Those of us, living in the Northeast United States, are especially fond of Autumn, when the leaves on the trees turn a resplendent array of colors: the brightest yellows, reds, oranges or sometimes, yes, even the lowliest of browns. The crunch of the fallen leaves under foot is a harbinger of the deep rest that is to come; the temperature drops and we bundle up. It just feels right. It’s why it’s called Fall, right?
Leading forest therapy walks in the forest at this time of year holds some special invitations: all about letting go, and yet, there is more to it than that; more to it than a leaf changing color and falling off a tree. In fact, it’s quite the other way around. It is the tree that chooses, and it is the tree that pushes the leaves off its branches.
According to our botanists, when the days get colder and shorter, a hormone is triggered in the trees. Once the hormone is released, the trees begin to deposit cells where the leaf and the tree connect. These cells are called abscission cells; the word literally meaning scissors. As these cells build up, the leaf and the tree begin to separate until, finally, the leaf is severed from its connection to the tree and it falls. The tree literally pushes the leaf away. Once it’s done that, the tree heals itself producing another, specialized layer of cells.
Not all leaves are pushed away and not all trees do this. Our evergreens keep their needle-like leaves year-round. Only Deciduous trees release their leaves in order to survive the winter and prepare for new growth in the Spring. Imagine the dead-weight of all those leaves if they didn’t fall. How would a tree create a new growth without releasing the past?
And the big question is … how might this inform our Human lives?
We talk about letting go; releasing what doesn’t serve us. So many of our global stories no longer serve us and yet, we hold on. Same holds true for personal stories: people, places, our clutter, money and our jobs. How will we invite new growth if our arms are full of old stories; our hearts full of grief and our minds so cluttered that we can no longer bear the silence in which discovery emerges? What would it take to create that release; that slow and steady cutting off of the thing(s) no longer needed; in fact, harmful to us if we allow them to remain?
An invitation to explore this in concert with a tree should come as no surprise. Who else to teach us how to release, to push off the unwanted? At the same time, let’s not forget those vivid colors; the red, gold, and orange colors of release. To be released with such love; not quietly, no, with splendor. What a gift!
How might you release an old story with love, with splendor?
Go into the forest, or park, or preserve. Find a tree with color surrounding it. I invite you to pick up some leaves: one, or as many as you can hold, and raise your arms up high, as if you were a tree, it’s branches full of the leaves that once gave you life. Name them, your stories, if you choose. Otherwise, simple stand with your leaves until your arms get tired; until you get tired of standing with these leaves from a season past. Then one by one, or all at once, imagine building a cellular wall between you and the leaves, notice their colors. They do not go quietly, do they? Once you’ve made the separation between you and your leaves, release them; push them off. Wait. Don’t go yet. What does it feel like to release them? Hands, free of old stories. Wiggle those fingers; maybe even wave your arms. Yes!
The tree also teaches us that there’s a resting period between this act of love, the freedom of release and new growth. A deep resting time to trust that we’re in the mystery of something extraordinary; something primordial. So, I invite you to rest, deeply. Don’t even consider Spring. The tree doesn’t and yet, it buds and blooms, and grows new leaves every Spring without fail. It trusts that’s how it works.
Time to trust how you work; how the world works in interbeing with you. Sweet dreams. See you in Spring.
Linda Lombardo, certified Forest Therapy Guide
I think of the poem, ‘Lost’, by David Wagoner.
“Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.”
One line in particular stands out for me:
‘If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost.’
I wonder, in a poem filled with such hope,
Why he chose to add that one particular line.
There is hope.
There is hope.
Unless you can’t see the connection between
You and all living things.
Then, you’re surely lost.
Arguably, some judgment there, even if it’s true
In my story, in your story;
Just not the stories
Of so many who cannot see the connection to
Other. Living. Beings. except to exploit them, or
Abandon them in hurricanes and floods;
Except to hunt them, even if they are the
Last. Of. Their. Kind.
And not only other species.
Our. Own. Species.
We are exploited by each other
and may already be the last of our kind, too.
And there is hope in the poem.
“Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.”
A beautiful expression that nature will always forgive us
And welcome us back. If only we’d just stand still for a moment.
The last line in the title of this article, “We are lost. Can we ever be found?” asks, “And who exactly is looking for us?”
Now, there’s a question.
I believe we are looking for us.
Each of us is looking for ourselves,
And we are looking for each other.
In order to do that, we need to
Let. Down. Our. Guard.
Stop trying to be so damn perfect,
So damn successful, so damn powerful,
So damn rich and impenetrable
In a world that is fragile at best.
Every day, we die just a little.
Some days, we die completely.
Let yourself be found.
Please, let yourself be found.
- Linda Lombardo 9.23.18
Ticks make a trip into the forest or meadow a serious adventure. It’s dampened my enthusiasm for being outdoors, even as a forest therapy guide. I walk in the woods with permethrin clothing, still spraying myself with (albeit) organic tick repellent. I tuck my permethrin-saturated pants into my permethrin-saturated socks. No joke. It isn’t fun. It’s hot. My body can’t breathe. It’s not how I want to be in the wilderness, and yet it’s how I must be.
I’ve come home with 2 ticks in the past few years. I hated both of them. They cost me, running to urgent care to be sure I got all of it out and getting some antibiotic cream ‘just to have on hand’. Now, after doing more reading, I see that any remnants of tick parts will fall off in a few days, so I can avoid a costly trip to the doctor.
An interesting side note, I told my new primary care physician that I’d had two tick bites in the last 2 years (yes, a miracle that it’s only 2 ticks) and while she recommended that I be tested for the Baby Boomer Hep C, she never once suggested I include a Lyme test in my bloodwork. I still wonder about that. The ticks were only attached for <24 hours and still, I always get a raised red patch as a sensitivity to the bite itself.
I always put my clothes in the dryer before washing them, including my sneakers. Permethrin clothing should be washed by itself so that’s an extra (small) load of laundry to do.
I’ve jumped out of my skin thinking I see a tick, when it’s nothing more than a piece of fuzz. I don’t like being on high alert for ticks and I have to be.
Ticks don’t come off in the shower, contrary to this video I watched. Not once they’ve latched on, at least. You’ve got to check yourself when you get home, top to bottom and showering is still required.
I was at C.E.E.D. in Brookhaven this summer when they released quail. It was a wonderful sight to see! And yet the question must be asked, “will they even eat the ticks?”, and “will the birds of prey or feral cat population make short shrift of the quail?” According to Eric at C.E.E.D., only one percent of the quail population lives to reproduce.
There are permit issues with releasing quail. I came across an article where someone released a certain species of ducks in a protected area and the land management people went crazy trying to capture the ducks before they invaded another species’ environment. Bob-white quail are native to Long Island, so that shouldn’t be an issue.
This also leads me to wonder about quail as a food source. Someone commented on Facebook, “Oh boy, quail hunting!” I don’t know that I’d want to eat a quail that’s been eating ticks. Do we know that quail are immune to Lyme, or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever? The only search that rendered any results about immunity to Lyme Disease was Opossums. One comment following the article stated that there’d been another study with a lizard (as if there’s only one kind) and the lizard was immune to Lyme. It begs the question, ‘are we at all interested in why Opossums are immune to Lyme disease?’
You think we’d be releasing Opossums, not quail.
Long Island’s parks and preserve management is notoriously passive. Trails are either passable or not. When I scout an area for a forest therapy walk, I avoid any trails that require me to duck, bob and weave, or worse, brush past long, tangling vines. My participants don’t want that, and I don’t want that for them. Not because it’s inconvenient but because I’m thinking ticks.
I was recently invited to engage in creating a forest therapy walk with an equine therapist in Virginia. At the end of the call, she added, “Oh, you know we have Lyme here, right?” Honey, I live on Long Island, was what I wanted to reply.
Ticks and Lyme Disease are serious threats to not only our health, our reconnection with nature. People don’t want to take off their rubber-insolated shoes and feel the earth beneath their feet. They just don’t. It’s dangerous.
I keep people on trails; wide ones, and if I invite them off trail to converse with a tree, I choose a spot with little to no underbrush. Pine areas are perfect for no underbrush. Otherwise, I choose a location where the trees are accessible on the trail.
Science takes money; money comes with interest. There just isn’t enough interest in what’s happening with ticks and Lyme Disease and not enough money ear-marked for wellbeing to make that happen.
Humans love their crazes! Since our creativity and imagination know no limits, there are always food, dance, fashion and health crazes popping up every day. No matter where you look in the news, there is a new ‘craze’ happening.
Here’s where I draw the line. I draw the line at reading about the newest health craze called Forest Therapy. Forest Therapy isn’t one of those crazes and, calling it such, makes me, well, a bit crazy. You see, I’m a certified Forest Therapy Guide and I believe Forest Therapy is here to stay.
Let’s define a craze. A craze is a “short-lived” trend, or “a wild or exaggerated enthusiasm for”. A craze is deep-fried watermelon and lava lamps; it’s push-pops and ring pops; it’s boy bands, revealing your bra-color-of-the-day and swallowing goldfish; it’s pet rocks and hula hoops … well, maybe not hula hoops. They seem to be here to stay, too. Dashboard hula girls, then … now that was a craze.
Forest Bathing or Forest Therapy, although identified by some as the latest health craze, is, in fact, not a craze at all.
When it comes to Forest Bathing, Forest Therapy, or Shinrin Yoku, nothing summed it up more than a recent article I read stating that Forest Therapy is “spurring an evolution in the understanding of links between personal, communal, and ecological wellbeing*.”
I can understand why some might call it a craze. It seems to have sprung up from nowhere. From that perspective, it’s hardly recognizable from deep-fried watermelon. Suddenly, everyone is talking about it, like an actor, who’s spent the last 25 years building his or her career, only to be called ‘an overnight success.’ Uh, no.
Knowing more about Forest Therapy helps to dispel the myth of ‘a craze’ or ‘overnight’ anything.
From Shinrin-Yoku.org, Shinrin-Yoku is a term that means "taking in the forest atmosphere" or "forest bathing." It was developed in Japan during the 1980s and has become a cornerstone of preventive health care and healing in Japanese medicine. Researchers primarily in Japan and South Korea have established a robust body of scientific literature on the health benefits of spending time under the canopy of a living forest. Now their research is helping to establish Shinrin-Yoku and forest therapy throughout the world.
John Muir wrote, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home. Wilderness is a necessity.” John Muir, born 1838, died 1924. Muir is one of many people who we must include when we think about the origins of the practice of Forest Bathing or Forest Therapy. I wonder what he’d think of us now, if he thought we were tired and nerve-shaken in the early 1900’s?
So, that establishes some history. What about the research being done to support the benefits of Forest Therapy?
While we know intuitively that we feel better when we are outside and around nature, in the past several decades, many scientific studies are corroborating this knowing we have about being in nature by studying the healing effects of wild and natural areas. For example, certain trees share their immune systems with us by emitting phytoncides, their essential oils. When you smell pine, for example, you’re receiving the benefits of those phytoncides. Phytoncides support our “NK” or natural killer cells; the cells that are key components of our immune systems and a way that our bodies fight cancer. Show me a craze that can do that.
And the list of benefits goes on. From the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs,
spending time in nature can:
Here’s what I’ve noticed as a certified Forest Therapy Guide:
· We are constantly seeking a deeper connection and community. Even though our technology connects us in ways we’ve never been connected before, I often hear people say that something is missing in their lives.
· We’re stressed; we’re in overwhelm; technology gives us the ability to take in more information about what’s going on in the world; that includes the good things as well as the disturbing things.
· Many long to connect with nature and are hesitant, even fearful, about taking a walk in the woods alone. I hear expressions of gratitude all the time for my Forest Therapy walks or even one-on-one coaching in nature.
· We often shut down our senses to move through the day with one outcome or goal in mind, our list of things to do. Opening our senses on a Forest Therapy walk reminds us to stay open to the journey even if we’ve got a ‘to do’ list.
· Slowing down and noticing what’s in motion when it isn’t us can create an awareness and appreciation of how much we miss when we are moving so quickly through our lives. Noticing all the worlds within worlds in the forest helps us notice worlds within worlds in our daily lives, too.
· Making Nature personal again; Nature was once very personal. In the words of philosopher Alan Watts:
"You didn't come into this world.
You came out of it, like a wave from the ocean.
You are not a stranger here."
As a Forest Therapy Guide, my purpose is to make Nature personal again. When something is personal, we care more about it; we protect it. The only way Forest Therapy might be considered a craze is if we lose our forests, national parks and other natural resources; if we forget that we belong to each other and we let them slip away into extinction. The only way Forest Therapy will be called a craze is if there are no more forests in which to walk or national parks to learn about Earth’s history or wonder at the majesty of mountains or endless rivers flowing to a distant sea. You may not ever feel the loss of deep-fried watermelon or dancing the Electric Slide at a wedding – except those of you who might. You will certainly feel the loss of the forest. It will impact the air you breathe, the foods you eat, the material goods that progress gives us so we can live our 21st Century lives. Nature impacts everything. Tell me that Pet Rocks can do that, or your dashboard Hula dancer - come on, you know who you are.
Forest Therapy is “spurring an evolution in the understanding of links between personal, communal, and ecological wellbeing*.”
We are at the tipping point of remembering that we are connected to Nature. Let’s stay awake and reconnect. Our personal, communal and ecological wellbeing depends on it. Synchronously, so does the natural world. The next time you see or hear Forest Therapy called a craze, remember that, unlike deep-fried watermelon, lava lamps and push-pops, Forest Therapy is an evolution and it’s here to stay.
Certified Forest Therapy Guide
Yesterday, I led an invitation as part of a forest walk for the forest therapy guide intensive I’m attending this week. I chose to lead “holding hands”; spending 15 minutes holding the hand of a tree or shrub or fern … whatever felt safe and comfortable.
The invitation began:
“As Humans we crave connection and relationship. It’s something we have in common with the forest.” I found my reference material here: http://www.integrativescience.ca/Principles/TreesHoldingHands/
I chose the words of the late Mi’kmaw Spiritual Leader, Healer, and Chief Charles Labrador of Acadia First Nation, Nova Scotia, who said, “Go into the forest, you see the birch, maple, pine. Look underground and all those trees are holding hands. We as people have to do the same.”
Chief Labrador was talking about Humans creating better connection with Humans and at the same time, Humans are craving better connection and relationship with the more-than-Human world, too.
One of my colleagues had just noticed the tall Eastern Hemlocks surrounding us and asked for a blessing of these beautiful trees because they are being attacked by an insect that is not native to the region. In the 1950s, an insect called the adelgid made its way into the eastern U.S. from Asia. The insect first appeared in the Richmond, Virginia/Washington D.C. area. Since then an estimated 50 percent of hemlocks in 11 states have been infected. The tiny insect, about 1/16th of an inch long, is identified by the white woolly tufts it creates on the hemlock's needles. It is known as the hemlock woolly adelgid, or HWA. It brought tears to my eyes that these beautiful, powerful trees needed our blessings because they may not survive this blight. As Humans, maybe we know how they feel.
I invited those in our circle to wander and be drawn to a tree; to hold its hand and see what might want to be shared, asked, or said. I, too, was drawn to a tree; a tall hemlock with a branch within my reach. She grew at the edge of steep drop from which the roaring brook could be seen and heard below. I don’t like heights so I stayed on the upside of the tree; the tree acting like a wall between me and the drop.
I asked if I could hold her hand and sensed permission was granted. At first, I held her hand tightly, as if I needed her more than she needed me. After a time, I relaxed my hold, realizing she wasn’t going anywhere, you know?
At some point, I leaned into the tree, smelling its sweet piney scent, which is always my favorite scent, and stayed there for some time just letting the connection deepened. Without any warning, I began to tear up and felt a deep sadness. I was moved to step back from the tree, still holding hands and readjust my position to where I could see the drop-down-to-the-ravine side of the tree. There was another tree there, long dead, with a larger girth than my tree. I heard the words, “She is my sister” and it was clear to me that she wanted me to meet her and know her own sorrow at losing her. Their roots were so close, I tried to determine if they were the same tree, split early in life, like twins … it was difficult to know more than what I’d been given. I didn’t want to pry.
I moved back to a more comfortable spot; where the tree was between me and the ravine. With a looser grasp, we played together; the shoots of her needles were like fingers; dark green with a paler green at the tips of the leader shoots. A tiny spider appeared to sigh at the interruption of its daily routine and lowered itself on its silken thread to do other things while we played.
At the end of the invitation, I was the one to call the group back together, using my Native American flute as the signal. One of the participants said we are all like deer. We heard the flute, looked up and slowly walked towards the sound.
I ended my hand holding with the Eastern Hemlock with some words of gratitude; for trusting me with her sorrow and letting me share some of my own; for play time together and for the connection and relationship.
I wish everyone could have a moment with a tree. We need it and the trees have been waiting for it.