Nevin Harper

Nevin Harper, PhD, RCC: “The less you prescribe, the better they find the path. Nature provides”

Meet Nevin in first person, a leading international Adventure Therapy researcher, guide and professor. 

Nevin Harper, PhD, RCC, Professor at the University of Victoria (Canada), a career outdoor educator, wilderness guide, youth worker and registered clinical counsellor. He presents internationally on outdoor therapies as a researcher, author, trainer and consultant. He is also an FTHub Professor, author of “Nature-based Therapy” (2019) and editor of “Outdoor Therapies” (2020). 

“On top of growing up in a very remote place and having a very wild, unsupervised, exploratory childhood where I got to learn a lot about nature in general, I also learned at a very early age that my choices and behaviors can also have an impact on nature.” 

Tenacity, not assumptions.”I didn’t do so well in the classroom. I was the first person in my family to graduate from high school. And I now have a PhD in education, and it seems a bit weird, so I remain pretty humble about what I have achieved, especially for those who assume it has to do with being smart, ha ha. I prefer to focus more on approaching new learning and tasks with tenacity and, really, just being focused on believing in myself.” 

Outdoor multitasking. “I moved into guiding during college and I spent years working different jobs and with different populations; I always wanted more adventure. Raft and canoe guiding, and taking young offenders out on month-long expeditions, ski patrolling, avalanche control, even backcountry ambulance service… just to keep my time and energy invested in being outdoors and being active.”

“I’ve lead adventure groups in Australia, the US, New Zealand, Mexico, South America and of course at home here in Canada. I really learned a lot about life and myself  from my time in Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, and Ecuador. The Andean countries are some of my favorite places. I consider Bolivia my home away from home.”

The sky at 5000 meters. “Some of my favorite work has been when I get to take other people to awe-inspiring places, or challenging environments, especially if there’s this element of discovery. I’ve taken groups of College students to Bolivia, and they’ve had experiences that were otherworldly, like waking them up in the middle of the night at 5000 meters to see how close you can be to the stars and to have almost moonless night, but a sky entirely lit up by the stars, and then to see them just lay there on their sleeping mats for hours just staring at the sky”. 

Mood, water & science. “When I first started my PhD, I had questions ranging from barometric pressure, like weather patterns, because I had worked on the ocean with young offenders. I knew that when low pressure systems were coming in that the mood became heavy and dark within the group and people became more agitated. I was curious, but thankfully my supervisor said no to that research!”

“I’m not a scientist, well, I’m a social scientist. I do mostly qualitative research. I understand statistics a little bit. When I got involved with Alex and the Forest Therapy Hub group, I was asked to lecture on some material that I was not really familiar with, like the science side of it, like the monoterpenes, negative ions, that to me has been fun and super interesting.”

Green Prescription. “Now in my home province I’m working with a group that has got all of the doctors, anybody that’s registered as a health practitioner in this province, prescribing ‘nature’. So from doctors to chiropractors to naturopaths to speech therapists… they’re all now offering green prescriptions. It’s such an old idea repackaged, and is getting a lot of attention.” 

“And then I was asked, ‘what exactly are we prescribing?’ Few people have studied the mechanisms of change in this work. And the work at the Forest Therapy Hub is probably the most sophisticated I’ve seen yet in terms of someone pulling it all together. So that’s got me excited. And that’s what keeps me going on the research front.”

Metaphors alone. “At the same time, I have a private practice. I am a nature-based therapist. I see my clients outdoors, regardless of the weather. That’s where I work the best. And I don’t take clients out into nature that don’t want to be there–I want the relationship to be reciprocal between them and the environment that sustains them.”

“I do know that the generation of metaphors from a client’s perspective on something that they see or find or experience in nature can become a powerful metaphor or mirror. The word entropy describes nature’s cycle of decomposition. One client observed decaying leaves still present while new buds were blooming. She had recently reached 1-year cancer free, and now, coming into the spring and seeing all the new little green shoots coming up through the mud and the blossoms on the trees alongside last year’s leaves really shook her emotionally. She saw parallels to the last year of her own life.”

“I could have given her those metaphors. They would have less meaning to her though. She found the blossoms. Eventually she came around to talking about her new lease on life or her new opportunity for growth, and to let go of a whole bunch of stuff in the past that may have led to her illness. We collectively then have developed and continued to use thai narrative of life’s renewal process as well as observing that which gets taken, or left behind” 

Moving a client towards seeing in nature an image, a mirror, a metaphor, something that they can relate to and allow that story to unfold as it relates to themselves, is powerful medicine.”

The less, the better. “And then there’s a reciprocity between us and the natural world. Perhaps you don’t have to prescribe or be some kind of instructional guide. I think people, when guided accordingly, can discover what they need to. So the less you prescribe, the better they find the path. They discover what they need. Nature provides”.

I don’t extend any mystical healing powers to nature beyond my belief system to my clients. I have a sense of what works- But I’m not like a conventional psychoanalyst. I don’t go back and dig through the ashes of someone’s life to find their pain.”

Being outdoors, being physically active, maybe sometimes going up a steep, muddy slope and getting really frustrated and finding old anger and processing it through the body and paying attention to the body and really attending to, and honoring what your body is telling you is enough. And then you don’t even have to talk about what caused the anger in the first place because there’s a release. A somatic experience of past trauma or attachment issues… The body has done its work, and it feels like, okay, I’ve acknowledged it. I’ve attended to you. Let’s move on.”

Dirt, spirit and nature. “I’m writing on this finally, I’m getting around to writing a piece now called spiritual dirt. If you’ve ever met old traditional farmers and have conversations with them about life and spirit and God and nature and they’re connected. The city dwellers who unfortunately sometimes don’t get as much direct contact. They don’t see it, they don’t feel it, they don’t taste it. They become more detached. There is now some interesting research showing connections between contact with healthy soil (the earth) and the health of our gut–the microbiome–that connects our insides and the outside of our bodies to the natural world. This research also shows that more nature we take in–and I mean breathe in, are in physical contact with, eat–that emotionality, and yes even spirituality can be better accessed! Spiritual dirt.”

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