Tag Archives: sustainability

Changing the Stories We Live by #1: Appreciating Rain

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.

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I took the photo during a visit at one of the forest therapy bases in Japan, when there was a bit of rain

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.

夜はうれしく/昼は静かや/春の雨
Joyful at night / tranquil during the day / spring rain (Chora).

五月雨/ある夜ひそかに/松の月
Summer rains / secretly one evening / moon in the pines (Ryōta).

春なれや/名もなき山の/朝霞
Spring is here / morning mist / on a nameless mountain (Bashō).

梅の樹の/かたちづくりす/初時雨
Sculpting the shape / of the plum tree / first winter rain (Kitō).

三たびないて/聞こえずなりぬ/雨の鹿
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.

Fireworks, Bamboo and the Height of Japanese Summer

After Summer solstice (and my bestie from Norway left), the weather changed very dramatically in Nagoya, Japan. In the last week of June, I felt myself suffocating in the evenings. The temperature and humidity started to drop. And the noisy cicadas came and reminded us all “summer is here, take your salt tablets and stay cool”.  In the end of July, it got worse. the news make the shift from 梅雨 (rainy season) to 夏本番 (height of summer) officially. Last weeks were then also filled with dealing with the heat (and humidity). Last year, I stayed inside, ate fastfood and gained quite some weight. Last summer, a friend even told me to watch out for my health, and I also realised that the weight gain and staying inside was a manifestation of some depressed thoughts I had that first year. This summer I took another way. In the second half of August last year, my focus toward health, forest therapy started (which is no surprise, according to my yoga teacher, because then it’s season of Virgo, and time for self-care and health), so now I harvest actually the fruits of one year taking more care of my relationship with myself and nature. I did not only get back the weight before I let myself go in my first year in Japan, but I have back the weight of 8 years ago, when I was a wild child exploring the Himalaya.
In this blog I want to talk about summer, the season of fire, or in Japan, also the season of fireworks (which have a shintoism origin) and bamboo.  Let’s first start talking about bamboo. This unique fast-growing grass can teach us a lot about sustainability, as a renewable and natural material, but as a guide about how to deal with shocks and surprises, like the new summer temperature records that are (unfortunately) getting the normal.
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5 minutes walking from my home I took this photograph of this “grass”. 

Bamboo and sustainability

Some weeks ago I wondered… something I do not understand is why bamboo is not used so widely in Japan as a construction material while some species are called “vegan steel” and can withstand heavy earthquakes (at least better than not-reinforced concrete). And as usual, social media can read your thoughts, and some days later, an article called “Bamboo is everywhere, but how sustainable is it?” The takeaway of this article is:

“Bamboo is a super unique plant that has the potential to be used in many industries to lower impact. But, as with any other material, it needs to be grown and harvested responsibly in order to be truly sustainable.”

A sustainability expert from Mexico also told me why bamboo should not be considered as a sustainable construction material:

It is alien to many ecosystems. Bamboo is a living being, and its worldwide usage will entail its transportation from distant places or its introduction in local ecosystems for exploitation. Both have an ecological impact which needs to be thoroughly considered. Its utilization needs to be contrasted with such impact, as well as if it does indeed successfully replace the traditional materials qualities, or not. It is endangered in its native ecosystems. Bamboo forests are dwindling, probably not out of its utilization as a building material, but this should be a red flag on the critical analysis of Bamboo in construction.

Structural resistance is not the only thing that matters. Thermal comfort, impermeability, and fire resistance, and local availability are very important factors when choosing materials. I will use the example of Adobe as I mentioned before and compare it to bamboo. Under the scorching Mexican sun, the heat is unbearable, sometimes shadows are not enough.

Adobe is a great thermal isolator, it keeps the warmth out or in, depending on the season. In order to build with adobe, it is combined with a certain kind of cane “cañamo”, whose replacement with bamboo would hardly have an impact. Adobe is earth, which is quite available in Mexico, and although it entails the use of water, it is not much. In this specific case, I deem adobe and cañamo better materials than bamboo. Adobe is fire resistant and last very long time, some rural houses made of adobe in Mexico date from the late XVIII. This is a short and incomplete example of why I stress that bamboo is an interesting solution, but not everywhere, not for every material, and not for every social sector.

So… talking about thermal comfort…

Be like Bamboo during Japanese summers

Something I heard a lot is to be like “bamboo”, be flexible, adaptive and resilient. The summers in Japan are getting more terrible. It’s not the temperature, but the humidity makes this cocktail very dangerous. I read an article of a 28 year old Japanese guy that died after sunbathing. There will be more surprises and shocks, as we cross more and more tipping points of our ecosystem (of which the fires in Siberia, Alaska, Amazons are all warning signals). Therefore, policy makers should/do not only look into reducing the impact, but also invest in climate change adaptation strategies, and preferably strategies that combine reducing and adapting the climate change effects.

Being flexible is not only applicable to climate change. This month I had this very great talk with one of my PhD advisors about being a foreigner and doing a PhD in Japan. He also comes from another country and did his PhD in our lab. He told that after two years he was still very confused, sometimes frustrated… but then just accepted he could not know everything or be part of the hierarchical system. He said I was not there yet, in that phase of letting go so I can become more flexible as bamboo, and less “stubborn as an oak” (I am soon finishing my second year). He shared this with me, to let me realise it is ok to change opinions, views etc…  When you I let go certain convictions and mental models I would have more fun. However, sometimes I wonder if I would not have more fun if I lived full time in the forest 😉

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Fireworks in Japanese summer

Everyone who stayed long enough in Japan, knows about “hanabi” or the fireworks. Yesterday I got to experience something real “unique Japanese” that even most Japanese or foreigners cannot experience 😎.  Friends arranged press seats to a “handmade bamboo firework festival” in Toyokawa (Aichi prefecture, one hour driving from Nagoya), because they know the people that make and do the stunt with the handmade firework. We had to sign safety declaration, got a traditional jumper et. Some people in the audience took photographs of me and thought I was also a performer.  There were thousands of people, but we got place in front.

It was impressive. I had a lot of fun. Later, at a local afterparty, one of the former firework makers told me about the origins of this festival. He asked me if I know shintoism. In earlier times, Japanese were scared of nature (it reminds me to the fear Norwegians had for the forest, and lead to the belief of creatures like trolls and other spirits). To show respect, they hold rituals, of which some of them were about sacrifice.

What they do, has a lot of risk. Your heart is pounding when you are holding the handmade firework, because of it is full of gun powder. It can go wrong and explode, but happily that did not happen this edition. Later, some of them showed me their wounds on their arms and collarbones. “It is actually a bit crazy, when you think about it,” said one of them too me.

They explained me also how they made it. One month before, they cut the bamboo and “sand” it so it is smooth (which is necessary for safety). The ropes and the gunpowder have to be bought, and a professional guides them how to put the gunpowder in it. I am now more and more in a phase I want to learn how to make, fix and repair things, so I kind of said I was interested to join them next summer. That would be an epic closure of my three year long Japanese chapter.

We will see what happens. Life is full of surprises and shocks, and I will respond to what happens. I try not to plan ahead too much. Maybe be more like fire. That is the element of following your gut feeling, of energy, of doing. However, now summer is almost finishing. The Oak king’s power is fading away and my favourite season is arriving soon; autumn, where you harvest and be grateful for all the hard work, and where the colours swirl around you.

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! 

Meeting Japan’s curse spirits during a Forest Bath

Several weeks ago I experienced a first forest bath in one of the 62 certified forest therapy bases in Japan. You can read and see photographs in this blog: Forest therapy Taking Root. What I did not mention, was that we were… not alone.

 

Hill Worms

Two days before, the facility staff of the center told us to wear long sleeves, long pants and long socks that can cover the bottoms of the pants … because there will be hill worms that suck blood. It sounds more horrible than it was. In the end, the stress hormones of most participants decreased, despite the presence of these animals. You could also see who were the city dwellers and who were more used to bugs. I also brought one of my best friends. He comes from another large forest civilization like Japan, but with a much lower population density. He was showing me  as a happy child on discovery every time a worm on the top of his umbrella or shoe, while others around us were removing the worms of their shoes with sticks, as if it was a curse.

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(c) Wendy Wuyts

Actually, later I realised; when I reflected more with my Norwegian friend and one of the two Japanese forest therapy guides; that the worms are actually a good departure point to talk about “human control of nature”.

Forest civilisations

For a Flemish person it is striking that Japan is a real forest civilization. Even though the Japanese are twelve times as many as the Belgians, the population density is about the same. However, our country is not even 20% forested, while Japan is two-thirds forested. It may be one of the most populous countries in the world, but Japan is also one of the greenest, with a great diversity of trees. One of my research projects also regularly takes me to the countryside north of Nagoya, where I learned more about the fragrant cypress trees and forest culture and management from local experts over the past year and a half. My own professor is also interested in a “lignification” of the Japanese cities. Environmental egineers here talk about carbon storage and absorption of young trees, about the effect of trees in cities on thermal comfort and the subjective perception of temperature, the regulation of water management, reducing risk for landslides and erosion and other things. Forests are so important, and although I focus here mostly on cultural values and effects on mental health, as an environmental scientist I can give so many reasons why it is also good for the planetary health (and also for us). Trees are also central to Shintoism, their indigenous religion, and you often see how much respect they have for all their nature.

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(c) Wendy Wuyts

Since the 17th century there have been strict regulations on forestry and forest management. In the times of the samurai these were so strict that if you cut down certain trees in the Kiso valley (north of Nagoya) you even risked the death penalty. “A head for each felled tree, an arm for a broken branch,” that was the punishment. These trees were destined for the houses and temples of powerful families, or Buddha statues.

On the other hand, when I moved to Japan, I thought I would learn a lot about sustainable practices in environment, but how longer I am in Japan, how more confused I am. My Norwegian friend had also similar confused feelings as I had two years ago, and we found ourselves talking a lot about control of nature (and princess Mononoke).

Norwegian Outdoors vs Japanese forest bathing

In Norway it is quite normal to spend a lot of time in nature. My Norwegian friend explained to me that as early as the 19th century the urban working class in his country was encouraged to take the train to the woods every Sunday because, like the Japanese, they also had that intuitive knowledge that living in nature is good for you. But he was also a bit sceptical about all rules and procedures (for which Japanese are known) and did not like it that we were in a big group of more than 20. He is the kind of guy that enjoys the woods in silence, preferably alone. I have to agree that I also enjoy being in the forest on my own, or with people that make me feel comfortable. There is a poem of Mary Oliver which explains forest bathing how he and I enjoy it the most:

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During his flight to Japan, an article in the Norwegian media about the trend of forest baths also caught his attention. The Norwegian journalist thought that forest baths meant “simply swimming in a lake”. After my explanation he already said that he already automatically takes forest bathes every week.

“But do you open all your five senses?” I asked him, because I knew from experience that he had a rather high walking pace, and when it comes to forest baths, it’s all about moving through a forest as slowly and consciously as possible.
“Yes, it’s normal for us to touch leaves, rest our backs against a tree, smell pine needles and so on… I just do not need rules like the Japanese do. ”

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(c) Wendy Wuyts

Why especially City dwellers should take forest baths

He did admit that forest baths are effective for urban dwellers, and that the role of nature people like him and me is to get city dwellers into the wild every week. He is pleased that Japanese city dwellers travel to the forest every week, but he also shared reflections on nature conservation and how sorry he thought it was that many places were too easily accessible for many people. He noted that too many mountains in Japan had a cable car. That day, he and I had been traveling for two weeks and did a lot of hiking, trekking and camping; from Hokkaido’s national parks to Mt Fuji. Many times he had remarked how much Japanese try “to control the mountain to make it accessible for everyone”.

He understood that access to nature must be a human right. “But not all nature should be accessible for everyone, because some places are dangerous for people who think they can climb a mountain with sandals, or who don’t realize that they need a guide or know what should be in a day backpack.  This results in blogs which say that for example Mt Fuji is tough. But Mt Fuji was not a difficult mountain at all. Now I understood they just were not in good shape and, or they did not bring the right gear, because they do not take the effort to get some outdoor skills and knowledge.”

We agreed that being nature is about understanding limits. Not only of ourselves, but also of nature. We have to respect that every place has a carrying capacity, and we have to not underestimate ourselves, especially in nature.

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(c) Wendy Wuyts

Princess Mononoke

Nowadays, these worms are there almost whole year, one of the forest therapy guides told us. During the allocation of this forest therapy base, these worms were not there, but then this was also a godforsaken place. Now animals from higher up bring these leeches when to go down; to this place in search of food, because man has reduced their territory. “There is a reason why Ghibli Studio choose these worms for princess Mononoke. It are always animals from higher up, from more remote areas, losing territory, that bring this curse to the human world.”

For those who have seen the popular animated film “Princess Mononoke”, recognizes that animals also came from the mountains and were possessed by these demonic worms squirming over their whole body. In this movie, the toxic used by some colonising humans causes the curse. In the beginning of the movie, one of the main characters get infected by this curse when he protects his village against a possessed animal. The movie is about his search to find a cure, but in the meantime he also learns more about forest spirits, wolves and the impact of the colonisation of nature.

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Screenshot of the animation movie “princess Mononoke”

This animation movie inspired me so many years ago to visit Japan, and stay there for some time, to reflect about the relationship between nature and culture, the impact of civil and environmental engineering. For me, I got maybe too excited about these worms, or curse spirits, but partly because it closes a circle for me.

I met the worms. I saw in the past two years very confusing images of infrastructure that let me wonder… why do we keep building (especially in a country which society is shrinking?). I know jobs have to be created, that accessibility is a human right … but sometimes it is good to rest.

What do you think?

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.

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(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).

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(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.

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(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

Norwegian Birch Bark

When my Norwegian friend told me about the journey of a two year old Viking heir to the Norwegian throne through mountains and forests by  “birch benders” (his own translation of Birkebeinar), I was intrigued. Birch benders are a rebellious party in Norway from the 12th century which was so poor that they had to make their shoes of birch bark. By doing a bit of research I learned more about the Norwegians’ relationship to winter, the mountains and cross-country skiing and birch trees. I know in other cultures, like the Celtic and Russian, the birch has special roles and meanings, but I do not know that much about the relationship between Norwegians and the birch.

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Do you recognize Kristofer Hivju, famous for playing the role of Tormund Giantsbane in the HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones? He was one of the stars in the Last King, a 2015 Norwegian historical drama. The Norwegian title of the movie is Birkebeinar.

The best skiers

I learned more about the “Birkebeinerrennet” or “Birkebeiner Ski Race”, which is Norway’s most traditional cross-country ski race running every year from Rena to Lillehammer. It has been held annualy since 1932, and commemorates a trip made by the birch benders (I use the name of my friend) to save an infant which could claim the Norwegian throne, as they did not like the current Norwegian king. The two best skiers were selected to undertake this dangerous journey. All participants of the current ski race carry a backpack weighing at least 3.5 kg, symbolizing the weight of the then-one-year-old king.

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Birch wood

The birch plays a central role in northern Norwegian life. I saw it being used for fire, but also the postwar houses are made from “this White Lady of the Wood”. So you see the birch in this picture in two forms ;). In Tromsø, I bought some tea infusion mix of black tea with birch bark .

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On January 2, 2019 I woke up at 09.45 am with this view. I am the guest of Norwegian sheep farmers and their 5 lovely border collies 120 km from Tromsø. I am still above the arctic circle.

Birch water

In the region of Norway, the birch trees start to show green leafs, which is a sign that we soon can tap the healthy birch water. Birch sap is collected only at the break of winter and spring when the sap moves intensively. Birch sap collection is done by drilling a hole into its trunk and leading the sap into a container via some conduit (a tube or simply a thin twig): the sap will flow along it because of the surface tension. The wound is then plugged to minimise infection. Some years ago, a friend and I also tapped birch sap from birches in Belgium, and it was really refreshing. It is good for skin and hair. In a Norwegian book about outdoor and cuisine I found also instructions how to tap birch sap.

Back to the birch benders

As my friend explained to me a couple of times, Norwegians are mostly “humble hard working decent human without making too much of a fuzz.” Before they found all the oil reserves, Norway was not a wealthy nation and people were relatively poor and had to survive in severe conditions, being sync with the strong seasonal changes and deal with the ingredients and other resources they found in their land (which explains why their traditional meals are often simple). Birch was one of their resources, and they are very grateful for it, and learned to manage it in a resource efficient way. When people are poor, like birch binders, they can be often very innovative in finding new ways of underutilized resources like birch bark.

For me, while I witness how the temperature increase makes the snow on the tree branches heavier so the snow falls and reveals all the green, to experience the end of winter and observe spring and other new beginnings, retelling the story of birch benders is reminding us to the courage of two good skiers being resource efficient (especially now in this ecological crisis we should return to a higher use of biobased materials)  to dethrone a king. For me, that king of current time is the dominating paradigm of profit-oriented of economic growth and exploitation.

Continue reading Norwegian Birch Bark

Ecofeminism in 2019

In European countries such as Sweden, Belgium and the United Kingdom, the current climate movement is attracting enormous interest, and it is perhaps not by chance that it has female (and even teenage !) frontrunners such as Anuna De Wever (Belgium) and Greta Thunberg (Sweden). Women seem to be at the forefront of tackling climate change problems and at the same time they are also the main victims of persistent gender inequality. Since the 1970’s, ecofeminist analyses have  drawn attention to the links between women and nature, both in celebration and in highlighting their subordination to patriarchal capitalist regimes.

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Greta and Anuna during a climate protest in Belgium, end of February 2019

However, when we play the devil’s advocate, we wonder what makes women different from men that they could improve the environment?  Are they really that different? Is there no danger that we let men off the hook in our transition toward a more just and balanced world? Some feminist and environmental writers say that women are more connected with the nature and that makes them the perfect “sustainability saviours”. Why is that?  Other writers point out that women have more pro-environmental behaviour and even do more environmental activism (compared with men). Why is that? Or do these correlations (which are not necessary causalities) point to a more hidden truth?

Are women more connected with nature?

Neurosciences can provide a first answer if women are more connected with nature. Female and male bodies have different neurotic systems which cause different feelings and thoughts. Jean Shinoda Bolen is drawing on this in her book “Like a tree: how trees, women and tree people can save the planet” to point out that empowering women can save trees (and the nature in general), because “female brains” make “oxytocin” in stress related situations which let them behave in “tend-and-befriend strategies” while “male brains” produce more “adrenaline” which results in “fight-or-flight” strategies. Bolen argues that women are more capable of solving environmental problems, because they tend to cooperate more, which is in her opinion a key for a more sustainable world.

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However, this idea is problematic in the sense that it could exclude men from environmental decision making, which is also a critique about certain streams in ecofeminist philosophy and activism. 

Ecofeminism: origins and today

The term “ecofeminism” is coined in 1974 by Francoise d’Eaubonne in “Le Feminisme ou La Mort” and used afterwards in the context of actions and activities by women against environmental destruction and disasters in the seventies (example is the Greenham-Common) and against the development of technologies, especially weapon technology, and bio-engineering, and in 1980 during the Amherst Conference which had the title “Women and Life on Earth”, where they saw the “liberation of women as part of a bigger fight for the conservation of life on earth”. (Van de Ven, 1996, Van de Ven, 2015)

Nowadays, I see the word coming up again. Korean friends recommended me to read “the vegetarian” by Han Kang, and told me they really liked the ecofeminist message behind it. Some days ago I found an invitation for a panel and film screening in Belgium which is called “ecofeminism” and points to female frontrunners as Aruna and Greta.

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But … what is ecofeminism?

There is not really a definition for ecofeminism, because there are many streams. The common characteristic of the different streams are the suppression of the nature and the suppression of women, both by the patriarchy. (Van de Ven, 1996, Van de Ven, 2015). Karen Warren et al (1987) defines patriarchy as a framework “which takes traditionally male-identified beliefs, values, attitudes and assumptions as the only, or the standard, or superior ones; it gives higher status or prestige to what has been traditionally identified as ‘male’ than to what has been traditionally identified as ‘female’. A Patriarchal conceptual framework is characterized by value-hierarchical thinking” (1987:6).

Ecofeminism is all about rejecting the binary power structures that suppresses nature and women. One interesting stream is the essentialist stream,  which draws on the fact that nature and women have both “built-in biological clocks” and experience life-death-life cycles and nurture. (Van de Ven, 2015:6).  

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These thoughts were very present in the seventies and eighties among many ecofeminists, but are abandoned in the nineties by especially people from the Global North, because this thinking  is still based on dualistic thinking and ecofeminists want not be seen as “children” which “should be nurtured by Mother Earth” and can use this view to avoid responsibility. (Van de Ven, 2015:6).

However, in Latin-America, they see it differently. Kate Jenkins describes the anti-mining activities of “old man women” in Peru (2017), and explains how this visualisation of the connection between the earth and women can function as a symbol in the resistance. Paddock (2018) is using an ecofeminist epistemological framework to analyse narratives of women to understand challenges of food insecurity and diet-related ill-health across the Caribbean and the West Indies, the Turks and Caicos Islands. 

Does having a female body mean you are more connected to nature?

The American feminist anthropologist Sherry Ortner researched if “female is to male as nature is to culture” (1972). In this classic paper, she rejected biological determinism (or essentialism) and pointed out that women’s social association with motherhood, nurturing children and working at home places them closer to “nature” than men are (1972). Also an UN Women Report of 2014  pointed out that the relationship between women and environment is not intrinsic, but based on gender roles and norm: “Women-environment connections -especially in reproductive and subsistence activities such as collecting fuel wood, hauling water and cultivating food – were often presented as if natural and universal rather than as the product of particular social and cultural norms and expectations.” (UN Women, 2014: 40)

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Julia Robert as “Erin Brockovich”

We should not look to the biological body or the sex, but to the gender, which is according to Candace and Zimmerman “the activity of managing situated conduct in light of normative conceptions of attitudes and activities appropriate for one’s sex category” (1987:127). Sex category is “a categorisation established and sustained by the socially required identificatory displays that proclaim one’s membership in one or the other category”. (1987:127). Candace and Zimmerman also argued that gender is not something we are, but something we do. “Doing gender involves a complex of socially guided perceptual, interactional, and micropolitical activities that cast particular pursuits as expressions of masculine and feminine “natures”” (1987:126). In other words, gender is expected and a product of social doing and often seen as natural given, but it is created by society and people are often not aware of that.

As Ortner noted, this relationship between nature and women is part of gender expectations, which are only present in certain cultures in a certain time. Also Judith Butler (1990) wrote that gender is a product of culture and history. In certain cultures, mostly in rural areas in developing countries, the relationship between gender roles and environment is still visible because women and men live in separate spheres. The “separate sphere” of women in (rural areas) in developing countries is the domestic, the forest, the nature and staying in this separate sphere gives them more insight than the men of their culture who live in another sphere which was not so connected with nature.

One of the most famous stories, which is often mentioned in ecofeminist papers, books and lectures, like Miess and Shiva’s “Ecofeminism” (1993) is the Chipko movement. In the seventies, tribal women in a village in the Indian Himalaya protected the trees which were going to be felled by embracing the trees. (Van de Ven, 2015) These Chipko women lived also in a separate sphere, which was mostly in nature, and could “see” what would happen if these trees were felled down and they were right.

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Although their gender role linked with the separate sphere can motivate them to protect the environment, like the Chipko women, this is not the case for all women. They are even not conscious about it. Smith et al. (2015)  did a study about food self-provisioning in Poland and Czech Republic. While in West-Europe, food self-provisioning is seen as a (luxurious) hobby, often out of health or environmental consciousness, in Czech Republic and Poland it’s more done out of economical necessity. They introduce the term “quiet sustainability”, which “summarises widespread practices that result in beneficial environmental or social outcomes and that do not relate directly or indirectly to market transactions, but are not understood by their practitioners as being driven by explicit environmental or sustainability goal.” (2015) Stern (2000) researched that someone with an environmental intent  may fail to result in environmental impact when actions undertaken with the intent to benefit the environment are futile. (Stern, 2000), while there are other determinants, like financial reasons, that also lead to pro-environmental behaviour (Whitmarsh, 2009). It could be argued that many women in rural areas, who are also often not educated, do not have notions of sustainability, but rather do things because of economical benefit and gender/cultural norms.

In “Western” countries, like in West-Europe and USA,  most women do not collect wood and fruits in nature, partly because of the innovations in food and agricultural technology, partly because more women go to work and are not anymore the “traditional housewife” as the ones of Betty Friedan’s the feminine mystique” (1963) and do not belong anymore to a separate sphere. There are even women in “Western countries” which probably pollute more than men in the same countries and men in more developing countries. A person in a Western culture could have pro-environmental intentions, but still by using car or airplane (to go to a “climate conference” to make it more ironic) and drinking coffee have a higher environmental impact than women and men in less developed areas.

The cultural norms and the asymmetry between impact and intent point out that because you’re born in a woman’s body, like essentialists would argue, that you are more environmentally sustainable, but because of certain gender roles in certain cultures in certain time you become a sustainable person. De Beauvoir’s famous quote “one is not born, but rather becomes a woman” (1949: 309) could even be changed that “one is not born a sustainable person, but rather becomes a sustainable person”.

Back to Greta and Aruna

I see also the counter-attacks to young ladies as Aruna and Greta. Some people joke that these young people are naive and stupid, because they do not realize they are protesting again “their own lifestyle”. There is critique that these young people do not provide solutions and should stop skipping school “so they can become smarter and find solutions”. Some older people complain about the arrogance of young people, using arguments that they were more sustainable in previous decades when there were no iphones, ast fashion, and even plastic bottles. I saw even social media messages with a list of Aruna’s flight travels (which are true or not, does not matter). What a hypocrite, many people say.

Based on my own experience as researcher, it is actually sad to see how we work with “guilt feelings”. I am involved in a project with youth of all walks of life and their introduction to the circular economy.

In our society, we are more often reminded of our individual responsibilities, when perhaps that is not the solution? The arsenal of choices we offer is also accompanied by the development of guilt feelings among individuals. “If you don’t eat like that or take the plane too much, you’re not sustainable.” I think most people will recognise these feelings of guilt. Often during this project, I heard the young people “joking” that they would eat less, eat earth, or just don’t eat anymore. While some of them are already underprivileged. That is not the intention of the educational project.

My own consideration is that a faster transition to a more just world without waste can happen  if policy makers concentrate on the structural limits (in political, legal etc.) instead of insisting on (even more) sustainable choices that individuals should make.

That means focus on cooperation, passiveness, being careful, reproduction, passiveness, cycles, and coming together. These are “feminine” or “yin” values, and these are missing in many domains of our life and of our society and how things are arranged, decided and are done. For me, Aruna and Greta, which let people talk and cooperate, and protest together… that is “yin”.

It does not matter they have a female body.

It matters that we give more a voice to the “yin”.

And yes, that means, in 2019, still giving a voice to (more) women and indeed use symbolic ideas as ecofeminism.

 

Part of this blog is written as a final essay for a Master course “introduction to feminist studies” at the University of Graz, Austria, submitted in June 2015, together with my friend Marielis Suárez Rivera, an engineer from Puerto Rica. In this blog I added some extra scholar references, because in the last 2,5 years I learned more about ecofeminism. Please share in the comments your ideas about ecofeminism anno 2019, and which ecofeminists are active in your country or state.