Snapshot of an Ecotherapy Session
This story is representative of an actual ecotherapy session, though each session is a unique experience. If you're interested in ecotherapy, this gives you a good idea how the flow of a session might go. I stripped out the content of our conversation and wrote from my own point of view to protect my client's confidentiality.
It's an early morning in mid-April. Spring has arrived, but there's still a chill in the air. I zip up my fleece and stuff my hands in my pockets to keep warm. The person walking next to me takes a sip from a thermos of hot tea. The redwood trees flanking our path make it hard to believe that we're in the middle of Oakland, hiking an easy trail through one of the East Bay Regional Parks.
I exchange a quick smile with the occasional passers-by. Although they don't know it, I'm working right now. What they perceive as two friends on a morning stroll is actually an ecotherapy session in progress. As I continue along the trail with my client, we're discussing their new insights and the progress they have made since our session last week.
Our conversation is interrupted occasionally by some aspect of our environment: the sound of a nearby stream, a glimpse of the sun climbing over the ridge, a strong scent of the redwoods, or a friendly dog brushing by our legs as he shepherds his person along impatiently. These interruptions are all very welcome, weaving seamlessly into the flow of the morning.
We've reached a bend in the path. We venture off the designated trail, a little deeper into the forest. I point to a patch of poison oak, and we take purposeful steps to avoid making contact with it. I know this place well. There's a hidden clearing in the trees just ahead, a perfect spot where we can continue our conversation.
In the middle of the clearing, my client finds a fallen log and sits down. I sit down next to them. About a minute later, right in the middle of a sentence, they simply stop talking. We pause our conversation and suddenly become aware of all the natural wonders in the present moment. I hear the whispering breeze. I feel the cool air on my face. I look up to see the gentle swaying of the leaves and branches. I smell the trees and the earth. I overhear two red-breasted nuthatches carrying on a conversation across the valley. My breathing becomes slower, and I feel a sense of peace and well-being.
I look down at the ground and see a baby poison oak peaking out of the soil. Its first tiny leaves are opening to the sun. I notice that, just a few minutes ago, I saw poison oak as a nuisance to be avoided. Now this little plant seems beautiful, full of life and wonder and possibility. I study the shape and color of its leaves for a few minutes.
An alarm vibrates in my pocket, and I know it's time to begin walking back to the parking lot. We've spent more than 20 minutes in silent, mindful appreciation of the world around us, letting the healing powers of nature do their work. We make eye contact and smile, and we share briefly about what we experienced during the silence. We each noticed things the other one didn't. I'm struck that two people sitting in the same place at the same time could have such different experiences. This earth really is full of wonders!
We decide to take a different trail back to the parking lot. This one is all uphill, so we're a little short of breath as we walk and talk some more about my client's therapeutic goals. A recently fallen tree lies across our path, and we step off the main trail to climb over and in between its branches. Nothing too treacherous, but I still have a sense of fun and adventure. A thought arises that a day will come when my mobility will be more limited and this will no longer be accessible to me. I feel gratitude for the strength and health of my body in this moment.*
After several minutes pass, we reach the parking lot. We say goodbye, and they get in their car to drive to their office for a morning meeting. We'll be back here again next week at the same time to continue our work together.
*This session took place on a trail of moderate difficulty, which may not be accessible to people living with various limitations or mobility concerns. I am committed to making ecotherapy accessible to anyone who is interested, whatever level of mobility is available to you. Please contact me to discuss options.
Kip Williams is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist (#93170) with private practice offices in San Francisco and Oakland. He specializes in mindfulness-based therapy for LGBTQ+ clients, and he offers outdoor therapy sessions at Lake Merritt and throughout the East Bay Regional Parks in Oakland and Berkeley. He is currently a PhD student in Psychology with a specialization in Consciousness, Spirituality, and Integrative Health at Saybrook University.