Tag Archives: reflection

Guiding my first Forest Bath – and reconnecting with Belgium in October

As part of my 6 month long practicum with the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy (ANFT), I have to guide 4 forest baths. Directly after I did the on-site training in Colorado and explored USA, I left for Belgium. I have not been in my country for 8 months, and in some view, even not have really lived there intensively for 4 years. Since the ANFT training I feel slowly that I start to appreciate the land where I am born… again after so many years. In my last blog reflecting about the on-site training in Colorado, I mention already I start to imagine to even work and live there for a long time. Being in Belgium, it emerges more, because I see all the beauty there. It is a bit scary to reorient old dreams and ideas that I prefer to live and settle in  more “wilder” places. This blog is about my first week in Belgium, the (re)connection with the land and ancestors, and about the mixed feelings that start to arise since I walk the path of forest therapy guide. 

Reconnecting with the apple tree and the land

In the first week I was on the land of my ancestors (read the home my paternal grandfather built) and had the pleasure to sit in the garden, between the apple and pear trees my brother and I planted ourselves some years ago. The first morning I looked at the old tree friends in our paternal family’s wild garden/forest and checked which had died and will be replaced soon by new trees. It had rained, so the smells were nice. I greeted the new tree (the magic tree; as my brother called it) and then went to our small orchard to check the state and study the mushrooms at their feet 🍄 . I took some apples and made an extract for me and my brother (and added some cinnamon.) I gave a bit of the tea back to the apple tree to thank her for providing these fruits. I thought about to bring also some of her fruits to my first forest bath; as apple reminds me to Halloween/Samhain and represents also beauty and self-care, fit for a yoga & hike weekend, but I stepped away from this and choose for something more wild and local.

However, I was a bit disappointed that my brother did not pick most of the pears and apples on time; they were all on the ground and rotting. I had arrived to late to pluck them. Some days later, it was a bit more sunny. I was drinking matcha latte in a chair and observing red admirals eating the fallen pears and apples. Seeing the butterflies enjoying it, let me realize it was not a loss. In nature, there is no waste. The rotten apple taught me a lesson about reframing too: everything changes, nothing perishes.

Connecting with an ancestor and a folk healer

Since 1989 there has been a plaque for Maria Van Loock, better known as ‘Mie Broos’, at the church in Vorselaar, near the place where she is presumably buried. She was famous, and people from worldwide came to consult her in the end of 19th century, early 20th century. Once I heard she is a bit connected to my own family. She was some sort of aunt of the cousin of my grandfather by marriage. Or something like that. I decided to dive into the history of this figure, and my connection with her, in order to learn more and reconnect with the land we share(d).

Mie Broos

She was not a doctor, but she learned from the experiences of her parents who were both employed by a doctor. She also learned a lot from a doctor for whom she had to help prepare medicines. Through personal searches she expanded that knowledge even further. She knew better than anyone the healing power of plants and prepared ointments with them. In addition she used “zoete lies”, which is pig’s fat.  The ordinary, poor man could always come to her, as she did not ask a bit to none money for her services. In this way she became legendary. From far and wide, even from abroad, people came on foot or by bicycle to Heiken, where Mie lived, driven by the last hope that they had placed on the competence of the healer from Vorselaar. She was also from a time when my region – the Kempen– was very isolated and poor; as the soil was sandy. Before they planted cultural forests for the mine industry early 20th century, she and my ancestors lived in heathland. Heiken also means heathland in a dialect of Flemish.

Some detective work

My father gave me the phone number of my grandfather’s brother. When I heard his voice, I could recognise the same texture and accent my grandfather had, and recalled it has been a long time ago (maybe when I was still a teen) that I had talked with him. He was happy to hear me, but could not really help me. We were not linked by blood, but there were some family connections. My grandfather’s cousin would be her son, or something like that. He gave me instructions to find Maria Broos, which could be some sort of her niece of Mie Broos, and added: “She is retired, has time to talk and loves to talk. So do not be shy to just visit her.” On my way to the library to pick up a book called “Mie Broos – volksgenezeres 1839 – 1927” I called at her door, but did not got answer. Maybe later. In the library, I found – next to the book about Mie Broos- another book written by a man called Tieto Stoops, which is about the “Kempen, its typical habitants, and the skills of their ancestors, its forgotten vegetables and other peculiarities”. The writer is very protective of local environmental knowledge and this book was even more a treasure for me.

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Before the mine industry emerged in Flanders and many culture pine forests were planned to support it, a lot of my ancestor’s region looked like the “Kalmthoutse heide”. 

Although Mie Broos is not my family by blood, but there are connections, through the land, I consider her as the elder person. Her stories continue to live in the book and are carried by people sharing her name and memories. I learned about the Kempen, the region to which I belong. Finally diving into her history, although I have other work pulling me, was probably encouraged by my forest therapy guide training. Since some time there is this big feeling of pulling me back to Europe, and the training invites me to not ignore it and explore my relationship with the land where my ancestors were born. Studying the local history, makes the “homecoming” more vivid. It helps to heal my own relationship with the land I have a double feeling with since my grandfather’s forestry accident 13,5 years ago…

When you realise Belgium has the same treasurers as Scandinavia (but just less)

This weekend, my friends gave me the space to guide my first forest bath during a yoga and hiking weekend she organised in Coo in Walloon, the French speaking part of Belgium, next to the Amblève. I was a bit nervous, because I had no time for scouting and trail pre-assessment for my forest bath, but I just trusted that the forest will take care of me and the participants. The first day, my friends organised a hike of 16 kilometers/10 miles. I was sometimes the last of the group because I wanted to study rosehip, fly agaric and honeysuckle 😂.

I noticed that this is the forest bather in me that wanted to slow down, but then I tuned in the hiking energy, which was also very cool. I noticed that when I hike I notice even more than normal, like this caterpillar for example. We also rang at the door of old houses and asked for tap water to the people there. It was a good opportunity to beef up my French a bit.

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How longer I am in Belgium (and I am only here for 8 days, so maybe I am in this strange kind of honeymoon) I fel more and more in love with the nature of Belgium. There were many occasions I was surprised to notice beings I saw in Norway, USA and Japan, and thought it could only be found in the wild of these countries, and not in “tamed” Belgium. It was a bit confronting… some way, I know I belong to the land here and can contribute to the ecosystems here by dedicating my life to ecopsychology, but there is still a pull to live in a wild country like Norway or Sweden, which is at least closer to Belgium. I am still a bit confused what to do, and I decided to not think about it for the next half year. I will see what happens.

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If I told you this photograph was taken in Norway or Sweden (and point to the birches), you would believe. I found a bit of Scandinavia in this region of Belgium.

Guiding my first forest bath

On Sunday October 13th I guided my first forest bath. With such a beautiful nature as my partner, I had full confidence in it. 15 young spirits joined me. It was very a learning experience to be in the role of guide, and not of participant, this time, and see how everyone interprets the invitations or how everyone tunes in the forest at different pace.

For this tea ceremony, I decided to pluck some nettle to brew some tea and used yellow maple leaves as decoration. According to Spafinder, “Nettle is rich in calcium, potassium, magnesium, vitamin C (10 times more than an apple), vitamin B complex, vitamin E, amino acids and beta-carotene (five times more than a carrot) to name only a few. It is alkalizing while supporting the immune system, the nervous system, bone stability, the metabolism and skin health. That translates into having more energy, mental acuity, disease resilience and radiant well-being.

The biggest reward was to listen (and learn from) the stories of the participants during the tea ceremony, to notice the nature through their senses. None of them have never done a forest bath before, and they thought it would be “more spiritual”, “too hippie”, “too glimmering”. At the end, to me personally, or via another person, or on the evaluation sheet, they told me that they know it’s all about “self-care”, staying in contact with yourself and stillness. I feel very blessed today.

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Changing the Stories We Live By #2: The Forest Sees You.

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).

During a forest bath in Colorado’s Rockies

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 😉

To access a free online course about ecolinguistics: http://storiesweliveby.org.uk

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 …

One Year of Wood Wide Web Stories

Last year, during the autumn equinox, I decided to start this website and blog. It has been already one year that I posted my first blog: How the Search for Tree Spirits Started. I am starting now the third year of my PhD studies in environmental studies at Nagoya University in Japan and reflecting a bit what I learned in the last year, in Japan, but also during my two visits to Norway and Belgium. A bit more than one year ago, during a visit to my parents in Belgium, I learned about forest and nature therapy, about shin-rin yoku and felt this sudden click. This is it. Before my return to Japan, I visited London with a friend and also bought some books in Treadwell’s about sacred trees, tree alphabet and druids, which helped me to learn more about especially trees and the culture practices and relationship my ancestors had with them. In another bookstore in London, I found this amazing book “Around the World in 80 Trees“, in which expert Jonathan Drori uses plant science to illuminate how trees play a role in every part of human life, from the romantic to the regrettable. Packed with these books I returned to Japan around autumn equinox.

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That lead to my first experiences with DIY Forest Therapy 森林浴, and 9 months later let me organise a group expedition to one of the Japanese certified forest therapy base camps, of which Forest Therapy Taking Root is a report.

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As a sustainability scientist, I read everyday about evidence about social and environmental issues and the treats that are coming. I know some effects come with a delay and it makes me anxious to know that the “worst is yet to come”. Sometimes I am happy I do not have children (yet), because I know the future will be tough. It makes me depressed. I think that is one reason why I did not spend that much care to myself in the last year(s), as you could read in this blog: Fireworks, Bamboo and the Height of Japanese Summer

But in the end last summer, I decided to transform the challenges into opportunities, and look more in practices and ideas which are about healing the relationships in our ecosystems. Actually some ideas I already know, because I encountered many inspiring people and did a full course in permaculture some years ago, but it did not take root in me. I was writing already stories about dryads and collecting legends about tree spirits for already some years. I also wrote a blog about Thai legends about tree spirits: Why do Thai Tree Spirits like Red Fanta ?

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But the ideas were just used for fiction, not in my real life. In the last year, I looked for a balance between spending time in ‘depressive’ science and ‘uplifting’ therapy; and it helped me to get more energy to do more in the first. I got more creative, and people are asking me the whole time how I get all the ideas. Actually, many sustainability scientists do not spend that much time in the environment, but stay in laboratoriums and offices in the city. It is a bit ironic, because by actually spending more time with nature, my love became even deeper and I got more motivated; understood more why I am studying and working in the sustainability field. Before, people spent more time in nature; there were also more festivities and holidays to celebrate this relationship (more holidays than Belgians have), and I believe it is good to spend time, to restore or strengthen this reciprocal relationship.

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In November I got some blues, and I decided to not stay, but tae a break from city life and explore the beautiful colours of autumn in the Japanese nature. Vitamin Ginkgo for your November Depression. Also, after a visit to Japan’s most famous spot for suicide, it became again clear why we should spend more time with ourselves in nature, or with family, and less in work. What did a visit to Japan’s suicide forest teach me about forest therapy?

In the end of December I decided to visit an old friend in Norway. Since I was a child I am fascinated by the folklore and culture Norwegians have. In Belgium, a lot of indigenous knowledge is lost, partly because of the Inquisition of the Church in earlier centuries, but when you go more to the north in Europe, where the Inquisition has less influence, you find many practices. It was my second trip to Norway and I realised again how much I love this place. This trip taught me a lot, partly because my friend also was very happy to share stories, his insights about living in nature and teach me some skills (or let me remember old skills that my grandfather who lived in the Belgian countryside taught me once). I wrote also some blog about winter time in Norway: Norway Spruce, a story about Shaman Claus, mushrooms and fire. Our old friendship transformed into more.

Screen Shot 2019-08-27 at 10.59.41 I returned to Japan. Spring came. “Holly” Devil, it’s Spring again! My family came to visit me in Japan. I am halfway my Japan adventure. The cherry blossoms reminded me again how life is so fragile. One year earlier, I lost a very close friend. He was 25. That period, some friends asked me to also write a text about his loss and I let me inspire by the cherry blossoms.

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I returned also to Norway for two weeks, when it was almost Norwegian Easter: time for ash and crime I  was the guest of my boyfriend in his house. It was still winter, and I liked to work inside his house at writing an academic article, where I had no wifi, drinking hot tea and fuelling the stove with Norwegian Birch Bark. In his free time, he took me on road trips to remote places in nature and do little snow hikes with him.

Screen Shot 2019-08-27 at 11.11.04However, the new semester was starting in Japan, and I had teaching assistant responsibilities. Also, two weeks after my return, an old friend from Belgium would arrive and we planned a trip of 6 days to Okinawa together. Okinawa: from its longevity secrets to mischievous tree trolls. After this trip, my relationship with my boyfriend ended, and we became back friends. It was difficult, but the best for us both. For instance, I learned actually that a long distance (and even intercontinental relationship with 7 or 8 hour time difference was not my cup of tea). I found healing by going hiking the lower mountains of Japan a lot. Also, our friendship was so strong that we were still communicating a lot, about Norway, Japan, and other things. He helped me to learn more about the sacred trees in the gardens of Norwegians and Swedish: Sacred “Garden” trees of Norway and Sweden I still believe he is a great, beautiful man, and am very grateful for all experiences we have, as friends and the short time also as boyfriend and girlfriend.

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In June he came also to Japan, for 3 weeks, but as my bestie. First, I took him for a day hike to Nakansendo and realised that we do not always need ‘new’ spaces to experience something new: Nakansendo’s whispers – or different interpretations of Silence

We explored Hokkaido together, and because of him I was confident enough to climb my first Japan’s high mountain and go camping in a national park. After a steep descend on a snow slope (where I cursed a lot), I thanked him as he guided me through, but he said with a little smile: “Why do you thank me? You did it all yourself.” It was also interesting to talk with him about Hokkaido’s indigenous people and compare a bit with the Saami in Scandinavic countries: Birch cake and the colonization of Hokkaido’s nature and Ainu

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At the summit of Hokkaido’s highest mountain and volcano (2291m).

He also joined the aforementioned expedition to the forest therapy base. During our travel in Japan we talked a lot about this split between nature and the rest, about how people try to control and make all nature accessible to everyone, but also making it too easy for people who do not have respect for their limits or that of nature. Forest therapy is a nice treatment, but it is pity that nature is not more part in the lives of city dwellers. In Meeting Japan’s curse spirits during a Forest Bath I shared some of these insights.

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He left around summer solstice and we also decided to give each other more space. He was going to prepare to climb Mont Blanc and Matterhorn (spoiler: he succeeded). I needed to focus on writing a Flemish local science fiction roman, where rescued wood, maker’s culture, furniture and retrofitting old wooden houses were central. I draw a lot of inspiration from my own PhD, and all the interesting people I met in Japan, but also from my bestie. Sometimes I feel he became an important part of my life this year, because I had to remind again how valuable making things, being in nature is, and teach me some skills necessary for my comfort. Because of him, I read this book “Norwegian Wood” by Lars Mytting and got more inspiration for the project.  This book project, together with my PhD, occupied my whole summer (and the launch is planned for November 23rd). But I also found time to experience and guide people in the forests and mountains. I find a lot of joy in forest therapy activities – which is also about pleasure and sensuality- while the raw therapy of the mountains confronted me with some fears and my own limits: Forests, Mountains and other therapists.

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Early September, I left Japan for USA to start my training in forest and nature therapy. It was a great experience and when I am back from USA I will write about this. Now I am relaxing in the house of a Belgian friend in USA. In one week I will continue the travel to Belgium, for the book launch and some data collection for my PhD research, but also for meeting friends and family.

In the end of November I return to Japan, for the last 10 months. Expect in the coming months more blogs about USA and  Belgium (I found out there is a forest in Belgium with wooden trolls which I will definitely visit and write an article about). I am also curious what I will learn, which new persons I will meet, or with which old friends I will get (re)connected and what I will learn from them.

But today, during this autumn equinox, I like focus on the now and be grateful for all the lessons and experiences, and also for all the blogs I could share in the last year with the readers of the Wood Wide Web Stories. Thank you for reading, re-blogging, commenting and sharing. Up to another year of blogging! Dankuwel :). 

Forests, Mountains and other therapists

On the last day of August, I reflect what the forests, my ‘soft’ therapists, and the mountains, my ‘raw’ therapists taught me this summer in Japan.

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Middle of June – Mt Fuji from below

Ten weeks ago I took this picture of Mt Fuji. I have not climbed it. I would be a fool, according to a Japanese saying, if I would want to climb Mt Fuji twice :D. However, my visitor from Norway had climbed and descended Mt Fuji in 4,5 hours. That guy climbed some weeks later also Matterhorn and Mont Blanc. I do not plan to beat his Mt Fuji record. You can add an 1 before that 4 ;). And that is ok. I should not compare myself with him or any other mountaineer. Or have the same dreams, targets etc. You’ve different kind of mountaineers and nature lovers. And that is ok. Climbing mountains is about knowing your limits, about conquering yourself, and we are all different, and that is ok.

Late July – a vision board

Summer is the time that Japanese, especially older people, greet the summits of the higher mountains of Japan. The lower mountains are “too hot”. So that is what I planned. I climbed two of the three Holy Mountains (三霊山 Sanreizan): Hakusan (also know as the White Mountain) alone and Tateyama (known as “standing mountain”) with two friends, and hope to add Mt Fuji.  This is the vision board I made:

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Early August – Sirens or therapists?

I thought a lot about mountains this summer. I saw a Netflix documentary about mountains, telling how they are like sirens, luring people far away from human controlled and human made environments, with their beauty, putting some of them in risk and danger. I can understand, and I recognised especially myself in the images of the mountaineers cursing, crying and failing. I really got to know myself through these therapists – or yeah, sirens.  I cried. I cursed in three languages. I felt “op mijn bakkes” at height of 2700m. That is a very Flemish expression to say you tripled.

And I laughed. And I found stillness.

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Middle of August – Mountain therapy

In June I had also headaches. I went to an Eastern Medicine doctor, and it was clear I had tension headaches. Maybe because I  do so much …  It was a good therapy session. I felt this summer, I encountered many different therapists who let me realise and point out where I am stuck in my personal development. Mountains, as therapists, let me realise sometimes what and when I can “drop” or cannot. I know I am very bad in saying no, or am interested in too many things, plan so much, dream so much, have so many ideas, but when you climb a mountain, you have to focus on the now. It’s different than forest therapy, which is more about relaxing, sensuality, intimacy, even pleasure.  Forests are the nice therapists.

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Mountains are raw. These therapists let you think about your body, your limits, your breath, your pace, and your fears. You do not think anymore about your Google calendar, to-do-lists or your appearance.

You think: concentrate. Up to the next step.

Or when you see a beautiful landscape… wow.

Or … oh my god, why I am doing this?

I curse when I had to descend. Most accidents happen when you descend Japanese mountains: they are quite steep and you need to focus on each step.

Hakusan’s lesson: breath through the nose, or slow down

I decided to climb Hakusan alone, and was disconnected for 36 hours. You start at 1250m and reach the height of 2702m and pass different landscapes which could be used for movies like sound of music or lord of the rings (including Mordor). It was very hot, but as an aforementioned mountaineer advised me two months earlier I try to breath only through my noise. Otherwise if you cannot control your breath you slow down your pace. This control of breath helped me to climb 1500m under 33degrees in less than 6 hours in a steady pace.

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Hakusan is one of Japan’s three holy mountains. A Japanese lady I met in the mountain lodge where I stayed last night (with hundreds other Japanese, and I seemed to be the only foreigner) told me she had been 5 times to this sacred space and shared how important it was to her: I saw her paying respects to the mountain spirits. We became friends for some hours.

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At the peak she pointed to the other side of the peak; to the crater and said she has never been there, because it looks scary. Five minutes later she and I decided to explore that place … nicknamed “hell”. We had to descend the crater, toured along lakes another crater and returned over a alpine field with snow patches. It was also her first time to cross a snowfield and we saw wild life (the cute ones; not the ones that can kill you). She pointed me to some famous flowers.

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While the sun went down and colored the landscape in a warm palette of colors, I wrote some postcards and drunk beer (no showers in the mountain cabin, but they got a beer bar and a post office; the Japanese mountaineers know their priorities 😉).

The next days I walked along a sea of clouds and mountain peaks and realized that 1500m elevation gain was more than I thought the day before. At the trailhead while waiting 2 hours for the bus stop, the old Japanese park ranger gave me free instant coffee. Actually I got many small presents of Japanese people, like salt tablets for example. And I could practice my basic Japanese sentences. Which is mostly “the flowers are beautiful.” “Terribly warm; isn’t it?” and “I am from Belgium. We are famous for beer and chocolate…. Now I do not have some. Sorry.” And 300 times “konnichiwa!” to all the people I passed, which made them smile.

Tateyama’s class: while descending, first put your heel, then toes

After taking a bus, a train, stay overnight in Toyoma, then take again an early train to a station where I met up with two friends, a ropeway and a bus to Japan’s highest bus station (at height of 2400m), it was time for the second holy mountain. That was a steep ascend. While Hakusan required 1200 meter elevation gain, this was “only 600m”, but there I did not think about breathing and heat. I was almost bouldering up, and thought one thing “up, up, up”. I was not relaxing, as I realised I had to descend at some point. I was also more tired; some Japanese people called me brave, tough to do this right after Hakusan. I thought I was stupid 😉 But yes, I reached Tateyama’s highest peak: 3015m.

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At some point,  when we continued the path over the mountain ridge toward Tsurugi (no, I did not climb that one for the Japanese readers among you), the path was very small, we were hiking for 5-6 hours, and one of the the guys had to hold my hand, because I was very tired and also a bit scared. I felt back I was in Pakistani Himalaya, crossing a steep landslide, while dressed in the most conservative clothes, and also holding the hands of my driver, although it was not ‘appropriate’. I am grateful for all people that once hold my hand. It helps. Thanks.

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After the end of the third day hiking (or first day Tateyama), in front of the mountain cabin, my muscles relaxed so much I tripped over my feet. Quite an elegant entrance. I got tears and laughed at the same time, saying to the guys: “Wow, I could have tripped in 1001 worse places today.”.

The guys left me to climb Tsurugi, which is one of Japan’s most dangerous mountains. Spoiler: they survived. The pictures are amazing, but no, I am a different kind of mountaineer. Tsurigi is a mountain I will watch and never touch. In the next morning, around 05.30 am I was gazing in the mountain cabin at this beauty:

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The next day I joined a 70 year old Japanese doctor and his friend in the descend. We went very slowly and they gave me good hints about descending safely (they did mountaineering for many years). It did not feel “steep”, until I saw at the end of the trip, from distance, that it was really steep. I ordered beer and thanked the mountain spirits. This photograph is the summary of the trip: we ascended via the right, walked over the mountain ridge, and I descended somewhere in the left of that ridge.

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Forest therapy 

Then it was more time for the more softer “therapist”. Also ten weeks ago, after my friend climbed Mt Fuji and I was eating in the village at its foot some pastries, we visited the suicide forest close to Mt Fuji (What did a visit to Japan’s suicide forest teach me about forest therapy? and the next day I co-organised this visit to one of the 62 certified forest therapy bases in Japan, about which I wrote more in this blogs: Forest Therapy Taking Root and Meeting Japan’s curse spirits during a Forest Bath

The weekend after I consulted the mountains, I got  paid to give my first forest and nature therapy session ever. This is the nicest paid weekend job I ever did :). I wrote more about this in a blog called Wood weaving & forest bathing in Nagano, Japan.

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Late August- The lesson of Mt Fuji – learn to say no and rest

So yes, in the end of August, I thought and told friends and family, it was time to climb Mt Fuji, the last of the three holy mountains.

However, two days before, I decide to cancel, because another friend had to cancel and it gave me the opportunity to reconsider and reflect. Some days earlier I got back tension headaches, because I had still so much tasks at my sleeve – and only 8 days left before I would leave Japan. After Tateyama that let me curse a lot, I felt it was almost a bit too much to go for more “hard therapy”. I had also a bad feeling about climbing Mt Fuji. In addition, the two friends were not fully prepared and real beginners, and I felt also pressure to feel responsible for their safety and comfort. Some friends I hoped to climb with,  could not join this time.

After that friend cancelled, the secretary of my supervisor told me that the day before a Russian young woman of my age died because of falling rocks. Too many people on Mt Fuji. My sensei said that landslides caused by (over)tourism was actually getting a bigger problem. I remembered also what my Norwegian friend said: you’ve two kind of famous mountains; the first you climb because they are beautiful; the second kinds are ugly and you just climb them for the prestige. He said Mt Fuji was clearly the second one, and maybe not even worth it. He climbed it off-season, and saw almost nobody, but he would not do it in crowded area. It would annoy him too much. 

After talking with some friends,  I realised I wanted to climb it for the wrong intention, namely showing off “my physical fitness and mental strength” to others.   And I thought… would it not be better to say goodbye to Japan on the summit of Mt Fuji, with some friends I made, and when I have more time and less responsibilities. Last, and most important, to be very honest, I also connected Mt Fuji with my bestie from Norway, and it was difficult to let Mt Fuji go, because it was also about letting go a piece of him. The whole decision was very mental difficult as I confronted myself with some things I still try to hold on, including my pride.

I also talked with two of my close friends, one in Europe and my yoga teacher in Japan, and they also said I should not be ashamed to choose to rest. You could say that Mt Fuji’s therapy nudged me to learn to say no. By actually moving the plan to climb Mt Fuji to my next and last summer in Japan, I was being honest and think less about what other people might think. I feel that was the lesson that Mt Fuji taught me this summer. It is not time yet to climb her. And that is ok. Come back, Fuji told me, when your intentions are right, because I and you deserve this respect. So, that is how I ended my Japanese summer. Not with a big explosion or hero adventure. But with actually time to say proper goodbye to some people I would not see for a long time. That is ok.

We do not always need to grow or show our strength, but also to rest. It was ok that this summer, I only saw Mt Fuji from below and restored from the Hokkaido travel in its shadows. I am happy. 

Wood weaving & forest bathing in Nagano, Japan

Last weekend, I co-organised a trilingual forest retreat weekend in Nagano, Japan I helped to organize. Yes, trilingual 😃. At some point I was mixing Japanese, Spanish and English 😅. On the program we had wood weaving, yoga, core tuning, hot bath (onsen) and the forest therapy session – which I guided. We stayed in a 200 year old wooden house. Japanese style in the countryside. It has an irori, a sunk fire pit in the wooden floor. In this blog I will share some impressions about wood weaving and forest bathing.

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This forest weekend retreat was hosted by the yoga studio Mind Body Space in Nagoya.

Wood weaving

Hinoki is one of the most elegant types of wood in Japan. This tree is a type of cypress that is considered sacred and only grows in this part of the world. Hinoki has been used since ancient times in Japan as a construction material to build temples and shrines and is considered as one of the 5 “forbidden woods” in the time of samurai. You could lose your hand or head if you cut down this wood. In other blogs I wrote (indirectly) about hinoki wood and the sustainable silviculture practices introduced by samurai in the 17th century:

It is not only the durability that makes this wood amazing. Yes, some constructions made from this wood are more than thousand years old, like the Horyuji temple, the oldest wooden structure in the world. What I like the most about hinoki, is the scent. Even after some years you can smell the scent. Another application is to make strips of it, and weave it according to some patterns into hats, baskets and other useful stuff. Last Saturday afternoon, somewhere in Tsumago (Nagano), with the help of patient professionals, we made coasters. It was quite therapeutic, to use your hands, and focus on the patterns for 1,5 hour.

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Forest bathing in a gorge

On Sunday morning it was my task to wake up everyone at 05.30 to do a silent walk next to the river. I asked them to leave their phones and cameras (but I took mine to take some photographs in the end, although I also felt difficulty in the beginning to not take my camera and look for “good pictures” instead of looking for the nature in myself).

First we sat in a circle at the entrance of a path, and I explained them some differences between Japanese forest bathing and western school of forest therapy. I told them that for me forest bathing is not the same as meditation, but more about finding pleasure. We will open up our senses to feel sensuality. I told them to listen -like elephants- and observe – as owls- for five minutes, and then to share one thing they  noticed and how it made them feel inside. After this exercise I asked them to be silent from the moment we will enter the forest. It felt like we entered one of the magical forests depicted in the Japanese popular anime movies from Miyazaki, like “My Neighbour Totoro”.

Some people expressed they felt very nostalgic to a connection they had with nature when they were a child. Someone admired the resilience of trees, even in a landslide we passed, and that she wants to be more like this. Another participant felt the suffer of a tree when she touched its trunk. Forest therapy is not always about getting “good feelings”. It is about restoring the relationship between nature outside us and the nature in ourselves. And then we see we have been bad to trees, rivers and nature. For me, forest bathing is also a way of environmental activism.

At 07.00am we were back in the 200 year old house where we stayed, to share corn tea from a Mexican friend who stayed behind to put away the futons and prepare the meal. After a breakfast, I hold a second session where the participants were invited to go back into nature and create art, like a collage of things they found, a haiku or a song. Our youngest participant made a haiku about how the moon and the stars became friends.

It was a beautiful weekend. I am grateful.

This is the poem I wrote during my own forest therapy:

When the sun invites the moon,

I hear the drums of the forest.

The colours start to dance to it’s swan song .

Shades hug trees and rocks like old lovers,

too busy during the day. Only time for an embrace,

when the sun invites the moon.

The colours fade away. My heart beat stops.

The moon arrives. A new journey begins.

I only breathe when I listen.

Interested to participate?

I will leave soon Japan for three months, for a training in Colorado and data collection and other projects in Belgium and Sweden.

However, in late autumn, when the trees in Kyoto color deep red, I will return and plan more moments of forest therapy. If you are in Central-Japan, and like to hang out with international company (trees and humans), send me a message of contact me through Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/wereldwoude_verhalen/.

Ha en god dag! 

Lugnasadh: the first corn, rice and berries

Lugnasadh, also known as Lammas- is the start of the harvest season, marking the point where the first fruit of the land has ripened. This is also the time of Lugnasadh, a festival my ancestors held on August 1st, to celebrate the first harvest and the hard work they did. They made bread and were grateful they saw the first fruits of their work. It is mostly celebrated on August 1st.

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We’re starting to see summertime efforts, but the reaping is not yet complete. It is both an opening and a closing. It’s the in-between time just after the heat of the day and right before sunset, it is a crossroads. It is also a great time for transformation, reflection, introspection and reconnection – with the earth, ourselves, and the other living beings.

My first mental harvest

Coincidence or not…  the day before, I had the intermediate defence of my PhD in Japan.  As some know, I do a PhD of systems thinking in sustainable development at Nagoya University. I had to share what hard work I had already done.  This intermediate check happened on actually a good timing when you look to nature and the seasons (in the northern hemisphere), because I had to talk about my “summer of hard work” and explain what will be the fruits that will be harvested in my final year. I also know a lot of work is still waiting. This is just the first harvest, but it is a sign that more harvest will come, as long as I keep working a bit longer.

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During that defence, I realized again how tough and emotional a PhD can be. There are so many uncertainties to embrace, so much to consider and to decide, and especially if you go for an interdisciplinary topic, and want a social robust outcome, you have to expose your work and ideas and yourself. And you do not always get the feedback you like to hear. 

Everyday there are so many questions that arise. Living in a country so far from your home, where they speak another language, where you have to rebuild your social support and personal life from scratch, makes it not easier. I share mostly photographs of my weekend trips in nature, but I should share maybe also more pictures of my confused face, or my apparently angry looking face when I focus on reading literature or trying to decipher Japanese electricity bills. 


But it is worth it. I feel everyday I develop myself more, so I can become a better academic, change agent and individual.

Grateful

And I am also so grateful for the people here that are my support system, help me with my life in Japan, translations, interpretations, finding solutions and locating things for me, arranging VIP seats and mountain cabins so I can experience unique Japanese things in my weekend, borrowing books or eyeliner, even giving me once in a while a cup of tea, a great speech and/or hug.

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Moon circle

The evening after, together with friends from Japan, Thailand and Mexico I did a girl’s circle during the new moon. We mixed some Mexican and European traditions, so for instance, we worked with corn from Mexico and linden wood from my home country. Since it’s harvest time, we worked with ideas around harvest, human craft and skill. 

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We made a special amulet using herbs and spices that are associated with this new moon’s power (cinnamon, rosemary and linden wood on which we dropped orange aroma). It was the first time in years I was using the needle again to sew the the little bag of the herbs, and I enjoyed it to use my hands, and create something, and not my mind which I use (sometimes too much) during my academic work. I asked for my wishes and and asked for more creativity and discipline so I can finish this adventure in a good way. In the end I shared home made corn bread and tea with these beautiful women. I am ready for more harvesting.