Get To Know A Guide: Brenda Spitzer
The Arboretum’s 1,700 acres are a living museum and hold more than 222,000 plants representing nearly 4,300 species from across the globe.
Among the arboretum’s offerings are the Center for Tree Science, a four-acre Children’s Garden, a one-acre Maze Garden, the restored Meadow Lake, and extensive hiking and biking trails.
Brenda Spitzer has been involved with Morton Arboretum for the past 24 years. Today she guides weekly Forest Therapy walks and has introduced the practice to hundreds of people with rave reviews. In May 2017 she will assist the guide training offered by the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy. We are honored to share with you this enchanting interview with Brenda.
Brenda, please tell us about your history with The Morton Arboretum.
I visited The Morton Arboretum for the first time 24 years ago. My family and I had just relocated to the Chicago area, and I was seeking to find a sense of home in my new surroundings. A neighbor, who knew that I was an avid gardener, suggested that I visit The Arboretum. She told me that we were lucky to have such a valuable green space to visit that was so close to our community. When I pulled into the front entrance of The Arboretum I was greeted by a friendly gate attendant, named Jack. He immediately made me feel welcome. He gave me a map and pointed me in the direction of his favorite trail.
I started walking on that trail and immediately felt the sense of home that I was seeking.
I stopped by the Visitor Center and became a member of The Morton Arboretum that day. My new membership gave me a sense of belonging. One month later I became a volunteer, which gave me the opportunity to contribute to the wellbeing of this beautiful place.
I soon found that just being at The Morton Arboretum made me want to learn more about nature. I discovered the Education Program and I took many fascinating classes over the next 17 years to earn Certificates in Natural History and Botanical Art and Illustration. During this time I also had the opportunity to work at The Visitor Center as an Information Aide, sharing my knowledge and assisting visitors. Ten years ago, I started volunteering for the Security Department on Trail Patrol, a role that I continue to enjoy to this day. In 2015, I attended The Morton Arboretum’s first Forest Therapy Guide Training Workshop offered by the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs. After completing my practicum, I was asked to guide Forest Therapy Walks at The Morton Arboretum. I have been guiding walks since June, 2016. I feel thankful to be guiding walks at this place that I love so much!
In my Natural History classes I studied about the Flora and Fauna of The Morton Arboretum and the Ecology of Northern Illinois. These classes helped me to develop a deeper understanding and appreciation for the plants and wildlife of my Bioregion and how they are interdependent.
In my Conservation Biology classes I became more aware of issues that are challenging conservationists such as endangered species, habitat management and restoration ecology.
In my Interpretation and Nature Writing classes I learned effective ways to communicate my natural history knowledge to others.
In my Botanical Art and Illustration classes I learned to look more closely at plants and notice details.
I learned to translate not only the details but also the essence, or personality of a plant through my drawings.
When in the process of drawing I find that I am very much in the moment. I do not seem to notice the passage of time when I am ‘in the flow’ of the creative experience.
In my Sustainable Landscape Design classes I learned about water conservation and developed a deeper appreciation for that precious element. I learned the value of native plants in the landscape, how they contribute to the biodiversity of native wildlife and how their deep roots conserve water and enrich the earth. As a final project I was able to enrich my own small portion of the earth by planting a rain garden of native plants in my backyard. I learned to install a green roof, so that even in a concrete urban environment, humans can have the opportunity find solace in something that is green and growing. I learned about the concept of Biophilia and how humans are drawn to and have a need for nature. My Sustainable Landscape Design classes gave me a deeper appreciation for our precious earth and taught me ways to encourage stewardship in others.
As a Forest Therapy Guide I often invite my participants to slow down and notice the details and essence of Nature.
Some of my walk participants have commented that, even though they have walked a trail many times before, they noticed so many more details when they slowed down on our Forest Therapy walk.
Others have commented that they were surprised that the three hours of our walk went by so quickly.
What is your favorite place at The Morton Arboretum and why it is meaningful to you?
I have so many favorite places at The Morton Arboretum, so it is hard to pick just one. The place that stands out for me, however, is The Schulenberg Prairie. It is a 100-acre site of one of the oldest prairie restorations in North America. It has been replanted and tended by staff and volunteers of The Morton Arboretum for over 50 years. When I walk on the prairie, I get a sense of how expansive the landscape must have seemed to the pioneers who explored it during a time when Illinois was mostly prairie. I also think about the indigenous populations who once foraged and hunted on that land which was their home.
As I explore the prairie, I find the sound of the grasses moving in the wind to be very calming. I love how the grasses sometimes seem to shelter and caress me as they move. It is easy to be in the moment there.
I find that when I am facing challenges in life or am holding questions, I often find answers while walking on the prairie. I have developed a practice of keeping a journal to write down insights that I seem to hear when walking there
When I became a trail patrol volunteer, ten years ago, I found a welcome reason to spend more time on the trails. I discovered that my 2 to 3 hour shifts left me feeling relaxed, centered, and more creative. I came to realize that, for my own well being, I actually needed to spend more time on the trails.
In my Sustainable Landscape classes, when I studied the concept of Biophilia, I realized that my needs for being on the trails were justified!
When I first learned that a Forest Therapy Guide Training Workshop would be held at The Morton Arboretum, I knew that attending it would be the next logical step in my life journey.
I felt as though my varied life experiences and passions had all come together to lead me to that workshop!
Having guided walks for hundreds of people at The Morton Arboretum, what do you feel people are learning most from the experience?
I feel that they are learning that it is worthwhile to put their ‘to-do’ lists aside for a bit and just take some time for themselves. They are learning that it is ok to slow down and just be in the moment. They are learning to use all of their senses to immerse themselves in what they are noticing. They are learning to see through the eyes of a child again and be more playful.
What is one of your favorite Forest Therapy invitations?
‘Zoom!’ – I hand out magnifying glasses and invite participants to zoom in on natural elements. I love to watch their amazement at the new worlds that they discover through the magnifying glass!
When creating a botanical illustration, I use specimens that I collect in nature. When collecting a specimen, I first observe it in its natural habitat. I notice how it reaches for the light; how relates to other plants surrounding it. These observations inform me about the energy and essence of the plant.
When drawing the specimen, it is important to me to not only capture its details but also its natural energy and essence.
How has nature changed your artistic vision? What you may see and feel differently?
I find both nature and creativity to be energetic and fluid. At this point in my life I find myself being more drawn to working outside in nature to create ephemeral art. I love the tactile experience of gathering and manipulating natural materials. I have learned the importance of seeing, smelling and feeling the materials. Working this way pulls me fully into the moment.
I let the materials speak to me as I work with them to create something new that has never been in existence before. I also find comfort in knowing that my creations will be exposed to the seasons and elements and will have an ephemeral existence.
What might you suggest people do to see more deeply?
I would suggest that they, when spending time in nature, let go of their daily agenda. I would then invite them to begin by closing their eyes and taking some deep breaths while imagining breathing into their hearts.
When they open their eyes, I invite them to see with their hearts.
As we walk I would invite them to slow down and use all of their senses to notice the environment around them; to feel, smell and listen to, natural elements around them. I invite them to let nature pull them into the moment.
How has Forest Therapy changed you and your relationship with the land?
Forest therapy has taught me the importance of patience, slowing down and staying in the moment. I now have a deeper appreciation for every season, every day and every moment even when they are imperfect. I now have a greater appreciation for all of the stages of the life cycles in the environment. I appreciate the new buds and wildflowers of spring, the lush green growth of summer, the bright colors of fall and the rich colors and textures of winter dormancy. I appreciate how, as plants lose their leaves and become dormant, they are providing nourishment to the earth to support the new growth that will come again in the spring.
Forest Therapy has changed my relationship to the land by making me more of a conservationist. For example, I used to rake leaves, cut back my garden plants in the fall, and dispose of all of that plant material in recycling bags. I wanted my yard to be ‘neat and tidy’. Now it is more important to me to compost and utilize all of this precious plant material to return it to the earth to enrich my garden.
I also have a greater appreciation for water and the importance of conserving it. I have reduced my water usage by altering the landscape in my yard to include mostly native plants with deep root systems.
I have also installed rain barrels to collect water that I use to water my garden. I now want to work with nature to enrich my land
My family has been very supportive of my new direction as a Forest Therapy Guide. My husband encouraged and made it possible for me to attend The Forest Therapy Guide Training workshop. My children and older grandchildren attended my practicum walks. My family celebrated with me when I became a Certified Forest Therapy Guide!
As a child, my parents and grandparents spent time with me going on hikes, fishing and gardening. I have fond memories of spending our summer family vacations in Cook Forest in Pennsylvania. I have always prioritized time in nature with my children and grandchildren. I enjoy taking them on ‘adventures’, often at The Morton Arboretum. When we get to the trail, I let the children guide me. I follow and learn from them. I notice and appreciate what they notice and what excites them. I let them pull me with them into the moment! I appreciate how our time together in nature is unstructured and free. I love how nature engages them and sparks their creativity!
Do you have a favorite animal or animal spirit? If so, would you please share with us?
I have given this question much thought. I am not completely sure, but I have always wondered if it could be a bison. As a child, my cousins and I used to enjoy searching for arrowheads in the fields of my grandparent’s farm. One day, I found an interesting rock shaped like a bison. It seemed to have been carved into that shape. I have always wondered if someone had carved it to be a toy for a child. Or, perhaps, it had been worn as a ‘spirit animal’ pendant. I always wondered if I was meant to find it, and if by finding it the bison became my spirit animal. Bison are native to Illinois, although their population has declined over the years. The preferred habitat of the bison is the prairie.
I sometimes wonder if it is the bison walks along side of me, as my spirit animal, as I wander on The Schulenberg Prairie.
My bison shaped rock is still a treasured possession of mine.
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