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The Forest Awakens – or starting my journey to become a forest therapy guide

Earlier in September, two weeks before the autumn equinox, I started my 6 month long training to become a certified guide of the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides (ANFT). I traveled to this beautiful rustic lodge at the Grand Lake, Colorado, in the Rockie Mountains where 24 other souls and I would participate in a 8 day long intensive training.

Now we got all a mentor and do a 6 month long on-line practicum. In the next six months I will share some learning experiences and reflections.

Some days later, I found a perfect T-shirt to wear as Forest therapy Padawan

The forest is the therapist.

The guide opens the door. This is one of the first things we learn. We create and sustain safe, meaningful space for participants to explore their relationships with nature, the land and the community. Guides are no teachers or therapists. We do not prescribe or give answers. We do not learn to “fix” people. As a guide we do not judge and say what is wrong or right for someone else. Because we do not know what is best for others. We give space in nature to people to explore, discover, reflect and “fix” things in their own life – if needed. It is about empowerment. A guide is the kind of leader I want to be. I have guided workshops before and created spaces for mostly other young people in Asia and Europe in the past 7 years to learn about different topics , but I feel in the Forest more in my elements, because as a forest therapy guide you work together with the forest. The forest is the partner of the guide and the guide is the partner of the forest.

I have to admit that I am still anxious about being in the forest, for different reasons, but I believe also that my partnership will deepen as a spiral in the next months, years and even decades and that I will trust the forest more and more. I already see I am seeing the “dangers” of the “wild” differently compared with 3-4 weeks ago. The fire is lit. It is up to me to keep it feeding wood.

Forest time

During the 8 day training we experienced also guided forest baths. I have done forest bathing in Japan (eg. Forest Therapy Taking Root and Meeting Japan’s curse spirits during a Forest Bath) but the approach of ANFT focuses much more on ecopsychology. Every time I lost track of time, and the whole training felt like I was 8 days somewhere “between”. The trainers called it tuning into forest time. At the first day of the training I was checking my to-do-lists and social media, but from the moment we started I lost my interest in my to-do-lists and Facebook. I became very present -from the first moment.

We started with a forest bath guided by our lead trainer who is an indigenous woman and powerful story teller from Canada. And I was directly enchanted. I knew I was at the right place. She started the forest bath with acknowledging the ancestors and sharing a bit about the local history so we made sense of the place. This acknowledgement is not present in a Japanese guided forest bath. As I am into environmental justice, local knowledge and environmental history this beginning touched me. Before, people asked me why I did not study the way of the guide in Japan, and I could not give a strong answer, but since that moment I can.

May the Forest be with you

During that first forest bath we got invited to listen to a tree. I was the youngest trainee, and maybe because of that, or maybe because now many young people like Greta Thunberg and Autumn Peltier are standing up (Ecofeminism in 2019) that I decided to sit next to a young tree. And in my head I heard: “good you acknowledge that young beings also have stories to share.

I noticed also how many dead trees were surrounding us. The pine beetle is changing the landscape of the Rockies. I noticed then the drawings these beetles made in the trunk. I recognized a bird.

Often the forest confronted me in almost mystical experiences with some of my inner demons. Or maybe, as I was in forest time and did not occupy my mind with to-do-lists and Facebook likes, I had the time to confront myself. I saw a lot of beard moss, and I know it is a bio-indicator for clean air. I saw it in Norway, and now here, but I did not notice it in Belgium. Of course. My country deals with air pollution.

If I am selfish, I will move to a clean and safe country as Norway, buy a house in the forest and learn to live with the seasons. It calls me a lot, and how longer I stayed in the Rockies how less anxious I became to meet wildlife like bears and coyotes. In contrary, I was almost hoping to spot one and felt a sadness that Belgians do not learn together with other beings as the habitants of Grand Lake.

However I feel I should help making Belgium more “mossbeardy” and rewild it. What I also like about ANFT’s approach is that they do not talk about hazards but about being aware of other beings. A guide tells beforehand how to live and interact with other beings if we would meet them. When the main trainer talked about what to do when we would encounter a black bear, I felt how my thoughts about the forest transformed. It was alchemy! Many people are afraid for the forest, and I realized I also had anxieties and edges, but I started to see the forest as the Force in Star Wars. We are all interconnected, and we can learn so much by opening our senses to the forest or the force around us. We can become more connected with ourselves and the nature around us so we know what to do when – and stay safe.

Call from the Past

Stories can be found in the forest. And stories can be our medicine. At some point I was sitting in a circle with some trainers and other trainees. I heard a sound next to me, and first I was annoyed that someone had not switched off their phone. It was as someone got called. But then I realized the sound came from the dead tree next to me. It was covered with beard moss.

I heard the familiar sound of the wind playing with the dead tree, but this was an eerie sound that I never heard before and made me very nervous. The others noticed how my energy shifted and let me sit somewhere else. I kept an eye on the tree, and felt it could fall, although it was locked in another tree that it was almost impossible that it would hit someone. But some grief overwhelmed me. When I was alone, I cried. Sometimes we need ruptured so new light can enter our hearts, a dear Mexican friend told me after my heart broke again some months ago. And again I felt the healing of a rupture as my tears penetrated my skin. The noise was like a call to the past.

I had to think about my grandfather who died in a forest accident almost 14 years ago. He was the man in my childhood with who I have to thank my closeness to nature. He was my guide in the forest, and when I was ready to learn how to be a guide, the trees took him from me. I knew I was traveling woodwide to learn the lost knowledge from my grandfather and our ancestors. But if he had not died I had not traveled woodwide and collected so many seeds. It is like in the fairytales that Clarissa Pinkola Estes collected in her book “Women Who Run With the Wolves”. The journey of the hero, or the growth of a girl into a woman, starts when the (too) good mother or grandparent dies or leaves. This is how I accepted his death. And when I heard that calling sound of the dead tree, I had to think again about the loss, and also about other beautiful men that left my life.

Medicine wheel

During a breakfast, the main trainer told that indigenous people who traveled over sea navigated with the help of the polar star, but even if it was cloudy they could orient as they could feel where the polar star was. As if a rope connected then with the stars and the land. It reminded me to a cartoon my Mexican friend shared once and I saved, because I also could feel the ropes pulling me back to north/west Europe.

And during the second forest bath, there was twice invitation to follow the direction that felt right. I followed my guts. There were indeed some directions that made me feel bad. And when I was sitting somewhere I realized I might always be drawn to the saw direction. I already knew. I took my compass and saw my intuition was right. I am drawn to the NE, to my home. Later, a trainee let me take a tarot card and I took again the card if the medicine wheel of the compass. A very appropriate card for a woodwide wanderer as me. I know it is time to find back my way to home. I collected most seeds I need for the next phase in my womanhood. It is just waiting if I settle in Belgium or in the Nordic countries, or find a way to combine it.

My first medicine walk

At the last day we had to wander around alone in the nature for a couple of hours. Some days ago I would not have done it. I did not want to go walk alone, but this time I trusted the Forest and my connection with it.

At the end of the six months we have to do a more intense to reflect about the “medicine” we can give to the world and ourselves. I realized again how story telling – and forest therapy guiding – are mine. I could not resist to stop and write down. I wrote mostly in English, but also in Dutch. I am dreaming in two languages, or something between. These words came from my heart:

And the tree pointed me back to look to the north east

There is a path

You will meet your spirit animal

Golden spiderwebs

And I could see the path

There was an awareness there

Over roots

So many references to the wood wide web and weave my stories in it

Different shades of green

A humming bird – is it ?

Many butterflies and moths colored in sunshine

A mouse runs in hurry

Sit on boomstronk

Older Tree invites me to come closer

I miss to be hugged

Beard moss – I miss the touch of his beard

He is the one

He was always the one

A hole

Snake hole

Is it?

There are so many places to go in the soil

Grashalmen in zonneschijn op een rots deden me stoppen

Hier is het

Dennenbomen

Dode dennenbomen

Aspen

I like to be in a cold place

Troebel beeld, boom leek te groeien

I am somewhere between.

En there was again the hummingbird

One meter from me. And I knew.

Aspen and golden threads

How is it that I did not feel the rags?

And I notice the directions they are climbing too

The east, the northern east

Moving stone in the water

Chipmunks

Lying on the rock

I look up and feel safe

Aspen and sunlight

Let go the expectation of the humming bird coming for a third time

He will come, but be late

A shift

Do not stay too long

Something Is coming from the west

A shriek that made me go

Walk fast

And I am on the trail I know

But is it the same trail?

I do not recognize

Suddenly I see new things

Like blue berries

But they aren’t

It reminds me to him

Potatoes

I go closer – but they are mushrooms

Tempting to eat, pluck….

but I should not

Not now, not here

Blueberries, potatoes and beards

It reminds me all to him in the north east

Why did I never see them before?

While I have been so much?

Abundance of rose hips

Pride because I see it

And I keep walking

Cross new spaces

It looks so new and strange

As if I am somewhere else

And I pauze

Moss beds

And pines

The sunlight

Go deeper

But no path

Only a small inham, stop and write

It is ok to write

It is who you are

A new path of grass

Beautiful green

The last sit spot in the shades of two pine trees covered in beard moss

Beard moss spinrag sunlight

The bees smelling the pine

The river

Peace

And I hear the tree

Zoemen

brommen

again

drumcirkel

Is it the same tree of the last days?

Come back soon

It is the same tree.

So far.

It is the heart of the tree

A kiss

Darkness and holes at the pine left from me.

Spiderwebs and the underworld.

My book cover

My business.

Storytelling and forest therapy

My medicine.

On my way to the circle

I paused at the tree

Put my Head on it, on the moss

Felt the beard

I know

And I return

The Hummingbird

I thought for 7 years that the wolf was my spirit animal, although I never did a test and went to a liminal space to confirm it. I had expected a bigger spirit animal. It is not always the case that you see your spirit animal during a medicine walk, I think, but when I started I felt it would come. I just had expected something … bigger. However … when I read about the hummingbird it made sense. I have to read more about the hummingbird, but I will find time in the next 6 months to study it and write a blog about my connection with this animal.

After the 8 day training, I joined other young spirits to the Grand lake. My stay in this place was over, but I knew….

This is just the beginning …

Forest Therapy Taking Root

Our hectic society gives us little or no rest, so we often get overworked and overtired. Since the 21st century, forest therapy has been prescribed as a medicine for city dwellers to deal with stress and other “diseases” of a modern fast-paced society.

Shinrin Yoku

When the Japanese went to forests in the early 1980s, there wasn’t much scientific evidence about the benefits, but the people just felt intuitively that it was good for them.

The term forest bath or “shinrin yoku” was invented in 1982 by the Japanese agency of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, because “the Japanese needed the healing powers of nature”, and it was also part of a campaign to protect the forests.  Since then, more scientific and medical research has been carried out. At first, they thought that the positive effects on sleep and stress came from the fresh air, or perhaps the effect of the colour green, but they found that forests with a high content of phytoncides in particular had very healing powers. Trees produce these oils to repel insects and other enemies, but it has an opposite effect on the human body.

forest walk 3
(c) Wendy Wuyts

Benefits:

  • reduces blood pressure and lowers stress
  • improves cardiovascular and metabolic health
  • is good for depression
  • boosts the immune system, increases anti-cancer protein production
  • improves your concentration and memory
  • even helps you to lose weight

The good news is that even a two-hour forest pool is enough. Not only the Japanese proved that. Recently the British published the same result that two hours/week would significantly increase your mental and physical healthy. In Scotland, doctors can already prescribe you to do a couple of days of retreat. Even the Duchess of Cambridge is since May an ambassador of forest therapy.

Better relationship with yourself and nature

As an environmental engineer with research interests in eco-psychology, I am also happy that forest therapy is taking root. Not only has it so many benefits for humans, but also for society and planet, as trees and forests have an important role, not only in climate change, but also in water balance, avoiding erosion and landslide dangers, and so on. For me, forest therapy helps to restore the relationship between nature and humans, especially city dwellers. Often the relationship comes from one way: we take from nature and dump our waste. We take it too much for granted. The same is also about ourselves. The modern society also let us neglect ourselves. Forest therapy is for me then a way to restore, or improve, the relationship with yourself and nature, which will result in a more healthy and satisfied life.

A Forest bath in Motosu-shi

Last Sunday, with the help of my friends of the Nagoya-located yoga studio Mind.Body.Space I organised a bilingual expedition to one of the certified forest therapy bases in Japan: we brought 20 other participants with us to Motosu-shi. There, a professional guide gave us a scientific and medical introduction on the effect of phytoncides on our hormones and nerves. The consultation consists of two measurements. Our blood pressure and heart rate were measured and they also took a sample of our saliva (amylase).

forest consultation
(c) Joakim Nergaard Todnem

During a forest bath you will detach yourself from the outside world so that you can put all your energy into yourself and open up all your five senses to your immediate surroundings and to the present, so we asked everyone to leave their phones in a space provided by the consultation center. I was the only one who took a camera, partly because some participants were nervous that “they could not take photographs”.

The walk in the woods lasted an hour and a half and I think we only walked a kilometre. We took many breaks. The guide let us touch springs and snake-like plants, or smell pine needles. He pointed out the fluctuations in nature and said that people are especially calmer if they can synchronize their own fluctuations, such as blood pressure, with those of nature. It rained a little, so that the moss and ferns were beautifully green. We also often listened to what nature had to tell us.

forest walk 6
(c) Wendy Wuyts

We concluded with yoga in the open air. The water that seeped from the tree to my bare shoulders and the wind breeze made me feel completely at ease. I was in heaven. Afterwards our stress was again measured; many had booked progress and everyone returned back home with a big smile.

At the facebook page of Mind.Body.Space you can find back a photo album of our first forest therapy activity.

Some guidelines for a good DIY forest bath

    1. Above all, choose “your” forest. Once you’ve found your place, go there often. Build an intimate bond with the place.  Watch carefully how the place changes during the year.
    2. Don’t just go slow, don’t run or jog. Walking, jogging, Nordic walking… may be good for you, but forest bathing is something else. Stroll, focus on nature, sit down with your back leaning against a tree trunk, and observe what you hear, see, smell and feel.
    3. Invest enough time and the right time in forest bath. The absolute minimum duration for a forest bath is ten minutes. Try to have minimum two hours in total every week. A forest bath is at its best at sunrise or sunset.
    4. You shall not peek at your mobile phone. Take only what you need. If your cell phone is part of it, turn off the sound and put it in your pocket. Don’t take pictures.
    5. Don’t think, open up your senses. Breathe in and out slowly and deeply.
    6. Never do what’s uncomfortable.
    7. Celebrate dreaming and fantasizing and don’t hold back.

A note about taking photographs: As you noticed, I took my camera to the forest bath in Motosu, for the reason that other participants wanted memories (and were a bit nervous when they heard to leave their phones behind), and also for own promotional materials. Although I started with the lowest stress levels (which I attribute to the fact that I was trekking and camping in Japan’s biggest national park the week before), I saw an increase in stress after the forest bath. I was maybe the only one who did not progress. I was not immersed enough, as I was trying to capture the beauty of it, instead of getting captured.

This blog uses translated and adapted excerpts of my original (Flemish) article for Mo* magazine and will also be featured in the Japanese pocket magazine Find Yourself.

 

 

 

Continue reading Forest Therapy Taking Root

Sacred “Garden” trees of Norway and Sweden

When I was doing research about trees in Norway I found this interesting paper by Douglas Fore Holmes about “sacred trees of Norway and Sweden: a friliftsliv quest” and was of course immediately intrigued. His abstract was very promising:

What began as a curiosity about the traditions and folklore related to trees planted in the center of many farms in Norway, “Tuntre“, and Sweden, “Vårdträd“, led me to a recognition of a tradition that can still be observed in the cultural landscape today. The tradition can be traced as far back as the Viking period, and directly linked to the mythology of the World Tree, Yggdrasil. I have been studying these traditions as they relate to the field of environmental education as an example of mythopoetic stories and folklore that influence moral and ethical regard for nature.

Screen Shot 2019-05-18 at 8.40.06

As I am not a native speaker, and the author is, it does not make sense to rephrase him, so I copy pasted some interesting paragraphs and comment at it:

A special tradition that is shared by many Scandinavians is the planting or the knowing of a special tree in Swedish called a „Vårdträd‟, and in Norwegian a „Tuntre‟; a sacred tree planted in the center of the yard on a family farm that reflects an intimacy with place. The caring for the tree demonstrates respect for ancestors‟ spirits that were/are believed to reside in the tree, and is a moral reminder of caring for the farm or place where one lives. One Norwegian told me that the „tuntre‟ provided a direct connection with the nature spirits that lived underground at his farm.

According to this paper, not many Scandinavians are aware. However, during my stays in Norway, my friend shared stories he heard from farmers who are visited by the “underground people”. I can imagine that in such a forested country where there are places you do not meet anyone but shadows you start to believe in spirits.

Screen Shot 2019-05-18 at 8.43.02
A view from a window was very mesmerizing. We stayed in a cabin in a very remote forest in Norway, which was also called “troll forest” 

Even until the late 19th century, these trees are so holy that no one dares to break or cut so much as a leaf; and to injure or damage them results in misfortune and illness. A long held belief-system tells us that earth spirits and guardian spirits resided in these trees.

For me it is so interesting to hear similar stories in Thailand, like for example about banana tree spirits and the red fanta offerings to tree spirits, and Japan with its mischievous tree trolls , while these cultures were so far from Scandinavia. It seems that many cultures share some roots 😉

The World Tree

The original sources of the „tuntre‟ or „vårdträd‟, appear to have been the holy groves where pagans worshiped to the Norse gods. Saplings from the groves were transplanted to the center of the village or the farm and grew into „boträd‟ on the grave of the original farmer.

This practice can also be connected with Yggdrasil, the ash tree in the old Norwegian mythology. In one of my previous posts I wrote about it: Norwegian Easter: time for ash and crime

Lonely deciduous trees

Deciduous trees are generally planted as the „tuntre‟ or „vårdträd‟, possibly to reflect the cycles of the seasons and of life and death and the return of life in the spring. Long-lived deciduous trees like oak, ash, linden, maple, and elm are common varieties used, while birch and mountain ash replace the more southerly varieties as one gains elevation or latitude.

Actually, next month my Norwegian friend and I will visit Hokkaido, the deep north of Japan, and I am also reading about the phenomenon of lonely trees along the famous Patchwork Road, and how full buses of Japanese tourists stop to take photographs of these lonely trees, often in the middle of the trees. And they are also populars and oaks. Next month I will for sure write about these lonely trees and why they can feel so sacred, for Japanese, for Norwegians, or even for an urbanized Belgian as me.

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Sneak peak of an instagram post next month for my account @wereldwoude-verhalen (only in Dutch/Flemish). 

Environmental education and knowledge

Lastly, the author of this paper , the author wanted to answer questions like:

  • How does the mythology and folklore of a culture influence their perception of place?
  • How does ecological knowledge of a landscape compare with „kjennskap‟, or what is sacred in a landscape?

Kjennskap refers to the “the more intimate ways of knowing that require time, experience, and generational wisdom – „kjennskap‟, that different way of knowing compared with factual knowledge – „kunnskap‟.” He describes the wood carver’s way of knowing. I imagine my friend who is now spending time in pottery and how it will take her years of training and practice to make a bowl. Also in Japan, they really admire craftsmen, and sometimes I wished I had more time to dedicate myself, discipline myself, to become a master in a craft like woodcarving or woodblock printing. It have a lot of admiration too for this kind of knowledge, more than for academic or so called scientific knowledge.

Screen Shot 2019-05-18 at 8.45.59

Knowing your home through its Trees

In this paper, the author also refers to the importance of knowing your home. He believes if people attach more to the environmental knowledge about home, and the knowledge of plants that ripen during different seasons providing a steady source of food, or the location of secret water, or where the wind brings cooling in very hot summers, … that we can be more resilient for the societal and environmental changes. In Japan, I visit and study the country side, and how the depopulation also leads to loss of local/tacit knowledge. Newcomers with post-materials values try to unearth this tacit knowledge, but first they have to gain the trust of the elderly who stayed behind.

As scientists we can propose solutions, but through my own experience in transdisciplinary research -where academic and non-academic people co-design research and co-produce knowledge and solutions- I value a lot the knowledge that locals have about their “home”. I can also agree with the author that being aware for sacred or guardian trees can connect people to the knowledge and signatures written in the nature, and can inspire them to take care of them and the environmental surroundings.

Therefore I like to share a Norwegian poem by Tarjei Vesaas.  

 

What is Home?

Talk of what Home is – snow and fir forest is Home.

From the first moment they are ours. 

Before anyone has told us that it is snow and fir forests.

They have a place in us, and since then they are there,

always, always. Come home. Go in there bending branches –

Go on till you know what it means to belong.

As an environmental educator I think about to design a semester project to students to identify a guardian or holy tree in their home, and dig in the history behind it. We can learn so much about our homes through the history of the nearby trees.