My journey to become a Forest Therapy Guide wasn’t straight forward—though it may look that way.
The idea was already in existence during a cold winter’s walk with my dog. I declared that I would like a new vocation: one that would let me wander in the forest.
Later that day I found the website of The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy. Their map pinpointed guides in my home province of Ontario. They would be soon be leading a walk two hours from where I lived.
It was only after I gave voice to my desire for change that the wheels were put in motion.
I was ready for a change.
I had been baking for 17 years and it had taken its toll on my body. I had sore knees and hips as well as an unhealthy addiction to sugar. What began as a granola business, value adding to maple syrup I made, had turned me into a purveyor of cookies and butter tarts. I wasn’t proud of selling that much sugar to people nor was I feeling good personally. Baking with sugar was giving me too many opportunities to sample.
Blood tests showed I was just on the edge of diabetes.
A few weeks after my winter walk declaration, I drove to the Royal Botanical Garden in Burlington, Ontario. The weather was cold, cloudy and threatening snow. Upon arrival, I headed into the main entrance but was told I was in the wrong location and sent to another part of the park.
Once there, I was told I needed to head back to the main building—they had been mistaken in sending me over. I made a pit stop in the restroom and found myself getting anxious. I fought the desire to jump in my car and drive home even as I headed out to the parking lot, bent on escape.
Along the way, I spied a woman walking with purpose toward the building I had just left. I recognized her frustration and called out.
“Are you here for the Forest Therapy walk?” She came toward me and said she was.
This was the third location she had been sent to. I mumbled “you win” under my breath. I let her know she needed to head back to the main building to find the group. She was ready to leave.
I encouraged her to stick with it—the reassurance was just as much for me as it was for her.
Back at the main building, we met up with our group at the front desk. Apologies were given all round; the walk, it was explained, was new to the facility. Our Guide, Ben Porchuk quickly moved on from what had gone wrong and prepared us for what we were about to experience.
He explained we would be walking a short distance, moving slowly in silence and taking part in optional suggestions to sample nature with our senses called “invitations.” We would regroup after each invitation and if we wanted, we could verbally share.
Our guide made sure everyone was comfortably dressed for the weather and offered up some hand warmers. A short walk through a formal garden and we found ourselves in a beautiful arboretum.
Within 15 minutes, my anxiety and frustration had melted away. It had not been the best start but it was clear Forest Therapy had something special to offer me. An invitation called Camera had me introducing another participant to a patch of moss dotted with newly fallen wet snow. We were transfixed by the beauty and brilliance of nature.
I went home and began experiencing my own forest in a new way. I made up invitations and worked at making Guide Training a reality. I had 50 years of making excuses to avoid opportunities presented in ways similar to how Forest Therapy came into my life.
It wasn’t going to happen again. This past July, I did my training.
Forest Therapy Guides are required to be aware of edible and harmful plants, have a connection and comfort level with forests and wildlife and possess a desire to facilitate that connection in others.
They say the forest is the therapist and as Guides, we open the door. It’s a journey I have only just begun and I look forward to this chapter with renewed passion in my life.
On a cold winter day, I asked and the forest answered. This time, I listened.
If you want to deepen your connection to nature, slow down, breathe deeply and be open to the messages coming your way from the forest. The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy has an interactive map on their website that will put you in contact with guides leading walks near you.
Author: Fran Mills
Image: Alex Holt / Unsplash
Editor: Sara Kärpänen