An experienced therapist and non-profit director with over 20 years working with various special populations, Grace Kelley graduated from the Natural Wellness Academy as an Advanced Nature Therapy (Nature Spirit Walks) Guide. This is an excerpt from her final project for her certification, where she reports on a multifaceted nature therapy experience that she designed and led at her new wellness retreat, Zen in the Adirondacks. You can visit her website at https://www.facebook.com/zenadirondacks.
I made the frighteningly invigorating decision to open a wellness retreat on 16 acres of land I privately own in the Thousand Islands region of Northern New York. It is appropriately monikered Zen in the Adirondacks, whose backyard is over 2000 acres of protected land named Pinckney State Forest. I generated interest through a social media website and developed, organized and executed an event called Day of Zen. With COVID-19 and the forecast calling for thunder and lightning storms in the afternoon (which thankfully held off), seven participants attended the event. Everyone received a Bag of Zen; inside they found a leather journal, pen with seedlings topping to grow a plant or herb (directions included), and inspiring nature stickers. Being a tenured therapist of over 20 years and director of a multidisciplinary organization, I consider myself to be well versed in the art of group therapy. However, for the purposes of nature therapy, the pressure is taken off me, and I hand over the keys of healing to the forest who willingly accepted the challenge. Nature is the therapist; I am merely a catalyst of connection, if you will.
Nature is the therapist; I am a catalyst of connection
The first exercise walked us up a tree lined dirt road through a portion of the land I nicknamed Enchanted Forest, over 10 acres of a mixture of softwoods, hardwoods and an abundance of wildlife. For the event, we had lined the trails from Easy Breezy Lane to Walk Out Trail with trees that lent themselves to the forest floor, then made restful seats out of a fallen maple tree and arranged them to create a Meditation Circle.
Participants were briefed on the healing wonders of nature and asked to spend one minute of their lives on Walk Out Point. They were encouraged to focus on their senses in any order they so choose–or to allow nature to choose the order for them. While one person was meditating on Walk Out Point, the others were asked to find burrs on trees (to discuss healing using internal resources later), or to participate in discovering the age of a tree of their choosing (then identifying an event in history the tree lived through to put the age into a relatable perspective).
Burrs on trees were used as metaphors to discuss healing using internal resources
After everyone finished, we gathered around the Meditation Circle, and participants volunteered to share their experience. While one participant was writing in her journal, she became emotional. She expressed how this reminded her of the social injustices occurring in the world right now. To her nature welcomes us in with open arms: it casts no judgment as it accepts us as we are, and human nature has so much to learn from nature. She expressed that something like this (Zen in the Adirondacks) has been needed in the area for a long time, and that it was exactly what she needed at this moment in her life.
Another participant, a life coach, expressed to her that what she chooses to focus her attention on is what her life will become. Everything comes full circle, and I related the notion of the self-fulfilling prophecy to nature being a judgment-free zone, and in that, the possibilities of human growth with nature are limitless and boundless. Tying the discussion back to the forest, I briefly spoke about phytoncides and the mycorrhizal networks in the root systems of trees (you know how mature or trees in a sunny location welcome and share their resources, such as nitrogen, carbon, water, with younger treelings or trees in shade).
The possibilities of human growth with nature are limitless and boundless
This led to a discussion about the endless life lessons we can learn from nature; that trees are living breathing organisms that possess the understanding of their part in the ecosystem, and in order for them to not only survive, but thrive, they must come together and help one another.
One participant confided in the group that he had struggled with acrophobia (fear of heights) for the better part of his years, and experienced PTSD from a related event that nearly ended his life. He shared that when he stood on the edge of Walk Out Point (a brave soul, I might add), looked down to a good 500 feet, and for the first time in his life, he felt completely relaxed. He explained how being at one with nature allowed him to put his fear into a newer, broader perspective. We discussed the beneficial properties of nature with regards to anxiety and stress hormones, and I expressed sincere gratitude to him for sharing this life altering experience. I ended the activity by sharing the sentiments that we are all a part of this web called life, that nature bestows many gifts of wisdom upon us, and our only hope is that one day to return the favor.
This was an extremely spiritual, emotional experience for many of the participants of the group which (thankfully) lended itself to a cohesive bond for the remainder of the day. This was an eye opening experience for me leading my first event, as the one common denominator in all of this was the miracle of nature.
We can learn endless life lessons from nature: to thrive, trees must come together and help one another
Nature Therapy Walk
I then led a Nature Therapy Walk by a creek originating on my land and ending at Hippie Falls, a waterfall at the end of bedrock located in the state forest. Along the way, participants encountered two salamanders, dragonflies, butterflies, songbirds and a porcupine.
The porcupine was relentlessly trying to climb the close to 90-degree mountain ridge, and would keep fumbling and tumbling all the way down to the bottom again. One participant remarked how her first instinct was to step in but that she felt helpless. I praised her for wanting to help the struggling animal and stressed the importance of not interfering with nature, as doing so could lead to her being harmed in this instance. It seemed apparent the porcupine was aware of our presence, so I shared the possibility that she may be trying to escape out of fear. This is also the birthing season of the porcupine, so I explained the likelihood that her young may be on the top of the ridge and continuing our nature walk would enable her to get to her intended destination both faster and easier.
Until recently, all medicines had their origins in nature
Another participant found a trilobite fossil long her path, and I related this to the natural history of the Adirondacks (they are over two billion years old). Many participants also found natural herbs like mint along the way, I consulted my trusty Nature Yearbook and briefly discussed how up until recently all medicines had their origins in nature.
All of the participants took in the natural wonder that is Hippie Falls. Many remarked how the bedrock along the creek resembled pieces of tile as they were in perfectly shaped squares, and the ridges alongside the falls looked man-made, and I discussed how they were able to be perfectly constructed and carved by nature not by hand. There was a spontaneous prolonged period of reflection when all of the participants took in their surroundings at this point in their journey. This silence allowed them to take in their senses, record memories in their journals, or inspect the water more closely. I allowed everyone to freely develop and experience their own connections with nature before heading back to Zen.
The rocks were perfectly constructed and carved by nature
The last exercise had the participants choose a rock from the creek bed on my land to paint and decorate the up-and-coming Zen Garden. (I am building a life-size Zen Garden, complete with sand, river rocks, bridge, Buddha statue, wooden rake, and I’m even growing a cherry blossom tree.) The Zen Garden gives the participants a reason to return to Zen, as they all will be a part of the foundation of this journey as well.
The healing wonders of nature infused themselves into the day
During the rock painting, I played the pan drum and singing bowl. The previous day, I had picked fresh lavender from a local farm and placed them in mason jars filled with water. By the time of the event, we were able to end the Day of Zen with a tea ceremony (my ceremonial first!) around a campfire with tea naturally infused with lavender. Discussing how the healing wonders of nature infused themselves into the day’s experiences, I thanked everyone for being willing to participate in this day.