As part of my 6 month long practicum with the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy (ANFT), I have to guide 4 forest baths. Directly after I did the on-site training in Colorado and explored USA, I left for Belgium. I have not been in my country for 8 months, and in some view, even not have really lived there intensively for 4 years. Since the ANFT training I feel slowly that I start to appreciate the land where I am born… again after so many years. In my last blog reflecting about the on-site training in Colorado, I mention already I start to imagine to even work and live there for a long time. Being in Belgium, it emerges more, because I see all the beauty there. It is a bit scary to reorient old dreams and ideas that I prefer to live and settle in more “wilder” places. This blog is about my first week in Belgium, the (re)connection with the land and ancestors, and about the mixed feelings that start to arise since I walk the path of forest therapy guide.
Reconnecting with the apple tree and the land
In the first week I was on the land of my ancestors (read the home my paternal grandfather built) and had the pleasure to sit in the garden, between the apple and pear trees my brother and I planted ourselves some years ago. The first morning I looked at the old tree friends in our paternal family’s wild garden/forest and checked which had died and will be replaced soon by new trees. It had rained, so the smells were nice. I greeted the new tree (the magic tree; as my brother called it) and then went to our small orchard to check the state and study the mushrooms at their feet 🍄 . I took some apples and made an extract for me and my brother (and added some cinnamon.) I gave a bit of the tea back to the apple tree to thank her for providing these fruits. I thought about to bring also some of her fruits to my first forest bath; as apple reminds me to Halloween/Samhain and represents also beauty and self-care, fit for a yoga & hike weekend, but I stepped away from this and choose for something more wild and local.
However, I was a bit disappointed that my brother did not pick most of the pears and apples on time; they were all on the ground and rotting. I had arrived to late to pluck them. Some days later, it was a bit more sunny. I was drinking matcha latte in a chair and observing red admirals eating the fallen pears and apples. Seeing the butterflies enjoying it, let me realize it was not a loss. In nature, there is no waste. The rotten apple taught me a lesson about reframing too: everything changes, nothing perishes.
Connecting with an ancestor and a folk healer
Since 1989 there has been a plaque for Maria Van Loock, better known as ‘Mie Broos’, at the church in Vorselaar, near the place where she is presumably buried. She was famous, and people from worldwide came to consult her in the end of 19th century, early 20th century. Once I heard she is a bit connected to my own family. She was some sort of aunt of the cousin of my grandfather by marriage. Or something like that. I decided to dive into the history of this figure, and my connection with her, in order to learn more and reconnect with the land we share(d).
She was not a doctor, but she learned from the experiences of her parents who were both employed by a doctor. She also learned a lot from a doctor for whom she had to help prepare medicines. Through personal searches she expanded that knowledge even further. She knew better than anyone the healing power of plants and prepared ointments with them. In addition she used “zoete lies”, which is pig’s fat. The ordinary, poor man could always come to her, as she did not ask a bit to none money for her services. In this way she became legendary. From far and wide, even from abroad, people came on foot or by bicycle to Heiken, where Mie lived, driven by the last hope that they had placed on the competence of the healer from Vorselaar. She was also from a time when my region – the Kempen– was very isolated and poor; as the soil was sandy. Before they planted cultural forests for the mine industry early 20th century, she and my ancestors lived in heathland. Heiken also means heathland in a dialect of Flemish.
Some detective work
My father gave me the phone number of my grandfather’s brother. When I heard his voice, I could recognise the same texture and accent my grandfather had, and recalled it has been a long time ago (maybe when I was still a teen) that I had talked with him. He was happy to hear me, but could not really help me. We were not linked by blood, but there were some family connections. My grandfather’s cousin would be her son, or something like that. He gave me instructions to find Maria Broos, which could be some sort of her niece of Mie Broos, and added: “She is retired, has time to talk and loves to talk. So do not be shy to just visit her.” On my way to the library to pick up a book called “Mie Broos – volksgenezeres 1839 – 1927” I called at her door, but did not got answer. Maybe later. In the library, I found – next to the book about Mie Broos- another book written by a man called Tieto Stoops, which is about the “Kempen, its typical habitants, and the skills of their ancestors, its forgotten vegetables and other peculiarities”. The writer is very protective of local environmental knowledge and this book was even more a treasure for me.
Although Mie Broos is not my family by blood, but there are connections, through the land, I consider her as the elder person. Her stories continue to live in the book and are carried by people sharing her name and memories. I learned about the Kempen, the region to which I belong. Finally diving into her history, although I have other work pulling me, was probably encouraged by my forest therapy guide training. Since some time there is this big feeling of pulling me back to Europe, and the training invites me to not ignore it and explore my relationship with the land where my ancestors were born. Studying the local history, makes the “homecoming” more vivid. It helps to heal my own relationship with the land I have a double feeling with since my grandfather’s forestry accident 13,5 years ago…
When you realise Belgium has the same treasurers as Scandinavia (but just less)
This weekend, my friends gave me the space to guide my first forest bath during a yoga and hiking weekend she organised in Coo in Walloon, the French speaking part of Belgium, next to the Amblève. I was a bit nervous, because I had no time for scouting and trail pre-assessment for my forest bath, but I just trusted that the forest will take care of me and the participants. The first day, my friends organised a hike of 16 kilometers/10 miles. I was sometimes the last of the group because I wanted to study rosehip, fly agaric and honeysuckle 😂.
I noticed that this is the forest bather in me that wanted to slow down, but then I tuned in the hiking energy, which was also very cool. I noticed that when I hike I notice even more than normal, like this caterpillar for example. We also rang at the door of old houses and asked for tap water to the people there. It was a good opportunity to beef up my French a bit.
How longer I am in Belgium (and I am only here for 8 days, so maybe I am in this strange kind of honeymoon) I fel more and more in love with the nature of Belgium. There were many occasions I was surprised to notice beings I saw in Norway, USA and Japan, and thought it could only be found in the wild of these countries, and not in “tamed” Belgium. It was a bit confronting… some way, I know I belong to the land here and can contribute to the ecosystems here by dedicating my life to ecopsychology, but there is still a pull to live in a wild country like Norway or Sweden, which is at least closer to Belgium. I am still a bit confused what to do, and I decided to not think about it for the next half year. I will see what happens.
Guiding my first forest bath
On Sunday October 13th I guided my first forest bath. With such a beautiful nature as my partner, I had full confidence in it. 15 young spirits joined me. It was very a learning experience to be in the role of guide, and not of participant, this time, and see how everyone interprets the invitations or how everyone tunes in the forest at different pace.
For this tea ceremony, I decided to pluck some nettle to brew some tea and used yellow maple leaves as decoration. According to Spafinder, “Nettle is rich in calcium, potassium, magnesium, vitamin C (10 times more than an apple), vitamin B complex, vitamin E, amino acids and beta-carotene (five times more than a carrot) to name only a few. It is alkalizing while supporting the immune system, the nervous system, bone stability, the metabolism and skin health. That translates into having more energy, mental acuity, disease resilience and radiant well-being. ”
The biggest reward was to listen (and learn from) the stories of the participants during the tea ceremony, to notice the nature through their senses. None of them have never done a forest bath before, and they thought it would be “more spiritual”, “too hippie”, “too glimmering”. At the end, to me personally, or via another person, or on the evaluation sheet, they told me that they know it’s all about “self-care”, staying in contact with yourself and stillness. I feel very blessed today.