I recently wrote this blog piece for the Arnold Arboretum:
by Guest Writer: Tam Willey, Forest Therapy Guide in Practicum
October 31, 2017
When is the last time you took a long leisurely walk in a natural setting? Or sat under a tree and observed the many stories playing out in nature? Have you ever considered that when you touch a tree, perhaps this tree is simultaneously touching you? As humans industrialize at lightning speed, we have become more and more disconnected from the natural world – to the point where the term “tree hugger” is a derogatory put down.
Living in our urban, modern, industrialized civilization can be stressful. The cacophony of our phones, cars, computers, planes, trucks, barking dogs, crying babies, construction vehicles, machinery, yelling, and sirens can wreak havoc on our nervous systems. When we are stressed on a regular basis, we increase our risk for stress-related illnesses such as high blood pressure, headaches, exhaustion, anxiety, depression, moodiness and other mental impairments. Walking leisurely and sitting under trees not only helps us unplug and catch our breath, but it has also been medically proven to treat stress-related illnesses.
“Shinrin-Yoku” which translates to “Forest Bathing”, was coined in Japan in the 1980’s where infrastructure has been developed around specific forested trails to support wellness. Shinrin-Yoku is a prominent feature of preventative medicine and healing in Japan. It is practiced at designated Forest Therapy trails where visitors are met by medical and research teams that keep track of blood pressure and collect other data during the walk in order to show concrete evidence of the healing and preventative benefits.” Over thirty years later, there is a plethora of research studies showing how spending time relaxing in nature reduces blood pressure and cortisol levels, increases natural killer disease-fighting cells, increases energy, improves sleep and supports overall well-being. You can find a list of these studies here:http://www.natureandforesttherapy.org/the-science.html
I first learned about Forest Bathing/Shinrin-yoku on a day-long outdoor retreat I had signed up for through a local meditation center in Boston. I had no idea what to expect. We walked into the forest slower than I had ever walked and as we were guided through a series of gentle sensory opening prompts, I found my awareness expanding in profound ways. Even though I had previously spent extensive time outside, I had never experienced such the gamut of emotion and immersion within 15 minutes of entering a forest. I have sought plenty of refuge in the mountains and forests on many a hiking, camping, canoeing, and cross-country ski adventure. While it was apparent that these adventures would leave me feeling clear-headed, chilled out, restored, empowered, and strong, I hadn’t before had this context for what was happening to me physiologically from spending extended time in the woods.
“Walking slowly in the wide forest with Tam, a relaxed and knowledgeable guide, opened my senses and brought out the peace waiting within”
-Lea, 90, Boston
I began familiarizing myself with the science and research studies describing the many health benefits of connecting with nature. I came to understand that the healthfulness of what I was experiencing had less to do with the number of miles I could hike in a day or the views on top of a rugged mountain. My restorative healing and sense of well-being was a product of deep intentional reconnection with nature in a reciprocal way.
I come from a lineage of railroad and factory workers. I see the effects of industrialized civilization on my family, friends, and community in various forms of stress-related illnesses, diseases and oppressions passed down from generation to generation. It is my intention to do what I can on my micro level to work towards breaking these cycles and bringing awareness to how we can heal ourselves, the earth, and support the wellbeing of all beings. I am committed to deepening my own practice of nature and forest therapy so that I can share it with whomever wants it.
“During the forest bathing walk with Tam, I felt like I was discovering an entirely new part of the world around me. The experience was one of peaceful calm and exploration.”
– Tyler aka “TofuPup”, 16, FL
I am trained through the Association Of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides & Programs. This training both supports my growing nature connection and teaches me how to guide professionally. I am doing the bulk of my practicum work at the Arnold Arboretum. It involves a lot of observation, sketching, mapping, sitting and meandering. It also includes guiding a series of Forest Bathing Walks in collaboration with the Arboretum’s Event Programming. These walks have been well received and attendance has been full. If you have been unable to sign up for a fall walk I encourage you to sign up for one of my spring walks that will begin in March. I have had folks on my walks who have never been to the Arboretum before as well as those who have been regular visitors for years but have never experienced the collections in this way. One study I read showed that Forest Bathing is effective even for those who strongly dislike nature and don’t want to be outside. Studies show that it still works even if one is resistant while doing it. I find this an inspiring concept to sit with as a guide.
“This was the safest and most joyful I have felt in a long time. Tam’s facilitation is confident, kind, grounded in authentic presence. I live with the effects of complex PTSD and often don’t have an easy time relaxing or connecting in group activities. The miraculous support of nature and the skillful guidance of Tam made it so that I was able to be fully present and engage in each activity in a way that felt healing and nourishing to my heart and body.”
As I unpack my Western-conditioning and embrace my relationship with the more than human world, I find I am able to deepen my compassion, empathy and gratitude for not only my fellow humans but also for our waters, our trees, our animals, our bugs, my own self, and all the beings that I never really noticed or connected with before. My name is Tam, and if you feel so inclined, I invite you to hug trees with me.
Forest Therapy Guide