It’s a new decade, my dear forest wanderers. Happy New Year! I took some time today to reflect on the past year of forest bathing and here are the highlights:
It has been a full year and I am continuously moved by the time shared in the forest. Every walk is different. Every session has new experiences. This year my edges were pushed when I finally had what I used to dread: pouring rain for most of the walk. In my training we had a walk in the rain and it was wonderful. And I often have been in the forest in the rain; and found it indescribably beautiful and just what I needed. And yet I fretted over taking a group out for a forest bathing session when the weather was going to be pouring rain. Who was it that said (Bob Dylan, Bob Marley or Roger Miller!) ‘Some people feel the rain. Others just get wet’? We felt the rain! People on that walk afterwards said how happy they were that we didn’t miss the rain. It was the rain itself that awakened the senses, set the forest to its heavy drinking and allowed us people to remember how much fun rain is… what can happen when we give ourselves permission to get wet, to drink raindrops, to watch water trickle and flow… to stomp in a puddle. When we stop seeking shelter and dryness and lean in to what is – and it was pouring.
Another edge for me has been winter walks. I’m asked pretty often if I lead winter walks. The winter is my off-season for group walks, but I am in the forest either by myself or with my dogs or my guys all year. And winter is a favourite season for me in the forest.
“Let silence take you to the core of life.” – Rumi
I look forward to seeing you on the trail.
Hello dear reader,
I am thrilled to be able to offer Forest Therapy/Forest Bathing in Niagara where we have a crazy abundance of natural beauty in forests, lakes, vineyards, streams and waterfalls. Common questions I receive about Forest Bathing:
What is Forest Bathing?
Essentially it’s slowing down in nature; being fully present with where we are versus trying to get somewhere else. And in slowing down, it opens us to the full benefits of being in a forest environment. It’s a lot more than a mere “walk in the woods” but it is hard to describe. And in trying to describe it I run the risk of putting expectations out there of what it is supposed to be. I can say a couple things Forest Bathing is not: It is not a hike or exercise in nature. Your fitbit will be thoroughly unimpressed. We don’t cover a great distance. It is also not a naturalist walk. You are not going to learn about nature. Sometimes when we’re busy naming and classifying and identifying we are right back into our analytical minds and have lost access to a deeper way of knowing someone. It’s just like me at a party (ok, I’m rarely at parties anymore, but let’s just pretend a sec, OK?). If a stranger comes up to me and asks me what my name is, I will say, “Melissa.” Can that person now say, “I know Melissa”? Of course not. To know anyone takes time. It takes a lot more than knowing a name. It takes mutual listening. It takes letting go of posturing and masks and just showing up as we are. It takes vulnerability. It takes golden silence spent together. It takes soft gaze fascination with each other. As we slow down in nature you may find that you have a chance to enter into a different kind of conversation, a different kind of knowing, and that this kind of knowing restores your connection to nature, yourself and others.
Will anyone be naked and getting in actual water?
No, you will not be naked. I feel like this needs to be said again: No one will be naked! Whether this news comes to you as a relief or disappointment is your journey to manage. Will we get in water? Sometimes, yes, but only if you want to. There are times when we are near a stream and it’s a hot summer day and I might do a water invitation. You might surprise yourself by wanting to take your socks and shoes off and feel the water with your feet, or you may play in the water in whatever way you want. You might remember the many ways water is wonderful, wise and fun.
Why do I need a guide? Can’t I just do this myself?
First of all, you might not need a guide! If you can already go into a forest and rest and slow down and listen deep and open yourself to the experience…if you can turn that nattering brain off and be fully present, then by all means, do it! However, for many people, myself included, we may go to the forest with the express intent to slow down, to take ourselves forest bathing and sink into simple presence only to find ourselves easily distracted. Speaking for myself, I can go to the forest with this intent and two seconds on the trail my brain is on old, familiar hamster wheels. Or I try to multi-task by taking my two dogs to the forest so they get their jeebies out and I get to forest bathe. Nice try! My brain then focuses on their movements, their antics (adorable or naughty as they are!), their adventures in nature and I am again lost to my own experience. Plus I’m walking way too fast when I’m with the dogs. There is no way I am present when I’m going at that speed. I was there on that trail, but I wasn’t really there at all. I missed so much. I didn’t really see/hear/smell/taste/feel anything at all. Or I feel the familiar pull to be with my family or friends and so I tell myself that I can sort of forest bathe while hiking with them. Nope. Wrong again. The activity of interacting (the talking!) takes me away from the present moment. And forest bathing is not hiking. It isn’t even a walk. So it often makes sense that when we commit ourselves to a set time to meet with a group who is going forest bathing, we can fully engage. I liken it to yoga. I could easily say, why on earth do I need to go to a yoga studio and be led by a yoga teacher, when I can easily do it at home in my own living room, and follow a yoga instructor on youtube? The answer: I don’t do it. I could do it. I don’t. I need that group and that facilitator taking me through the process.
There is a facebook group for forest therapy guides where a woman recently noted painful feedback she got from staff at a state park in the U.S. who bluntly stated the following about us forest bathers:
“They don’t go far. They don’t learn anything. They just sit in the forest and drink tea!”
The very thought! An atrocity! Not doing anything?! Not going anywhere?! Not learning anything?! The community responded with love and encouragement (us forest therapy guides may tend to be the softie/tender types), but I had to have a laugh. It’s an understandable critique. We are an action-oriented culture. And it’s seen as suspect to openly go against going/doing/learning/accomplishing and move toward being/stillness/answerlessness (my own word – you’re welcome). For many it is downright uncomfortable to practice being, versus striving toward goals, toward a destination. It reminded me of Mary Oliver’s poem:
Today I’m flying low and I’m
not saying a word.
I’m letting all the voodoos of ambition sleep.
The world goes on as it must,
the bees in the garden rumbling a little,
the fish leaping, the gnats getting eaten.
And so forth.
But I’m taking the day off.
Quiet as a feather.
I hardly move though really I’m traveling
a terrific distance.
Stillness. One of the doors
into the temple.
I think forest bathing is about letting the voodoos of ambition sleep. And as we hardly move, we cover a terrific distance. Poetry can step in when description fails.
Do you have to be a mega-hippie to do this?
No, you do not. But I would take you up on the use of this word. Why is “hippie” used in such a derogatory way? Hippies went against the grain and being counter-cultural, now in 2019, is a pathway to greater health if you ask this humble social worker. Hyper-productivity, managing the onslaught of information that comes at us through the internet and social media, being glued to habit-forming smartphones (it’s an addiction giving us dopamine hits and the whole bit – don’t get me started!), our obsession with being busy, where has that led us? Research now shows us that teen suicide is up and the only factor leading to the spike is the access to smartphones. It is now proven that social media use is co-related to increased anxiety and depression. And of course it is! We compare our crumby lives with the shiny, happy people holding hands on Instagram. Who wouldn’t feel miserable? Forest bathers put their phones away; or even (hopefully) turn them off. They slow down. They may even lay down and breathe and listen to what nature has to say. I guess that is indeed going against generally accepted values and beliefs of our society! Go ahead, call me a hippie, but I don’t look like it. I don’t have the gear. When I was being trained to be a guide, by The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy, which is based out of …. wait for it…. California, I may have had a passing inkling to try to play the part - get the festival gear, short shorts with boots, and complicated tank tops - but I can’t. And I think all of us can be glad to be spared that charade. You just show up as you. And I will show up as me. And the forest always shows up for us as it is. We belong.
I can’t wait to see you on the trail.
We were excited as we finally hit the "PUBLISH" button and reloaded the online portion of NNFT. And now we have published dates for upcoming forest bathing walks in Niagara. We are also beginning to link various social media tools, so that we are stepping up that part of the web game too. Seems fun, but also a bit overwhelming, so we are taking the “slow but sure” approach.
We (Melissa and Jonathan) are also excited to jointly enter the blogosphere. We hope to allow our scientific/left brain sides and our not-always-so-serious/right brain sides to collide and even carouse in these posts. The choice to call it “Knotty in Nature” was a tough one, and it's still just a provisional title. Although we have a lot of serious reflections/topics prepared, we do want to be more playful with this blog. Just to mix some fun in.
But we also want to unpack some of the meaning behind the words - restore.belong. - and to reflect also on the core principles of the practice as self-other-nature. These things are not self-evident, and for people who have become familiar with and practiced in mindfulness, these emphases will likely seem odd or unclear. Nature/forest therapy is quite different from mindfulness in some respects, and we will reflect on that too.
Of course when choosing the title for the blog, some might think that “Knotty by Nature” would have been a better choice, however, I discovered it's already been taken by a handful of knitting businesses (and if they happen to be looking for alternatives, I would offer them other puns such as “the Knit-Wit Store” or “Sew Knot Gonna..” or even “Stitch and Switch” i.e., switch colours, hands, needles, etc. The list is potentially endless. I digress. And I wish I hadn't started. But now that I've reflected on it further, I really think the knitting folks should have left “Knotty by Nature” for a tree-related business.) This is egregiously off topic, but perhaps readers would like to comment below, offering other knitting store suggestions?).
There are plenty of serious issues to engage, from new research that keeps improving our understanding of why spending time in nature is so beneficial, to more tantalizing (yet less serious) insights from celebrities such as Kate Middleton and her new-found forest bathing fascination. One issue that we should address here, in order to dispel the assumptions, is the fully-clothed nature of forest bathing. Shinrin yoku, as it is called in Japan, involves no bodily submersion in water, and no removal of clothing in a general sense (although taking off your shoes at times, shedding a layer if the sun proves you bundled up too warm, etc.). Forest therapy is forest bathing is nature therapy is shinrin-yoku, in a general sense. Clothing is standard. The whole time.
Now to ponder the phrase, “naughty by nature”: the idea of being naughty isn't really one we're trying to support in principle, if by naughty you mean reckless destruction. But if you mean breaking the rules of society by re-wilding yourself, going back to your more primitive selves, which society would probably view as rebellious or socially divergent, i.e. being naughty, then yes, let's be naughty in nature. Fully clothed (besides everyone agrees outdoor clothing and Tilley hats are just so the fashion. Am I right?).
We are struck these days by how many movies continue to portray the wild as hostile to humans. The reality is, yes, there are dangers out there. We take them seriously. But are there not less dangers in the wild than in the tame (civilization)? Isn't human society generally much naughtier than the wilderness? More savage?
Trees, having knots, have a knotty nature, and it's what enables their strength and growth by creating branches and reinforcing their core's connection to the different directions in which they are pulled. So if we want to join them in being naughty (read: wild), or knotty (all tightly wound), let's get to a place in nature to let our mental knots disentangle or unfurl, or to branch out a little. We do seek to promote being knotty in nature, if only to let nature heal and manage our knottiness. You feel knotty? Then get into nature. Hang with other knotty creatures. They will teach you a thing or two about how to remain calm while being pulled in all directions.
Come to think of it, the idea that humans are either naughty by nature, or knotty by nature (born bad and inevitably sickened and stressed - two sides of the same messed-up coin?), isn't something we want to promote; many people have ideas about whether humans are inclined to good or evil and may assume that we are knotty/naughty in our essence, to the core. We're naught. knot. NOT. Why not just experiment with our inclinations to be natural. By nature and in nature, we can become our better selves. This can be named a spiritual quest, or a personality discovery or simply a journey of health. Our blog posts will probably shift gears regularly between these various shades of nature therapy.
In nature we can recover parts of who we always knew ourselves to be, but have forgotten. We can belong in our recovered identity, and in connection with others who are on the path of rediscovering a deeper sense of belonging in this world (rather than escape). And in this process or path we become both recipients and agents of restoration. Our selves, our relationships (with humans and the more-than-human natural world), and a more intimate role in the task of restoring the natural world. We belong, we are restoring as we become restored.
This winter has been somewhat hostile to those of us who regularly want to find ourselves outdoors. It feels like finally the season and energy of life is changing! As we gaze out and enjoy the bright sun that is illuminating the maple tree in our back yard, giving hope that the warmth of spring will soon draw us outdoors more, we are grateful to be in this world - to belong here, and to have a role in becoming restored with nature.
What to expect from future blog posts? We intend to include a broad range of topics and styles of writing, but all with the expectation that it will be of interest to forest bathers. Along the way we will process and share some of the reading we are doing on related topics. Some of the blog posts will come in the form of a book review, not in an academic or New York Review of Books style, but one in which we hope to summarize, reflect and speak from the heart about the pages that are now shaping our practice. If there are others who want to review a book and post it here, we are definitely game for giving a forum for the insights and reflections of others.