Responsible Ways to Share Spiritual Experiences with Your Dog in Nature

There’s nothing like watching a dog let loose in open nature. They live for this experience. It supercharges their vitality. Leaping, chasing, sniffing, racing…the whole nine yards. I often find I live for these same freedoms and experiences after spending so much time inside.

I’ve also observed my dogs in poignant moments outside as well. One time my husky came nose to nose with a coyote and it looked like she was standing in front of a mirror. While it could have ended in an altercation, the coyote trotted off after a good sniff of my dog.

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Getting on in age (almost 15), my Siberian Husky, Faith, is recharged every time she gets to experience wild or semi-wild nature. Here she is photographed at the Adelaide Street Off-leash Dog Park.

Yes, a few times in my past as a dog owner, in letting my dogs off leash, I’ve walked the edge of (ir)responsibility. For me, it is the responsibility of the dog owner to get their dogs outside and moving, to make other people feel comfortable with a dog’s behaviour, and to ensure dogs impart as little impact on the Earth as possible.

But what of  carving out restorative experiences with our dogs? I do believe one could go so far as to say there’s a case to finding a ‘triangle of golden, connected experience’ out of doors; human, dog, nature.

I’m here to share the ‘how to’ of getting ‘two mangoes with one stone.’ The mangoes? A great, responsible off-leash dog experience, while getting bathed with all the medicines nature has to offer.

First, what are the impacts/awarenesses of dogs (medium to large sized) being off leash and how can we mitigate them?

If you are a new dog owner, or the common rules and courtesies have gone in one dog owner ear and out the other, here they are in a nutshell:

  • Mostly keep your dogs on-leash
  • If off leash…see below
  • Make other walkers no less comfortable on their walk because of your dog
  • Doo clean up after your dog

I say mostly because I find that walking a dog on leash feels like I’m both cheating my dogs out of so much joy, while being confined myself. But, as a guy with a fair bit of training in ecology, conservation, and dog-owning, I can honestly say it is really important to keep dogs on leash most of the time and in most natural areas.2736

Why so?

Dogs often spread seeds of plants, and many of these plants are invasive species. This is hugely detrimental to the ecosystem our few remaining natural areas.

More dramatically observed, is the killer instinct and ensuing action. Dogs end life to a whole range of furry, feathered and scaly friends in an instant. I’m sure you’ve heard of or witnessed squirrels, rabbits, groundhogs, snakes and other unsuspecting animals eliminated by the quick and lethal action of a dog. While one might not like some of these species, their habitats have diminished; dogs are one more unnecessary pressure.

I once lived on a remote island in a cabin off the grid for over a decade. Having my dog off leash in nature was the norm. Once, when rounding the corner of a forest that opened into a meadow, a few Wild Turkey hens were escorting dozens of their chicken-sized poults (young). In an instant, my husky leaped high into the air, catching a young bird. By the time she came back to the ground, the bird was dead. It really showed me how quickly dogs can kill a wild animal.

Dogs can also shock dog-less walkers or walkers with dogs on leash. Even worse, some relatively agreeable dogs decide some stranger needs to be aggressively barked at right in their personal space.

Dogs can also defecate in areas we don’t see. Talk about damaging the natural experience of another person…stepping in somebody’s disregarded dog waste. When other humans see discarded bags of dog doo or piles along a trail, studies show that this is a good enough reason for someone else to do the same – it creates a chain reaction of littering.

Your dog can also get harmed by nature. Many owners have lost an unsuspecting dog through thin ice or have had ‘Charlie’ come whimpering home with a muzzle full of

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My husky was accidentally knocked to the icy edge of this fast flowing river by my other dog. She barely held on to the edge of the ice with her two front paws. A good friend calmed me, and coaxed me into shimmying out onto the ice with a long, wide branch that spread my weight across the surface. I reached her carefully and lifted her to safety.

porcupine quills. Further, and this isn’t to fear monger, a few isolated incidents with coyotes have resulted in injured or killed pets. This doesn’t need to be overplayed. Coyotes are natural. While they are moving closer towards and often into parts of cities, they still represent much less of a risk to your dog than other dogs, thorns, tics and many other potential hazards.

Most of the above can be abated by having a well trained dog. Of course, you don’t need to be a dog whisperer to achieve this. Consistency, becoming your dog’s alpha, and a little bit of knowledge on how dogs think and respond go a long way. One key thing that is so easy to do, is play. Dogs really respect and listen much better when you engage them in joyful, creative and repetitive play. How great is that?! And, if all you know how to do is play, then hire a trainer for a few sessions to set you and your dog on course to an obedient, loving and respectful relationship.

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My dogs’ only comment is that there is never enough time spent freely in nature.

Ready to experience low-impact nature experiences with your dog? Find an off leash park in your area, or a rural friend or owner of a rural dog retreat. Areas of semi-natural habitats exist in these places where dogs can rejoin some of their natural instincts (nature reserves are best left for wild animals).

Want to take the experience deeper? Practice deep breathing, presence and mindfulness with your dog in nature. There are many courses and recordings that you can do or purchase if this is new to you. It’s extremely refreshing and if you’re really connected to your dog, your animal will pick up on your heightened state/ relaxed mood. I like to do this at an off-leash, fenced in park not far from my house.

Some have taken it further with the discovery of Shinrin Yoku or Forest Bathing/Therapy in North America and beyond. Forest Therapy walks are usually between two and three hours long and cost anywhere between $30 and $60. These walks involve deliberate and slow invitations that encourage participants to breath deeply, connect to the earth, slow down their minds, and take in nature with their senses. These walks are mostly silent.

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Joan Robinson – Forest Therapy Guide in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada. Joan permits participants to join walks with their dogs in tow.

Some guides, like for example, Joan Robinson in Thunder Bay, Ontario, lead Forest Therapy walks where bringing your dog along is an option. Joan has had good results. As a Forest Therapy Guide myself, I haven’t had anyone bring a dog along, but one time a woman and I discussed the pros and cons of her bringing along her young baby on the walk. We decided to go ahead with it. The baby added huge value to the experience in spite of a few outbursts of sound and cries. This experience, coupled with that of Joan’s, have lead me to plan a series of walks in my city for dog owners.

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Forest Therapy Guides from the United States, Canada, and New Zealand. A guide’s job is to open the door to the healing powers of nature. For almost 40 years, extensive research have shown the mental and physical health benefits of Forest Therapy. It really works.

Like children, dogs really do follow our lead. Since they are our dependents, it is much better to find ways to include them into the wide breadth of experience of our daily lives. Practices like mindfulness and Forest Therapy are ways to experience the healing powers of nature, get a little exercise and fresh air, while entering into ways of being that calm us by slowing down the pace of our lives.

To find a Forest Therapy Guide in your area (who may allow you to bring your dog along), check out this link showing the locations of guides across the globe. In addition to trying a new, fascinating and highly meaningful way to walk in the woods, becoming a Forest Therapy Guide might even be a possibility for you.

 

Wonder for Water…

Water is a wonder in my life.

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I visualize amazing, purified water in ponds, streams, lakes and oceans. I watch the beauty with my mind’s eye, as water purifies, all of her dependents breathe deeply with a sigh of relief.

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I love water in any state. Wherever I go, whatever water I interact with, whether it be a polluted puddle, a picturesque pond, an ocean filled with plastic, or a seemingly perfect stream, I send all bodies of water love with my thoughts, spoken words, and heartfelt intentions.

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I drink water often. After a meal, I ponder water making peace with the acid in my stomach, helping sort through nutrients and roughage. I listen to water directing this traffic inside of me. I feel water bring energy and connection back to me. I carry extra water with me for times when someone may be in need….

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I observe water. I watch it in a stream, in a lake, I wonder at its immense presence in an ocean or the individuality of a single drop in a roaring storm of rain.

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I shower with presence of the true power of water. I experience the massaging touch, the movement of molecules on and off my body. I glow in the presence and power of water’s flow over me.

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I share water. I mindfully give it to plants inside and outside. I watch as water sustains life, giving back fruits and other offerings in the cycle of sharing.

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I swim in water, maybe in a tub, possibly in a stream, dangerously in a public puddle, or freely in a deep sea. I feel the body of water lessening gravity’s tug on my bones and muscles. I cherish how water holds my full body with ease and strength.

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I play with water. I try a water slide. I dive in head first to a pond-pool. I play with water’s energy just above its surface. I squeeze water in my hand, squirting it playfully at a friend, at my lover, or with uncanny accuracy into the parched, open mouth of my enemy.

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I go for a skate on some frozen water. I feel the supportive surface pushing up on my skates. I visualize the liquid created between the fine line of my blades and the cold hard surface of the ice. This tiny amount of water moves me. I imagine the spot I skate on during the hottest day of the summer. A fish swims under the ice, following my every move, trying to make the puck hop off my hockey stick and onto the girl’s who is catching up behind me.

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I talk to water. I tell water how beautiful she is. I thank her for being so abundant in my life. I practice saying words of beauty and wonder to the water in my life.

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I wonder for water.

Conversations with Plant

About 7 years ago I lead a Traditional Medicinal Native Plant inventory in a Native community not far from my home. I describe it as the highlight of my ecological consulting career. But it was way more than that.

I remember vividly the moment a Native Elder put me in my place. His timing was impeccable. I had been a recovering scientist* for several years previous.  Standing in the forest filled with spring bloom, he looked at me and said, “You’re too busy and active, moving from plant to plant and checking your list. You’re like an Olympic bee on steroids. You have names for all these plants, but do you know these plants?” he exclaimed.

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A family of Blood Root plants in early spring. Each individual has a flowering head and lives sometimes for more than 100,000 hours (10 years) in the same piece of land on Earth. 

“Well, for some of them I know interactions with other species like insects, birds and mammals. So yes; I would say I somewhat know them,” I replied in careful defense, so as not to seem like an academic know-it-all.

“I’ve watched you and you rarely spend any quality time with them. How can you possibly know them?” he asked.

“Well, I know how some of them can heal our lungs, how others are good for our throats, some can combat cancer and others can treat various aliments.”  He looked at me with a generous smile.

“I still think you’ve likely read these things in a guide or a book. There are many things these plants can heal that only can come about when you get to know the plant personally through time and conversation – not the species or type of plant – but this plant before you.” He continued, “Please sit with this plant here, and I’ll tell you when to get up.” I considered this.

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Blood Root plants in full bloom. While this plant offers many medicines if you are willing to enter intimate relationship with her, she can also be deadly poisonous to humans should one act superficially and not learn the ins and outs of right relationship.

“By the way,” he added. “How many hours are there in a year?”

I calculated. “Over 8,700.”

“How long does this plant live?”

“Over ten years,” I replied, continuing,”…so, 87,000….it lives likely over 100,000 hours.”

“I now introduce you, Ben, to one of this plant’s 100,000 hours in this spot on Earth. I hope you come to know her better.”

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Plant conversationalist and Native Elder Isaac Day. He’s one of these guys that can speak miles and miles in simple smiles. He also put me in my place, forcing me to enter into my first conversation with Plant. 

There I sat with Bloodroot. An hour passed. I squirmed but focused to the best of my attention span. Looking for cues to be finished, thinking he had forgotten about me, I sat some more without much insight. I became quite squirrely.  Then messages, stories, anecdotes and jokes started to come from my conversation with Plant. Indeed, I started to know this plant, get a feel for her spot and a snapshot of her time.  I sensed more about her, the forest and the simple intricacies of cycles of the woods than in all of my previous years combined.  Therein lay my first Conversation with Plant.

A bloody conversation with a plant? How is this possible? The science, the professional persuasion, the convincing evidence, the authoritative balance tipper; these are not the points of this post.

This is what I know. Plants speak. Plants listen. Plants advise. Plants are funny. They also respond to our presence, our energy and feel our love. I know this not because of any personal study with trials and statistics. Forget any other evidence. Sure, ask a pink and grey rock or a piece of yellow Lego a question  and we could argue our brains will reflect back an question that silly people like me think are coming from the gneiss or poly-something-or-other.  It is my belief that there is something profoundly different than that with a living plant. It’s about the presence, the energy field and the life force of a particular plant.

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Bloodroot after a rain shower. Time to uncloak and open up. For soft, delicate tissued-plants, they stand their ground firmly. They unleash their powers in early spring, uncloaking their strength to make way for the rest of the plants to follow. 

Ok, beyond mere belief, and since I’m still not fully recovered as a scientist or sense-maker, my mental rumination unfortunately has come to some conclusion about the ‘how.’ I wish I did not feed the need to quell my scientific mind, but since I have, it allows said mind to say, “Ok – gotcha. Talk on, brother; listen up.”

Here goes. Quantum physics. Yeah, it’s the new age explanation for a lot these days. Simply put, we know this – observing a molecule results in the molecule behaving much differently than if not observed. Extrapolate this. Observe many molecules of a whole plant. Mentally or verbally converse with Plant. We know that plants can detect energy from other beings; energy in forms such as sound, other vibrations, touch, heat, etc. Thus, plants observe us and our molecules are impacted. Speak or think words or full questions – again, forms of energy – and, if only at the molecular level, plants are there to interact with the energy. This changes the molecules and toys with the electrical thought impulses in our brains, impacting our energy fields.

It’s that simple. Plants can speak with us.

What was the nature of my conversation with Plant? The usual starter place for a human, according to Plant. Here’s the synopsis:

  • Idiot human (me) questions sanity of talking to plants. Plant (Bloodroot) says, don’t be dumber than you already are.
  • Idiot human (IH) expresses feelings of guilt for destroying natural world and her inhabitants. Plant says, guilt, shame and bad feelings will get you nowhere and actually weaken you, resulting in more destruction and killing.
  • IH looks at plant in wonder, tries to make sense of plant’s purpose and part of the greater whole. Plant responds with most beautiful of scenarios, imparting images of plants dancing across the landscape in time, partying with (and signing contracts with) ants, other animals and moving to the beat of the sun’s seasonal and annual drum. Wow. This one really gets IH, bringing him to his knees. Plant explains human-imparted name; Blood Root. IH again moved, this time to tears, which fall to surface of leaves of Plant. They become extremely re-connected.

As I left the natural area, I got another comment, seemingly coming from the whole forest, “Now that Plant has spoken, are you going to listen?”

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Plants talk with us by observing us back. This rocks our molecular world, sending shock waves that eventually touch us deeply. 

 

With 7 billion people on Earth, there’s no shortage of conversations we could and should have with humans. Why add plants to the mix? As Isaac suggested to me, plants are great agents of slowing down. This counters our obsession with fast pace, speed and efficiency. Plants are wise in their place. Their insight is from roots firmly grounded for decades, centuries and in some cases, thousands of years.

Of course this introductory Conversation with Plant was just the beginning for me. I have since met people who teach courses on it. I’ve read other blog posts on specific methods for such dialogue. I’ve read scenes in books and seen movies where it is shown how to detect and interact with plant energy fields. I’ve watched videos on plants seemingly having learned how to sing…and then learned the ability to teach this to other plants. Shinrin Yoku (a.k.a. Forest Therapy or Forest Bathing) has a number of invitations where participants are invited to converse with trees or other plants. As a Forest Therapy Guide myself, I can honestly say I’ve witnessed dozens of people completely moved by their conversations with plants.

When I remember the heartfelt confidence and joy with which my Native Elder friend Isaac coached me, I am reassured that this practice is not new. No, no, no. This isn’t new aged bullshit. This is likely a reclamation of a lost art, a retrieval of ancient wisdom gone to the wayside. Two thumbs up from me. Give it a try if you aren’t already in conversation with a plant near you.

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Engaging in another conversation with a tree at a family function. Trees are surprisingly good advisers and confidants. Photo by Cassie Dugsin-Porchuk.

Stay tuned for some more posts to come on other elements and stories about this much needed inter-species dialogue.

*A recovering scientist; striving to breakaway from the thought confines of current paradigms, including the scientific method, the Darwinian paradigm and others (not to say all science is bad and not necessary!).

Look-a-Likes Welcome Winter

Last night the moon was so bright and the sky was super clear. But, was it cold! There’s something about 3 or 4’C that often seems colder to me than when the mercury dips below zero.

This is my ultra-short homage to the greener, warmer days of spring, summer and fall. Enjoy these ‘look-a-likes.’ These are my top three that I’ve found on my travels the last couple of years here in southern Ontario.

If you have come across some look-a-likes yourself, please post in the comment section below….I’m always on the search for a laugh in nature.

 

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What you see here? It was a little startling from further back even! Yes, indeed, it’s a freshwater alligator that has come up out of the Humber River to bask at Boyd Conservation Area in Vaughan, just north of Toronto.

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Once a Sand Castle, I came across this Friendly Sand Monster after a thunderstorm at Pinery Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada. The rain soaked me thoroughly through my rain gear. I can only imagine how big this sand empire once was before the torrential downpours.

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Goddess that appeared on the woodwork of an outdoor canopy where we were eating lunch. I think she dislocated her left shoulder after performing an incredible magical act. This image is remarkably (jaw-droppingly) similar to that used for a tattoo on a certain someone I know quite well. I even love the halo above her head…my mentor Thorn would call this her ‘God Soul.’

 

Deep Connection with Wild Animals: Avenues for Right Relationship with Earth

Being one of millions and millions of ‘living*’ planets now discovered, the Earth, in essence, is a wild animal within a greater population. We’re in sad and yet exciting times. We know a lot. We are aware. We are very skilled, loving and crafty beings. All of this and since I was born (1970) we have killed off over 50% of the wild animals living on the planet.

We’ve caused many substantial problems because we’ve ignored our intimate relationship with Earth. We’ve taken much more than we’ve given. We’ve decided not to notice that she is in sickness, versus health. While we perceive we continue to get richer, Earth definitely becomes poorer. At almost every step, we’ve cheated on Earth, taken advantage of her kindness, taken for granted her forgiveness, and balked at her willingness to start over again in right relationship. If ever there was a relationship that needed therapy, this is it.

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A Yellow-billed Cuckoo hit a window and fortunately I was there to pick her up. I held her in a towel against my heart for an hour. She then hopped on my hand, paused for a few minutes and flew away. Oh what a feeling it was to have assisted and shared those moments with a bird of which I usually only ever got brief glimpses.

I see wild animals as great ambassadors and agents of reconciliation. They sense fear and danger from us. They can also sense indifference and love.

More and more, many humans recognize the real possibilities of tweaking our consciousness and energy fields to resonate with those of wild animals. How can we use deep connections with wild animals to foster better relationships between people and nature and thus people and the planet? I begin by looking at deepening connection.

There are many who have retold their seemingly unbelievable intimate encounters with wild animals. There was the Humpback Whale rescued from netting and sure death. In gratitude, it repeatedly breached the water’s surface in joy. A dolphin who sought the help of a few divers to untangled its fin. There was a Baltimore Oriole bird who let my Dad collect nesting material for her, retrieving the substrate one piece at a time, right from his hands. The list goes on and on. Wild animals accept relationship with us and act in ways that often bewilder.

I’m fortunate to have had dozens of authentic, personal encounters, a few of which I share below.  This isn’t to say I can freely go and cuddle a Grizzly or play-wrestle with a Siberian Tiger. I don’t recommend trying such with either of those species. But is it possible? That’s up to a situation that might happen one day and circumstances that could prove to be in alignment to do so. What exists in each case are barriers and opportunities to connection. How each instance unfolds is determined by a thousand or so unwritten rules that become apparent and acted upon in a moment’s notice.

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Crow in full ‘Caw’ mode. Photograph by an old friend, Ethan Meleg.

I’ve experienced two general scenarios that precipitate deeply connected, wild animal encounters. The first is when sick or injured animals come to a human for assistance. The other cases occur when one resonates with nature enough to be ‘accepted’ as another benign part of the ecosystem (or natural, spirit world).

For a while, everywhere I went, sick or injured wild animals were presenting themselves before me. While it wasn’t always easy to corral them, I carefully brought them home, did my best to heal them, and returned them to the wild.

Crow: I was on a conference call in my backyard with my portable phone. I paced around expressing myself and in a moment of great discovery in the meeting, a Crow fell out of the sky, landing at my feet. I paused the phone call, picked up the bird and kept it for a few weeks inside until its wing had healed. Crows have remarkable intellect and great personality. This bird chose to malign me, often taunting me, refusing to take food from me. It was hard not to take it personally, but easier because **she did bond with other members of my family. When she had healed, she begrudgingly let me pick her up and heave her skyward to the heavens. What a moment that was.

Great Horned Owl: I was on my way to the beach when I noticed an owl sitting under a wild grape vine in broad daylight. Using my towel, I wrapped him up and carried him back home. He lived in my two room cabin with me for a month, eating dozens of mice I provided. Oh the funny stories I could tell…Eventually he was released after he gained the strength to fly again.

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This Great Horned Owl moved in with me when he lost his energy from West Nile Virus. Thankfully I stayed healthy while providing him mice (trapped in my little cabin) that rebuilt his strength again.

Bald Eagle: A few mornings later, after a severe thunderstorm, at the base of a large tree at the end of my laneway was  a Bald Eagle. Given his Endangered Status back then, I eased him into a large cooler and delivered him to the authorities. His bruised wing was rehabilitated and I swear months later I saw him fly low over my cabin, as if to send me gratitude for taking notice and assisting.

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A Bald Eagle with a severely bruised wing. Can you see him poking his head out from my comforter? After a few weeks of recovery and release, I think it was he who flew over my cabin and tipped his wings at me!

Other Birds: Dozens of birds in shock, after various traumas, came to my attention and willingly let me assist. This included a Prothonotary Warbler, a Pied-billed Grebe, a Golden-Crowned Kinglet, a Nighthawk and Cardinal and a Yellow-billed Cuckoo (see above photo). Often found in shock distress, these birds seemed to give over any sense of fear for what may heal them.

Resonating at nature’s frequency for me has resulted in a slightly different level of connection. In the moments of obtaining deep connection with wild animals in this manner, it has felt less miraculous and more expected.

Manatee: I was swimming once in the open ocean near Belize. Open ocean is the one place on the planet that has always been a serious edge for me. But I had been cooped up in a cordoned off location to snorkel on a coral reef with dozens of tourists and it felt really inauthentic. I like authentic. Slipping under the floating foam-rope boundary, away from the watchful eyes of the lifeguards, I sleuthed silently just at the water’s surface. I felt so much gratitude for my freedom and the life of the reef that I decided I had to give back. Outstretching my hands as though they were mini radars, I gave Reiki to the open ocean. It was peace at its purest.

After a few minutes of gently self-propelling aimlessly, I nervously realized I wasn’t alone; the energy beside me was palpable, to say the least. A large grey animal, at least a few times my size was keeping pace with me on my port (left) side. This information came to me from my peripheral vision. I didn’t have the courage to turn my head and see what it was. Manatee.jpg
Finally, after keeping pace with each other for a good few minutes, **she cut right in front of me, and then headed to the depths (20 feet down) towards the sea grass. I sighed in relief. She wasn’t a shark. She was a southern Manatee. The species was quite rarely encountered in the southern Caribbean; they are Endangered. Realizing I hadn’t kept pace with her, she turned at the bottom of the ocean to see where I’d gone. Her look was as if to say, “Come on, it’s time to feed on this yummy sea grass!” Noticing I wasn’t coming, she then ‘said,’ “Ok, if you’re not hungry, I’ll come back to you.” She swam slowly toward me, until we were just a couple of feet away from each other, gazing into each other’s souls through our eyes.

A Method? I imagine many people would describe technique many ways with a number of common threads. The only way I know how is to first immerse oneself in nature. Deepen breathing. Vacate the driver’s seat of the brain. Find alignment; the place where one knows that place and time are sealed in ‘is-ness’ experience. This is where we often feel multiple sensations at once and watch osmosis take over the body and surroundings. Any connections with wild animals then become both circumstance and the manifestation of one’s commitment to be with what is in the moment. “Being with” means one’s energy field blends, or comes into resonance with the surroundings.

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Forest Therapy a.k.a. Forest Bathing or Shinrin-Yoku is a wonderful way to drop into alignment and find resonance with plants and animals in nature. Forest Therapy has been a gateway for me to connect with wild animals. Most recently a Short-tailed Shrew permitted me to stroke the fur on his back for a few minutes in my wild, yet urban garden.

Forest Therapy is an avenue to deep connection in nature. Accordingly, it’s not surprising that I’ve had a slew of recent animal connection experiences since becoming a Forest Therapy Guide. If led by an experienced and ‘dropped in’ (walk the talk) guide, Forest Therapy substantially heightens our nature connection, dispels the many myths of time, and allows us to seamlessly become a part of the encompassing naturescape.  Forest Therapy walks are usually at least 2 1/2 hours long and often over 3. This duration seems to be helpful in ensuring we are disengaged from our brains.

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The oak tree near the top of Sugarloaf Mountain, California. Over a three-hour period, this tree allowed my deepened relationship to the surrounding natural world, facilitating my intimate interaction with Lizard.

Lizard: I was on Sugarloaf Mountain in California. The lizards had caught my attention for a week, never letting me approach them closer than about ten feet. I climbed up the tallest peak of the mountain for a medicine walk as the final part of the forest therapy training week. I sat in an oak for almost three hours. I walked down the mountain side like I was walking on helium; I felt the strongest sense of the phrase, nature connected. At the bottom, I spooked an Alligator Lizard. **She fled in a fashion I had grown accustomed to expect. I momentarily accepted it again and then realized, “No, I am in connection with you!” I found her, moved closely and told her I wanted some full facial photographs, I desired to touch her scales, and that I had some mosquitoes to feed her. She accepted all these offers. Our relationship lasted about ten minutes before I moved on.

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The Alligator Lizard who accepted all of my offers to connect into a deep relationship, feeding out of my hands, allowing my touch and permitting these full frame shots. Sonoma County, California.

I moved on, as did the lizard. What did I carry from that interaction with the lizard and did this make any difference to forging a better Earth? For one, this experience echoed within my psyche now for a year and a half. I’ve often thought of the mountain, the oak, and the reptile with reverence and wonder. I’ve retold the story over and over. Had I come down the mountain without finding intimacy with the lizard, the story likely wouldn’t have been told.  I’ve been so inspired by this and other experiences that I became a certified Forest Therapy Guide, as well as a trainer. I’ve felt and observed the nature-connection influence I’ve imparted on others, who in turn, are blazing the Forest Therapy trails in their circles of influence.

It doesn’t matter how we reconnect with nature, or wild animals. It just matters that we position ourselves to have the opportunity to do so. Finding ways to get people on a walk, to sit by a stream, to listen to bird songs, or to huddle by a camp fire are all means of and steps toward ‘making up’ with the planet. Nature’s half of the relationship is always steady; forgiving, longing, and waiting for us to come back. The bird, the Manatee, the lizard are all willing volunteers rising up to be ambassadors or activists for right relationship. For humans, I think it’s easy too. We have to step into again the other half of right relationship. At these early stages of relationship repair, however, stepping into right relationship effectively means we’re  activists. For some reason activism is really difficult for most of us. Therein lies one of the key challenges of our times.

* Recent discoveries suggest potentially millions of planets situated similarly to ours most likely are ‘alive,’ like Earth (teaming with living plants, animals, etc.).

** Notes on pronouns: in most cases, I knew if an animal was a male or a female (my biological experience and information from the wild animal clinics with which I consulted). In the cases that I didn’t know for certain (like the Crow, Manatee and Lizard above), I have chosen to write the stories using the pronoun that I sensed was appropriate for my feeling of the animal.

Big Impacts Across Small Spaces…Doug Tallamy Photosynthesizes the Case for Native Plants

All photographs by Ben Porchuk.

Tallamy talks nature in Toronto. Toronto… and nature? Yes, Toronto, the city of over 6 million people. It might not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of re-building the natural world. But Doug Tallamy,  an entomologist from the University of Delaware, was invited specifically to talk about using native to plants in city gardens and yards to attract insects to create new pockets of teaming wildlife, helping recover the earth’s vastly withered naturescape. With thousands of homes with backyards adjacent to many large natural ravines, Toronto is primed to receive a major ‘nature face-lift’ in all of those front yards.

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A couple of buddies in the native plant garden just hanging out waiting for the insects to move in. The acorn that lies underneath these seven leaves is now responsible for a 12 foot oak tree only five years later. The White Trillium is still alive and keeping great company.

Tallamy  quickly became the visiting celebrity ‘landscape chef’ or as local native plant author Lorraine Johnson introduced him, the ‘rock star’ conservationist we’ve been waiting for all along.

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Man of the Hour: Prof. Doug Tallamy (left) and Jarmo Jalava of Carolinian Canada.

We’ve become more and more aware that especially in our cities, we’ve removed most native plants from the landscape in favour of non-native plants. This has left nature as a mere skeleton of what it once was. Tallamy gave compelling evidence that the loss of diversity has stemmed directly from the loss of native plants and their insect followers.

All we have to do is plant native plants. Let the native insects eat them (little bits of them anyway) and then watch the bigger carnivorous insects feed on the smaller herbivorous guys. And finally, enjoy watching the birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals eat the insects. Do this and watch biodiversity roar back before our very eyes.

In short order, after following Tallamy’s advice based on years of research, we “bring(ing) nature home” again to our cities and nearby crumpled natural areas. Crazily simple, I know.

So I’m one of the guys who bought his earth-altering book (http://www.bringingnaturehome.net) the year it came out in 2007. I was already one of the converted (a devoted Evangelical Ecologist). But I quickly embraced this subtly different fuel for fodder (as did nerds-a-like the world over). In the nearly ten years since, I added 180 native species of plants to my highly urban landscape. I also added water (key to most recipes of this nature) in the form of a series of three small ponds and a waterfall.

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Our front yard transformation in about year 3 of 10; native plants and insects have been welcomed back after a 115 year absence.

How did the recipe turn out? Well given that I’m not the most careful cook/designer, I got the ingredients all over my yard (a messy garden at times)! But the end results? I totally channeled Ray Kinsella all the way. I removed the lawn completely in the front yard, and a quarter of it from the back. I built the native garden. The insects came. Lots, and lots of other wildlife followed and we sat back watching in awe, while snacking on popcorn from the Hog Peanut, and chewing on the fruit from the Mayapples (yep, both native).

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Giant Swallowtail Butterfly caterpillar feeding on its host plant, the Hop Tree.

 

In fact, within 20 minutes of planting my first Hop Tree, NA’s largest butterfly, the Giant Swallowtail, landed on it and laid her eggs. I have to add that this butterfly is quite rare in Canada and I’d never seen it in my city before this moment. Now, they seem to know my yard as the regional birthing centre.

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Giant Swallowtail Butterfly caterpillar disturbed and sending out defense mechanism that accompanies and strong, pungent scent. Of course, note the bird dropping camouflage.

Then, I planted a few Spicebush shrubs. Same story (obviously worth repeating). A Spicebush Swallowtail came not long after. Seldom seen in this hood, this butterfly is now a regular customer too. Are you seeing a trend here? Enter a bit on the lifework of Douglas Tallamy.

Unassuming, quirky, funny, and obviously very smart, this gentlemen assembled tables and tables of facts, figures and fun images (like the caterpillar that strikingly resembles Donald Trump) that made for nerd-entertainment-extraordinaire. Everyone knows nerd is the new cool (don’t they?).

Among many other thousands of complicated tasks and calculations, Doug’s main work has been to perfect the kindergarten-aged skills of watching and counting. He counts the species (not easy to know how to identify thousands of caterpillars) and overall numbers of insects that flock to native plants. Then, at ‘show and tell’ time, he’s like the kid who surprises everyone by bringing in his firefighter mom (in full uniform!). Everyone in attendance is in total awe!

At his talks, Tallamy throws around these overwhelming facts that make you almost fall face first into your rose bush. Plant an oak tree and you’ll get 557 species of moths and butterflies. Chose a non-native Callery Pear tree instead, and you get zero moths, zero butterflies or no other insects. Translation, why not plant a plastic Callery Pear tree instead so you don’t have to rake up the leaves in fall (Doug’s joke, though it’s no joke). The plastic tree will has the same ecological value as the living Callery Pear (zilch). Whereas, the native oak, cherry, birch or pine, will bring life back to the point of healing nature big time.

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After feeding on the host plant Hop Tree as a caterpillar, the Giant Swallowtail metamorphoses into the adult butterfly and then nectars on many different plants. Here one feeds on a native prairie/savanna plant, Wild Bergamot (Orange Coneflower is in the background).

Back to Tallamy’s influence over my garden, say 8 or 9 years ago. After the bewilderment of watching billions (alliteration only, but certainly millions) of bugs hone in on their native host plants that I had seeded in my gardens, I got at the pond construction. Before I could fully install the liner, one of NA’s largest dragonflies, the Swamp Darner, was buzzing all around me frantically finding a water-soaked log on which to lay her eggs.

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Swamp Darner Dragonflies honed in on my urban wetland construction project, seeking out suitable egg-laying sites. I think I heard one say, “Come on! Come on! I could build this pond faster! (which may have been true!)”

A few days later, a hatchling Snapping turtle showed up…toads moved in.. and even a yearling bullfrog barreled into the pond. Madness! All of these animals ‘poofed’ into existence, all in a highly urban-locked place known as Wortley Village. The ‘poof’ of course, was the ‘magic act’ of even the smallest plot of land ramping back into ecosystem status.  The source of magic and thus this ecosystem is the native plant.

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A hatchling Snapping Turtle had to walk about 400m, cross a busy four-lane road, and slip under our fence to join the joy in our backyard pond.

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A female toad sitting all pretty.

What happened next, you must promise you tell no one (X-rated). The toads had sex. Yes, in the backdrop of the symphony of their mood-enhancing trilling calls, in the twilight of the most sensual afternoon delight, I mean lighting, there was literally an orgy of amplexus all over our backyard (thank God the neighbours didn’t take notice). I only write all of this in this manner as it is a well known fact that sex sells, and, well, I really want to spawn this blog all across the nation(s). As such, the word sex is one of the key search terms for this article.

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Kids sitting at our almost completed backyard pond system.

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A couple of years on, the pond system and its 15 + of native wetland plants have hosted thousands of insects for the urban yard ecosystem.

Altruistically speaking though, sex or no sex, Tallamy’s (not meaning Tallamy here, because you know about rock stars and…well,…. yah) message has to get out…native plants must get back in our urban landscapes.

After the adult toads had finally settled down, the moving and shaking of the youth movement hit the back yard by storm. Shedding their sperm-like tadpole tails, tiny little toadlets flooded out onto the dry lawn, into the native gardens, on the back of my idle electric mower, and godforsaken, right onto the back steps of my very house! Even Tallamy would have had a hard time counting them all. It was wonderful. This set the stage for a series of seldom seen observations.

Out of the blue, a hatchling Screech Owl crashed onto the lawn in broad daylight. It was nearing 5pm. Before one of my daughter’s and I could run out there to ‘save it’, one of the parent birds landed beside it and seemed to help it fly up to the side fence. Then one by one, all three of the young owlets continued this, again with their parents landing beside them. Bewilderment set in yet again. Watching more closely (what I now call a Tallamyian trait) we noticed what was going on. The adult owls were teaching the ‘kids’ how to feed on the toadlets in our yard! Word spread quickly and before long many of our family and friends had gathered in our back room to watch the feeding frenzy.

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The owlets (Screech Owls) who fledged and grew up in our yard. They are named after the Three Stooges. Guess who is who.

It’s not surprising and so much fun that those owls picked our backyard as their nesting and feeding site. Interestingly, and again in total Tallamyian fashion (this phrase makes no sense, I know), aside from toadlets, what do the owls eat? Small mammals and birds. What do small mammals and birds eat? Lots and lots of insects.  Further interesting in this case is that Screech Owls are direct insect eaters as well. Suffice it to say, had our backyard been replete with Callery Pears, Lilacs, Burning Bush, Tulips, Daffodils and many other non-native plants, none of these wildlife would have set up shop to co-live with us. Almost every year we’ve had the owls back in our yard, with our growing numbers of native plants attracting more insects, reptiles, amphibians, mammals and birds.

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One of the parent Screech Owls who doesn’t seem to mind the goings on of our family. My friend Pete Burke (bird expert and hockey star wanna be – actually, that was me…) pointed out that this one has a nice mix of the red phase of this species mottled in with the grey. Isn’t she just plainly beautiful?

My family and our home are a living example of how you can transform your little bit into a nature-factory.  Our extended neighbourhood has over 12,000 houses. Can you imagine if a few dozen of them did what we did? What about a couple hundred homes? And therein lies the point of all of this.  Just a few of us could impart “Big Impacts Across Small Spaces,” which, coincidentally, was the title of this Toronto conference. The conference had a surprising announcement; World Wildlife Fund and Carolinian Canada have teamed up to create a program called, “In the Zone” (www.inthezonegardens.ca).  This fun and timely initiative is designed to get more people in cities like Toronto, London and Leamington (core cities where program is launched) to establish native gardens. How fitting. How exciting. How grassroots.

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Dragonflies were thrilled that we provided a wetland for them…and planted native plants to bring in insects for them to catch on the wing.

Your job: please share this, re-post it, maybe tweat it? That would be great. In the meantime, put in some native plants, buy Doug Tallamy’s books, come to Go Wild Grow Wild 2017! (https://caroliniancanada.ca/grow-wild), check out www.inthezonegardens.ca and lastly, engage in a lot of safe _ _ _ (clue: amplexis).

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An Imperial Moth that requires mature, native hardwood trees, like oaks and maple. I savor the day when this species is common again even in cities!

Appendix 1: A Favourite Doug Tallamy Dish (it’s actually a sweet bar)

“Raise the Bar for what we ask our landscapes to do.”
Ingredients:

– Support life
– Sequester carbon
– Clean and manage water
– Enrich soil
– Support pollinators

Preparation Method: All of this is cooked up by using native plants. If you are at all interested in supporting varied forms of life on earth, in reversing climate change, in eating, in having clean drinking water, then take the simple act of establishing native plants where ever you might live or frequent. It’s an act as simple as 1, 2, 3, or whatever it is that you may see!

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One of the most important things you can do to support the recovery of local populations of wildlife is to plant a key insect-loving species such as a native species of oak, cherry, birch or willow. Acorns make magnificent Oak Trees in fewer years that you might think!

 

Who, Me, You? A Forest Therapy Guide?

If anyone out there is remotely considering becoming a Forest Therapy Guide and the upcoming New Zealand training is on your radar, then I’d strongly recommend waiting no longer. But, who am I to say?

It recently occurred to me that every person I have recommended to go to guide training camp has come to me in tears of gratitude afterwards. The trainings are really that good; quality, personal meaning, relevance and applicability to the needs of millions of people in this day and age. But is a training in store for you?

For me, it’s been only a year and a half since I stumbled across nature’s ultimate call on my computer screen. Sounds pretty non-nature, I know.

But think of this ‘call’ as an intricate, finely feathered tree root, infiltrating the internet, sneaking up the mess of wires in my machine, and gently tapping me in my core. Become a Forest Therapy Guide…it said.

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Author with Computer Infiltrated by Trees

“A what?” I thought loudly.

This happened while getting lost in the world wide web one day. I perused the association’s web site (ANFT), got a copy of the little handbook describing what it was, and then ‘Wham!’ I was hit with the proverbial arrow to the heart.

had to become a Forest Therapy Guide.

How and why do the steadily growing numbers of people each year choose to become Forest Therapy Guides? It’s a good question.

It’s not like there are shows on T.V., like ‘E.R.’ or ‘F.T.’ profiling the excitement and poignancy of Forest Therapy Guiding (though a couple of guides I know tell more than a few good stories worthy of the silver screen).

Your parents aren’t likely saying, “I really think you need to go to Forest Therapy Guiding School, Hun. We’d all be so proud of you and brag about you to the rest of the family.” At least my parents didn’t say that.

And then those great commercials…’Be! All that you can be!…You can do it, in the Fooooorrrr — oooorrrr —-essst’ have just not been released yet (…get to work Kelsea).

So what gives? Why the sudden surge of all these folks filling up the trainings from Ireland to New Zealand, South Africa to California, and Canada to the Caribbean?

Most of all – it’s about vision. Yeah, that intricate, tendril-creeping root system, brought down from the ether by some human conduit, existing in brilliant awareness and alignment.

Whoooshh.

The vision is sent out like a vulnerable seedling breaking the soil of the forest floor, waiting for the caress of the gentle giants, carefully moving step by step across the wooded wonderland.

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ANFT Man of Vision: M. Amos Clifford

This vision is held tightly, and yet loose enough for those present enough to see, touch, feel, smell and taste.

Attach truth and passion to the vision, and they come.

That’s really what’s going on. The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Program’s (ANFT) visionaries have blue skied and green forested it all the way.

Poetically, here’s one artist’s rendition:

Let’s help ease people out of their minds

Let’s tingle their rusty senses

Let’s rejoin the disconnected parts of their bodies to the whole and attach all of this to the willing powers of nature

Let’s get their bare feet on the soft soil and tickle their toes in the trickling creek

Let’s give room for creative expression

Let’s get the guides to hone their own medicines

Let’s sit in wonder, joy and glory in what may unfold next

Let all of this be and much more

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ANFT Woman of Vision – Sky Buitenhuis

In Forest Therapy guide training camp we often ask each other in circle to pause and give gratitude for one or more of those who made this seemingly unlikely journey possible. For me, it was my wife for whom I gave thanks.

Me: “But it’s not feasible to do it now. The money isn’t there. The planning is off. And what about the…,”…

R (my Wife): “Ben, are you supposed to go?”

Me: “Well, of course I wanna go to California! Who wouldn’t? But…I don’t know…, ahh,…I guess, no, I know…Yes. The answer is yes.”

R: “I agree. The rest will fall into place.”

What happens when you fall into a place? It’s another way of saying, when you get present and start noticing what’s around you.

Take it in. Sample it in many ways. Get as much of the full sense of the place you possibly can.

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Several ‘Mind-Blown’ Guides-in-Training in the Humber River Watershed, at Albion Hills Conservation Area, near Caledon, Ontario, Canada, July 2016.

One of my favourite stories of this (and there are many) comes from a current guide-in-training who felt destitute and could only dream of becoming a forest therapy guide.

She noticed her place. She noticed what was possible and she dreamed of it. She held tightly this vision. One by one, her recently ‘fledged,’ young adult children came ‘back to the nest’ with gifts. They were so moved by their mom’s beauty and passion, that they sent her far away to go to forest therapy training.

She glowed and beamed light the whole week, was grateful every second and seemed destined to move the lives of many.

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There are still under a hundred certified forest therapy guides in the world – a rare breed indeed. However, this budding practice is growing by leaps and bounds. Participants across the world are dropping in rave reviews. The science proves the healing powers. Humankind’s destructive actions demonstrate the dire need for rebuilding the bond between most of our billions and the rest of nature.

Thus, in all honesty, we need thousands, if not millions of people who will step up and ‘walk through the door’ to become Forest Therapy Guides over the next couple of decades.

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I recently had a guide-in-training approach me on the final night of training camp. Overcome with emotion, she pulled me aside.

“I can’t thank you enough. This was everything you said and more. Why didn’t you insist on me coming when I had doubted the choice and investment at one time?” she asked.

I said something like, “The process of becoming a guide is life changing indeed and I’m so glad you’ve experienced it. I’m not in your shoes, however. I didn’t know if it was fully right for you. If you were ready to step in, I knew there was so much opportunity, so much for you to learn about yourself, the practice and how you can combine these to offer this gift to the world in your place, and in your time.”

In retrospect, don’t think I answered her fully. If asked again, my answer might include, “Go to a forest. Get quiet. Quell your mind. When you know you are asking from deep inside, then see what answer you get from this silence.”

Easy to say. Easy to do? As with the rest of life…eating well, tending your body, staying in right relationship, and knowing your next steps are all things that require clarity and decisive choice.

The experience I have had so far with ANFT tells me that Forest Therapy is a real, effective tool, and it really, really resonates with me. If this is all new to you and you are pondering your place, look up a guide in your area. Join a walk to fully sense the experience.

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If you think you have a bigger part to play, then find a woodland and a quiet place within for reflecting .

Where might you fit in?

If you can, avoid thinking about an answer. Let the information just ‘come to you.’ It’s great to think and certainly one of our greatest tools is our brain. It’s wonderful when the brain is in service to our core. When it’s not, it clouds us. There’s nothing better than a healthy, slow-paced walk in nature to put one’s brain back in its place. When that happens, ask the forest. Ask an individual tree. Let the clouds in the sky reflect to you. With daily practice of this, before you know it, you’ll start leading from your core essence and be well on your way to making authentic, ‘true to you’ decisions.

Good luck, good health and maybe see you at a Forest Therapy Guide Training one day!

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