In the past weeks I am studying forest therapy and ecolinguistics, as part of my journey these days which I can call the Way of the Guide, but also to see if the Flemish circular economy fiction book I am writing is not reproducing the hierarchical system that is letting some people exploit other beings (including other humans).
We can share knowledge, but as long people believe some stories are fixed (like that people are selfish and greedy) this knowledge will not turn into action. Therefore it is important to think about the impact of the (hidden) stories we create and share.
One example is to acknowledge the more-than-human-world and recognize that we, as most humans, can witness, but that we can also be witnessed, not only by humans but also by other beings. Instead of writing “she passes a tree” I wrote “the tree saw her walking”. Did you see what I did there? I changed the interaction between the she-character and a tree and made the tree more “alive”, which it is. But often in stories trees and other beings are depicted as “dead materials” or “objects”.
During the forest therapy guide training I heard the guides/ trainers also use sentences like “the forest sees you”. I think it powerful and that it feels very true. It fueled my confidence to even use these kind of “descriptions” more in the stories I write.
Although I am not Latina and do not have magical realism running through my veins, I also decided to introduce a doll as a character that communicates and influences the thinking and behavior of my main character.
Writing this down, I wonder if Latin-American magical realists are already better ecolinguists than so called “western” writers. Feel invited to share your ideas and stories 😉
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.
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 peopleto 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.
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.
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
And I could see the path
There was an awareness there
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
There are so many places to go in the soil
Grashalmen in zonneschijn op een rots deden me stoppen
Hier is het
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
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
Do not stay too long
Something Is coming from the west
A shriek that made me go
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
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
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
The last sit spot in the shades of two pine trees covered in beard moss
Beard moss spinrag sunlight
The bees smelling the pine
And I hear the tree
Is it the same tree of the last days?
Come back soon
It is the same tree.
It is the heart of the tree
Darkness and holes at the pine left from me.
Spiderwebs and the underworld.
My book cover
Storytelling and forest therapy
On my way to the circle
I paused at the tree
Put my Head on it, on the moss
Felt the beard
And I return
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….
Stories are the secret reservoir of values: change the stories that individuals or nations live by and you change the individuals and nations themselves (Ben Okri).
A friend recommended me the free on-line course Ecolinguistics, which you can access here: http://storiesweliveby.org.uk – and I totally love it. As someone who studied storytelling and environment, and thinks about language often (I come from Belgium which has three official language and work in a multilingual team in quite monolingual Japan) , this course helped me to understand even more how storytelling can be a tool to bring change.
As the website describes, this course tells …
how the everyday language used in society encodes particular ways of seeing the world: the stories we live by. It defines ecolinguistics in terms of these stories, as an active form of research that aims to reveal the stories we live by, question them from an ecological perspective, and contribute to the search for new stories to live by.
I read the course in 2-3 hours, so it is not a lot of material you have to digest. After the introduction, the course explains eight different sorts of stories. In this blog I want to talk briefly about the story of “evaluation”, which are …
Stories in people’s minds about whether an area of life is good or bad.
I recommend to visit the website and read (and watch) the whole course. But let me explain evaluation with the example of rain.
I enjoy rain a lot. Some weeks ago I said to someone too I liked some clouds during the hikes, because I would not get sunburned, cannot deal the hot temperature, and it hinders the sun of casting strong shadows which do not look nice on your photographs. I also love the smell of nature after rain and how the colors also become sharper. I feel I also get more energized and that my face gets “cleansed” when I walk in some more rainy weather. Some friends did not look to rainy or cloudy days like this. However, when you analyse western advertisement of travel agencies, you see they use the story that “sunny weather is good weather”. They try to convince us to only love sunny weather and take a flight (preferably arranged by the mentioned travel agency) to escape “gloomy weather” to enjoy sunshine holidays.
What I like about Japan is the appreciation for “ordinary” nature, which is an idea you can find back in the legendary haiku poems. When I read the explanation of how haiku is actually a good example of “evaluation” from an ecolinguistics perspective, I was nodding a lot and realizing that Japanese art and the appreciation of all four seasons was something that I really loved about living here. I remembered that rain was also nice weather. Actually all weather is nice.
Hence, I agree with these 5 haiku poets, that there is a lot of beauty, joy and wisdom to be found in rain too.
Joyful at night / tranquil during the day / spring rain (Chora).
Summer rains / secretly one evening / moon in the pines (Ryōta).
Spring is here / morning mist / on a nameless mountain (Bashō).
Sculpting the shape / of the plum tree / first winter rain (Kitō).
Calling three times / then no more to be heard / the deer in the rain (Buson).
I got these five haiku translations from an online course in ecolinguistics, part 5: evaluations. In the next months, I will share some more blogs about ecolinguistics. I feel as a forest therapy guide that ecolinguistics and storytelling could be tool for the activism to improve, or even restore, the relationship between the nature in us and outside our bodies.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.