What is Reciprocity?

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We tend to look at nature as a collection of things: plants and trees and fungi appear as objects that can only be acted upon, rather than engaged with. But what happens when we look at them as living beings with teachings to impart to us? In this week’s article, guest writer Tam Willey explains how opening one’s self to a reciprocal relationship with nature can help us grow – and heal.

What is Reciprocity?

If we are part of an animate earth that is constantly inflating or deflating in response to what is being taken or given, should we consider how we engage with it?  If every splash has an infinite ripple effect, then how do we want to splash?

“Attention is the doorway to gratitude, the doorway to wonder, the doorway to reciprocity.” 
-Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants
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I met an Ash tree on my first day of Forest Therapy Guide Certification Training when we were invited to go off into the forest and converse with a tree. Given the limitations of the English language and the personal ways we connect with the land, trying to describe these experiences can be challenging and exposing.  At the same time, sharing our unique stories about what we notice and how we engage with the natural world can support and inspire others on the path towards deeper land connection (or reconnection).  This is a form of reciprocity.

I’ll refer to this tree by the name ‘Ash,’ and I will use ‘they,’ ‘them,’ and ‘their’ pronouns for Ash since we don’t have an animate word for “it” in the English language.  Using inclusive language helps me pay closer attention.  My path towards creating an ongoing practice of land reciprocity started in a human-centric world exploring race, class, gender, privilege, and the various -isms and phobias that perpetuate views of superiority and inferiority.  As I continue to unpack my Western conditioning as a white American of Eastern and Western European descent, I find myself peeling back the layers of human dominance.  By referring to Ash as ‘it,’ I fail to acknowledge that Ash is a living, breathing, animate being.

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“To define another being as an inert or passive object is to deny its ability to actively engage us and to provoke our senses; we thus block our perceptual reciprocity with that being. By linguistically defining the surrounding world as a determinate set of objects, we cut our conscious, speaking selves off from the spontaneous life of our sensing bodies.”​
-David Abram, The Spell of The Sensuous

By acknowledging Ash as an animate being, I am more likely to form a relationship, opening the door for reciprocity and healing for not only humans but also for the trees, waters, and all the beings of the natural world – also known as the more-than-human world.  As a gender variant queer person, using ‘they’ as a singular pronoun has become fairly routine in my community. Adapting, modifying, discerning and reclaiming parts of the English language can be empowering and even fun.  If using inclusive language is a new concept for you, or if you don’t understand what I’m talking about, then I invite you to learn more. Setting the intention for Inclusivity will make the difference between being able to form that relationship or not.  Inclusive Language In Four Easy Steps

Respectfully, I began to introduce myself to Ash in my own quiet way without spoken language. I acknowledged Ash’s place in the forest and looked around, taking in the mushrooms and leaves and dry stream bed nearby. I reached my hand out and explored the woven textures of Ash’s bark, following the pattern with my gaze up into the impossibly high canopy, ablaze in sunlight.  I then looked down and wondered how deep Ash’s roots went below the surface. Were they as deep as Ash was tall?  Was Ash photosynthesizing right in front of my very eyes?

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My thought web led me back up into my thinking brain. As if waking up from a dream, I suddenly remembered where I was. A wave of insecurity washed over me and I found myself asking the question, “Am I doing this right?” I looked around and noticed my fellow Forest Therapy Guide Trainees all engaging with their trees in their own way.  I shook my head, laughing at myself and remembering that there is no exact science to how to converse with a tree.  However, there is a load of research about what happens to our brains and bodies when we spend time being open with trees.  From increased cerebral blood flow to stronger immune defenses, there is plenty of evidence demonstrating how relaxing in nature supports human health.

I stopped critiquing my conversation with Ash and began asking for support in bringing my best self to this training by being an active participant and not hiding in the shadows of self-doubt.  I had been anxious about the training and meeting a group of strangers, an issue that only arises in the human world.  In the forest, no one questions my gender or identity and I am reminded that I am natural and connected to the earth. Part of what drew me to wanting to become a Forest Therapy Guide is to be able to hold space for others who have internalized feelings of being unnatural, separate from, or even wrong.

I stepped back from Ash looking up and down and around, wondering what I could possibly offer and if it would be good enough. I leaned in and exhaled purposefully into the weave of Ash’s bark, offering a few dozen concentrated blasts of my carbon dioxide. I felt my heart rate slow and thanked Ash in my own way until the sound of a crow call told me it was time to say goodbye.

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In an industrialized civilization where consuming is in and conserving is out, living in gratitude and holding ourselves accountable requires hyper-vigilance.  Reciprocity is a path towards healing and an effective coping mechanism in treating stress-related illnesses that result from living in a rapid, industrialized environment.  It can be as simple as picking up a piece of trash. It can be leaving some kind of offering of natural material from your own body or from the forest floor as a way to honor or acknowledge a tree or a place. It can be creating a small structure, like a fairy house or an altar. It can be a form of activism or a regular monetary donation. It can also be a random act that isn’t explainable in words. When we practice reciprocity, we can face our human experience with fewer symptoms of stress, anxiety, boredom, self-hatred, rage, and crisis.  We are less likely to cause harm.  We are less likely to internalize feelings of inferiority, and less likely to act under the illusion of superiority.

Guiding a Forest Therapy Walk is a practice of reciprocity in and of itself.  From start to finish, there are many opportunities to listen, notice, acknowledge, ask, and give. I always ask the land for support before I guide a walk.  I might ask for qualities like self-assurance, clarity, openness and patience. I recently asked an elder Cedar of Lebanon evergreen for support in remembering all the informational details I intended to share with my walk participants. As I asked for this clarity of mind, a small sprig dropped down from high up in the canopy, bouncing off on my head and onto the ground. I picked them up and tucked the little one into the fold of my hat, offering back a personal gesture of gratitude in the form of a bow. During that walk, whenever I found myself nervous or lost, I touched my hat, feeling for the cedar sprig. Later that day, I had a strong urge to pass on this little cedar sprig to another human.  I listened to the message and gave the offering.

“A gift comes to you through no action of your own, free, having moved toward you without your beckoning.  It is not a reward; you cannot earn it, or call it to you, or even deserve it.  And yet it appears.  You only role is to be open-eyed and present.”​
-Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants

Tam is an ANFT Forest Therapy Guide in Practicum and began guiding walks in Fall 2017 at the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain, MA, where she has lived since 1998. She works locally as a self-employed Handy Person and a teacher and custodian at The Eliot School. Tam has extensive experience working with LGBTQ Youth through BAGLY and The Theater Offensive’s True Colors. She also works as the Community Liaison for The Venture Out Project with whom she has guided Forest Therapy Walks and is currently planning a Nature Connection Retreat for May 2018. Tam has firsthand experience of the healing benefits of spending time in nature and strives to make her walks inclusive and accessible.  
For more information about Tam, visit her website: ToadstoolWalks.com