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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

Written in the Trees: Celtic Tree Astrology (1/2)

Did you know that the ancient Celts based their astrology on the flowering period of trees? They translated the characteristics of the prevailing trees into characters. The tree calendar is divided into 39 periods. There are 21 tree species with a ruling period of up to ten days in the spring and autumn. In addition, there are four holy trees (oak, birch, olive tree and beech) that are bound to one day in the year. Do you recognize yourself in the tree that reigns during your birthday?

screen shot 2019-01-28 at 14.44.11

1. FIR  TREE (mysterious): extraordinary taste and dignity, sophisticated, loves anything beautiful, moody, stubborn, tends to egoism but cares for those close to them, rather modest, very ambitious, talented, industrious, discontented lover, many friends, many foes, very reliable.

2 . ELM TREE (noble-mindedness): Sensitive and independent, this tree type is quirky and engaged the willpowerful traits of a convincing leader. An elm person has a clear goal in mind and can also really see people for who they are. The elm loves harmony and is open-minded. By definition, this does not give him an easy character, because this tree has high expectations of itself and others. Other characteristics are pleasant shape, tasteful clothes, oddest demands, tends not to forgive mistakes, cheerful, likes to lead but not to obey, honest and faithful partner, likes making decisions for others, noble-minded, generous, good sense of humor, practical.

3. CYPRESS (faithfulness): Cypresses are strong, muscular, adaptable, content, optimistic, craves money/acknowledgment, hates loneliness, passionate and insatiable lover, faithful, quick-tempered, unruly, pedantic, and careless.

4. POPLAR (uncertainty): The poplar is often insecure, because it has a serious attitude to life and an extremely sensitive character. The poplar is creative, philosophical and organizational. He is a good manager, but he can also be very sloppy and confused. Poplars tactically hide their feelings out of fear of being hurt or dependent. This is not good for love relationships. Other characteristics are very decorative, not very self-confident, only courageous if necessary, needs goodwill and pleasant surroundings, very choosy, often lonely, great animosity, artistic nature, good organizer, leans toward philosophy, reliable, takes partnership seriously.

5. CEDAR (confidence): Unlike the poplar, the cedar is known for its self-confidence. He is going to achieve what he wants to achieve. The cedar is sure of that. He remains faithful to his views. He also likes to impress others and knows how to adapt effortlessly to situations and companies. A cedar always goes for gold. A cedar is of rare beauty, adaptable, likes luxury, of good health, not shy, tends to look down on others, self-confident, determined, impatient, likes to impress others, many talents, industrious, healthy optimism, waiting for the one true love, able to make quick decisions.

6. PINE (particular): Pines are quiet people who can even appear passive. Appearance deceives De den sets high standards and is known as the most picky tree type. Seriously the pine strives for perfection and justice. Generally this tree type is beautifully set, but love can release passionate passion. A pine, they say, loves agreeable company, very robust, very active, natural, a good companion but seldom friendly, falls easily in love but the passion burns out quickly, gives up easily, everything disappoints until the ideal is found. A pine can be trustworthy, and practical.

7. WEEPING WILLOW (melancholy): This empathic and artistic tree type can fully enjoy the good life. He has an eye for obliqueness and is intuitively underlying death. Willows wine honest, bold and energetic. They are also popular. They like to travel, but also often like to be at home. He is beautiful, but full of melancholy, attractive, very empathetic, loves anything beautiful and tasteful. He is a dreamer, restless, capricious, honest, can be influenced but isn’t easy to live with, demanding, good intuition, suffers in love but sometimes finds an anchoring partner.

 8. LINDEN (doubt): A linden tree type accepts what life dishes out in a composed way, hates fighting and stress, dislikes laziness and idleness, dislikes labor, soft and relenting, willingly makes sacrifices for friends, many talents but not tenacious enough to make them blossom, often wailing and complaining, very jealous but loyal to lovers and friends alike.

9. OAK (brave): An oak is very honest. What you see is what you get. They have a robust nature, are courageous, strong, unrelenting, independent, sensible, do not like change, keep their feet on the ground and are persons of action.

10. HAZELNUT (extraordinary): They are the explorers and travelers. They are always interested in new adventures and experiences. They are modest and because of their charm and their empathy they can conquer many hearts. They are undemanding, understanding, charming, knows how to make an impression, fighter for social cause, popular, moody and capricious lover, honest and tolerant partner, precise sense of judgment.

11. ROWAN (sensitivity): A rowan is a world improver. It is a finely sensitive tree type that attracts the suffering of the world. It is an example to others and holds the social reins in cocks. He is all positive, likes to be in good company and loves honesty and openness.full of charm, cheerful, gifted without egotism, likes to draw attention, loves motion and unrest even loves complications, is both dependent and independent, good taste, artistic, passionate, emotional, good company, does not forgive.

12. MAPLE (independence of mind): full of imagination and originality, shy and reserved, ambitious, proud, self-confident, hungers for new experiences, sometimes nervous, has many complexities, good memory, learns easily, complicated love life, wants to impress.

13. WALNUT (passion):  Passion and passion characterise the walnut tree. These are solid types that know what they want and how to achieve it. These people are spontaneous and sociable. A walnut bean is alert, driven and quite stubborn. They inspire others by their natural overview and powerful attitude. They are unrelenting, full of contrasts, often egotistic, noble, broad horizon, unexpected reactions, spontaneous, unlimited ambition, difficult partner, not always liked but often admired, ingenious strategist, jealous and passionate, no compromise.

You can find the rest of the tree astrology here.