We’ve just returned from our summer holiday, which was a wonderful experience in Scandinavia built around a week at a Forest Therapy Retreat in Finland. This was topped and tailed by a long weekend in Helsinki, and a week in Copenhagen, both of which were amazing.
However the retreat in Finland was the main focus; when I was last at Schumacher College in Totnes, attending the Embracing Darkness course, I met a lovely Finnish lady called Tiina, and we became friends on Facebook, as you do. She alerted me to the week’s retreat in Finland, knowing I’d love it, and I even managed to persuade Mr B to come too!
The week was absolutely wonderful. We were blessed with warm and dry weather, with rain only on the day we left. The accommodation was gorgeous – a traditional wooden building set amongst the forest and fields, and very close to a beautiful lake. There were 41 of us on the course, from all parts of the world: India, Japan, USA, UK, Norway, Sweden, Belgium, Ireland, Portugal and several from Finland too. The first day was actually a programme of seminars, with many different speakers and lots of participants who weren’t staying for the whole week. Some of the seminars were interesting, but personally I found a whole day of talks a bit too much, wanting to be outside enjoying the forest.
I’d never visited Finland before and was bowled over by its beauty and peace. The roads were so quiet and the population there is tiny compared to the UK. The forests were a mixture of deciduous and coniferous trees, the most prevalent being the beautiful silver birch. There were huge granite outcrops everywhere, with lichen of all kinds growing on the rock. Apart from our lake, there were also several other smaller ones too – Finland really is a land of lake and forest.
We learned about the International Forest Therapy movement, and heard how in Japan, where suicide rates and depression are high, forest therapy is proving very popular as a natural means of healing. The same is true of India, where children are encouraged to engage with the great outdoors from an early age. We were shown a truly beautiful film by the Indian participant, Nittin, one of many films he’s made. We learned how many countries all over the world are setting up programmes to help people re-engage with nature and go to the forest for healing, relaxation and respite from 21st Century stress.
Personally, I’ve always used nature as therapy. I love walking in woods, or up high in the hills with the landscape rolling away into the distance – Dorset was my idea of heaven. It was during an evening walk many years ago in some local beech woods, just after my mother had died, that I had a magical encounter with a hare. It was this experience which set me on the path to writing Stonewylde, which at its heart is one big celebration of nature. One of the reasons we have two dogs is because this means that every single day, rain or shine, I must walk them in our local woods and fields (in Berkshire now) and I know how important this is for my wellbeing. Not just physically in terms of exercise and fitness, but also mentally and spiritually. I totally get the whole mindfulness in nature thing, the idea that being outside in a quiet, natural place is soothing and beneficial for the soul.
To me, walking in the woods and countryside gives me a similar feeling to standing looking up at the stars on a clear night; I feel at one with nature and the universe, I realise that I am simply another living organism on a planet full of living things, and my silly hopes and dreams, worries and fears, are all unimportant and irrelevant in the grand scheme of life. I feel grounded and encompassed by something far greater than myself.
The forests in Finland provided a beautiful backdrop for this experience, with calm and quiet, amazingly pure air and nature at its most vibrant. I whole-heartedly support the idea of bringing people back to nature for healing. When we first published the early Stonewylde books, we attended a lot of Mind, Body, Spirit events where I’d give talks. Many of the stall-holders and exhibitors at these events were great, but I also saw a fair amount of exploitation going on – expensive ‘treatments’ and ‘therapies’ that preyed on people’s weaknesses and quest for healing. The focus of my talks was always to reconnect with nature, to forget expensive gimmicky remedies and simply go out alone somewhere beautiful, and feel the force and power of the natural world all around for a sense of well-being and belonging.
And I think this is my only slight concern about the International Forest Therapy movement – it seemed that perhaps to some, nature is seen as a resource to be exploited, something that’s there for the benefit of humankind. It’s not. We are all part of nature, all equal participants of life on this planet. Yes, humans are the dominant species but just look at the mess we’ve made of it! Deforestation, pollution, natural habits destroyed, many, many species extinct due to our greed and violence. It’s up to those of us who care deeply about Earth and nature, who feel connected to every living thing around us, to do our best to halt the destruction and damage. And Forest Therapy can help achieve this, by reconnecting people to nature and the natural world, and encouraging the understanding that we’re all part of this beautiful planet, and just because we’re the dominant species doesn’t give us the right to exploit all other species.
So I came away from the amazing retreat feeling re-energised and confirmed in my beliefs about the healing powers of nature, but also anxious that this movement doesn’t become simply another way of exploiting nature. Nature is not there for our benefit – we’re part of it. Forests do not exist simply as a resource for humans. Happily, the nature-loving people at the retreat seemed to share this view.