Learning How to Trust the Forest
I tried to plead with the camp counselors. No. I'm not doing it. I'm going to stay down with the other girl who's afraid of heights. Somehow though, they made me go up on the ropes course: across a balance beam, up a netted ladder, over more obstacles that made me queasy, knowing there was no other way out now.
At the end of the harrowing ropes course, I climbed up a ladder to the tallest tower without side barriers I'd ever been on, faced with a terrifying zip line back down to the ground.
This was a zip line like none I've ever seen since. I was shaking. Uncontrollably.
The counselor at the top had a kind voice. She sat me down and kneeled beside me and asked what frightened me. I'd been on a zip line like this before at a waterpark. I fell straight into the water because I couldn't hold on. The water cushioned my fall then. I’d be jolted against the end of a rope this time.
I assumed I wouldn't be able to hold on this time either.
I had a safety harness on, but my parents had also signed a document waiving liability against death before I left for camp. That's always reassuring. Because of that, death became an option in my mind.
A few members of my youth group waited for me at the bottom, cheering and calling out encouragements. I appreciated them for waiting for me, but I didn't believe what they were saying.
The girl with the kind voice refocused my attention and had me take some deep breaths. She told me to take my time. I focused on her instead. After a little bit of back and forth from “just let me climb down” to "this is the only way down," I decided to try it her way.
She closed her eyes and had me close mine.
"I want you to remember this experience. So, I want you to take a deep breath through your nose and smell the air as much as you can."
I took a deep breath and felt the pure, chilled air as much as I smelled the organic fall fragrance.
That smell is so lucid to me, even to this day.
With my eyes still closed, she told me to listen. I could hear my fellow youth groupies chatting over a hundred feet away, a bit of rustling in the leaves, and a deep padded quiet in the forest around me.
She gently persuaded me to relax.
I assumed they'd let me climb back down eventually. So I played along. But the fear was slipping away, drop by drop. She whispered next to me to take in the whole scene, to give myself over to faith.
The counselor, somehow not frustrated with me, fed me the sweetest words, without adrenaline, without rush in her voice, without irritation: "You know you can do this. Just let go and you'll be on the ground in three seconds. Like this: One. Two. Three."
I thought about going on three. Nope. Not gonna happen. Pushing myself off that platform was terrifying even though I knew it would ultimately be exhilarating.
I took another deep breath, letting the crisp air and the deep silence penetrate me. "Okay, let's count again. “One. Two. Three.” Nope. “It’s alright sweetie. Just because you couldn’t hold on before doesn’t mean you can’t hold on now.”
"Let's count one more time. One. Two. Three."
And I let go. Completely on a whim.
I flew to the ground in one, two, three... With every butterfly I've ever known to exist flying around like lunatics in my stomach. After dangling over the forest floor for three seconds, my feet landed and took me running across the ground. My friends at the bottom all cheered their hearts out when they saw me coming. They'd been waiting for me for awhile. They caught me and high-fived me and swooped in around me. And amidst the support, I took a few moments to look back at the platform I came from thinking, "Holy cow, I just did that!"
I was proud.
I felt supported.
I did it!
It was the first time I learned how to let the forest soothe me and protect me as I attempted something scary.
It was the first time I learned how to ground myself in nature, to let nature quiet that negative, untrustworthy voice in my head.
I'm pretty protective of this story, because sometimes I worry that sharing it too many times will bump the power out of it and turn it into one of those "awww, mom, we've heard that story a million times" kind of story. But I'm sharing it with you today because it's exactly the type of story that encapsulates forest bathing for me.
It was the first time I experienced nature and the forest in high definition. In a way that I knew I wanted to do it again and again. In a way that made the biting fear fade into tolerable apprehension, which allowed me to overcome a fear I didn't think I could.
I still hear that gentle voice beside me, coaxing me with the most empowering words. I could just kiss that camp counselor who doubled as my first unofficial forest bathing guide. She was so sweet and taught me so much in those few minutes up on that zip line tower.
That ropes course was the first place I really saw myself in context of the endless forest and let go.