BY MOLLIE WINDMILLER – JULY 21, 2021
It’s true, there is no better designer than nature. Joan Vorderbruggen of Bircheart Shinrin-Yoku knows this better than most. She is an architect and former university professor whose focus has been on understanding and creating healing environments. “How can we design places (or even our lives) to simultaneously improve the well being of ourselves, our communities, and our planet?”
Everything she has found, especially during and since her years of teaching, has emphasized fostering a deeper connection with Nature. Now, with extensive training, she is a Nature and Forest Therapy Guide, and I was lucky enough to have her guide my first, and certainly not last Forest Bathing experience. Not to mention in one of the most important places in the world to me, Glendalough State Park. Forest Bathing is a Japanese practice (shinrin-yoku) using all of the senses and simply being calm and quiet amongst the trees.
“90 minutes feels a bit long,” I remember thinking when I signed up, almost feeling anxious of the time I would be unplugged. I was recovering from a week of seemingly never-ending deadlines, meetings, and obligations and had a more difficult time turning my brain off than I realized. I cannot express how taken back I was when the 90 minutes came and went with a blink of an eye.
Slowing down and connecting with my senses was intimidating at first, but quickly became my favorite part of the day. Joan introduced us to “invitations”, like invitations to stand silently, feet rooted into the ground, and to close our eyes and listen. She asked us to listen to everything, both near and far. Then she would invite us to inhale and actually smell, not just breathe. We would stand with our hands open to feel the breeze on our palms. Then, she invited us to open our eyes. That’s when I realized how truly desperately I needed this experience. I became so aware of all the natural elements around me and I was able to feel the calm in the chaos. I was able to feel present, the chattering in my head of the laundry list of things turned to beautiful silence.
We were given the opportunity to go explore the forest alone for a moment and I quickly saw something that made me stop in my tracks. This gigantic cottonwood tree had been visited by a beaver who dwindled down a large portion of its trunk. I took a closer look and saw there was water coming from the center of the tree, proving it is still alive after losing pieces of itself. “Resilient” was the first word that came to my mind. This tree could’ve fallen, but instead, it still continues to grow. As cliche as it sounds, this tree was the exact metaphor I needed. It gave me a sense of strength and encouragement.
We reconvened after our lone ventures and participated in a closing ceremony. The day before, Joan went into the park and picked raspberries and raspberry leaves to make a sun tea for us to enjoy together at this moment. She poured the tea into these beautiful ceramic cups but there was one extra. With that cup, she held it up and toasted our ancestors and mother nature then poured the tea back into the earth.
My family has had a cabin on Blanche Lake across from Glendalough State Park for 100 years. My dad grew up coming to this special place, as have I. I have loved observing over the years the moment my dad arrives at Blanche it’s like he turns into an 8-year-old boy again. It’s a place to be with family, a place to escape from the hustle & bustle of our lives, and the many memories and generations of family enjoying this place make it truly magical. Now that I am older and I bring my girls to the cabin, I observe these feelings coming over me when I arrive at Blanche Lake that I have seen in my dad. The opportunity to truly connect with nature in this space allowed me to connect to my roots and to myself for the first time in quite a while.
At the closing ceremony of Forest Bathing, Joan read aloud a poem by Mary Oliver that has stuck with me. It offers motivation to continue to connect with nature, and do it often. My biggest takeaway from the experience: the importance of quietness – even if only for 5-10 minutes. Sitting quietly and observing nature creates an incredible impact on your mindset, your breath, and well-being. I am truly grateful for this Forest Bathing experience and highly recommend it.
When I Am Among The Trees
By Mary Oliver
When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”