Last summer around this time, I had just finished my Forest Therapy Guide Training Intensive and as I began my practicum, I was spending lots of time at my sit spot, which is a natural place that I chose to visit regularly at the Arnold Arboretum. During this time I would observe the more-than-human world, noticing all kinds of dramas unfolding that I could only vaguely begin to understand as I sat by a particular tree next to a marsh.
My relationship with this spot inspired me to learn about bird language and I have finally got around to begin reading “What The Robin Knows” by Jon Young. In the introduction, Jon writes:
“As awareness grows, appreciation grows too. As appreciation grows, so does empathy.”
Join me in raising our collective awareness on a Forest Bathing Walk:
The average American spends 93% of their life indoors.
When I read statistics like this, I wonder what and who is being considered as an “average” American. I think about choice and privilege and I consider those among us who are confined to prisons, detention centers, hospitals, schools and homes and all our various institutions and industrial complexes. I think about those among us who will not be permitted to go outside for the remainder of their natural lives. I go through the complex reasons why those of us who have the choice to spend more time outside don’t, and I consider the factors that keep us inside.
I write this during a heat wave in Boston and as I listen to the hum of nearby air conditioning units, I imagine all the air conditioning units on my street, in my neighborhood, in this city, country and globally.
My mind then goes to the cooling refuge of a shady tree and I imagine a light breeze on my skin. I imagine the sound of bird song and the cacophony of the natural world. I imagine dragonflies and butterflies and lush green offering fractal light patterns and a sense of calm. I imagine the Earth dreaming through me and dreaming through this tree that I sit with. As my mind stops thinking, I begin to embody the most basic level of aliveness.
Join me under a shady tree next week.
In Boston, there is a chain of parkways and waterways that connect many of the “jeweled” green spaces and gardens called The Emerald Necklace (ENC). From Franklin Park and the Arnold Arboretum to Jamaica Pond and Olmsted Park, along the Riverway to the Fens in Back Bay, this corridor makes it possible to bike or walk from parts of Jamaica Plain, Dorchester and Roxbury all the way to the Public Garden and Boston Common all the while in green and forested settings. I make a point of taking the long way into town whenever possible so I can meander my way along the muddy river and continue the ancient conversations with the more-than-human world which I find helps me cope with the more human-centric elements of “downtown”.
This past winter I was walking along the ENC when I found myself particularly struck by a grove of trees on the corner of Brookline Ave and the Riverway.
To give a bit of context, this area is home to many world renowned medical research facilities and institutions. Places like Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Brigham and Women’s, Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School put this area on the map as a destination for life saving cutting edge medical technology. This is a place where many lives have begun, ended, or been profoundly altered in various ways. Right on this very corner once stood Mass Mental Hospital which was once home/prison to many of Boston’s misunderstood castaways.
I was alerted by a grove of trees on this corner. There was something about the way their branches twisted and reached that caught my attention. The feeling was swirly and feral. It was impossible for me not to pause at these trees. They were loud. I looked up at the trees as if to say “What is it?!” I turned around to try and take in what they have been witnessing for many decades when it occurred to me that these trees have been rooted right here while all these hospital buildings and roads have been built, torn down, rebuilt and so on. I looked down at the roots and the soil and I imagined the interconnections of these trees and this medical industrial complex. My imaginal sense was tuning into decades worth of stories being released from these hospitals the same way that trees release chemicals. I pictured the higher branches reaching upward as if to absorb lost energy that couldn’t find its way back down into the Earth.
I’ve since formed a relationship with this grove of what I call “witness trees” and whenever I am passing thru, I always stop to pay my respects to this sacred little piece of land tucked along this strip of medical industry.
The trees along The Emerald Necklace tell many stories. They move so much slower than the human world. They not only offer a greener way to travel through the city, but they also purify the air and are home to many migrating birds. There is much to explore along the Emerald Necklace.
Join me on June 9th at Olmsted Park in witnessing the “witness trees” of The Emerald Necklace.
This walk is free and sponsored by The Emerald Necklace Conservancy.
Space is limited.
REGISTER HERE: https://www.emeraldnecklace.org/event/forest-bathing/
Every May, visitors flock to the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts to breathe in the fragrant lilac collection and witness the array of color. This flower has a history of medicinal use and if you have ever spent time inhaling this sweet fragrance you may have noticed a sense of calm and relaxation. Spending time connecting with nature has been scientifically proven to treat stress-related illnesses and lilacs are considered potent medicine when it comes to symptoms of anxiety. May can be a time of unwinding as we transition into a new season under a warmer and brighter sun. Whether you’ve been visiting the lilac collection for years or have yet to experience them, I invite you to unplug, de-stress and recharge on a Guided Lilac Therapy Walk.
This is a two hour therapeutic experience that combines wandering, sitting, and resting. We will cover no more than a mile, leisurely meandering through the collection as I guide us through a sequence of gentle sensory-opening invitations that welcome us to notice more of our surroundings.
Experience the healing power of the Lilacs!
With the transition into spring comes lots of options for going on a Toadstool Forest Bathing Walk. With warming temps and plentiful rain, there is so much in motion in our local forested areas. Join me in slowing down to experience the buds, the birds and the unfurling prehistoric greenery during this miraculous time of new and reawakening life.
I have three walks coming up this week on Thursday April 5th, Saturday April 7th and Sunday April 8th.
Info & Registration
Announcing a new series of Forest Bathing Walks
at Moose Hill in Sharon, Massachusetts!
Discover Mass Audubon’s oldest wildlife sanctuary in a whole new way on this slow-paced guided therapeutic combination of leisurely walking, sitting, and observation.
This is a chance to unplug, slow down, and de-stress
through a series of gentle sensory-opening invitations that welcome us to deepen our connection with nature.
Interested in a Private or Individual Walk?
Share Toadstool Walks April Newsletter with your friends, family, coworkers, team, students and teachers.
Where this Idea Was Born
Tam Willey and Everett Marshall, members of ANFT Cohort 15, joined together to promote the idea of a simultaneous Forest Bathing Day as the focus of their Harvest Project, one of the final requirements of their six-month training practicum. During the practicum, Tam and Everett sought each other’s support for many aspects of their training. The idea for Forest Bathing Day developed from the shared experience they had after jointly approaching a part of the training known as a “Medicine Walk.”
I clicked off my headlamp and sat against a familiar smoke tree, sipping coffee from my travel mug. It was cold enough to see my breath. I wondered if I had packed enough supplies to spend this entire day outside. I collected some leaves and arranged them in a small circle, creating a threshold to mark the spot for where I would step in, crossing into the spirit world.I would travel by foot throughout the day, actively avoiding encounters with other humans. Tuning into my natural surroundings, I would allow my senses to guide me based on whatever information and signals they picked up. I would not keep track of time, and my phone would remain off in my backpack. I would follow the direction of the red-tailed hawk in flight and take note of pointing leaves. I would talk with and listen to trees, and respond to the gifts I’d receive along the way. I’d reciprocate their gifts in the ways I wrote about here. I would fast with the intention to keep my mind and body clear and open while in the spirit world. This ancient practice of leaving our daily routine and setting off for a day of unplanned meandering has been practiced by most cultures throughout history.
I took my last sip of coffee just as the sky was beginning to brighten. It was time to begin. As I prepared to cross my threshold, I thought of my fellow Forest Therapy Guide Trainee, Everett. He too would be crossing into the spirit world any moment now. Even though he would be roughly five hundred miles south of where I would be, I felt comfort in knowing that he too would be moving across the land on his own Medicine Walk.
When Tam suggested that we plan our Medicine Walks for the same day, the idea immediately resonated with me. Even though the walks are solitary experiences, I felt the same way that Tam did. Just the idea of sharing the journey with someone felt comforting. I knew we were separated by a great distance, but as I crossed my threshold at sunrise, I didn’t feel alone. I knew that Tam was thinking of me, just as I was thinking of her.During the day, however, I experienced something that went beyond just the comfort of knowing – intellectually – that I wasn’t the only person out wandering through the woods on a walk in the spirit world. There were moments when my energy began to wane or when my attention to being present on the land faltered. In those moments, there was always something that came to my aid. Once, it was a pristine hawk feather lying on my path, almost as if it had been placed there on purpose. Another time, it was a rising breeze that made the trees around me dance. And on several occasions, I believe it was a mental “push” that I got from thinking about Tam. I don’t know for certain the mechanism that created those bursts of energy or focus, but I do know that Tam’s presence was there, and that I was thankful for it.
When we returned to our thresholds at sunset, we reflected on our experiences on the land and our thoughts of each other. As planned, we texted that evening just to let each other know that we had returned safely from the spirit world. Later on, when we were able to have a phone call and share a bit about our Medicine Walks, we both acknowledged moments where we became aware of each other’s presence on the land. Whatever the explanation, this experience had a profound impact on us.
The Power Of Connection, No Matter the Distance
There is no question that our individual time spent on the land during our Medicine Walks was, for both of us, a transformational experience. We each carried an intention with us as we crossed our thresholds to begin the walk, and during the cycle of wandering and sitting that we repeated from sunrise to sunset, we had direct experience with all sorts of beings. Trees, birds, animals, plants, rocks, wind, and everything else that we physically encountered all served as signs which helped to tell us a story. Interspersed through those immediate and visible signs was something else, something intangible yet impactful. It was the moments when we felt connected to each other across hundreds of miles, and the contribution that those moments made to the story of our walks.
How did those connections from afar happen? Humans are still making progress in revealing these mysteries. Each day, scientists uncover new explanations for phenomena that had previously been mysterious. There are stories about mothers having visceral reactions from afar when their children were in trouble. There are stories of twins aligning with each other’s thoughts and feelings. There are those moments in life when we are thinking about someone and we reach for our phone to call them, only to discover that our phone is ringing as they call us. As fields like quantum physics, neuroscience, and psychology converge, we learn more about these phenomena and how they relate to our functioning as human beings and our relationships with one another – even when separated by great distances.
In his book Entangled Minds, Dean Radin makes the following observation: “One of the most surprising discoveries of modern physics is that objects aren’t as separate as they may seem. When you drill down into the core of even the most solid-looking material, separateness dissolves. All that remains, like the smile of the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland, are relationships extending curiously throughout space and time.”
And what of the other beings that inhabit the more-than-human world? What part do they play in the mysterious realm of quantum dynamics? We may not fully know (yet!), but through the work of people like Peter Wohlleben, author of The Hidden Life of Trees, we are also increasing our knowledge of the most ancient living beings on the planet. We are still discovering the nature of the interactions that exist between these ancient beings and examining their sentience with new eyes. Their lives, experiences, and personalities unfold on a scale of time that is far different from our own, but which can all be felt when we open ourselves to a relationship with them. They also have shown the ability to communicate across great distances; perhaps we will discover one day that their connections are not only made through physical means.
While Radin’s observation and Wohlleben’s work may have not yet been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, they provide an interesting context for reflecting on how we are all interconnected, and the idea that distance might not be the barrier that many think it to be. It certainly describes many experiences we have with friends and family who are far away; with the beings we encounter in the more-than-human world, and the energy they give us even when we are not in their immediate presence; and with the incredible day of discovery that we shared wandering the forests on our Medicine Walks.
Forest Bathing Day
We, Tam and Everett, are now part of an international community of Forest Therapy Guides all trained through The Association of Nature Therapy Guides and Programs. There are hundreds of us, and collectively we are guiding Forest Therapy Walks year round. Sometimes multiple walks happen on the same day and even at the same time. Across the globe we are sharing the medicine of the forest with those who seek it, and with each other. We also foster partnerships with various land managers and organizations. When we consider the many layers of far-reaching connections that are happening, we are moved by the amount of healing that is being made possible for humans, trees, waters, and all the beings of the natural world. This motivates us to work towards further strengthening our interconnectedness.
As guides, we are on a constant journey to find and share our medicine, the “secret song” that we share with those who join our walks, the communities we belong to, and the more-than-human world that we nurture. ANFT teaches us that “all medicine is relational…Only through relationships with others can we experience and express our medicine. Each relationship we are in is an opportunity to explore what it is we carry. Our relationships call out to each other’s medicines.”
Join us for a day when distance dissolves, when we connect with our fellow guides in an intentional, connected walk experience. Imagine the medicines that we may uncover!
Tam Willey and Everett Marshall are ANFT Certified Forest Therapy Guides. They trained in Massachusetts in 2017 and recently completed their practicum in January 2018. They created this Forest Bathing Day as a collaborative Harvest Project inspired by their tandem Medicine Walks.
Tam guides walks at the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain, MA where she has lived since 1998. For more information about Tam, visit her website: ToadstoolWalks.com
Everett guides walks in the Chesapeake Bay and lives in Annapolis, MD. For more information about Everett visit his website at: www.ForestTLC.com
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?
-Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants
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.
-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?
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.
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.
-Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants
For more information about Tam, visit her website: ToadstoolWalks.com