Healing our ecosystem

Healing our Ecosystem: Recovering Belonging, part two

This is the second in a series of posts from Rene Henery, PhD, TU's California Science Director, examining how conservation is linked to the healing we need to do as…

Editor’s note: This post is the second of a series from Rene Henery, PhD, Science Director with TU’s California Program, on the connection between ecological restoration, coldwater conservation and healing ourselves of the wounds of systemic racism and other societal and historical injustices.

Author’s note: Thanks to all of you who took the time to read, digest, reflect, and reach out via email in response to the last post. The feelings, experiences and perspectives you shared were moving and made my world bigger. 

So that all of those reading this and the broader discussion might benefit from your courageous sharing, I am including some of your words here. 

(Note: The excerpts below are without attribution to maintain the privacy of those who vulnerably shared.) 

“I think one of the core problems we face is that society is no longer bound by one set of facts and experiences.  We can find material to support nearly any belief we might want to foster — or someone else might want to foster within us… This will be a hard hole to dig our way out of.  But perhaps recent events have converged in such a way to provide an opportunity for profound change.  We can hope and work towards a better future for all people, species, and the land itself…”

“I spent most of last night laying in bed trying to deal with the anger and frustration I felt about recent events including the shooting of Jacob Blake. As a white male who lives in the rural west the only direct impact racial injustice has on my life is the mental anguish caused by knowing it exists and that some of my fellow Americans are directly hurt by it and others are okay with it…”

“I woke up thinking about your brave project to help enable folks in the TU world find deeper connections to one another and the natural world.  They both come from the same wellspring…”   

Many [people] do not make the connection that their connection to the land, and the act of going to the outdoors for a respite from the world is steeped in politics (and for the majority [of TU’s membership] privilege) and the conservation movement and outdoors industry have a history of white supremacy and continue to be very, very white…”

“This article… serves (for me) as a lesson in striving for deeper situational awareness; may we all be in search of better ways to carry ourselves and interpret our world holistically. …Restoring natural physical processes to a landscape… inherently recontours how we perceive the Water Cycle…”

“I’m just an old white guy who lives in a small town out in the sagebrush. But that very experience – that very identity – has led me to conclude that I need to open my heart to the hearts and the experiences of other folks…”

Please keep sharing and I (and others) will continue to listen.

Part two

BelongingColonialism and the relational trauma of Whiteness

My experience of humanity is that among the things most core to us, most prized, most sought after is the felt sense of intrinsic belonging.

I see this existential yearning to belong woven into everything from religion to marriage, from schoolyard dynamics to corporate culture. Individuals in hate groups and terrorist organizations have attributed their membership and associated actions to a need for it, as have members of support groups and charitable organizations doing relief work. 

For me, the most impactful traumas and unhealed wounds inhibiting our individual and collective capacity as a human species at this time are those associated with colonialism and its effect on our ability to experience that intrinsic belonging. The word “colonialism” means different things to different people. I use it here to describe the imposition of a value on some facet of creation (a person, a landscape, a tree, an animal, water, etc.) that is other than or separate from its intrinsic value. 

Every person, every being is the expression of life growing in a system of relationships with other life, place, and time through millennia and the accumulated, dynamic, adaptive intelligence of that evolutionary process.  We each have an inherent value to the vast multi-dimensional life systems to which we belong that alludes comprehension and effective characterization in its profundity.  This is for me what it means to say that each of us, all life is “sacred”.  

That (my) inherent value does not exist by contrast to other living things, it exists in relationship with them: we are co-evolved; I exist because they do and vice-versa.  For this reason, my sense of inherent self-worth, my sense of the worth of other beings, and my sense of intrinsic belonging are all tied together: Only in knowing I matter, just because I am, can I know you matter just because you are, witness myself and you as co-evolved components of the same system (as sacred), and experience our intrinsic belonging. 

One of my favorite articulations of this is that of MLK in his letter from the Birmingham Jail:

“In a real sense all life is inter-related. All [people] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be… This is the inter-related structure of reality.”

Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail 

As an ecologist (“eco” from the Greek “oikos” meaning “household” or “home”), my sense of my own intrinsic belonging and that of the collective (the individual parts and the whole) provides the foundation of my ecological awareness. It is the felt experience that underlies my learned, scientific, understanding of the mutually dependent, overlapping webs and gradients of connectivity dynamics and exchanges in complex systems. It offers glimpses into the expansiveness and profundity of all that my actions are connected to and affect as well as the equally staggering scope of all that I am being affected by and expressing. 

While this explanation of intrinsic belonging could invite an overly mental digestion, my experience is that awakening to it and experiencing it is not mental. Rather, it is a felt orientation, emergent of self-awareness, love, and acceptance that reveals others as inherently worthy expressions of life, illuminates the vast web of relationships of which I’m a part, and catalyzes an experience of connection within them.

Colonialism is, for me, that which would supplant my/our awareness of, connection with, and access to a sense of inherent worth, through the imposition of some other, narrower, relative value structure. 

Examples include things like the commodification of elements of a landscape into “natural resources” and the valuation of one part of a landscape over another based on that commodification; the valuation of other species based on our perception of their “intelligence”, or their value to humans as a “resource”; the valuation of some people over others based on their appearance, their perspective, their education, or some perceived ability; and, perhaps most damaging, the valuation of ourselves by virtue of how we measure up to one or multiple of those external value systems. 

These external value systems are so pervasive in the current dominant culture that it can be difficult to find facets of my life experience or experience of the world that do not bear their fingerprints. 

In the context of these relational, colonial value structures, my/our framework for self-worth and the worth of others becomes superficial, fragile and ephemeral. If I only matter because of the way that I look or what I have, if those things change, I cease to matter, and /or, if someone else has that thing and I don’t, they matter more than I do. 

By extension, the ability to experience intrinsic belonging is supplanted by the ephemeral and fragile illusion of connection based on “sameness”; we belong because we look the same; we belong because we have the same perspective, because we are “like minded”, because we both have similar amounts of money, etc.. 

These illusory experiences of connection based on sameness, in the context of a diverse world, impede the ability to experience intrinsic belonging because they create and maintain the existence of an “other” that is not a part. Whether I experience myself as part of the group that is “the same”, or of that group that is being portrayed as “other” the dichotomy undermines my ability to experience belonging to a whole in which everything is both different and all belong. As Dr. John Powell articulates, the people who are talking about taking back America are talking about taking it back “from people who they think of as other”.        

Of all the colonial traumas, from my vantage, perhaps the most insidious has been the creation of Whiteness and the concept of Race. I say that because these constructs, developed from a place of misunderstanding and fear with the express intention to oppress and subjugate, took a nebulous and undefined suite of attributes of otherness (with skin tone as a loose and arbitrary proxy) and superimposed it on the inherent value of people. They did so in addition to and independent of all the other colonially imposed values (wealth, beauty, family lineage, physical prowess, etc.) which are subservient to them.  

The fabrication of race and whiteness enshrined the specter of otherness and positioned it as a layered barrier obscuring and inhibiting access to all people’s (independent of skin tone) sense of our own inherent worth and of the worth of others, and by extension to our ability to experience belonging.

The persistent lack of an experience of belonging, and presence of that fragile facsimile of belonging based on sameness, in my experience, creates a sort of existential crisis: an unquenchable thirst, a deep sense of disconnection, a profound stress, and an intense anxiety. That crisis in turn increases susceptibility to the illusion of belonging based on sameness and feeds the pursuit of external value structures that my colonized mind would attribute my self-worth to (e.g. beauty, wealth, material objects, political correctness).  In this way it erodes my awareness of my inherent worth and inhibits my healing and growth. 

My sense is that the primary contribution I can make toward the health and healing of the vast and complex systems I am a part of is my own healing.  My thoughts, perspectives, and feelings will invariably emanate from and express my inner state.  Wounds that I carry, if untended, un-cared for, will be sewn in the world, germinated in my relationships, cultivated with my actions; just as someone who is not conscious of or tending to their waders and boots can spread in invasive species or pathogen to a river.

I have a responsibility to heal, for my own health and in service to all life.   


Note: The resource list below is not intended to be comprehensive but rather, a partial introduction (in no particular order) to some of the concepts, work, and heart-centered beings that have been in my consciousness through my process of writing this.


  • Seeing White – Podcast that dives into the history, fabrication, culture, and implications of Whiteness in the United States. Podcast is from Scene on Radio, an effort of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. 


To read the rest of Henery’s series, Recovering Belonging, click here.

By Rene Henery.