The Big Epic

Connect with Nature - One Adventure at a Time

Category: Nature & Forest Therapy (page 1 of 4)

Let’s Raise Brave Kids (and forget “risky play”)

I want my children to enjoy adventure and be brave enough to try new things and explore new places. How about you?! This post is Part III in a series about raising brave kids and getting our kids outside. Don’t miss Part I and Part II.)

“Risky Play” versus “Brave Kids” – who cares which words we use? Is there some reason one of these phrases is better than the other? Isn’t this just a matter of personal opinion? I argue that we should all stop using the currently common phrase “risky play.” Words matter – they often invoke significant positive or negative emotional responses. Parents and “experts” around the world are discussing the importance of outdoor play for children. (See bottom of post for list of countries talking this topic.) Let’s explore how our words and actions can support our adventurous kids to better enjoy being outside.

joy in being outside

Let’s start by defining what we mean by “Brave Kids.” The words “risky play” imply danger and a need to protect our kids. Obviously, we are not eager to support dangerous behavior. On the other hand, we DO want our children to enjoy adventures, using curiosity and experimentation to explore the world around them. Although this type of discovery-based-learning has the potential for physical injury, it is also a natural and necessary part of children’s play which helps develop many significant skills and attributes.

brave kids jump glacier run-off

That’s a fine definition, but let’s go beyond the dictionary. Here are some examples of helpful activities to build adventurous brave kids. Most of us want our children to learn to walk, ride a bicycle, and swim. These are seen as important developmental milestones in our culture even though they involve risks of physical injury. Generally, we accept activities such as climbing, swinging, sliding, balancing, jumping, and hanging, especially if these things are done on a “safe” playground. It’s rarer for parents to encourage making fires, using a knife, or practicing the above behaviors in wild nature places. We need to let our kids roll down hills, climb trees, swing on vines, slide down rocks, balance on logs, jump off boulders and hang upside-down from branches! And we need to teach them how to safely make fires and use a knife.

brave kids climb rocks

But why should we allow “risky play” when it makes us anxious? What are the benefits of raising “Brave Kids”? I discussed this in more detail in Part I of this series (found HERE). In addition to the many physical, emotional, social, and academic benefits of encouraging outside time for our children, raising kids who enjoy adventure helps them appropriately judge risks, learn to try new things, and strengthens their self-confidence. It may be counter-intuitive but allowing our children to engage in exploratory play can even reduce their risk of injury!

That’s nice…but I don’t want my son or daughter to get hurt! How can I raise brave kids but still keep them safe? Like many aspects of parenting, this is a balancing act. We need to determine what is actually “dangerous” versus things that have an acceptable level of manageable risk. Then we need to train our children in how to make these judgements for themselves.

First, we need to look at ourselves. What are our own fears? What activities did we grow up doing? What things were we stopped from doing when we were kids? All of this plays into what we consider to be “dangerous.”

teen skiing at Killington VT

Here’s an example of how our own childhoods affect our beliefs and actions: my family grew up snow skiing in Vermont every year. We loved this special time together (and, of course, did not consider it to be dangerous.) In the summers, we sometimes went canoeing. That, too, was considered safe, but ONLY if we knew how to swim and wore effective life jackets. And then we grew up. My brother-in-law eventually joined us on family ski trips. We were quite surprised to find out that his family considered downhill skiing to be quite dangerous. After all, celebrities had died on the slopes! On the other hand, he and his dad and brothers went fishing in Canada each year—out on the water with no life vests even though they didn’t know how to swim. Now THAT was dangerous (in our opinion!)

brave kids and grandma hiking on the AT

Once we clearly see who we are and how our own upbringing has shaped us, we need to take time to consider the individual personalities of each of our children. This one is a risk taker, that one hates to try anything new. This one seems to always get hurt, that one is very aware of what her body can do. This one loves to be outdoors, that one hates the bugs and the cold or the hot sun. This one thrives on experiential learning, the other one prefers to learn from books or to watch others for awhile before trying things for himself.

What is our role as caregivers? We start by affirming our responsibilities as parents. Our job in all arenas of life is to give our children freedom to pursue their interests and build needed skills for healthy adulthood. This requires our support, encouragement and training/discipline to help them learn new things, make good decisions and manage risks and difficulties. As parents, we, of course, must protect our children from dangerous things which are genuine threats to their health and safety while still teaching them how to manage appropriate risks.

We need to find a balance in raising adventurous brave kids—not being overprotective nor negligent; not limiting necessary exploration nor pushing children into things they aren’t ready for; not making them fearful nor allowing them to be in genuine danger. This is where we need to remember what we learned about our tendencies and about our children’s personalities. Like most other areas of parenting, how we best support our children varies depending on individual strengths, fears, and personal preferences (theirs and ours!)

child wading in a stream

We also need to remember that getting bumps, bruises or scratches is not imminent danger. Nor is getting dirty or wet something to be avoided at all costs. When we head outdoors, we can plan ahead and bring a change of clothes, some towels, and a small first-aid kit. Learning to overcome small difficulties builds resilience to handle bigger challenges later in life!

Now that we know ourselves, and we know our kids, we can find the best ways to support each child in trying new adventures!

As stated at the beginning, words matter! Let’s guard our tongues and limit phrases such as “Stop!” “That’s dangerous!” or “Be careful!” These statements might make us feel better, but they are too general to actually teach our children safe practices. In addition, when we express our anxiety, we teach our children that we do not trust them, that they can’t handle challenges, or that we are the only ones capable of making good decisions. Instead, we need to use positive language to help our children consider what might happen next. (This article gives excellent suggestions of specific phrases and questions which help build confident kids.)   

Instead of hovering over our children (which exhausts us and them), we can build their skills and their confidence by offering our help without being pushy. As they demonstrate good decision-making and appropriate actions, we gradually give them more freedom. To support them as adventurous explorers, we can:

  • Model behaviors/attitudes about being outdoors and trying new things
  • Teach skills incrementally with supervision and grant greater freedoms gradually
  • Stay close enough to monitor their behavior but only step in if necessary
  • When we are uncomfortable with what our children are doing, take a 17 second pause to determine if this activity is an immediate danger or has manageable risks
  • Choose skill-building words (as discussed above) to support our kids

teen at a campfire

Let’s close with a step-by-step example: even though I’m terrified of simply lighting a match, my daughter Andowen became an expert campfire-maker while we were on our first long backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail. Her mentor was a fellow hiker named “Blaze.” Each evening when we met up at a shelter, Blaze took Andowen with him to find appropriate tinder, kindling, and larger fuel in the surrounding woods. He had her sort it into piles near the fire-pit. He showed her how to stack the wood and how to light it without firestarters. Eventually, he had her try it under his supervision. And, of course, he taught her about keeping a safe distance from open flames and how to fully dowse the embers at the end of the evening. After many days of practicing with Blaze, the time came that we were alone at a shelter. Andowen was quite proud when she made us a campfire all by herself. (I quietly kept a close eye on her safety from a few feet away.) We took a photo of that fire, and when we showed it to Blaze later, he dubbed her the “Mistress of the Flame.” I’m still fearful of lighting birthday candles, but my daughter has the skills, confidence, and good judgment to make campfires for everyone to enjoy!

Now it’s your turn! What will you try from this post as you work to raise your own “Brave Kids” who pursue adventures?

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(Read about why I make sure to take my child in the woods…)

(When I did research for this post, I found significant discussion from multiple countries about how to support children while they safely and independently explore the outdoors. Articles were posted from Australia, Canada, Germany, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway, UK, and the USA. Books about similar parenting choices include “There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather”  in Sweden, and “Achtung Baby”  in Germany.)

How to Get Your Kids Outside

I want my children to enjoy adventure and be brave enough to try new things and explore new places. How about you?! This post is Part II in a series about raising brave kids and getting our kids outside. Don’t miss Part I and Part III.)

By now, you’ve heard all the reasons you should get your kids outside on a regular basis. (If you need more convincing, read my recent blog post about the many benefits of nature connection for children.) You want to do things that are good for your family, but you might have no clue how to make it fun for your kids. Some of us loved being outdoors in our own childhood, but the complete freedom to wander that we experienced doesn’t feel possible today. Others may never have been comfortable outside. So how in the world can you begin to add enjoyable nature time to the life of your family?

Let’s start with a little humor. Take a moment and read the infographic in this blog post to learn how to Work Hard to Avoid Nature Connection! (Shhh! Don’t let your kids read this one. It might give them ammo for their arguments to just stay inside…) Your first steps to getting kids outside can be simply to do the OPPOSITE of everything listed in that chart! Haha!

yoga poses, balance on rocks

Let your children have time to FREE PLAY outside. No worries! This idea doesn’t require skill or (much) planning. Simply find a local park, forest trail, or nature area and let your kids play freely with what they discover. More and more parks are including a “natural playground” area with logs to build with and rocks to climb. Stay near them if you are worried for their safety; but try to resist a constant chorus of “oh be careful!” “Johnny, stop that!” “Suzie, you might get hurt!” Let them climb on rocks, splash in a shallow stream, jump in a mud puddle, pick up sticks, and use their imagination in an outdoor setting. (To allow more freedom, you might want to bring towels and a change of clothes and shoes for when they are finished playing!) 

kids outside, running on dirt path

All of you might enjoy the opportunity to EXPLORE NEW TRAILS. Ask around and find a local park that has walking trail(s). Bonus points for no pavement! Ask your kids to stay within your eyesight, even when the route is fairly even and flat. Often, they will be more excited about exploring if they can be in the lead. This might be less worrisome for you if you find a simple loop trail with no intersections that might be confusing. (You and your kids might enjoy joining our Lego Tiny-Mes as they explore the woods and go on a bear hunt!)

girl by tree, in the woods

Consider whether or not you and your kids would find it fun to LEARN about NATURE. For some of us, more information is a good thing. For others, simply being free to experience the outdoor setting is more enticing. There are many resources for identifying trees, wildflowers, and animals/tracks. If you want broader background knowledge of the outdoors, consider one of the many free Jr. Ranger booklets from the National Park Service. (I’ve written about our daughter’s quest to collect Jr. Ranger badges HERE. This post also includes links and resources for this program. It’s fun to visit the parks in person. But many general booklets are available to download online. Plus most parks will mail you a booklet if you request one. Your child can mail the completed book back to the park to receive a shiny badge!)

Would you like to know about the Hidden Life of Trees? Did you know that they communicate, they have a “wood-wide-web” and they take care of their children and their elders? (I know! Crazy…right?! Read more about this HERE.) A brand new book I just discovered (and love) is “Can You Hear the Trees Talking?. The author explains secrets of forests with simple language and beautiful illustrations. In addition, he offers fun activities to try when you have your kids outside in the woods. (Link to book on Amazon HERE. Even better, buy it from your local book seller.)

kids outside, peering into hole in tree

For fun and games outside, challenge your kids to a SCAVENGER HUNT. You can search for fairies or other imaginary creatures. (Read about our long-term quest of “Finding Fairy Houses” on my blog.) Look for a certain color or search for animal tracks if the trail is soft. Take along a favorite small toy. The toy(s) can go on an imaginary adventure (like our lego Tiny-Mes did in this post) or you can hide the toy(s) for your child(ren) to find. (Check out my Instagram account @legotinyadventures to see all the wonderful places our lego Tiny-Mes have wandered!) WARNINGS: If you wander off the edge of the trail, please be aware of poison ivy or bramble bushes. And if your child might be upset when their favorite toy gets dirty, choose a different toy to hide.

girl sitting on a rock

Finally, when you get your kids outside, have everyone USE THEIR SENSES to connect more deeply with nature. Find a place where everyone can relax. If possible, close eyes (our usual sense through which we process the world.) What can you hear? How does the air feel against your skin or in your hair? What can you smell? Is there any direction that is “calling” you? Open your eyes again and notice what new things you see. (For more ideas or “invitations” to use your senses outside or from a window, check out my nature Instagram @jecolorfulheart_thebigepic.) Consider returning to the same place every week or two and notice what is different! This can be interesting to do even in your own backyard or from a balcony at home! (Returning to sit quietly in the same place over and over is called “Sit Spot.” I’ve written more about this practice HERE.)

I hope these ideas help you to let go of the dreaded “shoulds” of getting your kids outside and help you actually get out there and have FUN together! I would love to hear about other ways you and your family enjoy nature together. Please share your ideas in the comments…

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A few additional resources you might find useful:

This website has free activity ideas and printables. There is also an active facebook group. https://wilderchild.com

I absolutely love Susan, a friend I discovered online who is passionate about helping families get their kids outside. She offers free monthly challenges on her website https://mountainmomandtots.com And as one of her patreon supporters, I have won some really cool things in her monthly gear giveaways.

Finally, this article gives more ideas on how to get your kids outside: https://childmind.org/article/ideas-for-getting-your-kids-into-nature

Why in the World Should We Raise “Nature Kids”?

I want my children to enjoy adventure and be brave enough to try new things and explore new places. How about you?! This post is Part I in a series about raising brave kids and getting our kids outside. Don’t miss Part II and Part III.)

In today’s culture, there are few “Nature Kids” to be found. (This is a big change from past generations. Read about my informal poll of favorite childhood activities HERE.) Most families today have busy schedules. We participate in school and work, lessons and sports, family gatherings and community groups. We pursue connection, entertainment, and knowledge through our electronic screens, often while we are on the go. We feel like we have no time to add anything else to our hectic to-do lists. When we add fears about safety and being uncomfortable with the unknowns of being outdoors (in ourselves or in our kids), it can be a hassle (or even an all-out  battle) to get our kids outside. Why in the world should we bother?

too many screens, stop electronics use

The NEGATIVES: Study after study in the past decades show this indoor, hectic lifestyle is not merely neutral. Our children are actually harmed by the lack of being “Nature Kids.” In his ground-breaking book “Last Child in the Woods,” (written in 2005) author Richard Louv challenged that the exploding rates of ADHD are actually symptoms of “Nature-Deficit-Disorder.” The same can be said for the current rise in sensory processing disorders, delays in the development of fine and gross motor skills, childhood obesity, and even pediatric mental health diagnoses. (There are an overwhelming number of articles and studies online which discuss this problem. Here are two I recommend: “Why Kids Need to Spend Time in Nature” and “Less Outdoor Play is Causing More Harm than Good.”)

The POSITIVES: Okay, so those are the negative ways that too much inside time might harm our children. But why should we actively fight to help our children be “Nature Kids”? I have summarized the benefits of spending regular time outdoors in the following infographic:

infographics, benefits for kids in nature

Since childhood I have always preferred to get outside as often as possible. Once we had a family, because our kids were (mostly) homeschooled, we had plenty of opportunity for them to experience being “Nature Kids.” I admit that some of my now adult children prefer to spend most of their time indoors—but they still occasionally go for walks or drive to a park or a beach for some outdoor time. A few of my adult kids get outside regularly. And in the past five years, we have realized that our youngest daughter NEEDS extended nature time to be healthy. (Read more about this in “Outdoor Girl” and “Child in the Woods.”)

 

dragon trainer, nature kids

“To benefit your family, you do NOT need to commit to big adventures in the wilderness!”

The GOOD NEWS: With further research and through my training to become a certified Forest Therapy Guide, I found some good news for all of us. The many benefits of connecting with nature do not require large sacrifices in our normal schedules. Yes, my daughter and I enjoy living in the woods for weeks at a time as we backpack on the Appalachian Trail. BUT—you do not need to commit to big adventures in the wilderness! Studies show that even just 30 minutes of outside time each week bring long-lasting benefits. Surely, we can find that much time to improve our families’ health and well-being!

nature kids, family outside

Let’s head outdoors and begin to raise “Nature Kids.” Will you join me?

Sunrise-Sunset (Part 1) — Seasons Change

Sometimes (many times?) nature beings are smarter than humans. Seasons change but the natural world just flows along with the changes. Trees don’t look back and wish they still had their bright colored fall leaves. Porcupines don’t look forward and wish it were already warm summer. Squirrels don’t look around and worry if they do or don’t have enough nuts stashed in their surroundings to get them through the winter. Too often, we humans find ourselves stuck, wishing for something that isn’t current reality. I know I struggle with this…what about you?

A year ago, I was finishing my training and practicum to become a certified forest therapy guide. I spent an entire day on the land, from Sunrise to Sunset, noticing what was happening in my surroundings, looking back at how I had reached that point, pondering what the future might look like as I worked to more deeply connect humans with the healing benefits of nature. (In the next few weeks, I will share some of the photos and lessons I found on that beautiful day.)

sunset over lake with reeds, nature immersion, forest therapy

All of that pondering and visioning did not prepare me for where I now find myself: in a difficult, winter season of dealing with a diagnosis of chronic cancer. I’m resting, grieving, and trying to accept this new reality. I find myself looking back, wishing forward, worrying about today, none of which is particularly helpful. I am aware that I need to find a larger framework in which to place this current difficult time. Changing seasons and swiftly flowing years tell me again and again to relax into the now, remembering that none of these challenges are forever…

My training as a forest therapy guide is personally beneficial. It reminds me to take time to sit with the land, to consider the lessons I can learn from nature beings. (For myself personally, I am grateful for a loving Creator who speaks to me through the nature I love!) As I look around me in one of my favorite places, I am encouraged to remember that seasons change. Unlike the lush green landscape of last summer, I now see dead grasses and thorny underbrush. I notice a few brown leaves still attached to branches and dancing in the wind. I sit beside the stream and listen to the flowing water. I see where banks have been more deeply carved by floodwaters. I notice water flowing through new paths in the jumbled rocks. These changes aren’t good, they aren’t bad. They just ARE. I realize I can choose to follow the natural world and flow along with the changes in my own life. I can look for the lessons and support for THIS day, in the middle of THIS season.

seasons change, winter, stream, dead leaves, nature immersion, forest therapy

For the past few days, I have been singing the chorus to “Sunrise, Sunset” from a favorite musical, Fiddler on the Roof.

“Sunrise, sunset, Sunrise, sunset, Swiftly flow the years. One season following another, laden with happiness and tears.”

from “Fiddler on the Roof”

Sometimes it is helpful to look back toward “sunrise” – not wishing I were back in those days, but simply noting how swiftly the years have flown by. (My oh my we were babies when this song was sung at our wedding 38 years ago!) I think back on different seasons of life—preparing for a different career overseas; staying here in the same-old, same-old instead; homeschooling a large chaotic family; living on a tiny farm; travel and adventure on my own and with family; mentoring and encouraging folks on the margins; a son’s death and other children happily married. Heartbreak and celebration. Happiness and tears.

vintage wedding, love, seasons change, in the beginning

Just like the experience of nature beings, my life moves forward, day after day, year after year. Seasons change, bringing new challenges, new surprises, and new beauty. And I realize: I’m going to be okay. Sunset is coming…but not yet.

sunset over frozen lake, winter, seasons change, nature immersion, forest therapy

(Read other posts about TIME and CHANGING SEASONS)

International Forest Bathing Day 2019

The first Saturday in September is International Forest Bathing Day. This is a day to celebrate being in nature while accessing the health benefits of immersing oneself in the atmosphere of the forest or other nature locations. A guided Forest Therapy Walk is a way to disconnect from our hectic, stressful lives and connect with the natural world.

“We are a part of nature, not separate from it.”

ANFT

There has been an explosion of interest in this practice that improves well-being. Forest Therapy (or Forest Bathing or Nature Immersion) is based on extensive research and blends new developments in the field of nature connection with ancient traditions of mindfulness and wellness. I did my initial training with the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy. By the end of 2018, this organization had more than 700 Forest Therapy Guides working in 46 countries—and that number is growing rapidly. I trained with Cohort #29 just one year ago, and Cohort #45 just finished their initial training retreat. UPDATE: In 2020, I am going through the process to build a long-term association with the Global Institute of Forest Therapy for accountability, support, and continuing education. You can learn more about this international organization HERE.)

ANFT, certified Forest Therapy Guides, training cohort 29

International Forest Bathing Day

This year on Saturday, September 7th, there will be more than 70 guided walks offered around the world. (Check this map to see if one is being offered near you!) I am guiding a walk from 10:00-12:00 in Mt Vernon, Ohio. To honor this day and encourage more people to experience this simple way of being in nature, this is an any-donation-accepted walk in lieu of my usual fees. You can see more information and register HERE (walk-ins also accepted for this event). If you can’t make it to this walk, check HERE to see what other walks are currently scheduled, or contact me to reserve your own private walk! (Read Things to Know Before Attending a Walk HERE)

Jill Emmelhainz, Certified Forest Therapy Guide, nature selfie, International Forest Bathing Day

JOIN a worldwide celebration on International Forest Bathing Day!

Take a walk with a guide. Or simply find your favorite nature spot and spend time sitting or walking quietly, noticing the sounds and sights around you.

nature, flower garden, 2 generations, Forest Therapy, Shinrin Yoku

Curious about Forest Therapy? Read FAQs HERE, relevant blog posts HERE and a list of other resources HERE Just in case you think this is a bunch of hooey and is of no benefit to you…you need to read THIS POST which gives helpful tips on how to avoid nature connections!

A Forest Therapy Walk: in poems and photos

The practicum to become a certified Forest Therapy Guide begins with an 8-day training intensive which I attended in September 2018. (You can read more about that week HERE and HERE.) On five of the days, we were given a guided Forest Therapy Walk in the surrounding woods and grasslands. These short haiku poems came flowing into my mind during one of those walks. Combined with photos, these poems give a glimpse into what you can expect when you go on a guided Forest Therapy Walk with me. (But don’t worry—no poetry is expected on the walk! Haha)

WELCOME!

Each walk begins with a brief introduction. I welcome participants and let them know what to expect. I share any potential challenges they should be aware of and tell them a little bit about the health benefits of using our senses to connect with Nature. As a guide, I do not give assignments or teach information about nature. Instead, I offer a series of “invitations” which give activity ideas for each participant to use in a way that feels best for them.

Me, Jill Emmelhainz, Certified Forest Therapy Guide

Gather in, welcome
Many words, introductions
Now … let’s get silent

Choosing the right words
Language of invitation
It’s art, not science

BEING PRESENT IN NATURE WITH OUR SENSES

We begin each walk by taking time to notice our surroundings, using one sense at a time. This helps us to focus on our present location, and begin to connect with Nature, quieting our brains that are so often in overdrive.

Get out of your head
Notice what is calling you
Drop in to heart-sense

Heart Sense, Connect with Nature, Forest Therapy Walk

Birds call, crickets sing,
Water burbles a rhythm
Music of nature

My feet, supported
My cheek caressed by light breeze
I am welcome here

WHAT’S in MOTION?

Each walk continues with physically slowing down. We choose to temporarily let go of our hectic schedules and looming to-do lists as we focus on what is around us as we wander. Any time our brains pull us back to daily stresses, we simply notice “What’s in Motion?” in the landscape around us as a way to continue our connection with Nature.

Still quiet waters
Nothing moving til fish…JUMPS!
Circles drift outwards

still waters, fish jump, "What's in Motion?"

Light breezes flutter
Delicate flowers dancing
Hummingbird joins in

PARTNERSHIP INVITATIONS

Our Forest Therapy Walk continues with 2-4 additional invitations. For each walk, I choose these in partnership with the surrounding landscape, taking into consideration the season, the weather, and the participants on this walk. There are hundreds of invitations I could use during this part of the walk. The following are two examples from the training walk when I wrote these little poems.

BRIDGES: From Here to There

In much of life, we are faced with frequent choices of where to go and what to do next. Walking across a physical bridge can help us consider other moments in life where we are balancing two different positions, activities, decisions or needs. Often, neither side of the “bridge” is right or wrong, but it is beneficial to be mindful of such transitions.

dock in trees, leafy path, choose

Possibilities
From head to heart, here to there
Stay or move, your choice

Forest behind me
Man-made lake in front of me
Satoyama zone

water's edge, on the banks, Forest Therapy Walk

Birds squawk, airplane drones
Quiet trees, mothers calling — Juxtaposition

“FOREST RECIPROCI-TREE”

At the simplest physical level, we live in reciprocity with trees on this earth. We breath out carbon dioxide and exchange it for the oxygen which is exhaled by trees. In this invitation, participants are invited to wander and notice any part of the landscape which they are drawn toward. Perhaps they will choose to simply relax and find peace in this place. Or perhaps they will find other ways to share with Nature around them.

Mighty forest tree
Big branch leans, reaching t’ward me
Pregnant with walnuts

Forest Therapy Walk, Touch the tree, Reciprocity

I reach for the tree
Gently caressing the bark
Hand-shaped space for me

Red bird flits closer
With a flip and a flutter
Creative muse comes

Forest Therapy Walk, Connect with Trees, Nature's Peace

We sit together.
Tree gives me words, songs to share
Reciproci-tree!

CIRCLES OF SHARING

Throughout our walk together, we occasionally stop and gather in a circle. Each participant is offered time to briefly share what they are noticing or to simply stand in silence for a moment before passing the “talking piece” to the next person. Most of the time, we finish a guided Forest Therapy Walk with a Tea Ceremony, to celebrate our time with Nature and share any last words with the forest and with each other. (One of the things I greatly appreciate about these guided walks is that no one is ever pressured or expected to talk. This is truly a time for everyone to interact with Nature and with each other in ways that feel most comfortable to them.)

Nature shares with me
We gather to share heart-sense
Eternal circle

Forest Therapy Walk, Tea Ceremony, Celebrate the Forest

Tiny cup of warmth
The forest enters into me
Tea ceremony

One last word to share
With Forest and companions
The walk is complete

(photos of man with hand on heart and of me by tree were take by Annabel O’Neill)

Finding the Bright Sunshine of Summer

We all love the excitement of mountaintop experiences, don’t we?! We shout to the world about the beautiful views and bask in the bright sunshine of praise and congratulations given for our accomplishments. Far less often do we talk about endless winter, about getting stuck in swamps down in the valleys or about the hard slog of climbing those endless dark mountains. It has been a long, long winter for me, filled with struggles and challenges. I’ve been emotionally climbing up and down endless hills. But it feels like I’m finally emerging into summer. I’m so ready to celebrate the bright sunshine of SUMMER (both physically and emotionally)!

Celebrating Bright Sunshine at the Beach

Looking back over the past six months, it has been a season of inward work. I’ve started many blog posts but got lost in the forest of words and never finished any of them. At some point (perhaps) I will go back and share more details but for now, here is a summary of my long, dark winter and times I found hints of sunshine along the way.

Finishing the second half of the mentored practicum to earn my certification as a Forest Therapy Guide offered many lessons—material to be learned, skills to be practiced, and experiences to be processed. All of this, of course, led to deeper personal growth. During regular sit-spot time (which you can read more about HERE), I mapped the interconnections of the creatures and plants around me. To show those relationships, I made a colorful clock. And I gathered photos and poetry into a little book.

Rustic Clock of Connections between Beings

I spent a long winter day at a nearby park on a “pilgrimage” from sunrise to sunset. It was a time to take my questions with me onto the land, asking God for a clear vision of my calling. Of course, the day I had scheduled for this ended up being one of the coldest days of the winter, with hard winds blowing and fresh snow falling. I alternated walking under the trees with wrapping up in a zero-degree sleeping bag to warm up. I found beauty in the frozen land and I soaked up moments of bright sunshine breaking through dark storm clouds.

Sunset between the trees over frozen lake

During these months, I was swimming in a sea of grief, trying to keep from sinking under the waves. There was new grief at watching a beloved “son of my heart”/friend destroy himself with addiction. There were more waves of grief at missing our son who died 11 years ago. There was recognition of struggles and challenges some of my kids are walking through…and resulting grief that I can’t “fix” things for them and make it all better. (Where in the world is that magic wand when you need it?! I must have put it in a “safe place” which means it will never be found! HA!)

In the spring, I figured out a way to incorporate Forest Therapy into my Tree of Life experiences. And I completed the training to become a certified Forest Therapy Guide. YAY! That was a bright sunny moment! Now I am working to make some long-term connections for ongoing Forest Therapy walks. And I have guided my first few paid walks. (If you live in central Ohio, contact me for more information about how YOU can schedule a walk with me!)

certification, Forest Therapy, Forest Bathing GUIDE

This spring, I was sad to face realities after two surgeries last fall. (If you haven’t heard about my medical adventures, read about them HERE.) Daughter and I had hoped to make another trip to the Appalachian Trail this spring. We tried a few days of camping and day hiking in southern Ohio…and realized I’m not yet recovered enough for the rigors of a full backpacking adventure. Maybe in the fall… (At least we still had fun together in the woods and Daughter is still the “Mistress of the Flame!”)

campfire, roasting hotdogs, camping

As the season changed, the good moments started outweighing the heavy ones. I still wasn’t ready to write about life, but I found many more moments of bright sunshine to celebrate. Our oldest son is engaged. (Can’t wait to welcome his beautiful gal into our family next spring…) Our youngest daughter discovered a college that is a perfect fit for her interests and her challenges. She is also gaining life skills with a summer job at the library. We got to “babysit” our grand-dog and our grand-dragon. (Isn’t that a delightful word? Pablo is a bearded dragon-lizard.) And our newest grandbaby was born, giving me 5 days to visit and spoil his big sisters. Welcome to the world, little Wilder!

New Baby, Big sisters

I’m finally back to spending more time outdoors again. I’m sleeping each night on my screened porch—waking up to bird song. For my birthday, I bought a sit-on-top kayak. I still enjoy wandering in the woods, but have discovered the joys of contemplative time, slowly paddling around a lake or down a river. And the wild colors of my kayak still make me smile every time I look at it!

kayaking at Ariel Park, water and clouds

After searching for over a year, we finally found the perfect-for-us piece of land to purchase. We plan to park our RV there and use it as a getaway. Soon we will own 33 acres of steep hills, ravines, and woods. It has a pond and a running stream. Hubby discovered it also has a slick clay mud-pit…but that’s a story for another day! HA!

tractor pulling stuck car

I finally found the bright sunshine of summer (physically and emotionally) on a current trip to California. Soon I will write about the adventures of multi-day train travel across the USA. Our lego Tiny-Me figures have discovered new places to explore. I found more imaginary places that don’t really exist (a quest started with Daughter in NYC last summer). I have enjoyed spending time with oldest daughter and her husband. When my knees rebelled against the exertion, I thought I might be stuck forever atop the steep hills of San Francisco but I finally tottered my way back down to the ferry. And I am excited to be currently attending a professional conference about Forest Therapy. I’m even leading a workshop here tomorrow!

Workshop Leader, professional conference, Forest Therapy Guide

It’s been a long, cold winter. But I’m finally emerging into summer…and it sure feels good!

6 Gifts Found in a Sit-Spot

Life is uncertain. Life is sometimes chaotic. And we make it worse by over-filling our calendar and our to-do lists which makes life hectic and draining. I’m now two months into the mentored practicum to become a certified Forest Therapy Guide. It is exciting to discover new skills and activities that can counteract all of this craziness of modern Western life! “Sit-Spot” is one of these practices I am now using regularly.

“What will you do with your one wild and precious life? –Mary Oliver–

Each week during training, we are expected to spend 2-3 sessions with the practice of “Sit-Spot.” This simply means finding a place outdoors where we can sit quietly for 20+ minutes. It could be a beautiful hidden place deep in the woods. But to be most effective in building a regular habit, a Sit-Spot should be somewhere close to work or home, where you can sneak outside for 10-20 minutes each day. My most used sit-spot is on a corner of an unused porch that faces into the neighborhood backyards. I can’t manage to focus my mind enough to be successful with meditation. But I enjoy this form of being quiet and present in Nature. (I compare Meditation, Forest Meditation and Forest Therapy HERE.)

wellness practice, just be

Now that I regularly spend time in a tiny corner of my outdoor world, I am noticing that Sit-Spot gives me 6 specific gifts:

  1. It is an opportunity to PRACTICE STILLNESS of both body and mind. I rarely take time to let my body relax at the same time as allowing my mind to also rest (until I fall exhausted into bed each night.) This is an opportunity to let go of my busy-ness and notice what is around me. No making lists, updating my calendar, or scrolling through fb and emails. Simply allowing myself to “be.” (Yes, I admit, this is hugely challenging for me at times. Please assure me I’m not the only one!)
  2. It is a gift to EXPERIENCE SILENCE—no talking to others, no demands from others, no droning background noise to life. (Even extroverted chatty me benefits from silence occasionally!) At Christmas, we often sing about a “Silent Night” – but how often do we actually experience one?! Studies have shown that human-made noise pollution adds significant amounts of unrecognized stress to our daily lives. It’s hard to completely avoid human-sounds, but we can try!

dramatic sky, storm clouds

  1. Sit-Spot is another way to form DEEP CONNECTIONS WITH THE NATURAL WORLD. People have lived closely intertwined with nature since the beginning of time. Today’s loss of connection is at the root of many of the maladies affecting us in our current chaotic culture. (You can explore some of the scientific studies and other resources about the importance of Nature Connection HERE.) The practice of Sit-Spot helps us return to our roots—literally!
  2. One of the most significant benefits of forming deep nature connections is it LOWERS STRESS & ANXIETY. There is something freeing about just allowing life to flow around me. It takes a few minutes of sitting still, but eventually my breathing slows, my blood pressure lowers, and I relax into the calm of simply being outside. This type of calming effect is certainly a gift! (I wrote HERE about how outdoor time is a game changer for my daughter who has huge challenges in these areas.)

reflections, floating leaf

  1. By returning to the same place on a regular basis, I NOTICE SMALL CHANGES. I enjoy watching the tall grasses “dance” in a breeze. I see plants changing through the seasons. I feel subtle differences as weather systems approach. I hear insects and birds and begin to notice their patterns. When I sit regularly, Nature is no longer merely a backdrop for daily life, but becomes something to enjoy in and of itself.

notice changes, blue skies, fairy grass

  1. Sit-Spot GIVES ME A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE. The troubles and trials (and even celebrations) of my life are not the center of history or of the universe (much as I might want to believe otherwise! HA!) I laugh at the cheeky squirrels—stealing nuts from each other, stuffing themselves for winter hibernation, and wobbling their chubby way along the fence top. I mourn the deaths of birds and beasts. I enjoy the brilliant colors of fall leaves. As I connect with the natural world, I am reminded that everyone and everything is doing the best they can with their one wild and precious life…and that’s enough.

I invite you to join me in discovering the gifts found through a simple Sit-Spot outside. I would love to hear YOUR favorite things from connecting with the natural world. Please drop me a comment below!

 

Please Don’t Screech!

Please tell me I’m not the only one! Please reassure me that you, too, let out a yelp or a screech when you are startled by something out in the woods. I’ve done this forever, even when a moment later I KNOW there is actually nothing to be afraid of. But, when I’m leading other folks on walks to more deeply connect with Nature, I’m going to have to change this pattern of screech-first-think-later. Let me explain…

As a guide, I am learning to use language very carefully. It is important to let our guests know about possible challenges without causing fear. As part of our standard practice, in our introduction to the guided Forest Therapy Walk, we talk about “awarenesses” rather than “hazards.” A great majority of the time, simply being aware of our surroundings and of how to avoid problems is all we need to stay safe.

photo by Anabell O'Neill

However, they didn’t talk to us about controlling the involuntary screech when startled. I wonder why this didn’t come up in our training classes? After all, I suspect this reaction might scare the walk participants far more than using the wrong words in my introduction! (Please tell me I’m not the only one who does this?!)

Here are a few examples. I’m not sure I will believe you if you tell me you have never let out a screech (or at least a little whimper) when you unexpectedly face critters like these:

We used to live on a farm. Most evenings I walked out to the barn before bed, making sure the sheep and chickens were safely settled until morning. Some dark, moonless nights I would open the door and almost drop my flashlight when a glowing-eyed, pointy-nosed “demon” was sitting on top of the feed bin, hissing at me like a crazy thing. I always let out a loud, high-pitched “SCREECH!” followed by a muttered “Stupid possum!” And that furry creature sauntered away, snickering at winning round number 372 in the scare-the-critter game… (Photo taken by a friend when a possum was on their roof. I wonder what game it was playing?!)

photo by Susan Heino

Daughter Andowen and I take weeks long backpacking trips on the Appalachian Trail. All hikers need to be very aware of black bears. (Read a story HERE about the trials of hanging food bags to keep our supplies away from bears at night.) We tend to talk or sing while we walk, so we rarely see bears during the day. (They prefer to avoid humans, if possible.) Last fall, however, daughter was standing silently under a large tree, waiting for me to catch up. She heard the noise of a hiker coming up the trail, then was started by twigs, leaves and a young bear falling out of the tree, landing right at her feet! She let out a “SCREECH!” and the bear took off running into the woods. She wasn’t sure who was more startled, her or the bear!

please don't screech and scare the bear!

When we are backpacking, the first one hiking down the trail has the pleasure of seeing scenery with no other humans in view. However, they also have the “joy” of clearing the spider webs that were built across the trail during the night. On beautiful crisp, cool, fall days, that front person sometimes finds a snake, warming itself in the sun. It really isn’t a problem when the reptile is just sitting there. It is easy to see what type of snake it is and what type of response is needed. (Often, if it is sunning itself on the trail, just banging trekking poles together will cause the snake to mosey on its way.) But sometimes, as the first hiker is walking along quietly, mind wandering, there is a rustling in the leaves beside the trail, and a long black slithery-snake darts across, almost under one’s feet. After a loud “SCREECH!” the hiker laughs, knowing the snake was harmless. (We actually like the non-poisonous snakes which keep the mouse population under control at shelters.) It still takes awhile for the heart to start pounding though!

actually black rat snakes are harmless

Most of the time when we sleep in the open fronted shelters along the Appalachian Trail, we are happy to see spiders sitting in webs high in the rafters. This usually means there are fewer pesky bugs to bother us. But one rainy night, there were tiny glowing eyes every direction we looked. Our headlamps highlighted what felt like a million spiders who had us surrounded. We could ignore the critters keeping to their own private corners, but when one walked toward us and couldn’t be scared away, the other hikers and I convinced my terrified-of-spiders daughter to kill the intruder. She shuddered, flinched, and let out a few yelps of fear. (Okay, so it wasn’t full-fledged SCREECHES! But I’m still counting it as a similar reaction.) She unsuccessfully tried to swing at the spider several times. Finally, she gathered courage, yelled “For GONDOR!” and flipped the spider with her shoe. Lord of the Rings to the rescue yet again!

sorry, I have to screech!

Fortunately, the most common hazard (ahem, “awareness”) along the woodland trails in Ohio is poison ivy. I am confident I can help participants become more aware of this plant—both how it is high energy food for deer and other animals and how to avoid touching it as humans. Whew! No worries about inadvertent screams when I unexpectedly see this plant!

biggest hiking hazard

So what’s the point of these stories (beyond entertaining you)? I’m reminding myself that I need to curb my instinctive tendencies to SCREECH! I’m working to finish my certification as a Forest Therapy Guide and it is apparently not professional to scare your walk participants. Wish me luck!

(Wondering about our encounters with wild animals while backpacking? You can read a summary of the real hazards of hiking HERE. You can see photos and descriptions of critters we see HERE and HERE.)

PLEASE assure me that I’m not the only one to yelp or screech when startled! Share your story in the comments below.

A Contradictory Week — Forest Therapy Training Intensive

I just finished the initial 8 day training intensive to start the 6 month long process of becoming a certified Forest Therapy Guide. There were 20 students and 5 mentors at the training. It was a wonderful, exhausting, energizing, stretching, amazing, contradictory week. I’m still processing all we learned…and will share more details in the next few months.

One of the mentors put together this video to give an overview of the people, place, and activities of the week. (Keep an eye out for me–I’m in a number of the shots!) This training was held at Oak Openings Metro Park in the Toledo area. If you ever get a chance to visit, it is an amazingly diverse location!

I decided the fastest way to summarize this contradictory week jam-packed-full of learning and stretching was to make a chart:

Contradictory Week

Thanks SO much to family and friends who continue to encourage me and support me. That was hugely important to keep me at the training when I was exhausted and emotionally wrung out. (Shhh! I was even ready to quit a few times when I was overwhelmed!)

The most important thing I learned during this training is that I AM RIGHT WHERE I’M SUPPOSED TO BE! Now I KNOW this is the right path for me to pursue…a knowing that is not just head knowledge but deep certainty in my heart.

If you missed it, you can see our training schedule and some of my own photos HERE

To learn more about the practice of Forest Therapy and what a Guide does, click HERE   (The Global Institute of Forest Therapy is the international organization that I am now–in 2020–going through the process of associating with for accountability, support and continuing education.)

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