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Scrappy icons of hope

"You can't hope when you're hungry" ...and other wisdom from my Medicine Walk experience.

As part of my Shinrin Yoku (forest bathing) diploma I am required to go on a 'medicine walk' - a kind of mini quest in nature to connect with yourself and the natural world. You might, as I originally did, be imaging wandering serenely though a magical forest having epiphanies and dancing through the dappled light. That's not quite what happened for me. You can find my report below.

Medicine Walk Report

Date of walk: Sunday 2nd May 2021

Location: Gisburn Forest, Lancashire

I’m writing this report a month after my walk took place; I wanted to have some perspective on my experience that only time can give, so after scribbling a few notes of things I didn’t want to forget I left it for a while and return to it now, with a clearer view.

My medicine walk took place at a very difficult moment in my life. Without going into the finer details, I was going coming through the other side of grief, burnout and the social isolation of winter lockdown. It is the perspective that is affording me the phrase ‘coming through the other side of’; at the time it very much felt like an endless trudge in the darkness. I certainly felt in need of medicine of some kind. I chose my location – somewhere just over an hour’s drive away that I hadn’t been to since I was a child. My intention took the form of a question: how do I find hope? I knew what was missing in my life and had done all I could to get it but was still lacking; how did I find the will to carry on?

On the way to the forest something awful happened. Even at the time I was aware of the irony of experiencing something deeply upsetting on the way to a medicine walk – there was certainly a flavour of ‘for fuck’s sake’ in my mind. But of course, there was a lesson in it. Long, tragic story short: I found myself in a situation where I was helping a young man and an injured deer on a dual carriageway. English wasn’t his first language and he didn’t know what to do. I could easily have driven on by. But I didn’t. That split second decision resulted in me holding a beautiful deer in my arms and whispering words of compassion to it as it lay dying from horrific injuries. I’ll never forget what I saw. The traffic police arrived (the deer was half in the road, as were me and the young man) as I said, “goodnight sweetheart, let go now darling, it’s OK, you are loved” and it heart stopped beating. I have a vague memory of hissing at the policeman – who poked it in the eye to see if it was actually dead – to have some damn respect. It all seems like a weird dream now. I drove numbly to the forest where I sat and cried on my arrival.

Before the deer incident I had been worrying in the car about how I had forgotten to bring the forest a gift, as we were recommended to do. And then I realised – I had brought one: I had brought my fierce compassion for the forest and all the creatures that live in it. Along with this realisation, the experience also reminded me that nature connection is not all serene meanderings in the woods; it can be brutal, and upsetting and difficult. You cannot be in relationship with the other than human world and not see the injuries we inflict upon it. All my life I have been keenly aware of this; as a child crying because I accidentally stood on a snail, and now, grieving for the beautiful deer who lost its life on the busy road that runs through its habitat. Compassion takes both wisdom and courage; it certainly requires these things of me to witness the pain that nature is in at our hands. My seeing, my caring and my acting on this caring are worthy gifts.

“It matters that you notice, it matters that you care” – lines from my favourite poem, Hokusai Says by Roger Keys.

To the forest, and back to my question: how do I find hope? My mood was bleak as I wandered into the trees. I was not cheered by the sight of a patch recently cleared by the forestry commission; a sea of harvested stumps between huge tyre tracks was not what my weary heart needed. But I did not turn away, and in my looking closer I noticed many tiny saplings had sprung up through the churned earth; defiant, rebellious little things, growing amidst the destruction around them, oblivious to it. “Do your worst” they seemed to say, “we’ll keep coming back”. Little, scrappy icons of hope, each one of them.

Since learning of the medicine walk requirement for the course I had been very resistant to the fasting element. Hindsight shows me that I should have listened to my instinct from the start and not even attempted to fast. I know my body and my mind rather well. Hunger is ugly on me! Because I was driving and wanted to be alert for that I ate porridge before I left home at sunrise and took snacks to get me though the journey home later. I was so thankful for those snacks!! I spent a few miserable hours being hungry and tired, getting angry and resentful, struggling to put one foot in front of the other, before I caved in and ate the snacks. What a relief it was to feel the life returning to my body! Anyone who knows me knows that I always carry snacks; this was a habit that my experience on the walk has strongly reinforced. As I sat on a grassy verge feeling the energy come back to my limbs, I thought two things:

1. You can’t hope when you’re hungry. As with anything wellbeing related – meet your basic needs first.

2. Other people can’t tell me what’s medicine for me. Yes, they can advise and suggest but only I know what it is I need. What I needed at that moment in time was a sandwich.

I dozed on the mossy ground and opened my eyes to pine branches and blue skies; is there a better sight? I felt a refreshed in body but my mind was still heavy. I continued my walk, though my heart wasn’t in it. My life situation and my upsetting experience earlier was weighing me down, and yet right foot followed left foot in a steady rhythm through the trees. The landscape started to change slightly, becoming softer and less orderly than the pine forest and I wondered what was around the corner. So there hope was again – in simply carrying on even when I didn’t feel like it, and allowing curiosity and a need to see the beauty of nature to keep me moving forward. Hope doesn’t have to be a beautiful bloom or baby bird – it can simply be the thought “this is shit” alongside the possibility that it won’t always be shit.

Of the many little moments of comfort and beauty I experienced on the walk, one in particular is worth recording. The others are too ephemeral or abstract to describe. The two trees I had chosen to study for my flora research assignments were Pine and Silver Birch. I had expected pine trees at this forest, but I had not known in advance that the other main species at Gisburn is in fact Silver Birches. For several miles I walked a path that had pines on one side and birches on the other. Pine forests are dark, magical, slightly foreboding places. Whereas birch glades are light, friendly and whimsical spaces. They are yin and yang. I could not miss the symbolism of these two, specially when I found one of each species entwined together; we need both. We have both light and dark in our lives. Right then I was in the dark. The existence of the birches told me that light exists and gave me – you guessed it – hope that I would feel it again. In pine forests, I find the dark beautiful and soothing; perhaps if I stood tall and strong like a pine tree I could find some beauty in my dark mood too.

A month on and I can say that the things I hoped for in my life are here now and I feel much happier. My walk taught me that an experience doesn’t have to be enjoyable for it to be of value and that hope doesn’t always feel like a ray of sunshine; it can feel like begrudgingly putting one foot in front of the other and getting curious about what’s around the corner. I’m proud of myself for staying present, even when the present moment sucked enormously; the experience of the deer was a reminder that life is short and fragile and that all of it matters.

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