In the end of March 2020, I published my harvest project ‘Becoming the Frog’, some kind of graduation project if you follow the training via ANFT and did a small medicine walk to show I passed a new threshold. ANFT told us that it does not mean the journey ends, and they are so right. After I got my certificate as a forest therapy guide, the whole of Belgium was in lockdown. I could not really practice guided forest baths. But I still kept learning about language, virtuality, the needs we address as a practioner, but also the gaps and needs we have to make this practice more known. Here are some notes of selected learning outcomes, including an invitation for joining a free virtual forest therapy walk (Tuesday April 13th).
What does a forest therapy walk imply?
A Forest Therapy Guide facilitates safe gentle walks, providing instructions — referred to as “invitations” — for sensory opening activities along the way. These walks follow a standard sequence. Each walk begins with establishing embodied contact with the present moment and place. Next comes a series of connective invitations. The walks end with a ceremony of sharing tea made from foraged local plants. This practice integrates indigenous knowledge, shinrin-yoku and other ideas.
Edges about tea plants
Two years ago I only knew about nettle as a great tea plant, but that is where it would stop. During my training, I had to select a tea plant for each month, so I got to know six more in detail. I took more courses and joined some collectives that study plant medicines, and slowly I also became more comfortable in experimenting. Two weeks ago, I made tea from magnolia leaves. I try to not rush this process, but I have improved a lot. Of course, I would not call myself a medical expert and I also think this learning journey will continue until I am a greyhaired or perhaps even bald Elder (and even then), but this learning process makes me more aware of self-care practices that also foster nature connection.
Last year in April I started also a Belgian portal website as a reaction to all the fragmented information about forest bathing and forest therapy in my country of origin in order to make this practice more visible and mobilize more citizens. I started talking online with people, and suddenly since fall I started to also organize and support virtual circles for guides. I am also involved in another NGO creating space for healing through nature connection and organise monthly workshops about belonging and Flemish landscapes through mythic imagination and nature connection: Wortelwijs (in Dutch) and (Re)*Rooting (in English). I write monthly newsletters (in Dutch). The collective is growing, almost exponentially, and the newsletter is getting every week more subscriptions. It became an action research where I keep learning about how to improve the visibility and scientifically ground the importance of this nature practice. At the moment, none of the Flemish guides found a way to make a living of this. For me it’s still a side project, but being a forest therapy guide is becoming also some lifestyle. The following steps are creating some charter or code of conduct between guides where we establish some sustainability principles, as well support more research in Flanders to open more financing opportunities and reach more citizens.
Visit bosbadenvlaanderen.com to learn more (also working on English version)
Virtual and blended forest therapy walks
Past summer and early autumn I could guide again bigger groups, but the past year pushed also for the development of virtual or blended services. I organised a virtual forest therapy walk for children and will tomorrow organise also one. The above mentioned programmes are more blended: the circles are virtually, but between each circle I give participants invitations they have to do on their own outside. In the meantime, I connected with a health psychologist, working on some small project, and learned from her about the need for (more research on) blended methods that promote positive (mental) health – but also about how to engage people in this. First experiments indicate that blended and virtual tools could be effective, but the challenge lies in ‘training’ people how to use it, and ensuring their access to the virtual tools. Even if COVID-19 is ‘controlled’, virtual and blended forest therapy experiences should be further developed, not only for future crises, but also for people who did not have the privilege to experience forest therapy walking (because of disability, cognitive barriers, poverty…). Currently, some people and I are looking into this concept more.
The ‘satoyama’ conflict – ‘there is no room left’
Satoyama is the land where we guide, often where the most interactions between humans and non-humans happen (e.g. forests). During the last year, many people found their way (back) to the satoyama to find solace, or to find meeting grounds for their gatherings. In some way, this is great, because it increases public health, but the sword has two sides. In Belgium, which is already so satoyama-poor, this increased the pressure on the land. More sounds in places which used to be more ‘silent’. More litter. Paths became broader. So, for some people, including me, Belgian forests ‘start losing’ their healing aspect. I am also an environmental scientist and educator, engaging in tentacular thinking (to borrow Donna Harraway’s metaphors) and I was already a bit frustrated before COVID-19 related measures nudged people into the Belgian forests: I feel often sorry for the other beings whose place we colonize. I applaud it (but often in silence) when places become ‘forbidden entrance’ for humans, are returning to the ‘wild world’, but this pushes us, humans, even closer to each other in the satoyama.
Recently I listened to a retelling of an ancient myth about Kali and time, which starts with ‘There is no room left, there is no room left’. The myth explains why we need death, destruction, disease… Some old patterns, structures and relationships have to die. If the borders open again, I plan to migrate soon, to go to a place where there is much more satoyama/person. It means destructing some relationships with places and people, but I feel it is good to ‘commit’ to a place where I can feel more in sync with (my own) nature. I will still contribute to the development of nature based practices in Belgium, but as I will also look into virtual methods, I am sure this can be done from anywhere.
The use of language
A guide we pick our words for designing the invitations as carefully as possible. I am not only a forest therapy guide to offer mental health benefits, but also to restore/improve the relationship with the more-than-human world. During the tea ceremony I will also share some stories from my (then) 1 year journey on the path of the forest therapy guide and also how I feel learning ecolinguistics and being a guide are intertwined learning paths for me.
On Tuesday April 13th-, at 09.30 BST until 11.00 BST (or 10.30 CEST-12.00 CEST), I am giving a shortened virtual forest therapy walk as part of a conference: ICE-5 Ecolinguistics in Action: Tackling real-world issues. More information is available at ice5.org. You can register for free here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/ice-5-shortened-forest-therapy-with-wendy-wuyts-tickets-149892507525. There are only 20 tickets. After this session (and the whole conference), I might write a blog about this.
The importance of the place
As a forest therapy guide, you’ve to be aware of the energy in the landscape were you guide. I am into terrapsychology (cfr. Craig Chalquist): so I feel/know that landscapes can also hold memories and that this memories make the landscape and the forest bath experience. There are biochemical differences in health benefits that a place can give (for example pines will give other smells than a desert), but also the perception and the memories that linger can give another effect or ‘medicine’ to you and your participants.
Currently I am still digging into the memories of the Flemish/Belgian landscapes for ancient stories (in particular women’s myths) that contain archetypes and great metaphors to work with. I am using them in the workshops, because they are great materials for inner and ecological transformations. Without imagination and faith, there cannot be a transformation. I am also following myself workshops by mythologist and ecopsychologist Sharon Blackie, one of my role models. I consider writing a short book which weaves my nature (connection) observations of the past year in Flanders with the old stories that I dug up, highlighting a selection of local landscapes and local non-human beings. reflecting a lot about my Instagram (in English or Dutch): @wereldwoud.