Healing Lands and Healing People
By Christy Thomson
ACRES allows the land to heal by giving it space and time to recover. Protecting it from further harm allows us to enjoy it while hoping our climate will sustain it. The mission of forest therapy is the same, but in a more subtle way. Relationship is at the very center of both land trust and forest therapy movements.
For just the past five years of ACRES 62 years of service, sites all over northeast Indiana have hosted forest therapy walks. Tel-Hy, Pehkokia Woods, Bicentennial Woods, Hathaway Preserve at Ross Run and Tom and Jane Dustin Nature Preserve have all graciously welcomed participants into an uncommon kind of relationship. Current cancer patients, those in remission and their families and friends have enjoyed the beauty and peace they find during these walks.
In the work of forest therapy, the unspoken partnership between the guide and the land has an influence as well. As a forest therapy guide and ACRES member, I am committed to becoming familiar with these places and to look for ways to build reciprocal relationships with the land. Each visit to an ACRES preserve is unique, but most visitors will likely agree that time on the trails gives us a sense of peace and clarity. Especially since the onset of the pandemic, we all have needed these outdoor spaces to help manage our stress and anxiety
Beginning in the 1980s in Japan, shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing” was created and closely studied, revealing the health benefits from time in the forest, benefits of which so many of us are inherently aware. From authors Dr. Qing Lee to Richard Louv and Florence Williams, a multitude of books explain our human bodies’ need to interact with the earth, her forests, wetlands, mountains and waters. For example, the evidence details how our immune systems are boosted when we encounter conifers, the positive effects of awe on our psycho-emotional state and the healthy benefits of a childlike curiosity. Our bodies know we need to go outdoors. Thanks to ACRES, many more of us have wild spaces to fill that need.
During forest therapy walks, participants engage with not only that curiosity but also with memories of their past, all while slowing down during mindfulness-encouraging invitations. They are invited to feel the earth with their hands and feet. They are invited to touch tree bark, to notice patterns in branches, to sit next to trickling or flowing waters. They are also invited to share what they experience with each other, if they are comfortable doing so.
Although no two forest therapy walks are ever the same, walks with Cancer Services of Northeast Indiana participants are especially heart-centered. Being touched so closely by both the grief and the possible growth of that particular challenge offers the possibility of life lessons learned and the vulnerability to share them. It builds friendships that last for years beyond the treatment time. Each time I have a walk with Cancer Services, I know I am going to encounter some of the most beautiful people, telling the most beautiful stories, all surrounded by a place that holds us and knows how to listen more intently than even I do.
Forest therapy is not a series of esoteric practices. It is simply an invitation into a contemplative mindset that allows emotional healing, opportunities for immune system enhancement and deepening relationships with ourselves, our friends, coworkers, and even strangers.
While the land holds stories of the people who were here before, it also has the ability to open our minds and hearts to see ourselves and others in a more connected way.
Next time you are visiting an ACRES site, slow down, touch the mosses and the tree bark, walk in the soft mud, gaze at reflections in the waters. Notice what is present around you and its interaction with what is inside you. This is how the gently healing practice of forest therapy does its work.
We protect what we love. And what a gift it is to better love this home of ours and the people in it. Thank you, ACRES, for making that a possibility!
And ACRES thanks you, Christy Thomson, for inspiring people to value, appreciate and support these places while connecting with nature. Thomson is a certified forest therapy guide and owner of Wild Communion. Learn more about her work at wildcommunion.org.