February 23rd, 2021
How to Rewild Ourselves
Can the remedy to stressful modern lives be found in the forest?
If you’ve spent less time on familiar downtown streets and more time among the trails and trees of our public lands during the past year, you’re not alone. Everyone from seasoned hikers to the previously outdoor-averse responded to a collective yearning for space and calm. Now that we’re learning there’s more to our excursions than just exercise and good views, what knowledge and practices can help us maintain an essential connection to the wild – and in doing so, improve health and well-being?
Into the Woods
When John Muir wrote of “going into the forest to lose my mind and find my soul,” he may have inadvertently described the art and science of shinrin yoku, the Japanese characters for “forest bath.”
Forest Therapy Guide and Registered Maine Guide Jeanne Christie discovered this concept of forest bathing for herself one day during a trail run. “Several years ago, I found myself stopped on the trail, looking around at the trees with a sudden desire to stay still,” she said. After completing certification training with the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy, Christie launched her business, Connect to Wilderness, and began leading guided forest therapy sessions throughout southern Maine. “If there’s a therapist, it’s the forest,” she said. “I’m simply a guide.”
Each forest bathing session is unique, tailored to the woods, season, and the group participating since “not everyone is ready to talk to the trees,” said Christie.
“The practice is to really experience where you are on a deeper level,” she said. “I’ve heard it described as ‘outward meditation’.” The idea of healing and release simply through quiet reflection in a forest may seem abstract and intangible, but Christie assures it’s a human necessity. “We’ve lost our connection to the wilderness, but it’s still within us,” she said. “Simply taking time to be in nature without agenda or motive—just an existential awareness of the forest—is an ancient instinct we’ve learned to suppress.”
Her guidance for a self-directed forest bath? “Gently push aside your ‘talking’ mind,” she said. “Experience the world through all of your senses. Close your eyes and observe the world through your other senses. Your mind will start talking again – don’t worry. Just allow these thoughts to move past. Wander at will!”
“The land is the real teacher.
All we need as students is mindfulness.”
ROBIN WALL KIMMERER
For a truly immersive experience in nature, plunging into the bracing waters of Maine’s rugged coast is an invigorating approach – if you can work up the nerve. Yarmouth landscape architect and artist Mitchell Rasor first gave it a try seven years ago, while looking for a new focus during a difficult period. Today, it’s a year-round practice he describes as “mentally and physically cathartic.’’ Even while traveling for work, Rasor is always on the lookout for a nearby swim spot. “I try never to miss a day between May and October,” he said.For anyone eager to take the plunge, Rasor suggests beginning in August when the ocean water is warmer (by Maine standards) and timing your swim for fair conditions. “The wind is typically lower and the water is calmer at dawn and dusk,” he said.
Whether you opt for a lake, river, or ocean, there are inherent risks associated with wild swimming. “You need to be aware of your surroundings, tides, waves, temperature, and currents,” said Rasor. “You’re aligned in the moment. It’s just you and the water.”
In the woods beyond East Blue Hill, a collective of alternative educators have established Way of the Earth, an inclusive school that teaches Earth skills and ancient arts – from hide tanning to herbalism to survival skills. Students “find skills to build an everyday functional and positive relationship with the surrounding world, and other people,” said instructor and outdoor educator Colby Smith. Much of the curriculum is centered around a Whole-Earth approach that recognizes the need for indigenous knowledge and leadership at its forefront. “We’ve been creating increasingly ‘artificial’ human-constructed environments without considering most other species in this process,” he said. “Indigenous or native people have always lived with the natural world at the forefront of their consciousness.”
Sign up for short courses in traditional arts, or if you’re feeling a real wanderlust, sign up for their immersive five-month summer wilderness program at an on-site primitive village.
For anyone with a desire to rewild but without months to spare, Smith offers some practical advice: “Returning to health and balance is a process – it takes time. Make small, but sure steps. Plug in to the place you live and learn about the interconnections that exist there. Quietly observe how this stream has slowly shaped the ground and how the mink is influenced by these shapes as it travels upstream. Observe how you too are shaped by the mink’s movements, the sound of the stream, and the shape of the land. Rather than just moving through nature, look around, move slowly, start a relationship with something there. Maybe it could use your help. Maybe it could help you.”
TAKE A BREAK DURING YOUR WORKDAY
— Saisie Moore is a freelance writer and gardener living on Munjoy Hill in Portland.