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Chapters

Hospitality, Arriving, and Introduction to a Forest Therapy Walk

Before beginning a walk, there are a few things guides can do to support the success of the walk. A guide’s preparation is part of creating the container for the walk and the first part of the threshold of connection. A guide’s role begins before the first participant even arrives..

First, a guide arrives at the trailhead early, to allow time to become properly grounded and to greet the Forest. For a healthy partnership to exist, it is important to spend this time together before participants arrive to become emplaced and embodied. This will heighten the guide’s capacity to “be here now”, to notice what the Forest is like in this moment, and to catch inspiration for  the liminal phase of the walk.  

Secondly, as participants arrive, warmly greet them with hospitality. This is important because guides want participants to feel relaxed as they cross the threshold of connection. The more relaxed the feel, the more readily they will drop into liminality. When humans come into a group of strangers, they carry a basic set of questions such as:

  • Who are these people?
  • Will I be seen?  
  • What is my place here?
  • Am I safe?
  • Will my needs be met?

Take the time to support participants in finding answers to these questions. Most of these questions will be answered through non-verbal communication. When the guide welcomes participants with a smile and a handshake and asks them their names, the participants are likely to feel seen, safe, and aware of who the guide is. Follow up the introduction by asking participants some very light questions such as, “Where did you come from today?” If two participants come from a similar area, perhaps introduce them to one another to start building some rapport within the group. This may also be a good time to ask if participants need to use the restroom before the walk, and to point out where they may do so.  Think about the weather and offers extra gear such as hand-warmers or sweatshirts or sunscreen. This is a good time to ask about participants’ comfort.  

Thirdly, leave the parking area, walk to where you will begin the walk and before beginning introduce the experience with your Forest Therapy Walk Introduction. This can be done standing in a Circle or as the group walks to where the walk will begin. Guides who want to do the introduction at the site where the walk will start, g might ask participants to partner up with someone they don’t know, introduce themselves, and as they walk, share a Story of a favorite nature memory or tree.  

Take a moment to honor the place in any way that feels right, making sure to acknowledge all who have and continue to tend the land.  This includes both humans and the More-Than-Human World (MTHW).  Maybe name some of the non-humans.

Give special acknowledgement to the first humans of the place and name their tribes and confederacies, taking special care to get correct pronunciation. Try to avoid talking about Native Tribes in the past-tense and acknowledge them in the present.  Acknowledge their modern existence and find out as much as possible to do them justice.  (Example: From the New England Guide Gathering in Acton Massachusetts, “We are here on Nipmuc Nation, which is the state-acknowledged tribal government of the Nipmuc people who are native to this land.  With more than 500 citizens, Nipmuc Nation is one of the largest tribes in New England and the Nipmuc Nation Tribal Council meets regularly in Grafton, Massachusetts.”)  Keep it brief and  avoid giving a blow-by-blow of settler colonialism.  While this history is extremely important to recognize and honor, for this part of a Forest Therapy Walk Introduction, keep it lean.

Acknowledge all the humans who tend the land today. (Example: At an Arboretum or Community Trail or Conservation Area, name the staff, volunteers, visitors, funders, boards, etc…). Honor the people on the present walk by acknowledging their presence here right now.

Ideally, the following eleven elements should be included in the introduction:

  1. Guide shares name and qualification as an ANFT certified Forest Therapy guide.
  2. Point out bathrooms.
  3. Explain the location to orient participants to the place and perhaps share a very light historical story.
  4. Acknowledge land managers and traditional land keepers. It is good to acknowledge both the contemporary and the traditional peoples who have walked and tended the land before. Here is a framework for offering land acknowledgment from ANFT trainer, Tam Willey:
  5. The Background of Forest Therapy. This can be done in a number of ways, but we encourage guides to share briefly about the historical rise of Shinrin-yoku, the founding, vision, and contributions of the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy, and something about their own personal journey to becoming a guide, possibly including stories of mentors, pods, or training cohorts. It is best to say that ANFT Forest Therapy is inspired by, but not based on, the Japanese techniques of Shinrin-yoku. During this time, briefly mention some of the research that has been done demonstrating the health benefits of the practice. A great way to describe Forest Therapy is by explaining what it is not. Some participants may come with the expectation that guides will teach them naturalist knowledge. Acknowledge the importance of this way of knowing nature, but make it clear that  this is not the intention of a Forest Therapy walk. The same applies to coming to nature for exercise, such as hiking.
  6. Explain How Forest Therapy Works and the rationale for using the Word “invitation”. This is the most important part of the introduction. Explain what an invitation is, why it is called an “invitation,” that there is no right or wrong way to do invitations, and that participants are encouraged to follow their own bodies and be free to modify the invitations when they wish. However, note that participants should definitely inform the guide if their body wishes to leave and they are going home, so that guides know they have not lost anyone in the Forest. This section of the introduction is so important because it establishes trust between the guide and the participants, so participants feel free to self-direct their experience, which enhances their ability to drop into liminality. Note: It is important to describe invitations as “adaptable” or “modifiable,” but not “optional.” “Optional” suggests they only have two choices: to do the invitation or not. “Adaptable” encourages participants to find their own way of engaging with the invitation.  
  7. Explain Any Potential Awarenesses (Hazards). Assure the group that a first aid kit is available and that all guides are trained in wilderness first aid. If possible, it is best to point out poisonous plants and help participants learn how to identify them. Explain how to respond if they see certain animals.
  8. Explain our wild tending ethic, and any regulations on the land where you are guiding relating to going off trail, touching or picking plants. If going off trail is permitted where you are guiding, describe the ethic of wild-tending and contrast it to the ethic of “leave no trace,” clarifying that Forest Therapy is more aligned with wild-tending, and that some walk activities offer the opportunity to leave marked trails and that participants should do this mindfully with attention to their impact on the land.
  9. Ask if anyone in the group has any allergies or mobility challenges. Let participants know that they can approach you during the walk if they need any support.
  10. Thank the participants for coming.  You may find it natural to do this right when you introduce yourself, at the beginning.
  11. Before starting Pleasures of Presence, do an introductory Sharing Circle. Lightly explain what a Sharing Circle is and how it works. “We’ll gather and share a few words between invitations.” Mention that sharing can be done with words of any language, silence, movement, song, or any other form of expression. A good prompt for this first Circle might be, “Share your name, where you were born, and one thing you’re noticing about this place in this moment,” or “Share your name, something about a tree in your life, and why you came on the walk today.” (This last question is a bit of market research and helps the guide know who’s in the group.)

Keep the introduction brief. Participants came to experience Forest Therapy, not listen to the guide go on and on. Also, avoid giving too much information about the science and research and history of the practice. Let them know that there will be opportunity to discuss this later, during the tea ceremony at the end of the walk.

Arriving

Before beginning Pleasures of Presence, guides might include a mini-invitation called Arriving. Simply invite participants to notice where they are, to take a look around and perhaps call out anything they’re noticing in the moment. When they have run out of things they are noticing, it signals the time to begin Pleasures of Presence.

A Sample Script

Below is a sample script from a walk by Ben “Crow” Page at the Los Angeles Arboretum. This is only an example and should not be taken as a script for all guides to reproduce.


“Hi, and welcome to the Los Angeles Arboretum. My name is Ben Page and I’m a certified forest therapy guide trained by the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy. Let’s walk into the park together and I’ll tell you a little bit about what we’re doing here today.

First, has anyone been to this Arboretum before? [Some hands raised]. Great! For those of you who have not been before, this place is located in the San Gabriel Valley. The first peoples of this land where called the Tongva, and their name for this place translated as ‘the place of many waters.’ Before the dams were built up in the mountains, this place used to be where several rivers intersected and it was actually an agricultural community for the Tongva people. When the Spanish arrived, this became the site of the San Gabriel mission, and the property later passed to a Californian businessman named Lucky Baldwin. Some of you may have noticed you drove in on Baldwin Avenue today, right? Does anyone know how Lucky Baldwin got his name? No? Well, back in those days, it took a while for mail to get from one place to another. One day, Lucky Baldwin sent a letter to his banker, telling him to sell all his silver stock and in the 4 days the letter was in the mail, the price of silver skyrocketed! So, by the force of luck, he became mega-rich that day. You may also notice some peacocks here and around this neighborhood. All those peacocks descend from peacocks that Lucky Baldwin bought as a romantic gift to either his wife or his lover, scholars are unsure to this day. And of course, now this land is managed by the Los Angeles Arboretum.

So, who here has been on a Forest Therapy walk before? [No hands raised]. Okay, great. Let me tell you a little bit about the history of this practice. It begins in Japan in the 1980s, when the Japanese were transitioning to a tech-based economy. That meant a lot of people were spending a lot more time inside and the government noticed a huge spike in cancer and autoimmune disease. So, they began several research projects to figure out how to combat this epidemic. One project asked a very simple question: What happens when human beings are exposed to forest environments?  

One thing the researchers discovered is that trees keep themselves healthy by showering themselves in chemicals called phytoncides. When a tree is attacked by a fungus or other organism, the tree diffuses these phytoncides into the air, and they seek out and kill the attacking fungus. Now, the amazing thing is, because all our ancestors evolved in the Forest, humans have a very special reaction when we inhale phytoncides. When we inhale phytoncides or absorb them through our skin, our bodies produce a special white blood cell, called a natural killer or NK-cell. NK-cells roam the body looking for cancer and destroying it. So the Japanese thought this was rather incredible, that simply going into the Forest can be considered a preventive treatment for very serious disease. This is why they called it ‘Forest Bathing’ or Shinrin-yoku, because we are bathing in these phytoncides right now.  

Here in America, many early contributors to the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy had worked for years trying to figure out how to help people repair their relationships with nature. Some of the techniques they learned were quite potent, but had serious problems with accessibility. So many nature connection practices required time, money, or athleticism, and so were inaccessible to many people. Inspired by the Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku, the founders of the Association designed Forest Therapy as a 3-hour experience where people could begin to not only achieve the health benefits associated with forest bathing, but also work on their relationships with themselves, the More-Than-Human World, and each other.

So, how will this work? Today, I’m going to give you a series of what we call invitations. We call them invitations very consciously. They are not exercises or activities. There are no grades or gold stars here. You will all be doing this perfectly the whole time. The whole point is to simply relax and be here, okay? If at any point you’re confused, just follow your body’s lead. If I offer you an invitation and you are called to do something else, just go ahead and do it. The one thing I ask is if the thing you want to do is leave our group, that you let me know so I know I have not lost you in the park.  

We are lucky to be in a very safe place today. We will not be encountering any dangerous plants or animals on this walk. But just in case something happens, don’t worry, I am trained in wilderness first aid and I have a first aid kit with me.  

And now, before we start, I just want to thank you all so much for coming out this morning. I know you could be doing many things with your time today and I’m honored to be guiding you. Truth be told, I love this work, so you coming is really a gift to me. Now, let us begin by getting into a Circle.  

One of the things we will be doing a few times today is called a Sharing Circle. A Circle is really just a different way of having a conversation. In normal conversation, I might say something to Jackie, and she might say something back to me, and then we will talk like it is a game of tennis—back and forth. In Circle, we will have a leaf or a rock to signal whose turn it is to talk. We’ll call it our ‘sharing piece.’ We’ll pass it around so everyone has a turn to say whatever they want to say, and this can include being silent or speaking in any language you want. Maybe you want to sing a song or do a dance move. Whatever you want to do to express yourself, it’s all welcome here. For those of us who don’t have the leaf, we all have a very important job, which is to simply listen. One of the magical things about Forest Therapy is the opportunity to listen to each other, so when we are listening, just open your heart to whatever others are saying. Now, for this first Circle, let’s say our names, where we were born, and one thing we’re noticing about this place we are in right now. Who would like to start?”

“People will forget what you said, forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” –Maya Angelou