Becoming a Forest Therapy guide has been a deeply transformative experience for me.
Like most of us, I had gone into the woods only rarely and then rushed through it. I worried if I was getting enough exercise. Would hiking count as a cardio workout, or would it be better to jog? How long would I have to do this?
Looking back, I realize just how alienated I was from nature. And I am still learning. I used to spend a lot of time with computers and phones (ok, I still do, to a lesser degree). I had little regard for how my presence in the forest would affect the animals that live there. And just how intelligent trees and plants really are.
But everything changed, almost instantly, when I began to immerse myself into the woods. Slowly, deliberately and with mindful regard for the beings whose home it is, I began to get to know them.
I ran into a deer a little while ago, almost literally. I was jogging (gingerly) through a patch of urban forest, when I saw a young buck, maybe 30 yards to my left. He just stood there, unfazed by my appearance. I stopped abruptly, mesmerized by the image that presented itself to me: this beautiful, gentle being, who seemed to look at me so trusting, at the end of a tree lined path.
We gazed at each other for what felt like a long time. He waited patiently until I took his picture, and it was me who eventually broke away. I waved at him and when I turned around a second later, he has disappeared.
Had I not been an (imperfect) Vegan already, this encounter probably would have turned me into one.
Forest bathing has even more to offer than connection: trees release chemicals called phytoncides in an effort to strengthen the health and immune system of other trees and plants. When we humans walk among trees, we automatically take in these hormones. The trees take care of all beings that visit, including us. Being in the forest automatically calms anxiety and eases depression.
I’ve noticed these benefits immediately. Symptoms of a mild autoimmune disorder I’ve had for decades and never responded to any kind of conventional treatment, all of a sudden dissipated. Scientific studies point to benefits even for cancer and heart disease patients. Taking one three hour long walk in the woods per week will do.
Another effect it had on me is that I religiously began to compost and recycle. My husband looked at my efforts to bring back food scraps from the restaurant in my own plastic container somewhat astonished. Now he tries to remember as well.
Our culture is dangerously disconnected from the resources we take for granted. We ingest food and water and use energy that is freely taken from the Earth, the plant and animal world, but we have forgotten to honor the givers. That is why the planet is in peril. We take and take without truly considering the costs to those who give.
Change is essential. And it is already happening in many segments of society.
But I don’t think there is a need to totally curse technology or move to the North pole. We can start to make changes in a gentle way.
That is what Forest Therapy is about: to reconnect mindfully and at whatever pace possible. In nature things move slowly, but everything always gets done.
Gerti Schoen is a writer and psychotherapist. In her spare time she enjoys learning, being in nature and around animals.