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?
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.
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.
5AM seems to be my rising time lately. As my brain and heart are so full, I feel the urgency to rise and start my day before I can fully open my eyes.
Yesterday was the winter solstice and I watched the sunrise on top of Bussey Hill in the Arnold Arboretum with a new/old soul whom I met in November. It was one of those feelings you get when you meet someone and you are pretty sure you have known them for lifetimes and there is almost an instant ease. We connected over white pine tea and Tarot and discovered that we both tend the same land and foster relationships to the local trees and natural areas. We realized that we have practically been walking in circles around each other in our favorite meandering spots in the Arboretum talking to Eastern Hemlock, Norway Spruce, and the wide variety of conifers that live right here in our community. She invited me to join her in welcoming back the light by watching the sunrise and introducing me to meet a Birch Tree that she has been hangin with. I was delighted. She invited another friend too that I know from around town and the three of us met on top of the hill. The sky was clear as the golden sun came up and out came all the little last minute ritual items from everyone’s pockets. We did some formal letting go and bringing in in our own way. We wrote things, burned things, infused things, drank things, said things and did our nature connection thing in our own ways that we do and talked about our various inspirations and practices. It was very cold but we were filled with light until our extremities were too numb to linger and we ceremoniously descended the hill and went our own ways.
Later that day I went to a birthday/solstice party for someone who was turning 91 whom I met on my first Forest Bathing Practicum Walk this past September. She tromped around with me and nine others on a full three hour long walk on a cool misty morning. She brought and offered so much life and wisdom and soaked up the experience like a sponge. We’ve kept in touch ever since and now we share a small meditation circle.
At her birthday/solstice party, I met some other friends of hers. One of whom I learned went to the same elementary school as her in Holland in the 30’s. She shared with me that she had survived the Holocaust and had been through the camps and lost her family. This was the first time that I have met a Holocaust Survivor. I thanked her for sharing this information with me. She was very open about her story, saying that she makes a big effort to educate kids in school about what she went through. I acknowledged the importance of that. Meeting this woman yesterday on the winter solstice was timely and profound in many personal ways. And I know this was just the beginning of another new relationship.
Last year at this time I was putting out some heavy intentions. There had been a build-up of pressure inside myself that brought an urgency to pursue some things that scared me. I then learned that astrologically I was right on time in making a big change in my life and that I am in the midst of my “midlife transits.” So I have been harnessing this momentum towards deeper connection and leaning into the natural world while finding ways to hold space for others to do this too.
This practice has sustained me through my own share of challenges and painful experiences this past year. But I don’t wish 2017 away. No. I have learned so much and gained new perspectives. I was able to cope with the pleasures and agonies that come with the human experience without adding too much extra drama or story lines to events that are traumatic in nature and need no embellishments.
This willingness to face life on life’s terms with tenderness has enabled me to form deeper relationships with humans of all kind and with the more-than-human world. In essence, I feel like I have metaphorically crawled out from under a rock this year and as I step out of the shadows I will always love and appreciate the rock. As I welcome back the light, I am filled with gratitude for the companions of yesterday’s solstice.
Did you know that spending time connecting with nature has been medically and scientifically proven to treat stress-related illnesses? From increased cerebral blood flow to stronger immune defenses, there is loads of research about what happens when we relax, unplug and open our senses to the natural world.
Toadstool Walks is teaming up with The Venture Out Project for a long weekend of Relaxation, Restoration, Rejuvenation, Reconnection on 40 acres of land not far from the Columbia River Gorge in Washington. This is for folks looking for some downtime in a Natural setting in Queer Community. Whether you love the outdoors and are looking for a different way to engage with nature or are simply looking to unwind and connect.
There will be a series of structured daily offerings to support deepening our relationship with nature, each other and with ourselves. All offerings are optional. This is a time to recharge and recollect whether that means unplugging for a bit, sleeping, relaxing in the hot tub, journaling, storytelling, or just being, this retreat is intended to hold space for that.
ALL INCLUSIVE PRICE!
Sign up before February 1st, 2018 and save $50!
Thats $375 if you sign up before February 1st, 2018. $425 after that.
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
Sunday, October 29th 1:00pm-3:00pm
Specific Location and Details will be emailed upon Registration
Did you know that spending time connecting with nature has been medically and scientifically proven to treat stress-related illnesses? Start experiencing the healing medicine of Shinrin-Yoku as we connect with Cone Bearing Trees. Slow down, unplug, relax, and soak in the fresh coniferous wonder on this Guided Forest Therapy Walk.
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