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.
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.
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.
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.