therapist Rebecca Reynolds, a native of Concord, Massachusetts, manages a traveling, nature-based educational and therapeutic program for those confined to close-care institutions. Her first book is a treasury of inspiring stories and beautiful photography. Bring Me The Ocean (1995, VanderWyk & Burnham, Acton, MA), excerpted below, chronicles some of the amazing and oftentimes startling stories in which patients, institutional residents and caregivers have rediscovered lost parts of themselves through reconnecting with nature in this most unusual way.

The natural world is a bridge for connection among people, animals, and the environment. The stories that follow document the traveling program Animals As Intermediaries (AAI), which visits hospitals and other closed-care institutions and brings animals, nature, and the arts to people who do not have the ready access to the outdoors.

The name implies an emphasis on animals; it is a name that has stayed with us from our beginnings. We work with companion animals, farm animals and permanently injured wildlife. The wildlife comes to us through veterinarians or licensed rehabilitators. Because of injuries or birth-related conditions, the wildlife is unable to survive in the wild. We are state and federally licensed to care for them. The animals we work with are, in a sense, intermediaries for experience and understanding, but equally so are the shells and kelp, the logs and rocks, the clay and stories.

AAI goes wherever people are isolated from direct contact with the natural world. The program works with elderly in chronic care facilities, in nursing and psychiatric settings, with children born HIV-positive in inner-city hospitals, with children in hospital schools, and in day and residential treatment centers, with physically and/or emotionally challenged children and adults, with battered woman and their children, with prisoners and with hospice patients.

In designing a day’s program, we start with the season. Next we choose an environment and then work from there, adding secondary themes, such as the transition from day to night. We draw on the natural materials we find during outdoor “gatherings.” We draw on the animals that are available to us that day, and on the requests we have received during prior programs. We may bring indoors a meadow in fall, a salt marsh during winter, or perhaps a forest’s edge in spring. The animals we bring are incorporated into these representations of environments, so that the animals’ natural context becomes clearer.

As the themes build in layers upon one another, the metaphors inherent in these themes become the under girding for the intermediary experience to occur. The heart of it all is building a shared context, one that links our human experience with the wider scope of the natural world. Brought indoors, the meadow or the marsh or the forest’s edge can gently transform the institutional setting with a sense of a belief that we are all connected through nature, that this connection can restore a sense of wholeness and a sense of place, and that this connection is both elemental and essential. Having knowledge of the natural cycles and seasons can give us the context we need to come through difficulty.

FALL

The fall in particular offers a rich program, one that leads us into all the other seasons. It is a combination of the life-giving qualities of harvest and bounty, and the time of dying back and entering winter. It is the season that most reminds me of patterns and cycles, and of transitions.

Inner City
Arriving at an AIDS Chronic Care facility in an inner-city hospital for young children, we transfer our autumn materials to a trucking cart and wheel it into the hospital. Inside we shift everything again, this time onto a gurney. On this stainless steel cart, ordinarily used for bodies, we pile our bounty: pumpkins, hollow logs, grapevines, ducks, rabbits, gourds, cattails, milkweed pods, pine needles, and stones.

Wheeling this unusual, burgeoning gurney through the stark halls of the hospital, I have the urge to call out, “Emergency! Mother Nature coming though!” In the elevator, with ducks quaking and bunnies scuffling, a new voice enters the hospital with us: the very alive voice of nature.

Eight frail children come into the meeting room, their eyes widening as they follow the path of pine boughs. The pungent, crisp scent of crushed pine needles rises into the hospital air. The children gather into a small circle. Seated in the laps of staff members, they reach for our hands.

Together we walk through fall. It is the first time most of them have seen a sunflower, or an ear of corn unhusked and on its stalk. Sadly, it may be the only time for these very ill children. We build a meadow together. Children who are able to, choose something to carry into the center of the grassy circle. As each piece is added — the hollow log, the stones, the water, the milkweed — the meadow grows. Gradually the meadow takes form, replete with smells and textures.

The children ask questions about everything. Even in their illness, they are thoroughly kids. Upon finding that milkweed seeds float on their breath, they blow clouds of them up into the air, laughing as fluff drifts back down and lands on their heads.

Shaking tall stalks for corn, we talk about the wind running through the dry cornfield. The youngest and sickest, Jenny, lies listlessly in her nurse’s lap, eyes half closed. But when we pass her two pods of honey locust, she grasps one in each of her hands, and suddenly raises her arms into the air to shake the dried pods with great energy and the most incredible smile of joy. Small, fragile Elaine holds a huge yellow sunflower up next to her face, like two suns meeting. The memory warms us on our drive home.

These children were born HIV-positive, and several were abandoned shortly after the diagnosis. They are extremely sick and most of them will continue to live within institutional walls for their short lives. Even so, they are kids like any others. Their illness would seem to exclude the possibility of light and humor, and yet they shine through all labels, reaching for an animal or piece of nature with the particular intense curiosity of children.

Choices
Through working with animals and natural materials, an individual has choices about how, or with whom, to relate. Interaction on a therapeutic and social level can be broadened by using the gentle bridges of the intermediary animal or material.

We were at a residential treatment center serving preadolescent boys with severe emotional disturbances and learning difficulties. Although I was new to the site, Animals As Intermediaries had been there on a monthly basis for several years. As we began the hands-on part of the program, I found a place to sit on the floor with Fern, one of our dogs. Ten-year-old Nathan joined us there and began talking to Fern.

After petting for a few moments, he began to talk to me about dogs and, soon, about death. He told me that he had once owned a dog but that she had jumped off the porch while tied to her leash and had strangled to death.

He was the one who had tied her to the porch, and he was the one who had found her. Nathan described the experience vividly, talking in an open and vulnerable way about his intense guilt and grief. We spoke for a long time. The program ended around us, and Nathan said good-bye to Fern.

After this program, during our staff discussions, John, the head teacher, said that in the three years Nathan had been with the school he had refused to speak with therapists, teachers, or classmates about his past or his family. We hadn’t known this, as we usually choose to work without learning case histories beforehand, unless there is a need to know. We prefer to meet the children or adults without bias. We are often surprised after a program to learn a history that we wouldn’t have guessed from watching someone interact with an animal or a material.

The teacher asked about the dramatic change in Nathan’s interaction, wondering what I had said to elicit such trust. I had said very little; it was Fern who had acted as the intermediary. Fern was the catalyst, and I was the listener.

There can be unspoken messages in interactions with people, judgment about the social structures and rules of what is acceptable and normal to say, express, or do. But animals don’t demand such conformity of a person. Instead, they require only the respect, dignity, and safety that all of us want for ourselves. This is the crux of the intermediary process.

The dogs are the anchors of our programs. People expect them to be there, and look forward to their visits. As people grow to trust the dogs, they then gradually come to trust us, too, though our association with the dogs. The dogs are like references: in their trust and love of us, they are vouching for us to the people we are meeting.

The dogs are professionally trained to be working dogs. Chosen for their kind, gentle temperaments, they are trained specifically to work in institutions. This means they not only have good obedience skills, but they also have specialized skills, such as knowing how to approach a wheelchair. They have an extraordinary sensitivity and seem to know who really needs time with them. Often we’ve seen one of them seek out an individual, stopping by him or returning to him. We are no longer surprised to find out later that the individual has special needs or is attempting to overcome a very difficult history.

Dignity
Otis, the young screech owl, has a permanent wing injury that prevents him from living in the wild. During this morning’s program he sits tall and noble on Nancy’s hand, his diminutive height stretched to its utmost. He has been to this hospital school many times to visit the children.

Twelve-year-old Ben also sits up straighter than usual in his wheelchair, greeting his favorite visitor. Born with cerebral palsy, Ben has been even further injured by an accident in which his electric wheelchair tipped over. Meeting the injured owl, Ben greets a kindred spirit in injury, recovery, and dignity, and shares his feelings with Otis.

“I’m sorry you were hurt. It’s hard to be hurt. I know you are being taken are of.” His quiet reflective words continue, “You are a beautiful, beautiful bird. You are beautiful, just the way you are.”

Across the room Wille, the elderly chinchilla, was slowly roaming up Jay’s lap into his arms. Jay was born with a combination of physical difficulties that limit his movements. His right hand is a metal hook; his left hand is a curved shape that cannot grasp. The chinchilla snuggled right up into the metal of Jay’s prosthesis. “This is the first time in my life someone hasn’t minded touching my hook,” said Jay, looking up, his usually wry expression lit with a wide grin as the chinchilla tucked himself closer into Jay’s arms.

We can find self-acceptance through the simple unconditional actions of an animal. In taking care of an animal, even if the care is just holding the animal for a few minutes, there are opportunities to feel responsible and giving. An animal doesn’t mind if a person is missing a limb or does not speak. With an animal, we have the opportunity to feel whole, both physically and emotionally, freed for the moment from inner misgivings. We can learn about injury, fear, beauty, pride, wildness, affection, defense, respect — all of which correspond with aspects of ourselves. Through the human’s automatic use of comparison and contrast, the animal is made an intermediary for learning about oneself and, ultimately, about acceptance.

WINTER

The winter meadow appeals to an inner place. The trees are bare, the grasses are dried and bent over, their roots deep and resting, dormant. In winter we intuitively got to the roots of things, to the core of what holds us upright. The nature of winter in New England requires that we find this rooted quality, the endurance and acceptance that we will carry us through these darker, colder times.

Wings
Another cold winter day, silent outside with a broad blanketing of snow. Indoors at the hospital school, it is loud with teenagers jostling between classes. As the wheelchairs gather in number, the jests multiply back and forth with the bravado of teenage humor.

A different bonding, one of awareness and intensity, becomes apparent when the animals come out and the questions begin. Silence greets the owl as everyone creates the needed quiet environment for her. As the barred owl turns her head 180 degrees, tracking the location of the newest voice, Jane asks about her missing left wing. “Can she grow her arm back? Will she ever fly?” The question is poignant. Jane’s own thin arms lie unresponsive on her chair. Paul, another student, listens intently, his left arm replaced by prosthesis.

“No, her wing will never grow back,” Suzanne explains, “but she has become strong and has learned other ways to get around. She uses her tail, the way she is doing now, as a counterbalance for her missing wing, and she hops with a new sense of balance. We’ve designed a special system of perches so that she can become stronger and confident.”

The owl sends her own silent message to the children, one of vitality despite injury. She has adapted to her injury and is completely Owl. The intensity of her gaze directly challenges the fact of her disability.

SPRING

It seems as if overnight there has been a greening up. Shoots of new growth charge out of the soil, and crocuses burst into bloom beside the stone wall. The plants remind us of our roots in the earth and our aspirations to the sun.

Gentle Hands
Mike was born in prison. Now five years old, he had already lived in twelve foster homes. He was in a state school for children with emotional difficulties when we met him. Working with Mike was a challenge. Initially, he made it very difficult for us to leave at the end of a program. He would fall into a tantrum, grab onto one of the dogs, clutch and choke it tightly, refuse to let go. Our conflict lay in needing to keep the animals safe while developing Mike’s trust.

Many of the children in this class had abused animals and had themselves been abused. The experience of trust and safety needed to be developed, both for themselves and for the animals. One particular day, the children were very restless. Their hands kept shooting up in a loud confusion of questions, startling the animals. The children were impatient and rough when they reached out to touch.

Suzanne stopped and said, “Talk to your hands. Ask your hands to please be patient, to please be gentle. These animals need you to be very gentle and calm in order for them to trust you and feel safe.”

This surprised the children; they began to think about the animals’ needs for safety as well as their own. Suzanne continued talking about safety and care, and waited until she saw the children respond. Gradually, they became conscious of their hands, and of a new way of being with animals. The simplicity of Suzanne’s request, a request that structured the animals’ need for safety, gave the children a challenge to rise to.

Exhibiting a new sense of care for the first time, Mike walked over and hugged and stroked our dog Fern, touching and then letting go of her with newly gentled hands. Then he quietly kissed her forehead good-bye. Later, as he was walking to the washroom, he said to his hands, “Hands, you are beautiful. I’m not going to wash off the feel of Fern.”

On this day, he had learned how to hold and keep the sweet sensation of caring. He had experienced the comfort of saying good-bye without the alarming sense of loss.

SUMMER

Summer, and the heat begins to build, rounding out the impulsive rush of spring. Our focus shifts. Summer, with its heat, is a hard time for the animals to travel, and it does them good to rest for a few months, to play and recharge for the fall, so we do fewer visits into institutions until the fall weather begins cooling the air. Our summer gatherings are different too. We still go out to Secret Pond and Spencer Brook, to the meadow and the marsh, but now we return materials to the places we found them, and we collect a few new ones.

Perhaps the best of this season is the chance to renew ourselves — our thoughts, our ideas, our inspirations. If one is bringing a sense of renewal and reconnection to share with others, it is crucial to find it first in oneself.

Spirit of Change 20th anniversary issue reprint from May/Jun 1996. 2007 Postscript: Animals as Intermediaries (AAI) is a nonprofit Massachusetts organization. Since 1983, AAI has provided educational and therapeutic programs that bring the world of nature into closed-care institutions. Contact AAI, PO Box 155, Concord, MA 01742. 978-369-2585. See http://www.aai-nature.org.