Reading Landscapes, Remembering Local History

Hallo iedereen!

I sent you warm autumn greetings from Flanders. This week I noticed a lot of squirrels collecting beech nuts for winter and I found a lot of fly agarics on the fairytale forest trail in Vorselaar, my current place of rooting. The mushrooms can be probably linked with Shaman Claus, because if you eat them, you will get heavy hallucinations and these mushrooms would be consumed by the shamans who lived in northwestern Europe. Mushrooms are also the cleaners of nature, while squirrels are part of the green service of the forest municipality. Squirrels forget often where they put all the beech nuts, so some nuts can become trees. Some strategies of growth are not always about knowing everything, but also about letting some knowledge/ideas go (or forgetting them), select and eat only the necessary nuts. Autumn is full of lessons about letting go. Perhaps, as someone who collects so many new ideas and stories, autumn (and especially the later period) is my favorite season – and my most important season. Autumn invites us to find a new balance. I need this. In this time of the year in the northern hemisphere, nature invites me to go out, to watch all the autumn colors, which also means I have to let go some “computer work mini-projects”, because there are only 24 hours in a day. It took me a time to write a new blog, because I am trying to close some other small projects. Last year, this was also the period I wrote less (until winter started; then all these creative forces underground are working hard). In this blog I want to share a bit more about the autumn series of retelling of folkstories and forest baths, and why I think this combination of storytelling about the ‘alternative” local history and nature immersions can enhance the shared goals of both practices.

The ecopsychology aspect in forest therapy (ANFT style)

One year, one month and one week ago I started my journey of a FT guide under the wings of the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy (ANFT). Central in this style of forest therapy guiding is nature connection. It is not only about creating space for your participants to get benefits of nature immersions, but also about letting them realise that the forests sees them too, that they love us too. I realise that especially this second vision fits with my own vision to let people be aware that they are part of an ecosystem: of their local ecosystem, but also the bigger ecosystems in which they and their local ecosystem are embedded. Yesterday I read this statement by a fellow ecopsychology stdent: “We cannot be healthy on a sick planet. This is the basic premise of Ecopsychology (…) We need to take care of the wild places in nature and in ourselves.” In previous posts, I mentioned already how I have a double relationship with Flanders. I am born there and have a root, but I cannot relax in Flemish forests easily. Perhaps if there is a bonfire, or a fireplace in one of the few wooden cabins, I might relax as much as I can when I am in Scandinavia or a lodge in the Rockies. Recently I read an interview with Peter Wohlleben, the German forester who wrote the book “the hidden life of trees’. He said he could not relax in German forests, because he sees only work. While being outdoor in the weekend would be a way of relaxation and self-care for fellow Germans, it would be as if he would go to the office in the weekend. If he wants to unplug, he will go to the ancient forests in Scandinavia. I read that and totally understood what he means. I do not know the forests where he works, but I think the forests in Flanders -if you can call them forests at all (my Scandinavian and North-American friends would call it more ‘tiny forests’)- are even more broken and full of scars than the forests where he works. Going to Norwegian woods or mountains in Japan is not about escapism; for people who can read landscapes in more tamed parts of the world -and can see the scars in these landscapes- going to meet a healthy strong forest it an act of self-care, a preventive practice of solastalgia, eco-anxieties and burn-out.

Canoetrip, river: Meuse, just over the French border, end of September 2020
– I try to have always a weekend off-grid in more remote areas.

Broken relationships in Flemish landscapes

In Flanders, many nature based practices are lost and forgotten in a span of 2-3 generations.

One reason could be that Flanders was one of the most industrialised; and nowadays one of the most urbanized regions in the world. We do not have much wild world places left; only “Satoyama”, places which are tamed, but still accommodates a lot of rest-of-nature. Another reason for this loss is the inquisition and the influence of the Catholic Church which forbid plants. A third reason is that Belgium used to be one of the richest places in the world, due to its industrialisation and colonization of DR Congo, and foraging edibles or farm work was considered as “savage”. Even in the world wars, rich people rather wanted to die from hunger than forage some food. Flanders is a story where a lot of practices and “indigenous” wisdom and knowledge got lost in 2-3 generations. In addition; landscape management in 20th century was all about control of nature. Something I actually observed in the 2-3 years I did environmental sustainability research in Japan; so I have double feelings when people talk about Japanese connection with rest of nature. I cannot shame them -and I don’t want too-, because I went with romantic ideas about japan too to the country of the rising sun.

In the past 10-12 years, I traveled in 70 countries; talked with Mexican medicine women, observed Japanese ladies in the mountains collecting herbs and bamboo sprouts, know Norwegian men foraging cloud berries and Thai people sacrificing red Fanta to tree spirits. We do not have these “practices” in Flanders. We have even words like wild camping, wild swimming which are forbidden practices: we do not have a culture of swimming in lakes or camping where we want. I start to realize more that my search and fascination for/romanticisation of these practices in other countries is not only connected to something lost in me; but also something in the ecosystems of Flanders.

When I heard about ANFT’s second mission to repair/improve the culture and connections between humans and the rest of the nature, not only the last stories in me, but also the lost stories of the Flemish land in me started to vibrate. For me, forest bathing is a way to inspire others to be conscious about the connections and what is broken and lost.

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Herfst en heksenweer. Juist terug van het eerste bosbad t.v.v. @roburopdeneik. Voor het bosbad begon, heb ik nog in een kring mijn zelf geschreven verhaal over den heksenboom gedeeld. In dat verhaal heb ik het ook over de relatie tussen dennenbomen in de Kempen en de mijnbouw in Limburg in de vorige eeuw. Ik gaf mijn eigen verklaring waarom den heksenboom den heksenboom wordt genoemd ;). Tijdens het verhaal begonnen de dennen rondom ons ook te bewegen. Ik heb nog #dennennaalden uit mijn haren geplukt. Toen heb ik een korte inleiding over bosbaden gegeven. Ook nog over goede microben gepraat. Mijn nieuwe blog voor Mo* magazine inspireerde me om Bosbaden eens vanuit een andere hoek te vertellen. Altijd dezelfde inleiding geven is na een tijdje ook een beetje saai voor mij. Ik voelde de zon op mijn huid, maar een uur later wandelden we onder een donker wordende lucht over de heide. Precies een scène uit Johan en de Alverman. Enkele regendruppels. Alsof de dennen huilden. De wind blies de regenwolken weg toen ik de theekopjes bij de Achtzalighedenboom klaar zette. Vandaag heb ik de Visbeekvallei beter leren kennen. Volgende keer zal het een ander verhaal zijn. Ik ga nog nadenken hoe ik de verhalen met de rest van de wereld ga delen. Deelnemers vroegen al om het met hen te delen ☺️. Wil je een of meer Bosbaden beleven en de Visbeekvallei beter leren kennen? Je kan je zeker nog inschrijven voor bosbaden op zondag 4, 12, 18 oktober. Via de link in de biografie van dit profiel.

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Local folk stories

Something that fascinates me for long time is the role of stories in environmental sustainability education. And especially folk stories and fairytales. Thanks to another guide in the United Kingdom I know the work by Sara Maitland who retells stories. I also follow the work by Clarissa Pinkola Estes and Sharon Blackie, storytellers who use stories to repair broken ties.I signed up for the winter solstice online retreat (whole day) by Sharon Blackie: Dancing with the dark.

Earlier this year, in Japan I experimented already with combining a forest bath with a story and discussion workshop. I invited feminist activists and other feminists I knew were working on sexual harassment issues on their own way. After the tea ceremony I took on another hat and I let them read at their own pace the rape story of Amaterasu and how the environment is harmed by it. We had a talk of 1-2 hours about sexual harassment and some of them shared very personal stories which unearthed why they were engaged in volunteer and activist work. And the forest watched and listened. Some tears were flowing. I was not sure if I had opened some wounds there. I make clear I am only a guide; but wounds open when you make people conscious about brokenness, traumas and loss. In January I wrote also a blog about grief.

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A winter day in Nagoya is blessed by Amaterasu, the Japanese Shinto sun goddess and a weaver. For the students of the feminist student club of Nagoya University I organised a short forest therapy walk. When the air is kissed by sun, you (almost) forget winter, darkness and cold thoughts. Since 2 years I am attending their meetings and workshops, and learning a lot about sexual harassment and discrimination in this society. An environmental scientist, I see similarities with nature too. Therefore we organised a second 'meeting' after the forest therapy walk. It was first time I combined a forest therapy with a storytelling in the forest, and going directly for a 'heavy topic'. After the tea ceremony we stayed in the forest and read the myth about Amaterasu: how she got raped by a male family member (like many women and men in the world), how she hide under a cave (and then everyone in the more-than-human-world around her suffered), and how it was a female goddess called Uzumi who helped her to heal with some dirty jokes and some dancing moves with her hips. Actually, according to some scholars, Japan's shintoism celebrates diversity of women and men, but it was after buddhism and Confucianism from China got imported in the 6th century, that the idea that 'women are evil and should be controlled' penetrated Japan's spirituality and view. (Reminds me a bit what probably happened to my own region of birth, and how the influence of Romans and Christian Church deteriorated the status of women.) By the way, same about animals. Bears are only 'Kawai' (cute) when they are controlled, but outside their cage they are evil… Just to make sure: Many bears, many women and many men are ok (de meeste beren, vrouwen en mannen deugen, met een knipoog naar het boek van Rutger Bregman). We were women and men from Iran, Mexico, India, China, Japan, Germany and Belgium… and we had stories to weave through Amaterasu's myth. We talked about the fires in Australia, the man who drugged and raped 100 men in UK and other stories we heard or experienced, and how it made us feel and we talked how to stay positive, through bonding, sharing, and giving positive energy to the world.

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This summer, in Belgium, I did more forest baths and followed the ANFT sequence, but since late September I have been guiding a series of walks with a a very long introduction. Inspired by the work of Sara Maitland, Sharon Blackie and other elders, I picked some folkstories from the region, and I retold them. I weaved some ecological history and ideas from ecolinguistics into it.

I do this, because I want to make the oral storytelling and awareness of the histories of the ecosystem bigger part of the experience. Human beings are narrative wired. I have been reading quite some academic work about knowledge transfer in name of sustainability. Perhaps I push a bit too much my own agenda (making people more aware so they engage in conscious choices around ecological sustainability) into it, but I also think that by telling people beforehand there is first a folk story and then a forest bath; I can wear two hats: first as oral storyteller; afterwards as guide.

Anger and frustration

As a story teller, you need to also read about the local history and this with your own observations can lead to some feelings of anger and frustration. The place where I am guiding is not a new place. The Visbeekvallei is 30 minutes by bicycle from my paternal family home. Last year, a friend took me to this place to show me some special trees and I wrote also a blog about this rediscovery of local histories in the Campine: A Gravestone for the Witch tree and church bells: a call for a new world. I remarked that there is a lot of noise (from the highway) in this forest and I pitied the trees who are probably getting stressed by all this noise. It’s typical Flanders landscape planning of the 20th century, I heard later from a forester in Belgium, that we cut our forests in two by building a highway in the middle of it, fragmenting even more the broken forests.

Half year later, I got to know Robur op Den Eik vzw. The aim is to create a space in nature for people with a burnout, artists and for activities to do burn out prevention, using nature based health and art practices. On a networking event I got to know the lady behind this project (and that this was closeby). Their ecological fairytale house (which is still not finished) is in the same forest where I noticed that noise. It’s not only noise of the highway (when the wind direction is different, you do not hear it), but of people. This forest is turned into a big recreational area, so people are building cabins, mountainbiking, yelling, dumping drugs waste (yes, this region is known for its drug laboratories) etc. I have guided a couple of forest baths and have always encountered disturbing ‘noise’ elements. I bring also a plastic bag, because I always find plastics and other litter. I notice that I start to get angry, as if I can feel the angry energy of this place, yelling that there are too many people who take so much from her, but do not return something back.

In Flanders, there are not many old forests where you can find silence. Some forests have a sad past: they are built on former landfills (e.g. Rivierenhof in Deurne) or sad memories happened, or people dump their garbage (e.g. Michottepark in Leuven). As a forest therapy guide I am looking for time to learn more about local histories of places and it breaks my heart. I do not want to only guide in the few ancient forests we have (where also other forest therapy guides go). I feel that more neglected forests need our attention. I also want to guide more in parks, because it is not fair to only offer guides in forests which are accessible by car, but not by public transport. How do you cope with this? How do you select a forest as your partner? What makes/breaks a partnership? These are current questions in my mind.

Places remembers the stories of the humans and other beings who live(d) and died there. If a lot of injustice happens, the place remembers. When you are reading landscapes, it is not always about happiness, rest and princesses and unicorns. You’ll find stories about traumas, healing work that has to be done and trolls and dragons. As a receptive person, the energy of a place or a person influences me. So I have to learn to cope with this and find this balace between acknowledging the injustice and sharing/creating stories of hope. I feel that is the next learning mission when I deepen my spiral path of a forest therapy guide (and storyteller). Perhaps autumn wil give me the invitations to find solutions.