My first #Virtual Forest Therapy Walk was in San Diego, New York, Denver, Toronto and in Belgium – at the same time

In times of corona, I get to know the garden and forest surrounding my family homes better. I needed also time for myself to heal some inner wounds, but from the middle of April I started to miss the community bonding and tending that guided forest therapy walks can offer. These circles, these moments of sharing… is something you cannot experience when you walk alone in the forest or relax at a sitting spot. I knew several guides of the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy (ANFT) are offering virtual forest therapy walks during this time when most of us have been ordered to shelter-in-place. Let me share my first experience with a guided virtual forest therapy walk.

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From the world wide web to the wood wide web

Nature is all around us (and inside of us). However, what was more edgy, was the use of wifi. An issue was that I do not have a phone. I have something that used to be a phone some years ago, but I deactivated the phone number. I can use it for Whats app, messenger, zoom and all these apps, but only if I have wifi. When my brother explained me that our wifi had an extension and I could go deeper in the forest, it was time to try out. A friend from my forest therapy community encouraged me after she told me she had participated to two and considers to also guide some. So we went to the website of ANFT and selected the walk offered by Deborah, based in San Diego. Which day wasn’t better than 22 April= Earth Day (although we all know that every day is Earth Day ;))?

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So yes, on Wednesday April 22nd, I was reading the rules that could contribute to a better virtual forest therapy walk:

  1. At the time of the walk, please make sure your phone battery is charged and that you have good internet reception.
  2. Bring perhaps an extra battery recharger.
  3. Please practice Group Etiquette by keeping your phone on mute unless invited to share. If you do this walk with zoom: In the bottom left corner of your screen, there is a little microphone. Click on it to mute or unmute yourself.
  4. I muted also my whatsapp and other apps that would send me notifications, even if I am using the zoom video conferencing app.

Forest bathing in a garden

I am a privileged and blessed young white woman with access to a big garden. Nobody else of my family was home, so I would not be interrupted. You can do virtual forest therapy walks in your backyard. If you don’t have access to a green area, Deborah wrote that standing near a home plant or looking at a vista of trees through your window or balcony was also good. Scientific evidence exist (already for decennia) that even looking at photographs of nature or having a green view has a profound effect on your body’s healing capability. Deborah shared also her view, so if you do not have even a nice window, you could look at the scenery in San Diego she was walking in. So, I heard sounds and saw also the beings of a place I never have been, and that was something unique and new.

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Globally connected, locally rooted

And not only San Diego. There were two participants from New York. One was walking with a mouth mask in a park. One was from Toronto and also a friend from Denver joined. So there were six of us. We were all standing in our own familiar environment, but we shared experiences and stories that were so recognisable and could happen in any forest, any garden, any balcony. At some point, Deborah invites us to connect with the wind, and we were reminded and reminded each other that not only the internet, but also the wind brought us together.

However, I had to think about warnings about wildfire in my region. It has not rained for a long time, so all the pine trees and heath land are as dry as cork. The current wind from the east can ignite some fire, so I thought about the current drought in Belgium and that made me a bit worried. Indeed, after I returned, I read that one of the eldest and biggest nature reserves got hit by a big fire. In a country with not so much nature, this news hit. My dad loves this nature reserve and had made plans to visit it after the lock down, but the fire brought so much damage that it will take years for the nature to restore. One of the other participants also felt sad, as she could hear how the wind carries all the sad stories of the victims of the virus. Not only the lungs of many citizens are burning, but also the lungs of the earth… and the wind reminds us.

New experiences and insights

Although I have taken more time to explore the nature in my surroundings, I have not zoomed in on specific beings. Five years ago, my brother and I planted some fruit trees. Last harvest was so abundant we could not process it all. I arrived too late, but I observed how the butterflies and other beings enjoyed from the fallen fruits on the ground. And now, a half year later, I saw the bees traveling from one flower to another, and I thought… perhaps, even if we cannot enjoy all the fruits ourselves, we should plant more fruit trees, to help the bees and other beings.

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In Belgium, there is also a movement called #ByeByeGrass, calling to rewild the garden and make big wild flower paradises, and I also thought it would be ok to just work in the little greenhouse and just let everything else in the garden grow. Less work for us, if we just focus our effort on the greenhouse.

A third exploration was the skin of the old willow. Yes, I call it skin. I saw there were lines in it’s bark, like scars. I touched them. They were like puzzle pieces knit to each other. I knew this willow had experienced a lot, like other hard working people in this once not so fertile and isolated region.

This willow belongs to my paternal family’s land. Every time I live here, I feel most connected to this willow. Last winter the men in my family had to have the dead and dying pines cut down so we can plant a native forest next winter. I’m still glad the willow stayed. What a persistent lady! Last year I also read in the book “around the world in 80 trees” (by an Englishman) that Belgians and willows have a connection, like Scots with the rowan, Londoners with the plane tree and people in the north with the birch. Willows and Belgians, the author wrote, are both equally stubborn haha. Or persistent 😉.

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I wrote earlier about the sacred garden trees in Norway and Sweden. I also believe that such practices share some roots with almost forgotten practices in the Flemish countryside. I also feel this is our garden tree, our protector. Flemish people share quite some practices with other ‘cultures’. Even this week, I saw on the Instagram account of a Swedish forest therapy guide a photograph of a ritual of passage that also existed in this region. We also had a tree where toddlers (or actually their parents) would leave their soother dummies. Now we all live isolated again, but deep underground we share the same roots. The wind knows.

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Lastly, I have to admit it was a bit difficult to find a balance between checking your wifi connection (I should have tested before how far I can go) and noticing the nature inside and around me, but toward the end I relaxed more and just stayed closer to the house. There was enough to sense there.

So yes, even in a virtual forest therapy walk I found grounding in my own garden and some inspiration to write, but mostly important I got reminded that we are all connected, even if a virus forces us to isolate and slow down.

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Wanna take a virtual forest therapy walk? Visit this page of ANFT: