A couple months ago, I had the song ‘I Love Nature’ by Joe Reilly stuck in my head. The line ‘trees are our teachers’ was on loop in my brain. I had also spent a day earlier that same week talking to high school students about monitoring tree phenology for a citizen science project.
“You all are SO LUCKY,” I told them, “You have the opportunity to get to know an individual tree in such an intimate way!”
They appeared less than thrilled.
“Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth.” –Herman Hesse
How often do we allow ourselves to get to know a tree? What might we learn from trees if we explored them in more mindful ways? How does a tree change over time and experience life rooted in one spot? What stories can trees tell us?
In November, inspired by these questions and that catchy tune, I created and led a Mindful Naturalists program during which we experimented with connecting to trees as individuals.
“If we surrendered to Earth’s intelligence we could rise up rooted, like trees.” – Rainer Maria Rilke
As naturalists, we learn about trees. We ask questions, make observations, and then answer them. We prioritize gathering knowledge and information from nature.
As mindful beings though, we can choose to prioritize simply having an experience of the present moment. I propose that we just observe. And if questions arise, let the trees themselves be or provide the answers.
“The forest will decide for each one of us what experience we need.” –M. Amos Clifford
How to let trees be your teachers:
- Choose a tree. Greet it. Introduce yourself.
- Sit or lay down underneath the tree. Look up into the canopy at individual leaves. Get to know the tree.
- Observe the movement of the tree. Allow your own body to move in subtle, similar ways.
- Focus on your breath as you sit under the tree. Inhale and exhale gratitude for the tree producing oxygen and cleaning the air around you. Let your breath cleanse your body and mind.
- Touch the tree. Feel the bark on your fingers. Close your eyes and experience the tree without your sense of sight.
- Ask the tree a question. Listen to it. Rest your back against the trunk and wait for an answer.
- Gather a leaf from the tree and hold it in your hand. Smell it, feel it, note its shape and texture. Follow the veins with your finger. Tuck the leaf into your pocket as a memory, or let it fall back to the ground after you have learned from it.
- Write a love letter to the tree.
- Examine the patterns in the tree’s bark. Use paper and a naked crayon to make a bark rubbing. Hang it on your fridge when you get home. Bark rubbings aren’t just for kids!
- Sketch your tree. Note its general shape. What details do you notice only by drawing?
- Try not to think of it as ‘your’ tree. You do not own the tree. You exist in the world together.
- Sit under the tree and just be. When you feel finished, hug the tree. Say ‘thank you’ and ‘goodbye.’
“Be still my heart, these great trees are prayers.” –Rabindranath Tagore
“Trees are poems that the earth writes upon the sky.” –Kahlil Gibran
If you’re thinking, “Gee, this sounds a lot like forest bathing…” you’re right! I love that ‘forest bathing’ is a sexy, new name for going outside in search of meaningful experiences. I love that people are learning about the benefits to mind and body of spending time in more natural spaces. I love all the new books coming out about ways to connect with nature and was inspired by books about forest bathing (listed below) when creating this program. That being said, I am wary of a trend that suddenly charges money to do what many people, including naturalists, interpreters, and educators, have been doing all along. So yes, technically, this is forest bathing- in the same way that people have been forest bathing and just not calling it that, for probably thousands of years. Forest bathing should be free- anyone can do it!
Forest Bathing by Dr. Cyndi Gilbert, ND
True Nature: An Illustrated Journal of Four Seasons in Solitude by Barbara Bash
The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative by Florence Williams
Wild Calm: Finding Mindfulness in Forest Bathing by Joan Vorderbruggen
Into Nature: A Creative Field Guide and Journal from The Mindfulness Project
Natural Meditation: Refreshing Your Spirit Through Nature by Barbara Ann Kipfer