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When Joy Fitgerald, 72, agreed to meet me at a lavish Simpsonville farmhouse, complete with a motorized iron gate, circular driveway, outdoor pool and kitchen, firepits, a pristine pond, and a bucolic horse barn, she immediately shooed away the fanfare. “This is not my house,” she said before shaking my hand. “[My house] is beyond simplicity.”

Joy’s idea of living beautifully doesn’t center on mixing textiles, lighting, or bringing the outdoors in. In fact, her idea of Living Beautifully doesn’t much involve a physical structure at all. Instead, Joy believes in stepping out into nature. The earthly structure of a home, after all, pales in comparison to the awe of nature.  

Needless to say it was difficult to narrow down a spot for our late July interview because, as she says, “My little cabin is just where I sleep at night, not much else. My most frequent abode is an old tack horse barn.” Joy, clad in Wrangler jeans and a denim vest, a scarf fastened like a bolo-tie around her neck, says she feels most at home when her cowboy boots are walking along a creek bed at one of the Jefferson County’s parks or deep inside the tree canopy of the forest where the healing effects of nature abound. To Joy, “the soil is the soul.” It is where we connect with our true selves and where we can renew our passion for life. 

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Joy’s background as a biologist has guided her down this earthen path — first as a child on her parents’ Ohio farm and later as a restoration ecologist, where Joy was typically the only woman in the classroom (or field or job site). As a restoration ecologist, Joy traveled the country’s “sacrificed lands” — lands adversely affected by mining or dumping where not a single blade of grass could grow. It was her team’s job to transform the land and to restore life to the uninhabitable.

After retirement, Joy launched a new business, Natural Connections, where she applied the same principles of regenerating the flora and fauna to the human spirit. Joy specializes in helping female clients who are experiencing various forms of grief, depression, or PTSD heal themselves through nature immersion therapy. “We live in a consumerist culture where you throw away that which you don’t love. This discarding and lack of connection to place, to the soil, to even natural sunlight, is not healthy for the body, mind, or spirit,” Joy says while quoting several studies about the healthful benefits of nature including blood pressure reduction, lowering rates of disease, depression, and anxiety.

“I present my clients, who have lost their love of life, with something safe and tactile like a puppy, a kitty, a foal, or a baby chick or goat. Animals remind us of miracles, of the beginning of life; they bring joy. We sit in a park or on a farm, and as my clients are experiencing this profound connection with nature — when I see that they have the glitter in their eyes again — then they talk and I listen,” Joy explains.

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Joy’s experiential therapies involve more than baby animals. She also takes groups on adventure experiences where women learn to split wood, kayak, or start a fire. Through these sense-based experiences, women are able to release buried anger, harness their repressed power, become “captains of their own ships,” and heal. “When people live in and connect with the body, they change. There is a deeper awareness of self and a release of tension,” Joy says. 

This philosophy — ecopsychology —  recognizes that our bodies have 55 senses, not just five. Tapping into these other senses such as movement, speaking, magnetism, and balance creates awareness, mindfulness, and empathy for all living things around us. Joy says being immersed in nature helps us see life as a circle, not a line, and gives us a sense of connection.

After our chat, Joy guided me to where she most feels in love with life —  the dusty horse barn. “I want you to stare into the horse’s eyes. Horses are the epitome of the feminine. They are the model for modern women: they have grand power but hold a soft eye. In modern society women are taught to hold a predatory eye, especially in business, to assert ourselves, but horses harness power while keeping a gentle, peaceful eye — an eye that invites you to make eye-contact.”

Peering into Keno’s giant black saucer-like eyes, while the rhythmic swish-swish of the grooming brush knocked away loose  dirt and sent a feathery shower of dried earth over my hands and forearms, I think I got the picture. 

P.S. Bringing the beauty of nature indoors.

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