Tracing land history
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When taking a relaxing walk in the great outdoors, we often allow nature to clear our minds and bring our attention to the present moment. The practice of forest bathing emphasizes the use of our senses to interact with our surroundings. But how does the history of the land we walk on affect our experience in it? In this week's article, Linda Karlen proposes important questions about the intersection of past and present in nature therapy.
Tracing land history
On ANFT guided walks, participants focus on an immediate experience. In Your Guide to Forest Bathing, M. Amos Clifford notes how the practice of forest bathing relies on sensory experience, which is inherently “mindful”: “The principle is simple: sensory experience is always immediate, unlike discursive (story-based) thinking, which involves us with the past or future or just anywhere that is not here and now.” Taking these words to heart, I wonder what role the history of the land we inhabit or visit plays in this emphasis on the sensory. How do our past experiences of living on the land affect our current relationship with nature? If we maintain an emphasis on the immediate and the present moment in our forest bathing walks, what value does tracing land history possibly hold?
In my family history, there is a story of my great-grandmother Mary, who after making the trip in 1892 with her two young daughters, arrived in central Wisconsin to begin a new phase of her life. Joseph, her husband, had come over from Poland a year earlier to secure a piece of land. At the time of Mary’s arrival, the land where she was to live out her life was heavily wooded with little signs of “civilization.” Water came from a nearby spring, and displaced American Indians often came begging for food. Family history has it that when Mary saw the site of her new home, she fell on her knees and wept – not from joy, but from a sense of loss and isolation. The work that would be needed to clear the surrounding woods, primarily pines, to make space for a house and garden and fields was overwhelming. Mary lived on this “stump farm” the rest of her life, dying in 1954 at the age of ninety-two. I don’t know what her relationship was to this land at the time of her death, but what I know of her story helps connect me to this land. Her story also helps me dig into my own feelings about how we come to a place and what we give to and take from it in order to have a relationship with that place.
My mother grew up on this same land, but the memories I have of my grandparents’ farm reflect an altered homestead. One hundred years after my great-grandmother arrived, there were three houses on the land, a barn, running water, electricity, a verdant garden, a smokehouse, a hand pump in the front yard that brought up cool, refreshing well water. My grandmother planted roses around the house, and successive seasons focused on maple syrup, berry patches, a vegetable garden, and apples trees in addition to the farm crops. Even with this bounty, this place was not idyllic. The work needed to run a farm is unending and exhausting, and there is always the sense of loss for the peoples and way of life that came before. My early loving memories of this land are bound up by years of labor and loss (not just of my relatives but of all the humans and the more than human world that share this land). My personal experience combined with historical knowledge gives me a more balanced view and even helps me recognize that this farmland continues to change in an era where small family farms are now endangered by factory farms and residential growth.
When I think of tracing land history, I think of a duality. One part is the individual experiences we are given from birth and build upon through our growing awareness, travels, curiosities, and training. What I brought to the beginning of my forest therapy practice began with the place and the people I grew up with on my parents’ dairy farm in Wisconsin. Since then, I’ve moved from farm to small town to medium-sized town to a megalopolis. In between, I’ve traveled to numerous parts of the U.S. and several other countries. Now I live in a suburb of Chicago, a completely different landscape from the one my great-grandmother knew as home, but I carry each place with me in memory and in imagination wherever I go. It is a history I cannot change at this moment in time, yet knowing it informs and alters my current connections to nature.
Our specific and personal history is fixed, but also mutable as we have new experiences and reflect on our relationship with nature. However, each place that we visit has its own history that is also fixed and changing. Is it possible to guide or take a forest therapy walk successfully relying solely on our rich, personalized history, knowing little or nothing about the history of the land we visit on our walks? The most basic answer seems to be that it is possible.
The other part of this duality of tracing land history is getting to know an area in past and present form. We can do this through repeated visits and observations, through historical research, and by consulting with people who are more knowledgeable about the area. What effects will that learning have on our view of the land and by extension, the experience we share on our walks? What effects will tracing the history of an area have on our personal history? In an interview for Outside magazine, naturalist Bernd Heinrich gets to the latter question. Heinrich, who spent some of his early years wandering the forest of Hahnheide, Germany and who now lives in a wooded area of Maine, reflected to interviewer Bill Donahue:
“I know the landscape…and so I notice when something’s out of place—when the grass is bent, say. I didn’t know what I was going to research when I started living here full-time. But now I’m open to whatever comes along. It’s like being a kid again: I just go to nature and find the question.”
This kind of “research” is what we do when we live on or visit a place repeatedly, noticing what has changed from the day or week before, feeling when the landscape has altered and understanding that the place is a source of never-ending questions and possible discoveries. It is akin to getting to know a neighbor and what makes him or her tick. It is what we uncover in our sit-spot experiences. It is the years of paying attention to bird behavior that Jon Young relates in What the Robin Knows. It is honing our senses and finding connections to the natural world we’re part of. Even if we did not grow up living close to nature, it is a practice that we can begin at any point in our lives. It is paradoxically constant and ever-changing. And it does have effects – on our personal histories, on the well-being and care of the place we visit, and by extension, on the human and more than human world we connect to in our walks.
A more obvious type of research we can do is straightforward historical research. Local historical museums, verified historical accounts, government land documents, legal papers including real estate transactions, and primary source documents such as interviews can help us form questions we didn’t know to ask. When I first began to plan my forest therapy walks at Volo Bog Natural Area in northeastern Illinois last year, I began simply by reading the documents the State of Illinois DNR had published. I also spoke with Stacy Iwanicki, who has worked as the Natural Resources Coordinator for Volo Bog for more than 30 years. Finding this sort of living history book is a gift. Gathering information, in combination with visiting the site repeatedly, led to questions. How and when did the area change from a glacial lake to a bog? What is sphagnum moss? How did the first humans and animals live on this land? Who was the dairy farmer that owned this land? The questions are endless. And what did the answers contribute to my walk and the experience of my walk participants?
It’s hard to define. In the introduction to my walk, I referred to the Fox and Miami tribes that lived in the area and to the farmer whose barn became Volo Bog’s Visitor Center. Not much more. However, learning about the area (In fact, some of my walk participants could have tutored me on the area) created a closer bond to that place, which helped me define my intention to share this place and to be a supportive part of its continuum. At the same time, my personal history became part of the immediate experience. In an invitation to feel the firm ground under our feet, I recalled that this same place was once covered in glacial ice. Standing on the boardwalk overlooking the bog, I couldn’t help but smile at the story of the cows who disappeared mysteriously into the bog. Learning about the Illiniwek peoples in this area emphasized their absence and brought forward images of the indigenous people who begged my great grandmother for food. Surely the sadness of their loss should not, could not be forgotten. The information I discovered in tracing the land’s history helped me become part of that land’s history. In turn, becoming part of that history gave me confidence to share this place with others.
Tracing land history can help us expand the view of ourselves and the places we visit. It is a view that will naturally change over time but one that can help us develop personally and bring us closer to the land. Though forest bathing is steeped in the immediate sensory experience of “now,” taking time to reflect on our personal history and investigate the history of place can only deepen what we sense in the “now,” and by extension, offer to others and the land we share on our walks.
Linda Karlen grew up in rural Wisconsin and currently lives in the Chicago area, where she works in adult education. She has an M.A. in English/Linguistics and is a certified ANFT Guide available to lead walks in NE Illinois and Wisconsin. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on her Instagram.
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