Your opinion matters: Help me to help you

If you have been following my blog for a while, you would have noticed that this year I graduated as a Certified Nature and Forest Therapy Guide.   In amongst this, I managed to move from the Northern Territory to New South Wales.  And now I’m embarking on setting up my own private practice, bringing together my social work experience in counselling, groupwork and community development projects, with knowledge and skills in narrative, art and ecotherapies.

You may be familiar with my passion for the environment and special interest in how nature can work with us in promoting health and wellbeing for people and the planet.   While, I am concerned about the rapidly increasing rates of anxiety and depression across the world, I am hopeful and excited about the growing body of research demonstrating the benefits of nature connection to our physical, mental, spiritual and social health.  Indigenous cultures (including the Tiwi mob) have been talking about this for a long time.  Now the Western world with its scientific evidence has finally caught on – when we are out in nature we feel better!

So anyway.  Whether you have been following my journey of discovery, learning and practice for a while or have recently subscribed, your opinion matters.  You can help shape my journey from this point on.

As part of my business plan, I am seeking feedback on the best ways to bring my therapeutic services to the community where I work.  This could take the form of individual consultations (face to face or on-line), group experiences and Corporate Wellbeing sessions.

My on-line Health and Wellbeing survey takes approximately 5-7 minutes to complete.  You can remain anonymous if you so choose, but you must live in Australia to participate.  I will be collating responses until Friday June 30.
Oh, and watch out for my new look website launching soon.  Exciting times ahead!
See you in nature.
Lucy

Stressed at Work? Take it Outside.

Did you know that more than half of the Australian workforce is stressed and almost just as many of us will go on to experience mental illness?   Stress related claims cost Australian business over $200 million annually!

The impact of stress usually results in deteriorating work performance, taking more time off and running down your immune system.   Illness has a direct effect on both the quality and quantity of your work.   You will work more slowly than usual, make more mistakes or need to repeat tasks.  This lower labour productivity translates to increased costs for employers.

It’s a pretty depressing picture, isn’t it?   What’s going on?  Why are we such a stressed out bunch?   Well, there’s probably a lot of reasons!   And something needs to change.  We spend a lot of our lives at work, we deserve to be happy and for work to be a fun and relaxed place to be, where we feel respected by our (not stressed out) colleagues and valued by our (not stressed out) boss.

One view is that people are spending much less time in nature and that we are suffering from ‘nature deficit disorder’ which affects us mentally, physically and spiritually.  I’ve been doing a lot of research recently around the effects of nature on health and wellbeing and how this carries over into our work life.   People who spend time in nature are not only happier and healthier but also smarter and more successful inside the office.  Happy people are 31% more productive, less absent with 23% fewer fatigue symptoms and up to 10% more engaged in their work.  The benefits flow on to business with a happy workforce bringing in 20% higher profits.   It’s a win, win for everybody.

One study showed that staff on long-term sick leave from stress related illness show improvements in functioning and mood after being in a forest.   Even just looking at trees out a window has a positive effect on mood;  workers experience less frustration, more patience, less health complaints and higher job satisfaction.


Employers that invest in staff health and wellbeing can expect increased work performance and productivity, cost savings from higher retention and lower absenteeism, and a happier organisational culture.

So what can you do to bring these benefits of nature into your office space?  Here’s a few ideas.

  • Take your lunch break outside. Go for a walk to a nearby park and lie under the trees or ask your boss for an outdoor sit space to eat.  Get your daily boost of Vitamin D and invite in the sights, sounds and textures in your environment to relax and restore your mind, body and soul.
  • Bring a pot plant to put on your desk. They provide numerous benefits such as cleaning the air, helping to relieve stress, contributing to your creativity and giving your eyes a break from the computer.
  • Add nature to your commute. If you walk or cycle, change your route to include a park.  If you catch public transport, be intentional about noticing nature on your route.  Get on later, or off earlier so you can include outdoor time as part of your journey.
  • Take your next meeting outside or try a walking meeting in a natural space.  Being in nature brings with it better decision making, more creativity and alertness.
  • Turn your desk around so you are facing the window and can give your eyes a rest from the computer now and then.
  • Open the blinds to allow the natural sunlight to flood the room. Or better still open your window to let in the natural (non-airconditioned) air and the sounds of the birds or leaves rustling in the wind.
  • Block out the office noise and listen to nature sounds like running water, bird song and gentle rain on your headphones.
  • Hang up a painting, artwork or photography showcasing nature’s wonders or install a nature computer screen-saver.  Even looking at nature has health benefits too!
  • Have a nature play table in your office with shells, stones, bark, feathers or other things you find, alongside your oil burner decanting a natural pine scent.  Colleagues that visit might linger a while longer!
  • Sweet talk the boss into investing in biophilia as a core design principle in the office or outdoor spaces. For inspiration check out what Google and Ferrari have done.

This Saturday at #StartUpsCoffsCoast I will be launching a new service to promote a nature-based approach to health and wellbeing in the workplace.   This includes Half-Day Corporate Wellbeing Sessions for team-building, planning days and Corporate events; Guided Lunchtime Daily Doses for Staff, and access to Consultation Services to develop and implement Green Wellbeing policies, drawing on the combination of professional expertise at Nature and Wellbeing Australia.   My new look website with more details is on its way very soon.

I hope to see you in nature.  And don’t forget to take the boss with you!

A Grief Encounter with Nature

As much as it hurts to write this because my sadness is raw and alive and being lived in this very moment, I want everyone to know that when you are in the midst of grief, nature has your back.

Back in March my mother had a fall and broke her hip.  Upon admission to hospital it was discovered she had sepsis, life threatening blood poisoning.  This kills a lot of people!  I hopped on a plane and flew ‘home’ to see her; it was touch and go for a while.  Over the next two weeks, the surgery was on, then off, then on again, then mum wasn’t well enough to operate on.  At one stage she was going to have to learn to live with a broken hip, because her heart might not survive an operation.

Meanwhile a few days after mum’s accident, my dad fell and was discovered passed out many hours later in the hot sun.  He suffered first degree burns to his legs and face from lying on a metal ramp.  Severely dehydrated, he was also lucky to be alive.

Was this really happening?  Two parents in hospital.  It was as if time had slowed down so much that I had trouble breathing.  I needed space.  I needed air.  I needed time to process this.

I am grateful I had the opportunity to just walk and ride and run outside on my brothers farm (I don’t usually run because my knees aren’t up to it, but I did it anyway because I knew it wouldn’t hurt any more than my heart).  I climbed the old gum tree I played in as a child, reminiscing about fun imaginary times and appreciating opportunities laid out for my future there.  As I gazed towards the setting sun over long, dry grass blowing in the wind, my tears fell on the brown, cracked earth, momentarily breaking the drought.  I lay on the grass, staring at aging eucalypts in the paddock, which had lost hope and turned an unsightly brown.  They were doing it tough too.

My favourite childhood memories are growing in this gum tree.

Eventually another surgery opportunity presented itself to my mum in Melbourne.  And dad agreed to skin grafts.  Can you believe they both travelled to the big city on the same day?  Weird.  Coincidence.

Mum didn’t quite make the painful three hour journey in the back of the ambulance, having to stop momentarily at another hospital to administer more pain medication and stabilise her.  After numerous set backs including infections and low blood pressure, she finally had her operation two weeks after the fall.  I had made peace with the fact that she might not survive it.  It was a nervous moment.  I was beside dad’s bed when his blood pressure dropped so low that his heart monitor alarm went off.   My own heart skipped a beat; life on a knife edge.

A lot of time was spent bedside.  Or travelling to hospital.  Or negotiating the public transport between two hospitals in a city that doesn’t know how to go slow.  I sought nature again, and space, and air.  All I saw were tall buildings of concrete crowding out the warm sun and other depressed-looking city folk stuck on the mouse’s wheel.  The only trees I saw were in a beautiful park, from nine stories up out a hospital window.  I was desperate to get there to feel the earth under my feet, to run amongst the autumn leaves, to breathe freely, but I never did.  The weather had turned so bitterly cold, dreary and wetter than my tears.

The trees I desperately wished to visit, out of mum’s hospital window.

I was angry too.  Hospitals were not conducive to healing or recovery.  People got sicker here not better (it happened to my mum).   I couldn’t stop thinking about the research that shows patients who have access to nature outside their window recover more quickly from surgery and illness.  Some of the beds I’ve seen, don’t even have natural light!

Eventually I had to fly home.  I contracted a chest cold and I didn’t want to infect anybody.

Seven weeks later and my parents are still in hospital.  There have been infections and unexplainable turns.  Multiple tests, scans, xrays.  MRI’s and ECG’s.  Staphylococcus contraction from surgery.  Wounds that won’t stop leaking.  Patience running thin.  Surgery to re-do unsuccessful grafts.  Going off food.   Back on food.  Ups.  Downs.

Wide open space allow me to run and breathe and hide and chase shadows with my son.

But the tipping point came this week, when I learned that the surgeons had also removed a lump from my dad’s ear which turned out to be Melanoma, an aggressive form of cancer.

There is nothing worse than watching those you love in unbearable pain.  Now there would be more to come.  I never dreamed that this would be dad’s way of exiting the world.  And mum is still not out of the woods yet (pardon the pun).

Upon hearing this latest news, I took off on my regular walk up the country road where I live.  I didn’t get far before my eyes became too clouded to see where I was going.  I plonked myself down on the roadside in the bushes, overlooking the valley.  I listened to the breeze as it bent young eucalypts.  I watched the ants moving about their daily business.  I gazed at fluffy white clouds moving across the brilliant blue sky.  And then I heard something, a gentle pounding, of little feet.  I didn’t move.  Then right on cue I noticed a wallaby meandering towards my direction.  It stopped behind a tree.  Then slowly it moved towards the fence five metres in front of me, crouching down to move through the wire, and pop up on the other side.  I told myself if I sat still, perhaps it would hop right on past me, allowing me to appreciate this close up encounter.   The wallaby started up the slight embankment towards me.  Before I had struck eye contact, he had caught a glimpse of me and with tremendous leg strength, had dramatically propelled himself into reverse, the ground reverberating, bouncing off the rise and back up the fence line.  I didn’t even have time to react.  Even my breath had stopped dead still.

I watched him as he sat at a safe distance plucking up the courage to look back at the strange phenomenon he had just encountered.  It must have been a shocking discovery to find me sitting there.  I couldn’t help but feel sad that he wasn’t brave enough to continue on past me, as if I was invisible.  Or just a part of nature too.  Part of his web of life.

Yes, I know how you feel young wallaby.  You’re shocked.  You’re rattled.  The natural rhythm of life has been upset momentarily.

But I notice something else.  You bounced back.  Sure, it was in another unexpected direction.   But you also had the courage to look back and ponder what it was that knocked you off your feet.  To take stock before you carry on.   To appreciate this moment of being alive in nature.

You and I have a lot in common.

Nature Connection for Beginners – 30 Day Challenge

Image: Kelly Ferris

There is a mountain of evidence telling us that 30 minutes a day in nature has enormous benefits for our health and wellbeing.  But who has time to find an extra half hour every day to spend outside, right?

Well, if you are SERIOUS about making a POSITIVE DIFFERENCE to your life without it becoming an onorous task, especially if you know nothing about the therapeutic benefits of a ‘green prescription’, then this 30 day challenge is FOR YOU.  There are no real rules just very simple invitations for you to take up if you so wish, and if an invitation doesn’t fit for you, there are plenty of other practices you can do instead.  Failure is not an option because you choose to participate at a level that suits you.

Here’s how it works.  Each day during April, we will issue an invitation to help you (re)connect with the natural world, ignite your senses and induce mindfulness.  It will be simple, achievable and above all relaxing.  All you need to get started is just 5 minutes a day and accessibility to a green space such as your backyard garden or local park.  We will slowly work up to the optimal 30 minutes a day by Day 30, maximising the benefits for your body, mind and spirit.

They say it takes three weeks to develop a new habit.  You’ll be surprised how easy it is to incorporate nature connection into your busy day.  We guarantee it won’t be another thing to do on your task list.  You will want to do it!

And if you’re still not convinced, here are 10 reasons why this challenge is worth taking on.

  1. Improve your short term memory
  2. Restore your mental energy
  3. Relieve stress
  4. Reduce inflammation
  5. Improve vision
  6. Improve your concentration
  7. Think clearer and more creatively
  8. Boost immune system
  9. Improve mental health, reduce anxiety and depression
  10. Live longer

Using the words of one of my recent nature therapy walk participants, “I would say it is something that needs to be experienced, rather than spoken about.”  I will be writing more about the scientific benefits in future blogs, but I can’t wait to hear about your experience and what you notice.

So what are you waiting for?  Sign up now for the “Nature Connection for Beginners – 30 Day Challenge”.  To receive your daily invitation beginning April 1, join our Facebook Event or follow me on Instagram.

“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

…metaphorically speaking: Looking back, moving forward and just being present!

A new year is a good opportunity to reflect on the time that has come to pass, as well as set intentions for the future.  But there is something to be said about just appreciating the present moment too.

I find myself in a new garden of Eden, set in the Nambucca Valley on the upper mid north coast of New South Wales.   The sound of laughing kookaburras echo and the scent of a flowering lemon myrtle wafts over the gentle trickle of Nambucca Creek, winding its way through my backyard.  Sweaty tropical wet season days have been replaced with warm, summer days and gentle cooling breezes.  I feel my body slowly relaxing into this fresh environment, as culture shock gently subsides and the known but unfamiliar becomes engrained in daily life.
Yes, I have physically relocated.   And things are moving for ….metaphorically speaking.

To reflect on the years that have come to pass, I’m reminded of the immense privilege of working in the Northern Territory, the relationships I’ve built that will stand the test of time, a mind-full re-connection to the earth and respect for the oldest culture in the world.   My suitcase is full of rich stories, heart-filled memories, learnings and gratitude.  2017 was the year of completion and a sense of accomplishment; seeing out the initial trial of the Healing Our Children project on the Tiwi Islands, Palmerston and Katherine; launching my ‘Talk the Walk’ podcast; and of course, self-publishing my first children’s therapeutic picture book was a thrilling highlight.

As for new intentions (as I don’t do resolutions) well, there is some exciting opportunities on the horizon.  In March I will graduate with a Certificate in Nature and Forest Therapy.  I am not sure how the practice of forest bathing will look in the Nambucca Valley yet, but I am buoyed by the hope of working alongside First Nations people in exploring possibilities for nature-connected eco-tourism.  Nature therapy will also offer an alternative path to health and wellbeing, recovery from painful loss and hope for those who struggle in daily life to find meaning in this stressful world.

As I write, our family is seeking to find a permanent place to set up home in the hills, nestled amongst protected state forest and freshwater springs.  We long to grow our own food, foster regenerative land-care practices, learn to live more simply, and deepen our own spiritual connection with this place.  We yearn to share our vision with others, in the short term offering a two-way, shared learning space for co-creating and workshopping, and in the longer term a healing sanctuary and affordable retreat accommodation in a bush location.  I have no idea what this actually looks like; we trust that our vision for the regeneration of self and planet will grow organically, working with rather than against nature’s patterns and rhythms.

And so it is with a renewed sense of hope for humanity and the planet, that I embark on 2018.  While that might seem like a lot of change in the wind, for my subscribers to the blog and podcast most things will stay the same.  You will still be able to access my learnings on the journey in Indigenous social work practice as well as weekly podcast episodes of others’ experiences in social work with First Nation Australians.  As we move forward, you may find I do more blogging about the integration of ecopsychology, ecotherapies and Indigenous ways of knowing and healing ourselves and the planet.

My hope for this space in 2018 is to ramp up the conversation, amplify the connections between us, and share the great work that is happening around Australia.  If you’re engaging in Indigenous social work practice (or even just attempting to ‘walk the talk’), you have a story that others need to hear.   Please join in.  Send me an email and introduce yourself, comment on the Facebook Page,  follow us on Instagram, volunteer to be a guest blogger or nominate someone for a podcast interview.

In the midst of the hustle and bustle of packing up and moving, my podcast recording equipment is now sitting in a storage warehouse in Brisbane.  A small oversight on my part which I hope won’t affect broadcasting too much in the coming months.  I have three episodes waiting in the wings and will bring these to you each Wednesday starting next week.

In signing off, I’d like to acknowledge the hurt and sadness that exists on this day around Australia amongst our Aboriginal brothers and sisters.  While many see January 26 as a day to celebrate, the rest of us mourn.  I support #changethedate to recognise this painful history and to choose a more suitable date to celebrate what it means to be Australian.

May you be calm and keep on walking.

Lucy

‘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.