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.

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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When you are physically lost (and found) in nature

Have you ever been lost in nature even for some significant time before you were found? It can be more than a bit unnerving, near fatal, and rewarding all at the same time.

When this occurs, what might you be lost from?  The trail head? The ‘tamed world’? Your home? Often all of these things set up churning emotions. Most often, you galvanize the experience as one of those ‘edge’ times and you carry it with you for the rest of your life.

One such time, in deep wilderness, I went to search for a remote and favoured site with a great friend and colleague. It was a place I had often visited as a wildlife biologist. I had noted several female rattlesnakes returned each year to share a ‘rookery rock’ where they gave birth to their young. You might be thinking, “If I arrived at a rock with 50 rattlesnakes, I surely would be lost!”

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This is what large parts of Georgian Bay (location described in this blog), Lake Huron, look like. Beyond rare snakes, you can see the appeal.

For me of course, the site was sacred. I used to eat my lunch sitting beside probably a cumulative total of 20 feet of rattlesnake (we all pick our poisons). Crazy or not, my heart longed for the landscape, their gentle serpentine souls, and the place I once knew so well.

I have a good sense of direction. Sometimes, however, nature changes the directions. In the ten or so ensuing years since I’d been there, the beavers had played ‘God’ on the landscape. Their engineering efforts played mental gymnastics with my mind. They had enlarged existing wetlands, created some that weren’t present, and deepened a great number that were easily traversed in the past.

Twisting and turning to find dry enough ground, I lead us astray. Dusk approached. Then, I recognized an area. Or at least I thought. One ridge looked remarkably similar to one unforgettable incident I experienced nearly a decade early. On this ridge, I had watched from behind a tree as a wolf trotted by with a blood-dripping bear paw in his mouth. I’m not talking about the chocolate, staying fresh for too long to be good for you, ‘Bear Paw’ cookie you can buy for your kid’s lunch (we all pick our poisons). This was a real bear’s paw. How did a lone wolf get a bear’s paw? Any suggestions?

Starting to feel a bit desperate, I felt like I’d failed my friend and colleague. Together we had been through much adversity in the field before. We had our coping tools. Humour and our playful bravado served us well many times in the past. We’d have to go there again.

In trying to make up time and space, I lead us through what used to be a shallow pond. As the water got waist high we hoisted our backpacks, laden with cameras and research equipment, over our heads on our outstretched arms. We reached a small island in the middle of the wetland. We climbed out of the swampy water for relief, but then shuttered and squirmed at the ghastly site of each other. On our bare legs, arms, and necks were – leeches – and lots of them, writhing on our skin. Our bodies were a ‘bar’ for black, slimy blood-suckers.

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Here we are emerging the ‘out of place’ wetland with what was a self-timer (pre-selfie era) shot of our bloodied bodies, after pulling all the leeches off one another. (I’m on the right, pal-colleague ‘Doc’ Willson, on the left). This is when I realized we were lost.

The worst part about pulling them off was not that the attachment sites bled profusely. It was the knowledge that we had to get right back in the water to get through the other half of the wetland. Feeling far from home in that moment, I recognized we were indeed, lost.

We’d lost more than direction. We’d lost comfort, safety, dryness. We’d loss hope of finding our intended place. We lost the ability to go anywhere with any sort of acceptable pace. We were forced to go slowly. We trudged in a heavy motion, trying to push time as walked through thickness of the swamp.

We never did find the rattlesnake birthing grounds. That place still lives like yesterday in my heart.

I pause from the drudgery of the soggy substrate and take a deep breath.

I see my targeted place. My mind’s eye won’t let go of the detail; the rock ridges, the low wet spots, and the patch work of the endless connections. I see the young newborn animals take in life, one increment at a time. Stretching their expandable bodies, they cross the crunchy Reindeer Lichen, interspersed with hard pink granite rock and small pockets of soft Sphagnum Moss. This is where they warm up for life.

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An inquisitive, frightened rattlesnake inspects my water supply and then moves on to find cover.

I didn’t get there physically, but I am there. I am in their home. It becomes my home. I own it for the brief passage of time. I open my eyes. I see my own path. I lead us home in the nearly darkened sky and sleekly silhouetted forest.

Being lost in nature in this manner can spawn feelings of fear of immortality. The basic absences breed hot-button insecurities in us; little food to eat, little water to drink and unfamiliar shelter.

The frustration of the perception of being a poor navigator, and ‘the loss of time well spent’ can become vehicles of ultimate trickery. This can lead to a place of ultimate danger; the mind.  The mind is the place that can take what ought be a lesson from the momentary loss of mindfulness, and turn it into the extreme; loss of life. Coming to one’s senses, when lost in nature is the number one way to find our way back.

Only in rare and extreme cases are people never found (a.k.a lost and sadly never discovered in time). The vast majority of times however, the journey of being lost and the triumph of being found are the norm. These stories become established as legends and common lore of our own personal journeys.

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Returning with my son quite a few years later, I was back in the beauty of the water of “The Thirty-thousand Islands.” This time, I was much more prepared. We breathed in the beauty of the landscape and respectfully observed the Massasauga Rattlesnake once again.

As such, we can experience a paradoxical ‘happy time’ whence lost in nature. How so, with the stress that’s incurred with being lost this way?

There are many times when I didn’t get lost in nature. These were times when I had a compass. I had a knife….a container to collect water…food…all of the things that could have kept me alive and ‘found’ quickly. These were somewhat memorable and fun, but I seldom recall in vivid detail or re-tell those stories.

There’s something about the uneasiness of being physically lost and then found in nature that makes such a story long worth telling and retelling.

Even more so, being lost and found in nature ties us closer to nature in ways that we experience for the rest of our lives.

Am I advocating to get lost in nature?  In many ways, it’s more than what any doctor can order (except for the new-aged doctors who prescribe several doses of ‘time in nature’). If it happens you’ll surely be happy to have be found. I also sense you’ll be equally pleased that you had become lost in the first place.