Meet the Guide: A series about the Forest Therapy Guides I meet on their trails around the world.
On the first Saturday of April 2022, I had the opportunity to spend time with fellow forest therapy guide, Dr. Brian Beech on his main trail near his home in Newmarket. The Hollidge Tract is one of 24 forest tracts of the 150 kilometer York Regional Forest trail system. I must admit, this is one of my favourite trails within an hour’s drive of Toronto as it is lush year round, has a pretty river, huge variety of bird song and has some sections of old growth trees. Brian was the first person I met at our guide training in 2020, and I am grateful for his frequent outreach to our Grove to meet up and stay connected. We have become good friends and continuously learn from each other.
Brian at his sit spot taking in the soothing sounds of birds and running water
Brian, why did you decide to become a guide?
I’ve been a social worker now for 30 some odd years and I’ve always been connected to and interested in nature and enjoyed a variety of outdoor activities my whole life. Every so often I would look into ways that I could connect my love of nature with my work, so about three years ago I came across shinrin yoku and that led me to looking into other ways more locally in North America to get involved in something like that. Eventually I came across GIFT (The Global Institute of Forest Therapy) and that seemed to be a great way to bring these interests together in a way that could make it accessible to the average person without a lot of risk involved as opposed to taking people out on a more committed outdoor experiences like a canoe trip or activities of that sort.
What surprised you about forest therapy?
What has been pleasantly surprising is even though I’ve spent many many years enjoying the outdoors, there is something about the process of slowing down and connecting with the other than human world which is truly unique, and it has surprised me how much more profound that experience can be. Even though I’ve had some very special moments in nature over the years before getting into forest therapy, I feel my connection to nature, my experience of it and the ways I think about it are so much broader and deeper than ever before. I’ve always loved nature, but now as we’re sitting here amongst the old growth pines, I don’t see them as trees anymore, I see them as beings — ancient beings and I’m in such awe and gratitude. I’m appreciative that someone didn’t cut them down! That has been the surprise…the connection and how unique it is.
Brian preparing an aromatic cedar & spruce tea on a small camp stove
What do you love about forest therapy?
To build off of what surprised me, through the process of training and now guiding, it gets me into that experience more regularly. During the process of training, we had to do weekly and monthly assignments — the sit spot, nature observation, learning about plants and animals — which has helped to further that connection so that now I so look forward to any time I can get out into nature. But because it is more profound now than before, it means that much more.
What is your favourite invitation?
I’m really drawn to water but I have to say “meeting with a tree” because again sitting here amongst these pines, I just want to go over and be close to the tree, feel the texture and listen and be aware of whatever happens in connection with the tree. And maybe a footnote to that would be “holding hands” connecting with branches and leaves along a similar line.
Meeting with a tree
Have you had any profound experience with a tree?
I think this is why I like the meeting with a tree invitation so much. In our training at the Ecology Retreat Centre, when Ben Porchuk introduced meeting with a tree, he talked about asking a question. I couldn’t formulate a question but I got an answer anyways and it was kind of mind blowing quite honestly. I was like…wow! I did not see that one coming! And so, I think it has sat with me since in terms of the profundity of connecting with these ancient beings and trying to tune in and be thankful for the fact that they do what they do to make life on earth essential. We could not exist without these beings. They came long before mammals, they came before reptiles. Plants have been on the planet a very long time. Thank goodness!
Moss and snow
Do you think the answer came from the tree or do you think the answer came from within you from slowing down?
I think it’s both. There was some synergistic connection. I think I was in the right head space to attune to the tree and maybe what that experience opened up was the possibility for an experience that might not otherwise have happened. There was something in that exchange.
How did COVID change your practice?
At various times I think we all had to not run walks because of lock downs but when lock downs were lifted and there were restrictions on group size, I started back up. I like the small groups anyways and I maintained the covid precautions around social distancing. Thankfully we don’t have to wear masks outdoors although I always made masking an option if people were more comfortable with that. I took precautions around tea ceremony and food to build in those safeguards.
What advice do you have for new guides?
Keep up with the nature connection practices. Even if you can’t guide, keep getting outside. That could mean whatever you can do. I feel privileged to be so close to this forest. I can get out here fairly regularly but it doesn’t have to be in a forest. Even just connecting with a tree in your backyard or city park. Noticing the birds on a tree outside. Any way of slowing down and noticing some natural elements as close to where you are I think is essential.
How have you integrated forest therapy in your social work practice? How has it helped with your work?
Most of my walks except for the very first few have been with clients — either current or past clients. I don’t know if that will always be the case. I’m absolutely open to running walks with people who are not clients. But I offer it as an adjunct to what I do in the office. I know for some people they enjoy nature so it seems like a natural extension. And that was my hope in doing my training that this would open a doorway to extending the practice out of the office. In a broader sense, as I’ve delved into this world of forest therapy and related interests, I think it has helped me broaden my scope of how I think about health, how I think about wholeness, how I think about resilience, how I think about mental health. And not just in a theoretical sense — more and more in a very lived experience sense.
Although Brian integrates forest therapy in his very busy social work practice, he is planning to host monthly community walks for anyone interested. You can follow him on Instagram for upcoming activities and his website to sign up for walks.