“Why I love Trees”:  My Journey of Nature Connection

Today is ‘International Day of Forests’.  It is also the last day of my six month practicum of training with the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy.  Very soon I will be a Certified Guide.  In the last week I’ve been reflecting on this journey and how this all come about.

I think it all starts back in my childhood when I spent most hours outside on the farm in country Victoria.  I have fond memories of the vege garden, looking after animals, bike riding on country roads and driving the tractor for dad.  I didn’t spend much time inside, preferring to generally wander the paddocks amusing myself, kicking field mushrooms or throwing cow pats like discuses. I used to spend hours lying on a big branch in an old gum tree, making up stories in my head about the creatures that lived there.   Nature was my playground.

I’ve always loved playing in trees.

As you do, I left home at 21 thinking there was something better.  I got married young, had a family, bought my first house, travelled overseas and moved to a big city to get a degree and pursue a career.  It was about accumulating lots of stuff.  But Brisbane got crowded and I yearned to get back to a quieter life, so went back to Darwin 11 years ago with my beautiful family in tow.

I was drawn into bushwalking, taking up invitations to hike with friends in Kakadu.  I heard about permaculture and joined a community garden.  I also had the privilege of being out on country with Aboriginal Elders on the Tiwi Islands and an outstation in NE Arnhemland, where I felt, smelt, sensed and heard stories about their human-nature spiritual connection.

Hiking the Jatbula Trail near Katherine in 2017.

I can now appreciate how lucky I was to have been so close to nature as a child, as I find myself coming back around to many of the practices that kept me grounded and healthy.

Over the years while practising social work on the Tiwi Islands, I came to learn about narrative therapy and a groupwork methodology called the Tree of Life.  After sharing these ideas with some of the Tiwi Elders, I came to realise the power of the tree metaphor in helping Aboriginal people tell their problem stories in ways that were non-shaming and safe, as well as strong stories about healing from the ‘storms’ of their lives, working together like a forest.  I discovered that yarning about problems using nature metaphors helps to integrate trauma experiences without retraumatising people.  We used these ways of yarning in counselling, groupwork and family healing bush camps.  I also write a children’s therapeutic book called ‘The Life of Tree’ to help Aboriginal kids open up about their experience of violence in families.

Trees have become important metaphors in my work too.

In 2013, I caught an early diagnosis of thyroid disease and was told I would eventually have to go on medication.  Not accepting this fate, I turned to natural medicine for answers – taking supplements to make up for our mineral-depleted soils, cutting out foods that were contributing to my body’s autoimmune response, quitting my job to de-stress, joining the ‘slow living’ movement, and taking up meditation (although I struggled to make this a daily practice).  By 2016 I had no evidence that Hashimotos disease had ever been part of my life.  Once again, nature had shown me the way.

In the background, I had a growing sense of unease, helplessness and despair at the state of the planet.  I mulled about the future my children would have to deal with and noticed the global trends in increased anxiety, depression and suicide in young people coping with the pressure of modern, domesticated life.  I read about ‘nature deficit disorder’ as a result of children’s technology use and the detrimental affect excessive screen time was having on their development.   Something has to change and quickly.  The earth does not have the luxury of time if we are to repair the damage we’ve done, and at what cost to our own physical and mental health?

Fast forward to April 2017 when I find myself in the wild West of Tasmania.  My girlfriend had to pull out of our planned trip at the last minute because of her mum’s terminal illness.  I’d never travelled on my own before, and I was constantly thinking about my safety out in the wilderness walking alone.  But by the end of my holiday, I had come to enjoy my own company so much, that it took me a while to be around people again.  I was also in awe of the beautiful old growth forests that boasted trees that were more than four hundred years old.  Nature has always been important to my own growth, health and wellbeing.  But this experience took me to a level of nature connection and a sense of freedom, that I’d never experienced before.  I wanted more.  It was shortly after this that I heard about Nature and Forest Therapy (NFT) and decided to train as a Guide in September 2017.

Learning how to be on my own in nature in Tasmania’s wild West.

I experienced an amazing week-long intensive immersed in the Yarra Ranges engaging in mindful walks in nature every day.  NFT is inspired by the Japanese practice of Shinrin Yoku or forest bathing.  While learning the skills of helping others slow down using intentional invitations to connect with nature and ignite the senses, I learnt how to slow myself down even more.  Believe me, it is intensive.  Practising mindfulness every day takes discipline and practice when you are the kind of person that always has multiple projects on the go and a mind that never rests.  After a week, I just wanted to run or go for a long hike.  No more slow!  But seriously.  This is the practice that is going to sustain my health and wellbeing long into the future.  And there are a lot of scientific studies coming out now to prove it.  For me, it’s about finding the balance between living and working in the ‘real world’ and engaging with the ‘natural world’.  As Richard Louv says “The more connected to technology we become, the more nature we need to achieve a natural balance.”

Me and my fellow Guides during our training intensive in the Yarra Ranges.

Over the past six months I’ve learnt a lot about myself – about my ‘edges’ and how to dissolve irrational fears; about how to let go of agendas and trust nature will lead the way; what it means to live out your life according to your values and beliefs even when the chips are down; what it feels like to be part of a community of like-minded folk who also care about the planet and each other; the relief of discovering the beauty in humanity; and finding hope again after experiencing the resilience of nature.  I have a long way to go but I’m feeling much more connected to the more-than-human world than ever before.   On one of my recent Nature and Forest Therapy walks someone said ‘I’ve been practising mindfulness meditation for years, but I’ve never experienced anything like this before.’  I know right?  I’ve been there.  And now as an NFT Guide, I get to witness the personal profound insights others gain on my three hour slow wanders in nature.  I’m also buoyed by the possibility of people being inspired to take action against climate change and in their personal daily habits, because of their renewed sense of connection and care for the planet.  NFT has the power to do this too!

Guiding a Nature and Forest Therapy walk in Nambucca State Forest.

As I come to the end of my practicum I feel incredibly grateful for the support of my mentors, friends and family, the resources that allow me to follow my heart and dreams, and the start I had in life back on the farm that sowed the seeds of nature connection.

Happy ‘International Day of Forests’ to you.  Do your body, mind and spirit a favour.  Get outside, play, explore, skip, make art using nature’s treasures, gaze at water, climb a tree.  Don’t think about it too much.  Follow your instincts.  And when the forest speaks to you….listen.

Love yourself First:  A Valentine’s Day Message

I recently had the opportunity to go out on country with a respected Gumbaynggirr man living and working in the Bellinger Valley.  I’ve come to know him in a short time as a storyteller, photographer, culture man and healer.

Image by Bernard K Edwards, Never Never Creek in the Promised Land

Early in a conversation with him, I commented that one must learn to love themselves first, before they can love others.  Later that day, we are sitting on a fallen tree across the Never Never River in the beautiful Promised Land, looking out over refreshing, crystal clear water gently flowing over the river rocks.  I am reflecting on my happy life and questioning why I should be so lucky to have things always fall my way, while other people are not so lucky.  I’ve never had anything traumatic occur that has changed the course of my life, in fact, quite the opposite – I’ve been able to achieve all the goals I have been able to set myself, without any barriers or hiccups.  Putting aside the fact that my white skin automatically gives me privileges over other cultural groups, I attributed my “success” in life to my parents that had provided a safe, loving, healthy home, surrounded by nature and fresh air on Victoria’s farming country, protected from the worries of the world.  My companion politely pulls me up “do you not think, that YOU have had something to do with it?” and points out the contradiction with my earlier statement – YOU must love yourself before you can love others.  He goes on to share that once we have left our mother’s arms, we are out on our own.  As adults, we are responsible for our own decisions.  The choices we make in life are ours alone and cannot be attributed to our parents.

I think about this in silence as the water trickles below my feet and a tiny blue bird visits a nearby rock.  It would not have been possible to learn how to love myself without the love of my parents to show me that I am worth loving.  But I get his point.  There comes a point as adults when we have to take responsibility for our own choices in life.  This is what it means to love and respect yourself.  To know that YOU are truly worthy of setting the course of your life.  And no one else can do that for you.

I peer into the reflection of the water now cooling my feet.  Water knows how to flow.  It learnt this from mother earth since the beginning of time.  The fallen tree does not prevent the water from doing what it wants to do.  It finds a way to flow through, around, up and over.  And new life springs forth from the rotting tree.

As you reflect on the love that others have provided you this Valentine’s Day, consider what nature can teach you about loving yourself?  What choices will you take today, on the path towards love?  Make a decision today, knowing that the universe has your back!

Image by Bernard K Edwards

‘Nature’s cure for all our ills’

Have you ever wondered what nature could offer you and your clients… especially those that are affected by chronic stress, mental health issues, physical pain, despair and heartache?

I have just completed an initial week’s training intensive to become a certified Nature and Forest Therapy Guide.  I can attest to both the physical and mental health benefits that being in nature offers.   I had a heightened awareness that back and groin pain which has been niggling me for 12 months suddenly disappeared.   I noticed that stress that I had been carrying in my jaw and neck from my fast-paced, outcomes driven, work life floated away with the clouds that passed overhead.   I was connecting and communicating with beings from the more-than-human world in an intimate way, that I had never felt before.  I also discovered a tall tree overlooking a valley held a message of hope for my heart despairing at the state of our planet.  It was freeing for my mind, body and soul.  But don’t just take my word for it.

There is a lot of emerging evidence about the health effects of being in the forest.  Scientific research on the practice of Shinrin Yoku (or forest bathing) in Japan has found that simply being in the wilderness can increase immune function, reduce blood pressure, reduce stress, improve mood, increase focus and concentration, improve rates of recovery from surgery and illness, increase energy and improve sleep.

How is that so?  Well, the same compound that trees emit to protect themselves from germs and pests is the same essential oil that improves our immune system.  They are called phytoncides and they produce cancer-fighting natural killer cells in our body.

Guides-in-training and members of the public experience the ‘Pleasures of Presence’ on a Forest Therapy walk in the Redwoods of the Yarra Ranges (Sept 2017).   Photo: Jana Norman.

We always knew that being in nature felt good, didn’t we?   Now there is real evidence to prove that living a fast, active, technology dominant lifestyle is counterproductive and could potentially promote chronic physical and mental illness.  People on regular forest therapy walks are also reporting feeling happier, developing deeper more meaningful relationships, feeling more connected with the land and its species, having more energy and developing a more attuned intuition.

It seems as though the Western world, is just catching up to what Indigenous peoples have always known.  During my time on the Tiwi Islands, as both a drug and alcohol counsellor and children’s counsellor, Elders and other strong women repeatedly spoke about ‘going out bush’ as the best remedy for ‘wrong thinking’ and wayward behaviour.  Within my capacity and resources, I drew on the knowledge of these wiser ones to host healing camps out bush with families who were going through hard times and to reconnect children who were going off the rails with a traditional healing ceremony on country (or if that was not possible at least use the metaphors of the natural world in our therapeutic conversations).

What can ‘walking on country’ practised for thousands of years by Aboriginal people do for our health and wellbeing?

In Forest Therapy, the medicine we need is waiting to be discovered in nature and it is up to the client to do the hard work of discovering what the forest is telling them.  The Guide simply opens the door for people by offering them mindful invitations, being open to listening to the messages of support, encouragement, healing or survival that are communicated by all living things.  This concept sounds very familiar too, observed in the way Aboriginal women demonstrate their spiritual connection to the land.  I’ve been woken up in the middle of the night by the barking owl to be advised that (insert name) must have passed away.  I’ve been out hunting when a branch has fallen from a tree, a sign from the ancestors that there is a possum there to be caught for dinner.  I’ve watched women scouting the bush for ‘just the right vine’ which will yield a big, long, fat yam two feet underground, left wondering how do they know, when all vines look the same?  And I’ve heard numerous stories of miracle cures for persistent ailments using bush medicine, where modern medicine has failed.  The knowledge for living a good and healthy life is right there on country, if we are in tune.

Unfortunately, the government policies of today are forcing Aboriginal people off their country and into the towns to be closer to services, and along with this, alcohol, drugs, unhealthy food options and other social issues like overcrowding and domestic violence.  We are seeing the health effects of this lifestyle for Aboriginal people and it’s not good.

As a social worker, this has got me thinking seriously about nature as a form of intervention for people who come to us for help.  The forest provides healing in gentle and profound ways, that we as humans cannot.  It requires a step away from evidence-based talk therapies from Western culture towards intuitive traditional healing practices and spiritual connections to nature that have been used for thousands of years.

If we don’t believe the anecdotal evidence from Aboriginal people about the positive health effects of being connected to country, then we can at least take notice of the emerging evidence from shinrin yoku practices in Japan.
Nature has something for everyone.  Even those of us whose heart is aching for the destruction of nature itself.

The Practice of Dadirri and my Work as a ‘Ranger’

germination-after-bushfire“Dadirri recognises the deep spring that is inside us.  We call on it and it calls to us.  This is the gift that Australia is thirsting for.  It is something like what you call contemplation.  Many Australians understand that Aboriginal people have a special respect for Nature.  The identity we have with the land is sacred and unique.”

These are the words of Miriam-Rose Ungurmurr first uttered in 1998 during the Pope’s visit to Australia and echoing in my mind on recent occasions.   Last weekend I had an opportunity to experience first hand, how it is we can tune into our true selves through the process of Dadirri. With other like-minded people, we gathered under the big shady tree overlooking the community oval at Daly River.  Miriam-Rose was there, as this is her home.  Also holding us in this space, was Judy Atkinson, another wise Indigenous soul, known for her trauma-informed work with communities.   My interest in attending this gathering is mostly about how I, as a non-Indigenous woman can walk alongside my Indigenous brothers and sisters on their healing journeys.  I have a strong sense of ‘we’re in this together’.

Miriam was quick to point out that dadirri is not just an Aboriginal thing.  It’s just that White fellas have not been given an opportunity to practice it.  There is certainly a lot being written in the Western world at the moment on mindfulness meditation and this is probably the closest thing there is to understanding the practice of dadirri.  Judy says mindful practice is “being put up as the mantra as the response to trauma”.  Dadirri goes deeper.  It goes to the heart of what it means to be connected spiritually to the country, being in nature and listening to the rhythm of the land.  While I won’t ever fully understand Aboriginal people’s unique sense of belonging, Miriam gave us some clues as to how this comes to be.  She asks us to sit in quiet still awareness and contemplate ‘Who are you’ and ‘how do you know who you are?’  This requires further and deeper reflection.  Who are you with?  Who are you connected to?  Who are your ancestors?  Where did your ancestors journey from to allow you to be in this place at this time?  This is something every human being can come to know if you find the stories and listen intentionally.  It is like finding and listening with purpose to the spring that is bubbling within each of us, a source of energy, of answers to life’s questions.  I couldn’t help but imagine that for someone who has experienced the effects of intergenerational trauma, this could be quite confronting.  Consider adult children who were removed from their families and don’t know who their family is, their language or their country.  This spring may be full of tears –  a well too deep to access.  For me in my white skin, going within, is much less threatening.  For I have had a privileged, safe and nurturing upbringing.

I sometimes feel overwhelmed with the level of despair, self destruction and pain amongst Aboriginal families and communities.  The science of epigenetics tells us that trauma is now altering the genetic material of children being born today.  And so even if the trauma did stop now (which it isn’t – families are still having their children removed from them at greater rates) how does one begin to even start the process of healing?  I saw this despair on the face of an Aboriginal woman in our gathering whose heart was crying out for help for the fifth generation of children being sexually abused in her community.  Can healing begin when the trauma is still happening?

Judy’s reflection advocated that becoming mindful and knowing who we truly are, allows us to have a clearer vision on how we can change the systems of injustice.  Judy’s notion of ‘community of care’ is like the tree we sit under that is connected underground through root systems to other trees.  These roots, although unseen are continuously connected through strong kinship systems and culture.  Not even a bushfire can destroy 40,000 years of these connections.

growth-after-bushfireMiriam went on to offer a reflection on the Pope’s words.

 “We are like the tree standing in the middle of a bushfire sweeping through the timber.  The leaves are scorched and the tough bark is scarred and burnt, but inside the tree the sap is still flowing and under the ground the roots are still strong.  Like that tree we have endured the flames and we still have the power to be re-born.”

There was a sense of hope restored in the group.  Even though bushfire after devastating bushfire sweeps through the land, scorching the trees, this is always followed by refreshing wet season rains, new leaves, new growth.  Miriam says it’s a natural thing for trees to drop their leaves and the growth always comes back.  Her people always cry in excitement when the first rains arrive.  They cry for the people that have passed away in the previous year and their tears wash the bad things away.  The plants, the trees, the land is cleansed.  A new season is starting.  Hope returns.

So here were Miriam’s final words to us.  ‘The person you are now, is it really who you are?  Is this your true spirit doing what you’re doing now?  Is there something in you, that is really you?  If so, use this gift to help others.  Believe in yourself.  There is only one of you.  You are special.  ‘There are always dreams dreaming us’ says Judy.

The practice of dadirri helps me to tune in to my purpose in being here.  I am not the firefighter.  I am the ranger burning off and establishing fire breaks.  With more rangers in the world working from a harm prevention framework, we can minimise the number of devastating bushfires, knowing that nature will always be there to heal, regenerate and restore.

Mindfulness: A new fad OR a practice used for thousands of years in Australia?

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Nature has a way of bringing us back to the moment.

Has anyone noticed how busy, how violent, how damaged, how lost the world is lately?  Sometimes it feels like I spend more time defending some right, advocating for some justice or worrying about some worthy cause, than I spend with my own children just living and being.  My Inbox is flooded with agencies wanting my signature on their petition or money to fight their case.  As a peoples, we seem to have lost our sense of self – our humanity – distracted by the temptation of technologies and drawn into the seduction of social media.  We have been sucked into believing that our leaders and politicians have our collective human interest at heart.  We have been disconnected from what our intuition, our bodies and our earth is telling us.  We are detached from relationship to each other.

It seems like there are quite a few of us out there who are despairing at the ravaging of the planet and the inhumane treatment of human beings at many levels.  It has been refreshing to witness the emerging movement of people standing up for human and environmental rights around the world.  There is change on the wind.  Some have called it the time of the Great Turning.  There is also a movement of people simplifying their lives, ridding themselves of the possessions of consumerism, growing and sharing free food, moving into a tiny house, cutting back their work hours and looking for a tree change.  These are not what might be called hippies or tree huggers but average people. Yes it is the average person that is waking up and looking within for what is true and just.

Mindfulness is also making a comeback with a wider audience than just the yoga-loving types. Mindfulness teaches us to stop, to breathe, to reconnect, to listen.  Seigel (2015) calls it taking ‘time in’ (as opposed to time out) inviting us to become aware of our bodies, feelings and thoughts at this moment in time.  Not the past.  Not the future.  Now.

Professionals in the field of neuroscience now have the evidence that mindfulness really is good for our human brains.  So evidently the human services sector is jumping on board with mindfulness being the answer to all manner of human problems like addictions and mental illness, manifestations of the crazy, stressed-out world we have created.

I would argue that Aboriginal people in Australia have been practising mindfulness for thousands of years. It appears to be very close to what Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann, from Daly River calls ‘Dadirri’.

Dadirri is inner, deep listening and quiet, still awareness. Dadirri recognises the deep spring that is inside us.”

“The contemplative way of dadirri spreads over our whole life. It renews us and brings us peace. It makes us feel whole again.“

“There is no need to reflect too much and to do a lot of thinking. It is just being aware.”

Miriam has said that dadirri is not just an Aboriginal thing, it is deep inside each one of us.  Sitting in nature is one way we can become more connected with the practice of dadirri.  Sit, feel and listen – to the birds, the wind, your breathing, your heartbeat.  Allow yourself to be quiet and be still in this moment.  It won’t fix the worries of the world.  But it will allow you to just be.

It’s pretty ironic that the one culture we have tried to destroy in Australia is the same culture that can teach us how to live in peace with ourselves and the earth?   If only we had just listened.

References

Siegel, D. 2015 ‘ Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain’.