Forest Bathing

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“Forest bathing” is one of the new buzzwords in the health and wellness industry. The trend originated in Japan. This is coming on the heels of “Earthing,” which has a lot to do with lying on the ground, walking around barefoot, allowing you to connect with the earth. And, of course, we have had “nature therapy” bantered about now and then to emphasize the therapeutic value of spending time on the landscape.

The Japanese have always been close to nature. In fact, it’s so embedded into the culture that it may be found in calligraphy, sword making, and the martial arts, to name a few. There’s even a special poetic structure devoted to nature called haiku. So it’s no surprise that they have something called Shinrin-yoku.

The term Shinrin-yoku or forest bathing, was coined by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in 1982. In 2010 they conducted a study of Japan’s 24 forests and scientifically compared “forest bathers” with urban walkers. The physical differences were significant. The forest bathers had lower blood pressure, heart rates and stress hormones.

The fact that enjoying the outdoors is associated with lower blood pressure, improved work memory, and feeling more alive is not lost on countries like Finland and the United States. There are nature walks given all over the United States but these are more informational, while hikes are about getting to a specific destination. Forest bathing, however, is about taking in what nature has to offer by way of slowing down, noticing things that take time to appreciate, and letting go of the daily stress that can over take us.

The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture has taken their study a step further and now certify trails as the best for Shinrin-yoku. They gathered blood samples and other metrics, before and after participants walk a trail. Then scientists analyzed the results. What they found was an increase in white blood cells, called killer cells, a kind of cell that fights infection and other immune system indicators that point to better health. In several studies, the killer cells increased by 50%. If the results are within a specified range the trail is certified as a Shinrin-yoku trail.

Scientists in several countries, including the United States and Finland, think the health benefits come from phytoncides, or antimicrobial organic compounds given off by plants. The idea is that breathing in the substance gives people the feeling of relaxation. The other explanation is that there is an “awe” factor similar to that of astronauts who view earth from space, the admiration of the Grand Canyon, or Monument Valley in Utah.

Perhaps it’s living inside with so much technology that prompts us to visit the trees and seek out the smells and sounds of nature. We crave a feeling of well being and enjoy the beauty of nature and the benefits of drinking in the sunshine, oxygen, and colors of the landscape. Whatever it is, it’s good for us.

King Aurthur of Monument Valley part 3

The Conclusion of Monument Valley by Magda Santos

Monument Valley

Monument Valley

As we continued our journey, I’d dream of King Arthur. He’d come to me, but I rebuffed him. I’ve lived in New York all my life and I know not everything is what it seems. It didn’t seem a good idea to go along with someone I had just met for a few hours in a valley. I’d come across lots of people claiming to be spiritual. They didn’t always have the experience they claimed. They weren’t as skilled as they said they were, and neither did they have my best interest in mind.

We finally got home to Florida and I didn’t see King Arthur in my dreams again but I was still drawn to the Valley as I slept at night. After some prayers and preparations, I finally relented and decided to go to the archaeological site, the place that called me. I walked over to the huge smooth stone and laid down, looking up at the night sky through the immense opening at the top.

A few seconds later two large men dressed in native clothing appeared. Each of them grabbed one of my arms. The funny thing is I didn’t feel like struggling. They were walking with great determination to some destination unknown to me. Within a few more seconds, I was standing in front of a pedestal with a large bowl on top. My two guides were still with me but I didn’t know what to do next. Then one of them put his hand on the back of my head and pushed it into the water in the bowl. I didn’t feel like I was drowning, and I had no fear at all. When I lifted my head up, I was relaxed and felt very strong and sure of myself.

Then everything shifted and I found myself on top of a mesa. I was walked a few more steps then turned to the left. I’m asked to kneel. Someone points and whispers in my ear, “the storyteller.” I feel a heavy blanket placed on my shoulders. It keeps me focused for a few more seconds. I find myself searching my thoughts for meaning and then I’m home, in my body. The sound of birds chirping at my window wakes me. I look over to the night stand and it’s time to start getting ready for work.

As I brush my teeth, I begin to think of Percival, the Arthurian knight. He walked into the Fisher King’s castle, without knowing what to expect, just as I walked into the valley. But because of decorum, it’s not polite to ask questions of your host. Percival didn’t learn that the Grail was right in front of him and that he could heal the Fisher King. King Arthur of Monument Valley had a vision to give me but it took some work for me to find it. There were layers of disguise to protect the sacred from disrespectful eyes. I showed who I was and that I could be trusted with such a spiritual gift.

 

King Arthur of Monument Valley part 2

When it was time to go, we climbed into a vehicle without sides and a metal cover overhead. It was a truck jeep thing that was rugged and could take all the bumps and grinds of the terrain, as we were soon to find out. It was a cold day in March. Racing down the roads increased the wind chill, but we were so happy to be on this land. We just pulled our scarves tight around our necks and held on tight.

We stopped at several places with monuments in the distance. King Arthur began describing the monuments as cartoon characters from popular television shows and movies. There was one that had an ear that looked like Mickey Mouse, he said. Andrea and I were stunned and confused by his descriptions but we decided after glancing at each other that we would give it some time before asking about his unusual narrative.

Monument Valley

Monument Valley

There must be a reason for the commercial tone to all his comments so I smiled and only asked a few times about the importance of this valley.

We bumped along and got thrashed from side to side, but even with the strange narrative the splendor of the Valley was impossible to ignore. The valley has iron oxide mixed in with the sandstone and that’s what gives the valley its’ reddish tinge. The buttes, shale deposits, and erosion formed the monuments. What’s left is an ocean of sand and towers of stone in this corner of Utah.

Then suddenly a young man mounted a brown horse and raced down a road next to us and turned left. He had on a red shirt. I wondered why he was wearing a red shirt and why he had gone out on the ridge. Then I heard the jeeps. It was like a swarm and out jumped Japanese tourists taking pictures and pointing everywhere. They all took a picture of the young man on the horse. I do have to say he did look like a picture postcard.

At the archaeological site, we stopped and walked to a huge smooth stone; I laid on it and looked up. I could see the sky. An elliptical opening at the top of the rock formation let in the bluest sky. I was on my back looking up at the heavens.

We didn’t stay long. We had already been on the road for almost two hours. We drove back toward the visitors’ center but made one last stop on a plateau. I asked King Arthur if there were any monuments with sacred names. I had gently asked this question in many ways for two hours. That’s when he pointed to one of the rock formations and said, “That’s the storyteller.” I don’t know if I thanked him but I did feel I had been given something special, his trust.

In the next and last part of the story, dreams, visions, and a clue about the deeper meaning of Monument Valley.

OLLI and Me Nature Walks

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Our Osher Life Long Learning Institute (OLLI) class last month was a joy to lead. The class is entitled “Nature as Teacher” and is delivered as a nature walk once a week for 4 weeks. We talk about Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Stalking Wolf, in the context of nature philosophy, conservation, and practical skills.

However, Thoreau, Muir, and Stalking Wolf understood the need for nature by having proved to themselves over time the value of sleeping on the earth, eating her food and drinking her water.

I chose these 3 men to illustrate the differences in how they viewed nature and how they lived their lives. Thoreau was a gentleman, noted for using his top hat as a place to store specimens he found in the woods. Muir was a conservationist. He loved to travel deep into the forest and mountains for long periods of time and write about his adventures. Stalking Wolf was an Apache elder and scout. He lived on the landscape, only visiting “civilization” to pass on his teachings.

  • We participate in a walking meditation to prepare us for a deeper connection to nature.
  • This is a hands-on class with walks in the woods, discussion, and experiential exercises.
  • Take a walk in nature, feel the breeze, listen to the birds, and commune with nature.
  • We talk about the contrast between these 3 men’s lives and their personal philosophies.
  • Grab a friend and sign up for this thought provoking class.

The class will run once more this year, beginning on April 1. Call OLLI to register.

We also work with groups and organizations who wish to sponsor their own nature walks. We’d be happy to arrange a walk for you and your organization. There is a minimum of 4 and a maximum of 10 participants at a time.

If you’ve attended one of our walks and you enjoyed it, please refer us to your family, friends, business, civic groups, or churches. Your referral is the highest compliment you may give us.

The Tracker School Documentary 1989

This is a documentary film made in 1989 of the advanced standard class at The Tracker School. The mood is very different from ours today. Pay attention to the language and music, it all seems laid back until Tom begins to prepare everyone for the work ahead.

The individuals highlighted are relaxed as they talk about what brought them to the school and what they’re getting out of the experience. The black violinist was especially interesting because of his color and vocation. There’s a German, librarian, scuba diving instructor, and my friend Vin is in it too!

The location, the Pine Barrens, is lush and inviting. However, the real star is Tom and all the things he steers you into accomplishing out in the woods with strangers that become helpers and sometimes friends.

 

The Sweat Lodge

I stand in the moonlight in my swimsuit, a towel around my waist, watching the sacred fire heat up the stones that give steam as water is poured on them in the lodge. The fire is unified, controlled, and powerful in its heat and light. I pause to look into it and remember my purpose and reasons for being here.

The idea of building a lodge came to us as I sat at Vin’s kitchen table with the rest of the travelers. We’d been together as a group for over a year, learning and working on healing. We took requests from friends and family, and then worked on a plan to heal the person in need of help. When we needed new skills to achieve decisive healings, we stopped, learned and practiced new techniques. These plans were sometimes elaborate.

You know how sometimes you really don’t know what you’re getting yourself into but you can’t stop yourself from doing it? This was very much like that. The Creator had tapped us on the shoulder and made a request, so we went for it.

I had been in a sweat lodge ceremony before and was familiar with the basic rituals. What I wanted to focus on this time was the construction of the lodge and preparation of the materials. There were rocks, saplings, and firewood to gather. We would need saws, tobacco or cornmeal for offerings, a car to get to the lot we were gifted to use for the ceremony, and the trees we would cut down for the framework. The tree harvest became a crucial learning for me. The sweat lodge is one of those ceremonies that takes many years to learn and many more years to master.

The decision to undertake this task was going to challenge us all. It’s one of the most powerful tools the Creator has given us. It’s about cleansing and sweating out impurities. It’s preparation for more severe and compelling challenges, but most of us had never built one before.

As I walk away from the fire, my mind drifts to the conversation I had with a fellow traveler a few minutes ago. The traveler pointed out a young woman in shorts and a t-shirt, telling me that she’s a cop. We were changing in the shed, and she was watching us. I don’t know why the police were interested in our sweat lodge ceremony, but I had more pressing matters to take care of before the ceremony.

Inside the Lodge

In the lodge, a ladle full of water is poured on the stones. At first, the water is at odds with the rocks, until they unite to produce the moisture that fills the structure. The lodge mimics the womb. We sit in the warm, misty, moist fragrance of steam coming from ancient stones and herbs. I close my eyes to feel and breathe in the steam. When I open them, I see the others shifting to make themselves comfortable on their blankets. I’m touched by my neighbor’s knee and reach out to her for comfort.

The close quarters are starting to affect me. I’m tense. The familiar panic that accompanies an anxiety attack is threatening to overtake me. My throat is closing and I know I won’t be able to breathe in a few seconds. I look toward the door for a way out. I begin to talk myself out of the panic. I helped construct this lodge and I know how to exit through the wall if I need to leave and breathe outside in the open air.

Vin is leading the ceremony. If I need help to leave, to run out of the lodge he’ll understand. No, I haven’t told him I’m claustrophobic. I’m sitting the furthest from the door. I guess I didn’t think things through before coming into the lodge.

The talk of stones was fascinating. Vin spent at least a week researching and looking for the right stones to use. He looked at lava stones but they were too fragile and would break down easily. In the end, he and the fire keeper chose large granite stones from a local quarry.

The stone people are ancient. They have seen many things over time. Their wisdom is sought by many. In this ceremony, they share their knowledge with the seekers. They share what they have seen. They will, however, give up their existence for the people in the ceremony.

The fire keeper will work on the fire and dig the trench that connects the lodge to the fire pit. He maintains the fire throughout the ceremony and delivers the hot stones to the lodge when the time comes.
I remember the Saturday we jumped into 3 cars, bursting at the seams with people on a mission. We drove for about 30 minutes and wound up at a lot filled with saplings. Our car doors flew open and we spilled out onto the pavement. We gathered around Vin for final instructions and were given a few extra saws. I had my own folding saw from my days as a civilian park volunteer.

Inner Vision

We would have to connect with our inner vision to select the 14 trees that would make up the frame. Each sapling would have to be communicated with and an offering given for its sacrifice. I had made offerings before, but this time I felt an urgency and commitment I hadn’t had in the past. This time the project was for a group of us not just me.
The lot belonged to Roy, a traveler and friend. He was happy to let us have the saplings. I remember the sun shining down on the hundreds of young ailanthus trees. Ailanthus trees are an invasive species and these were struggling for space, each one casting a shadow on the other.

I move carefully and gently between the trees and find a few that are willing to come with me. I pray and give my offering. As I cut the trees down, I feel a physical release, as if they are saying, “I’m okay. I will sacrifice for this ceremony.”

I stop to take a break. My eyes are drawn to 2 dark trees with rough bark. I realize they are sassafras. They’re not invasive but they want to come and be part of the ceremony. I’m torn. This is not the plan. I struggle for a while and ask a traveler working next to me what he thinks. He shrugs. I take a deep breath and take the 2 trees.

We load the saplings onto the pickup truck Julian is driving and head for the ceremony site. We walk into the woods and find a large clearing. The site is mapped out and the measuring begins. The circle for the lodge is marked off using string and a center pole. The pole holes are marked with an x. Then we begin to dig.
In the lodge, it’s time to make a decision. Do I run out of the lodge or take part in the ceremony? Something reaches out to me and calm enters my body. I hear myself say, “How much do you want this?” My thoughts return to my vision, my life, my hopes and my dreams. When another ladle of water touches the stones, my panic evaporates like shadows in the mist. I open and shed pieces of doubt, jealousy, and fear. An assortment of impurities falls out of me and disappear into the soil beneath me.

The Structure

As the saplings go into the ground, we begin to see the structure appear. Julian and I grab the saplings and bend them to meet in the middle and tie them together. The rest of the saplings are joined and a dome is formed.

We continue working on strengthening the walls of the lodge and Vin declares it finished. Then he stops and asks if we have one more sapling for the entrance pole. It will hold our personal items as a declaration of commitment in the ceremony.

The only saplings left are the two young sassafras trees. Julian takes one and attempts to place it in a hole but it breaks in half as he lines it up. The hole is widened, deepened, and the second sassafras tree goes in without effort. I feel very satisfied that I honored my inner vision and selected the 2 trees at the lot. I’m delighted I was listening.

We had many sweat lodge ceremonies that year. Before one of them, I remembered to ask about the policewoman that came to our first sweat. Julian leans over to tell me what he thinks. “She was with us because our lodge is built behind the Arthur Kill Correctional Facility, a medium security prison on Staten Island. In December 1980, two inmates tunneled out of the prison and escaped in a car – John Nappi, 26, and Daniel Chiarello, 29.” I guess they wanted to make sure we weren’t going to help anyone escape. She did stay for the ceremony but she never came back.

During one of our meetings we decide to include the prisoners from the prison in our prayers at the next ceremony.

I feel a cool breeze and the outside world slowly slips into my thoughts as the lodge door opens. I wait my turn to crawl out and back into the moonlight. No one is speaking yet and we are all emerging from within ourselves. The steam is lifting from our bodies as if forming feathered wings that open from our backs. We are the travelers, the seekers, willing to walk a little known road toward enlightenment.

The Joys of Winter

From our friend and founder of Ways of the Living Earth Museum Debby Tremel

Winter Shelter

Winter Shelter

The Joys of Winter

Winter is upon us and with it comes another whole way of being on the land. We’ve all been working on winterizing our shelters and making other preparations. The garden is harvested and wild edibles are being gathered.

Materials for projects for long winter evenings are being harvested and prepared, and of course, lots of firewood is being gathered! In winter there is less activity and you let go of the busy-ness of the days. There is more stillness; more silence and more time for the inward journey.

In winter you feel more the difference of pace from life in society, there is a slowness, a gentleness that too many don’t ever get to experience. People always ask us “aren’t you cold!” but to us, that’s just part of winter.

Yes, sometimes we’re cold but not always, and cold isn’t a bad thing. If it wasn’t cold we wouldn’t see frost on the leaf litter or stand in awe of the falling snow. Without cold we’d never see the dance of freezing and thawing or hear the silence born only of a frigid night. As long as you know you can get warm again, is it really so bad to be cold? Winter is a special time and we welcome it back into our lives.

The Night Sit

Greenbelt Staten Island

Greenbelt Staten Island

I dressed warmly, slipped my knife on my belt, made sure my sister knew I was out of town for a few days, and headed to Vin’s. We were going to the Greenbelt, a remote, wild area on Staten Island, one of New York City’s 5 boroughs. We decided to leave from Vin’s house to avoid taking two cars and attracting any unwanted attention. I had an important question that needed answering, and I was feeling called to the wilderness for the answer.

I telephoned Vin a week ago. “Vin? I’m struggling with a problem and I want a night sit to help me see what direction I need to take to continue on my spiritual path. Will you help me?” He said yes.

A night sit is one night in the forest without sleep or food, asking the Creator to help clarify a part of your vision. A vision you uncovered during a vision quest. The vision quest usually takes four days depending on your teacher, but you need time to prepare. The preparation and quest most often adds up to seven days.

The concept is to place yourself in a situation that will allow you to listen to the Creator. It is said that your first quest tells you everything about your vision. If you quest again, and many people do, it will clarify the first experience. If you can’t quest for four days then you might opt for a night sit. The sit has a meditative quality but is not a meditation. It’s more of an opening into a waking dream.

We packed light. No sleeping bags, no fire kit and no food. We planned on setting up camp for one night. There would be one night and day to prepare for the sit and one night for the sit itself.

We found a nice size clearing deep in the Greenbelt. The area Vin chose was near Heyerdahl Hill. The park is 2,800 acres, and if you know where to go it can seem millions of miles from civilization. The fact that the Greenbelt runs along the midsection of the island makes it a great place to explore. The forested hills, wetlands, and kettle ponds give the park a diversity of habitat and lots of nooks and crannies to take refuge in. It’s also about 410 feet above sea level. We, however, had something specific in mind, a night sit.

The geography is much like other New York parks due to the Pleistocene glaciers that moved through this area, but the schist, sandstone, serpentine, magnetite, and iron oxide give this park its distinction. They are the result of tectonic activity from a much earlier Paleozoic era.

I found out that my favorite transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau, came to Staten Island in 1843 to tutor Emerson’s nephews. He must have loved the landscape and taken lots of walks into the greener parts of the island. Who knows? I might have stepped in his boot prints as I traveled the trails.

As soon as we arrive, we begin making our camp. Our scout beds, made of dried autumn leaves, were colorful and crunchy. We piled them up about three feet high in the shape of a single bed. Sleeping directly on the ground would cause our body heat to leech out into the earth. Without insulation, the cold could lead to hypothermia. The leaf pile was perfect for keeping us warm. Besides, the weather was pleasant enough to not require us taking the time to build a shelter and, for the most part, we were fasting.

We decided not to build a fire so meat and tea were not on the menu. Our water bottles would have to be filled at least once during our two days. We called a friend whose property butted up against the Greenbelt and asked him if we could stop by to fill us up on water. Don knew we didn’t want contact with people before a sit, so he set up a hose in his back yard and pointed us to some edibles in his garden. The water came in handy to prevent dehydration. Without a fire, we couldn’t find water in the Greenbelt and purify it by boiling. So hurray to Don for his help and understanding of the process.

Day one was filled with deer sightings and plant identification, along with some discoveries of the human kind – lovers kissing, dogs playing, people hiking. We had moved into the more populated areas of the trails in order to get ready to quietly cross the road to Don’s backyard. Our intent was to avoid people, dogs, cars and any other distractions that might arise.

When there are few man-made things in your day, and nature surrounds you, you lose your sense of time. Your steps are smoother and longer. You notice the breeze move your hair, and the sun on your skin. Your heart looks for things that give you peace. My heart was peaceful.

The sun began to cast its bluish and purple colors on the horizon and declared it night within a few minutes. We were going to Don’s for water. As we started out, my adrenaline shot up to military/Special Forces level. The full moon aided our night trek and we easily made it across the road, over the fence, and onto Don’s property.

We turned on the hose as quietly as we could, using other sounds to mask the turning of the squeaky faucet and rush of water through the hose. After filling our water bottles we headed to our camp. On our way back, I had to get my breathing under control. I didn’t realize how full of energy I was after our short jaunt to Don’s. I climbed onto my bed and looked up at the night sky with all its stars. Even in Staten Island’s light pollution, you can see stars at night. The moonlight filled our camp. After a few prayers of thanksgiving, my eyes began to close.

After we broke camp on our second day and spread the leaves we used for our beds on the ground, we walked the trails and did some tracking. We avoided people as much as we could, but mostly we sat and thought about the sit. My job was to form a clear question and be ready for the Creator’s answer. Vin would be my protector. I took time to look for a spot for my spiritual sit. I found a secluded area with pine trees and chose a pine as my night partner.

My thoughts were filled with confusion. Do I stay the course and keep teaching in the school system or do I have something else to do to travel my vision? I had an opportunity to attend Columbia Teachers College and get my Masters in education. It would be a monumental task with the limited resources I had at the time. There were too many reasons not to go, but I felt the pull of this trial.

The sun began to go down and I sat with my back to the pine tree and began to clear my mind. A night sit is a small version of a vision quest. All the same rules apply. The quester does not leave the designated area, they do not eat food, and they avoid distractions. This last one is the hardest of all. Coming from a culture of distraction that emphasizes computers, televisions, phones, and talking, turning off the mind takes effort. It does help if you practice every day but even practice sometimes fails you when you purposely sit to find answers to life questions.

I would have to depend on nature to send me messages and tell me what the Creator wanted from me and my life. I would have to depend on Vin to keep me physically and spiritually safe, as I listened to God. I would have to stay open to nature. Trust was vital.

Each time my mind drifted I pulled it back to emptiness. The night became colder and colder but I had to let that discomfort go to hear the Creator’s voice. My legs would fall asleep, so I adjusted and straightened my spine. Doubt rushed in when I least expected and dared me to stay the whole night. Then it began to tear away at my confidence. How could I finish such a vigorous educational program at one of the best schools in the country while working full time? How could I hear the Creator’s voice in the forest?

But before doubt took the reins, fear crept in the back door and heightened every sound in the woods, creating danger where there was none. Vin was out of sight, hidden. I was alone in the woods with raccoons, opossums, bats, birds of prey, black racers, and who knows what else. My nerves almost overtook me, until I remembered that I was a part of the forest now, that after two days roaming the trails I had joined with the wildness. The final revelation was that the messengers of the Creator come from the creatures and even insects living in the wilderness. The fear lifted.

The battle to stay quiet and listen without distraction continued throughout the night. There were times I wanted to sleep and would slump to the side. I heard my teacher’s voice in my mind saying, “How much do you want it?” That thought floated into my sleepy head and I rallied. I knew I wanted this answer badly. It was part of my vision. I lost the concept of time. When the sun began to rise I was surprised but welcomed it. I had my answer. I would leap into the abyss and enroll at Columbia. I was sure of my answer and ready for the two and a half year journey.

Vin waited for me to stand and walk around before coming over. He had hidden in the bushes just to the left of me. I hadn’t seen him all night. We hugged and headed for a light breakfast to break our fast. You can do anything in a city called New York, even a night sit.

Florida Tracker Club

Tampa

The second Wednesday of each month there is a free online drum meditation for increased awareness in Tampa. The drum meditation is lead by Magda. This is a wonderful way to begin to journey into your inner self and find answers to your personal questions.

The second Saturday of the month, from September to May, there is a nature walk that includes a walking meditation using the fox walk and splatter vision.

And in addition Niasziih healing is available on Thursdays from 10:00 to 5:00 pm and Saturdays from 10:00 to 3:00.

If you’d like to make an appointment please contact us by using our contact form it helps us avoid spammers.