A Walk in the Woods - Dr. Christopher Willard
In recent years, the Japanese art of forest bathing has been catching on among mindfulness practitioners, wellness enthusiasts, even capturing the attention of health and mental health researchers for the wealth of benefits it purports to offer. Plenty of blogs and books explore the topic in greater depth and I’ll let them do that, but I have recently been exploring a new tree appreciation practice that might just fit in for this arbor day and earth day as we appreciate the trees and all they do.
With new stories of fires raging across the southern hemisphere from Australia to the Amazon in their scorching summers, and likely hitting the northern hemisphere during its summer, an awareness of the role of forests in offsetting carbon emissions is growing. Not only that, but trees and vegetation literally offer us the air that we breathe, from the tropics to the tundra, offering humans and animals the essence of life itself. Reading Richard 2019’s award winning novel The Overstory, and diving into Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees have been two of the more powerful books I’ve read shifting my relationship to the natural world, particularly everything green. Many mindfulness teachers preach the power of interconnection, and the air we breathe is one of the many ways we connect to all plants, animals and minerals on this planet.
Here’s the practice I’ve developed in response to learning more about something we take for granted almost every day. You can forest bathe your way into a patch of woods, or just work with a solitary tree nearby, or even just the houseplants on your windowsill.
Begin by finding a tree to sit or stand with. Perhaps one you regularly encounter, or one that you seek out deliberately. Take a moment to appreciate its size and majesty, contemplating the fact that many trees we encounter each day have stood for hundreds of years, long before generations our ancestors may have passed by.
And consider too, those past generations that watched these trees grow from seeds to saplings to towering trunks over the years.
Reflect also on the cycle of the trees through the years, what seasons, colors and weather they’ve witnessed and sat with, as well as what conflicts and connections have played out under these branches and in this shade.
Take a seat, or stand, perhaps with your back to the trunk if it fits comfortably.
Begin now by feeling the sensations of the bark against your back, and any deeper connection to the branches in the breeze, leaves capturing the sun, and the roots down in the ground as deep as the branches, drinking the water below the earth.
And as you breathe, becoming aware of the air moving in, and the air moving out of your body.
This same air, same molecules, across time and place across history and into the future. Considering how far this air has traveled to be transformed by the miracle of your own lungs; from the oxygen you need to live, into carbon dioxide for the trees to breathe.
And as you breathe in pure air, allowing yourself to appreciate and be thankful for the pure oxygen the tree is offering you.
And as you breathe out, imagining your exhale as an offering to these trees, after all what you breathe out is what allows trees to thrive.
As you breathe, you can continue to enjoy this simple interdependence and connection between you and the trees. Between all animals and all vegetation.
Just breathing in and out with the tree, giving and receiving freely and in gratitude.
Taking a few more minutes just to breathe with the tree, until perhaps you get a signal from the tree. Perhaps until a leaf falls, you hear the branches whispering above you, or the tree offers another thank you.
Befriend a Tree - Tara Wosiski
Befriend a Tree - a mindfulness practice for family members of all ages that includes mindful creativity, noticing and more.
To be practiced along with-- Dr. Christopher Willard’s Tree Appreciation Practice
The Befriend a Tree practice and activities provide a time for mindful connection, creativity and gratitude. Engaging in these practices will pique curiosity and allow the understanding of our interconnection with nature to deepen. Along with this practice you can foster stewardship in your child by taking care of the area around the tree. Make a point to clear any trash from the area and discuss the needs of the tree to thrive. Discussions on community can evolve out of caring for our environment as well as how acts of kindness and compassion are contagious. Notice how your relationship with the tree evolves and ask your child how they feel after spending this dedicated time in the mindful practice of befriending a tree.
Begin by taking a mindful walk with your family. As you pass under trees, along the sidewalk or through the forest, take note of their size, shape, texture and even the sounds they are making. You are mindfully looking to find a tree that you feel particularly drawn to, one you want to befriend! Once you have found your new friend, give the tree a name.
Note: you can also do this practice and activity with a planting near your home space, (even a house plant. )
After your initial mindful walk, dedicate a time for 5 visits to your new friend. Begin each visit by greeting the tree by name and practicing Dr. Christopher Willard’s Tree Appreciation Practice from his article “A Walk In The Woods” then have fun doing the mindful art activity listed below for each visit. Note: Still go in the rain even just to say hi and notice the changes in colors, sounds and smells. Pick up the activity on the next clear day.
Day 1: Breathing buddies: Draw a picture of you and your tree breathing together. What do the in and out breaths look like for the tree and for you? How are they connected? Use your imagination and have fun! You could do the art activity while on your walk or as a time for reflection later at home.
Materials: paper, crayons and a surface to draw on like a clipboard or a book.
Day 2: Favorite texture: Take note of all the different textures you can find on the tree. Count how many. Study the bark, the knots, the leaves and branches. Is there moss or lichens growing? How do the textures differ? Which texture do you like best? Create a crayon rubbing of your favorite texture that your new friend provides.…make a few more and you can create a texture collage at home!
Materials: Paper and crayon. You can tear the paper into the sizes you want to give the edges their own unique texture. Place paper over the textured area and rub the crayon over the surface of the paper. The texture will magically appear!
Day 3: Someone's house? - Sketch a critter that you see who might live in or on the tree. For fun imagine the critter’s story. Where is he going? Does he have friends? You might include those ideas in your drawing as well! (For a house plant, look closely and see if any creature may have visited your plant!) you could introduce the magnifying glass now for house plant observations!
Materials: Paper and pencil
Day 4: Close up day! Bring along a magnifying glass to observe one part of the tree closely. Can you see parts of the roots? Take a closer look at the bark, do you see patterns or repeating shapes? Record the shapes you find while looking up close at the tree and create your own design using those shapes in the drawing.
Materials: magnifying glass - pencils, paper,add color however you like
Day 5: Gift of gratitude ---create a work of art with natural items you find surrounding the tree. Leave it as a gift of gratitude for the tree and as a treat for others who may pass by. Some items you may see are sticks, acorns, leaves, pinecones etc. but get creative and really look around! This could look like a happy face, a cloud, a tree, the sun, a flower, a mandala, anything really! Get creative!
Materials: Natural objects that you gather near your tree.
And beyond….. Take time each week to visit your new friend, maybe even make a healthy habit of it! Enjoy practicing Dr. Willard’s Tree Appreciation Practice and notice how your tree friend changes through different seasons and weather. In addition to repeating these activities over a longer period of time; what other creative activities can your family brainstorm together to engage with the tree and your natural environment?