Joan Vorderbruggen is not a therapist. She's quick to point this out during a phone conversation, referring to herself instead as a nature and forest therapy guide. "The forest is the real therapist," she says.
In 2017, Vorderbruggen's passion for the human-nature connection led her to become certified as a guide through the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy. Today, she walks the woods with women's groups, students, and other seekers, often at Glendalough State Park near her home in Battle Lake, Minnesota. She urges her forest walkers to be present and to use all of their senses.
"But don't most of us do that already?" I ask. "I like to think I pay attention in nature."
There are subtle but important differences between your average hike and being present outside, says Vorderbruggen, explaining that many of us approach outdoor recreation with a goal in mind—like getting those steps in or spying some elusive songbird. To truly tap nature's therapeutic power, Vorderbruggen suggests coming to the woods without an agenda, and to be as open as possible. She compares what she does to the yoga teacher who coaches students to breathe and be mindful as they're downward-dogging.
Vorderbruggen begins a typical session by asking participants to quiet their minds. She then guides them through a series of invitations. On a recent hike, she called attention to heart-shaped deer tracks in the snow, inviting the group to follow the trail of hearts and be grateful. Another time, she urged her party to feel and listen to a heavy breeze—to "be in the wind," as she puts it. Vorderbruggen ends her hikes with a tea ceremony and encourages people to write about their experiences; look for Wild Calm, her nature journal, to be published this June.
In the past decade, forest therapy has become a bona fide trend driven by the multibillion-dollar wellness industry. But let's be clear: Gwyneth Paltrow and other noted nature therapy enthusiasts did not invent being mindful in the woods. It is, of course, a deep and ancient practice. The Japanese even have a term for it: shinrin-yoku, which translates to "taking in the forest atmosphere" or, simply, "forest bathing." Shinrin-yoku is so important to Japanese culture that the country's forestry department has spent millions studying its purported health benefits, which include lowering one's heart rate and blood pressure.
Scandinavians, for their part, practice friluftsliv, or "open-air living," the belief that hanging out in the wild is good for your mind, body, and soul. Both shinrin-yoku and friluftsliv get to the heart of biologist E.O. Wilson's theory that humans are programmed to need and want to be in nature.
MCV writer Kim Pleticha saw firsthand evidence of Wilson's hypothesis when reporting "The Giving Trees" (page 20). The story focuses on Karner Blue, a K-8 school in Blaine for children with special needs. Without giving away too much, I'll just say that Karner Blue's nature-based curriculum and surrounding school forest have had a profound effect on its students.
"We all benefit from quiet time in nature," says Vorderbruggen. "Any exposure can be helpful." You might think she's preaching to the choir, but when was the last time you smelled a handful of cedar needles (nature's VapoRub!) or stopped to trace the grooves in the trunk of a bur oak? "Pay attention," says Vorderbruggen. "You never know how the trees or the prairie will speak to you."
Chris Clayton, editor in chief