Written by: Kathryn Dietzway, Psychotherapist, Ecotherapist, Co-Founder/Owner of The Therapy Garden @the_therapy_garden
Edited by: TJ Patel @coffeetogeaux
Pictured Above: The Therapy Garden Owners/Founders Kathryn and David Dietzway installing a permanent, self-guided Shinrin-Yoku Trail along the Moonseed Loop/Crawfish Cut trail in Lafayette, Louisiana On November 6, 2021
When COVID-19 hit, like most of the world, I moved my office-based psychotherapy practice to completely virtual, working from home. At about the two week mark, I became increasingly burnt out by what I describe as Digital Fatigue. Maybe it was more-so what many ecotherapists refer to as Nature Deficit Disorder: a range of mental health symptoms that humans experience when there is a deficit of nature exposure in their lives--not an officially recognized DSM disorder but something that makes a lot of sense to me and many others.
I remember at one point during quarantine catching a glimpse of myself in a mirror across the room right after a virtual psychotherapy session ended, noticing two strands of hair sticking straight out, sort of wet looking. "Ooph. I haven't washed my hair in 3 days" I realized. (Anyone who knows me knows how significant this is. I wash my hair too much. It's been my thing since 1999 or so) --That's when it hit me, something's gotta give. If quarantine was going to go on indefinitely, I knew I was going to have to figure out how to incorporate nature into my life more significantly, both professionally and personally, one way or another. In general, I knew I felt better when outside, but during the height of COVID-19 , nature exposure was nearly medicinal for the pandemic-triggered anxiety and overwhelm I was experiencing. Evening bike rides with my partner were truly my saving grace during that time. --the wind in my face, sight of my neighbor's blooming flower beds and trees passing in my peripheral-- and the weight of the various global crises seemed to lift. I could breathe deeply on those rides.
Quarantine overwhelm, combined with an ongoing realization about how healing nature connection was for me, led to a deep-dive exploration of the field of Ecotherapy, also known as applied ecopsychology--the study of how we feel psychologically better when in healthy, conscious relationship with the natural world.
Something I noticed along my ecotherapy journey was that this field was awakening a part of me that had been mostly dormant since childhood--a part of me that feels deeply connected to nature and also comprehends how connected all humans really are to the natural world. (Pssst! We ARE nature--but that’s its own blog post topic.) This is also the same part of me that, to this day, would easily choose to climb a tree over binge-watching TV or scroll Facebook mindlessly.
What I am continuing to learn about this part of me is that not only does it seek to connect with nature, it seeks to protect and treat nature like I would treat any loved one. I am realizing that my "inner child self" and this "nature awakened adult self" are one in the same. My Nature Awakening is much less a discovery of something new, and much more a return to something that got lost...it is a reawakening and honoring of my inner child...and it is a return to something that indigenous peoples around the world have always known--that we are nature, and both human and more-than-human nature are healthier for recognizing and honoring this reality. --Something that many industrialized societies have devalued and become disconnected from on a deeply embedded and dangerous level.
In my personal life, since the Nature Awakening, I find myself very connected to and amazed by trees. The older the tree, the better--for me, ancient trees are like a real-life time machine, taking me back to an earlier time in history. I touch or view an ancient tree and I am mentally transported to the time the tree was born, imagining the tree sprouting alongside the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island. Some trees live to be thousands of years old! Trees also inspire me to be rooted and grounded, to remain my true core self no matter the weather of life that I am exposed to. Might sound cliché or “woo-woo” to some, but it's something that I lean on in anxiety provoking times for support and healing--and it’s very effective.
Did you know that in the heart of downtown Lafayette, Louisiana we have an ancient Live Oak that sprouted sometime around 1520? That makes this Live Oak over 500 years old! In this life after the Nature Awakening, I am noticing so many local trees and plants that I simply didn't recognize with my conscious mind before. It's as if I had a selective invisible blindfold over my eyes preventing me from noticing--truly noticing-- the beautiful nature in my own backyard. Now, the blindfold has been removed and I am beginning to see more clearly.
I had a hilarious moment this past year when I was walking in downtown Lafayette and noticed how many cypress trees are down there, and how old they must be; 25-50 years, at least. How did I not see all of these more-than-human natural beings before? The blind-fold is very effective at disconnecting a person from nature.
So...rediscovering how deeply connected to trees I am--I've been trying to
"go with that", to use some psychotherapy lingo. *Let the trees lead.* This philosophy, for me, is largely informed by something Paulo Coelho wrote in his book The Alchemist--he said, "Remember that wherever your heart is, there you will find your treasure." My heart is many places, one of those places, I realized during the Nature Awakening, is being with the ancient trees. Since then, many of my adventures, whether local or afar, have revolved specifically around visiting trees that dwarf me in size and age. Each time I've planned an adventure around visiting a tree, while I knew that following the trees was a heart-led endeavor, I had no idea that following these trees would become the stepping stones to creating and installing a self-guided Shinrin-yoku trail in Lafayette. (I think that is a super important lesson that Paulo Coelho was teaching in The Alchemist, to be fully and wholeheartedly in the present without obsessing about the future.) Here are some photos with some of the trees that have inspired me along my journey:
Key West, Florida: December 2020
Hugging the Kapok Tree
"How many other amazing, magical trees exist in the world that I've yet to discover? This question alone evokes excitement for what's to come in life" -I wrote that December
Cat Island Wildlife Refuge, Louisiana: February 2021
David and I made a trip solely to visit this beautiful 1500 year old Bald Cypress Tree.
Santa Elena, Costa Rica: June 2021
On a trip to Costa Rica to see some of the largest ancient Ceiba Trees in the world, here I am with an ancient Ficus tree turned natural bridge. Following my heart. Following the trees.
While on this Costa Rica Trip, David and I stumbled upon a self-guided, permanently installed Shinrin-Yoku trail at the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve. We were instantly inspired and while walking the cloud forest trails, began creative discussions of how we might bring this resource to Lafayette. We shared the idea with our community partner at Acadiana Nature Station and as usual with any nature-focused effort, Kyle Patton was on-board. Fast forward 6 months, and the trail has been installed. Lafayette, Louisiana now has a permanent self-guided Shinrin-Yoku trail, located at Moonseed Loop on the Crawfish Cut trail.
What is a Shinrin-Yoku trail?
Shinrin-Yoku is a term that translates in English to mean Forest Bathing, and was coined in 1982 by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. It refers to experiencing a forest environment with the purpose of mindfully taking in the full sensory experience, focusing on sight, sound, smell, and touch. Forest Bathing is well-documented in research to correlate with a multitude of benefits to humans, including decreased cortisol levels, increases in cancer-fighting "Natural Killer" cells, increased feelings of connection and relaxation, among many other mental and physical benefits. One of the theories about why forest environments provide these healing effects is because of the concentrated amount of Phytoncides that are emitted in a forest environment. Phytoncides are chemicals released by plants that have antibacterial properties.
In Japan, Shinrin-Yoku is so well-researched and respected that forest therapy can even be covered by health insurance. So, if you weren't convinced yet, yes it is a real, effective and healing thing happening in the world. It happens to be less known in our highly industrialized, digitally obsessed culture.
At the Therapy Garden, we've been leading in-person Shinrin-Yoku walks since November 2020 at Acadiana Nature Station. At $25 per walk, while many may consider this financially accessible, many others would not. As a social worker, I care deeply about connecting all humans by way of health-promoting resources. As a self-made, private, small business in a capitalist society, I understand that a business has to charge for services in order to operate; However, as a social worker, having to charge for all of our services pulls at my heartstrings. Since making the whole transition to private practice in 2019, I've had my sights on someday being able to provide more financially accessible services and resources to the community, but until recently, wasn't sure how we might go about doing that...
And here we are! We are thrilled to be able to offer the community a free therapeutic resource via our self-guided Shinrin-Yoku trail! The trail, which is operated by Lafayette Consolidated Government and Acadiana Park Nature Station, is .25 miles long and now has a total of 10 shinrin-yoku invitations for reflection along the way. The invitations focus on inspiring the person to connect with more than human nature in a mindful, curious, and child-like way. Many people report that after spending time practicing shinrin-yoku, they feel more calm and connected to the present moment, to self and to the world around them. There's no prescription for what one should experience; all are invited to participate in a way that feels right for them and this will vary person by person, time to time. What might you experience if you were to reflect mindfully among the trees? There's only one way to find out! Are the trees calling your heart? May you release, relax and find peace following the trees.
Pictured left and below are photos from the newly installed Shinrin-Yoku trail at Moonseed Loop in Lafayette. Lafayette Consolidated Government is currently constructing a bridge that will connect the Nature Station main trails to Moonseed Loop/Crawfish Cut, which will make the Shinrin-Yoku trail much more convenient to access. The Shinrin-Yoku trail will be just off the bridge entrance to the Moonseed Loop side of the nature area. The estimated date of bridge completion is December 2021, last I heard.
Pictured right: Invitation 1
Focuses on grounding the nervous system, mind and body to the present moment
Trail Map: Shinrin-Yoku is located at Crawfish Cut.
-to my fellow founder/owner of The Therapy Garden and husband, David Dietzway, for being my human version of an ancient tree--you keep me grounded, full and inspired. To the rest of The Therapy Garden team, none of this would exist without you all. We are truly a garden. -To the Acadiana Park Nature Station, Acadiana Master Naturalists and Kyle Patton for your ongoing partnership in bringing nature connection practices to the community in a more accessible way. -To all of my teachers, both more-than-human and human. --To the Lafayette community, may you know that you belong on this Earth.
Cheryl Charles and Gregory A. Cajete.Ecopsychology.Jun
Li, Q. Effect of forest bathing trips on human immune function. Environ Health Prev Med15, 9–17 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12199-008-0068-3
Louv, R. (2006). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
Park, B.J., Tsunetsugu, Y., Kasetani, T. et al. The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan. Environ Health Prev Med15, 18 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12199-009-0086-9