Meet the Guide: A series about the Forest Therapy Guides I meet on their trails around the world.
Caroline and I first met on one of GIFT’s quarterly “Big Village” zoom calls for Forest Therapy guides around the globe to connect and get updates. GIFT is the Global Institute of Forest Therapy and Nature Connection where we both completed our certification. When Caroline introduced herself on the call and mentioned she lived in The Azores, I messaged her to let her know we were thinking about living there as part of our #2suitcases1Laptop digital nomad adventures. She was very helpful not only in our decision to go but also after I had broken my leg while hiking in Croatia and was debating whether we should continue with our travel plans or head back to Canada. I’m happy to be here now to experience all that the beautiful Azores has to offer (except the water and hiking parts sadly) and to spend some time getting to know Caroline.
A few days after our arrival mid-November, we met Caroline and her sweet collie Una at the local weekly market. They toured us around the market, helping with translation and identifying fruits and vegetables we were not familiar with. We picked up some chocho (chayote), limão Galego (they look like limes but taste like orange/lemon), persimmons and local honey. That weekend, she and her husband Ali invited us for a tour of their ambitious hotel restoration and expansion. We enjoyed one of their in-house Baleia botanical gin cocktails on the patio as the sun set over the Atlantic Ocean on the horizon.
Originally from the U.K., Caroline worked in Hong Kong with her husband Ali then decided to move to the Azores where they had spent their honeymoon. Together they purchased some land and an old home and have been building a hotel and hospitality business for the past four years. Already open is the famous Gin Library, Europe’s largest collection of gin. Here they serve and sell their locally produced gin, Baleia (named after the Portuguese for whale) alongside hundreds of other gins available for tastings. Every bottle of their gin sold goes toward whale conservation projects in the Azores. The expansion plans are well underway, with an opening date of spring 2023, and I look forward to coming back to host a retreat next year.
The Solar Branco Eco Estate aims to be a leader in sustainable tourism in the Azores. You witness Caroline’s deep connection to nature in every decision and detail for the design of the property and surrounding land:
“We know that everything we do impacts on the environment. But we believe we can reduce our impact through simple, significant and careful steps. Our initiatives include a complete ban on single-use plastic and pesticides. We are the first in the Azores to commit to being a zero food waste hotel. In the gardens we have 3 dedicated wildlife ponds for frogs and local birds. Our chickens are all free-range, and our field is maintained with wildflowers, cut in stages only twice a year encouraging wildflowers for pollinators and other wildlife. We employ local staff and buy the majority of our food produce from local vendors.”
Like so many forest therapy guides around the world, Caroline wears many hats. She is a busy entrepreneur running not only her forest therapy practice, a hospitality business, but also works as a coach.
About Forest Therapy:
Caroline is one of the early GIFT-trained guides. As a member of Grove 3, she attended a training in the Forest of Dean in the west of England led by Sky Maria Buitenhuis, one of the three Founders of GIFT. She first heard about forest therapy from her friend Jasmine in Hong Kong who had invited her to a forest therapy walk. She didn’t know what to expect but found her first experience to be magical. It created the space for her to realize there were some things she wanted to change in her life and some things she needed to let go of. She loved it and when she left Hong Kong to settle here in the Azores, she decided there would be a place for her to practice surrounded by nature. After her forest therapy experiences in Hong Kong, she thought she understood what the forest therapy methodology was but with the training she realized how much she didn’t know. She got so much out of the training personally. It was an investment in herself as well. It’s been a whole experience of being and not doing. It has changed how she goes about everyday life and makes a lot of things easier to cope with by spending time in nature, connecting with nature and other people around her. She didn’t realize how disconnected she was with where she wanted to be in life. It helped her to slowly reconnect.
For Caroline, forest therapy’s magic comes from creating the space to slow down, to cut down the noise of what’s around you to connect with what’s inside and actually listen to yourself. She sees a lot of crossover with her coaching practice in that it helps people have that space where they can explore what is within them and what is right for them without the external noise and internal noise. Somehow in this place, we can access the strength and wisdom that is within ourselves. Some feel there is guidance coming from nature. There is something about that time and space that we create and there is often a lightbulb moment when these experiences are shared with other people.
She does feel that trees can offer us friendship and companionship. She has seen people have this experience. Some trees we’re not drawn to and they’re not drawn to us. She always asks people to ask permission of the trees to spend time with them and to make sure they feel they have been invited in. It can feel incredibly joyful. Some people might laugh at the concept of being a tree hugger but once you get into it, you know how good it feels!
Photo of leaf Liquidambar styraciflua (Sweetgum from North America)
In her forest therapy walks, she likes to go with the flow. She feels some areas of the park calling her in and drawing her attention, and she follows that intuitive guidance in her walks in partnership with the forest. She feels that this comes with time, getting familiar with the process of a forest therapy walk and the place. She starts with a plan but even when she’s walked through an hour before, something else is calling her. Initially, we are trained to plan everything out, but as you get more familiar with it, you adjust based on the people in the group and you get a sense of what is the right thing for them based on invitations they might be more comfortable with.
At this point, we stopped by an Araucaria tree (Norfolk Island Pine) from Australia. Surprisingly many trees found in the Azores are not native but from Australia (Eucalyptus), North American and Japan (Sugi). Here she pointed out the lichen, moss and grasses on the edge of the trail noticing all the small details, what we normally would walk by without seeing in everyday life. She finds it very calming and wondered if it is because when people lived in the forest, they would have been foraging and very intimate with all the little details because they needed to know what they were looking for and that probably was a calm, peaceful activity going about their day, checking out what was in the forest.
Favourite Invitation: The Wisdom of Trees
Caroline invites participants to explore the wisdom of trees and spend time getting to know a tree by finding a tree they feel drawn in some way—either by using their vision or the body radar and go to the tree as though they were going to someone’s house who they haven’t met before, to:
pay a compliment to the tree they are meeting
make sure the tree is happy to invite them into their area, they may notice the tree is doing something as a way of greeting them or welcoming them
spend a bit of time with their tree
see if there might be something on their minds they want to ask the tree without expecting an answer
just spend time and see what happens
when it’s time to leave, thank the tree for their time together and say goodbye to that tree.
She invites participants to speak out loud to the tree which might feel edgy if it’s something they’re not used to, but it makes the conversation real. For her it felt weird and uncomfortable at first, but she admits like me, she goes around talking to all beings now. People might not always feel comfortable with this but when you see the joy people come back with and the depth of the experience it gives to them, it’s really a beautiful thing. People often say they got very wise answers from the trees and deep connections, and it goes beyond what they expected to experience. Sometimes she invites participants to introduce the participants to their trees which they usually do while beaming with joy.
Her participants tend to be visiting the Azores for yoga retreats and she also likes to organize community events for people who live here. Caroline usually speaks English in her sessions but invites people to speak in whatever language they are comfortable speaking noticing that even if they don’t understand the words, she invites them to notice what they are sensing from that person and see what they can understand of what is being shared without knowing the words they are using. The guidance she received from her mentor Sky has really helped Caroline with the participant experience. When making decisions about invitations, timing and anything that can come up during a walk, ask yourself, is this going to enhance connection or is it going to decrease connection?
If someone is thinking about training to become a guide, she suggests considering it as an investment in yourself. It’s more than giving you new skills that you can use in a business setting. It can be personally transformative. It was for her in that it made it easier for her to cope with the pandemic and the way she felt more connected to the world around her. Without having the tools she had as a forest therapy guide, like nature connection, grounding and the circle of life, she believes she would have struggled more.
One of the things she loves about forest therapy and coaching is it helps people find the answers within themselves. We’re the experts of ourselves. You really have ownership of the path you want to take because that is the path coming from deep within you rather than something coming from expectations from others. To trust in ourselves. It’s inspiring when you experience someone else finding that strength from within.
Thank you Caroline for sharing slow time together at the beautiful Parque Florestal Pinhal Da Paz--appropriately named "pine of peace" as our time together brought much needed peace to my body, mind and heart.
If interested in forest therapy in the Azores, you can email: firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information about The Solar Branco Eco Estate, visit www.solarbranco.com