Trail Hospitality: It's good to begin and end near restrooms, so people can be at ease during the walk. The restrooms at the campground in this park are among the best public restrooms I've seen anywhere, so they lend themselves to a sense of hospitality. I think it's important for nature connection guides to pay attention to hospitality--provide snacks, water or tea, and generally making sure that people feel welcomed and acknowledged. Good restrooms at the trailhead can make a big difference.
The trail begins a couple of hundred yards away from the restrooms, at the end of the campground loop road farthest from the visitor's center. There is a beautiful old Douglas Fir tree at the trailhead, nestled within a cluster of Bay Trees and several varieties of Oaks. This initial canopy shades a few campgrounds, which could be an ideal base for extended Shinrin-Yoku practice. For the first stretch past the campgrounds it's a dirt road that is occasionally used by park maintenance vehicles. This road wanders through an open meadow area with California Buckeye trees on the North side, and a field of grasses and herbs on the South. There were quite a few Yarrow plants in flower, and many butterflies above this meadow.
We paused at the Yarrow plants.
The Experiment Begins: My companion on this walk was Gina McGee, who teaches Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction through her business, called Mindstream Company. Her past experience with nature has been, like most people in our culture, casual enough that she has not learned much about the plants, animals, birds, and other critters that inhabit the landscapes. Gina and I are collaborating with the intention to combine her practice of MBSR with my work in nature connection through Shinrin-Yoku. We want to create a healing practice that combines the two modalities.
The Yarrow plants gave us an opportunity to begin our experimentation. In Shinrin-yoku we encourage people to engage all of their senses; in MBSR we encourage people to be aware of how their senses are engaged. So, without naming the plant, I invited Gina to simply look at it. "What do you notice?" I asked.
The Art of Questioning: This approach of inviting people to make their own observations is common in nature connection mentoring. It's known as "The Art of Questioning." It consists of asking questions that are encourage people to look beyond the edges of their current knowledge and awareness. For this reason, the questions are sometimes referred to as "edge questions." In the case of the Yarrow plant, at a glance you might see a small plant with a funny cauliflower-like lumpy white flower on top. But if you stop and observe for a moment, details begin to emerge.
If I were to use the style of education that naturalists use, speaking in the expert voice of knowledge, I might just say, "You can see that there are actually many small individual flowers clustered together." But if I ask questions like, "What do you notice?" and "Does this remind you of anything else?" and similar questions, you learn to cultivate your own capacity to observe.
The longer you look at something, the more details emerge. The first round of observation may reveal enough that you feel like you've seen everything. It may take several long moments (or minutes) longer before the next layer of seeing is revealed. But if you stay with it long enough, soon a whole host of details will "pop" into awareness. So one of the aims of the Art of Questioning is to get people to give their attention for a bit longer than they might normally.
This also related to Mindfulness-based meditation practices. When we begin to meditate one of the first insights that comes is how much our minds jump around, like a monkey on Red Bull. The Art of Questioning can supplement meditation practice by subtly encouraging people to slow down and train their minds to focus.
As Gina and I looked at the Yarrow various details emerged. The plants reminded her of arrows. The leaves were fuzzy and finely divided. The stems were straight. I encouraged her to pinch off a leaf and crush it in her fingers and smell it. "This is a safe plant," I told her; of critical importance for my work as a guide is that I am certain of the species and have a solid knowledge of its characteristics and uses for food, medicine, tools, and craft. Just across the trail from the Yarrow were some Poison Hemlock plants; if were to naively use them the outcome could be disastrous.
Gina detected a medicinal smell in the crushed leaf. I suggested she taste it, which she did. She noted a pleasant taste. "What happens to the taste after you leave it in your mouth for 15 seconds?" I asked. The Art of Questioning, here used very specifically to engage attention for a bit longer.
Sacred Questions: Only after we had spend a couple of minutes in pure inquiry did I reveal the name of the plant and share a few pieces of lore about its uses. Among my own mentors are some who would not even do that; they would leave me with what they would call the "Sacred Question" of not-knowing. This not-knowing, when it is in the context of heightened connection developed through engaged questioning, can be a powerful motivator. Many times I've returned home to see what light my good friend Google might shine into the dark recesses of the unknown. What this means is that I learn not just how to observe, but how to learn, and at an even deeper level how to trust my capacity to learn.
Of significance to Shinrin-yoku, Yarrow is a trailside plant that can be used to brew tea as another way for participants to engage all their senses. Hemlock, not so much. I know I am repeating myself, but this is critically imporant: If you are guiding shinrin-yoku walks where you are inviting people to engage their senses through interaction with plants, you had better know the plants in your area.
Gina was keeping track of time while we walked. She is curious to know how long we need to plan when we lead shinrin--yoku/MBSR group walks. "Seven minutes," she announced. It was time for the next activity, which would see us down another 200 feet of trail, to where I knew it would cross over a small creek.
Visual Awareness: "If we want for people to engage their sense in a mindful way, vision is a good place to start," I suggested, "Since for most of us that is a dominant sense. So we have to change how we use vision. From here until we get to the creek, let's focus our visual perception on shadows and shaded areas." Gina was game, and we began walking together, very quietly and slowly, peering into the shadows under the forest canopy.
next chapter... into the shadows...coming soon!