If you follow Jane Burress for a couple of hours on a slow, guided walk through Door County’s natural places, it’s unlikely that you’ll reemerge as the same person or experience a forest in quite the same way ever again.
“People get out of it what they need,” said Burress, a certified forest and nature therapy guide who lives in Sister Bay.
That’s part of the objective of her new business, Doorway to Nature: to promote wellness, harmony, community and environmental stewardship by partnering with nature and connecting people to what nature has to offer.
It wasn’t a fast hike.
“It’s all physical, mental and spiritual for me,” Burress said.
On May 23 at the Harold C. Wilson Three Springs Nature Preserve, a masked Burress and a group of three other masked people meandered at a safe distance from each other along a looping trail within the 515-acre Door County Land Trust property located two miles outside Sister Bay.
“For some people, it can be uncomfortably slow,” Burress said. “For me, it’s really a big slowdown from what I’m used to.”
But that’s the point. Forest therapy is a way to experience nature mindfully, at a pace and with an awareness that’s not unlike walking meditation. For this particular walk, that meant using all of the senses to experience open meadows bright with sunshine, pine-needled forest paths bathed in shadows, and a pond full of lily pads and the occasional cacophony of frogs.
Forest therapy is a framework that harnesses medical research, nature-connection work, mindfulness and wellness promotion to support healing and wellness through immersion in forests and other natural environments. It’s inspired by the Japanese practice of Shinrin-Yoku, which translates to “forest bathing,” and it first became popular in that country during the 1980s.
Former wilderness guide Amos Clifford is one of the leading voices for forest and nature therapy in the United States. He founded the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs, through which Burress earned certification as a forest and nature therapy guide last November after completing the six-month course.
“I am not a therapist,” Burress said. “His [Amos Clifford’s] words are, ‘The forest is the therapist; the guide opens the door.’”
“Over the years, I’ve really felt a connection and really believe it clears my mind and has helped me heal better,” she said. “Anytime I’ve had illness, I still go out in the woods, and I feel like I recuperate so much better.”
The participants in her Saturday group followed Burress at a safe distance, picking their way carefully, looking around, bending down to investigate a forest plant or old stone fence, craning their heads to watch an eagle drift on wind currents or scanning the trees for the unseen birds whose songs filled the forest.
As with all journeys, the point was not where they ended up, but how they got there. To help facilitate that journey, Burress stopped occasionally to encourage the participants to experience the pleasure of presence, or of contrasts, or of what was in motion. Sharing circles were part of the stops.
“It doesn’t have to be something profound – just something you’re noticing at the moment or from the experience,” she instructed.
Burress has since led both middle-school students and adults through fall and winter landscapes. She was fully anticipating a complete launch of her new business this year, but the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily waylaid those plans. She’s currently rethinking how her business will operate, even though she hasn’t wavered in her business mission.
Burress is a nurse, a vocation she practiced for about 15 years. She then became a youth and family minister at Shepherd of the Bay Lutheran Church in Ellison Bay. She retired from that job last year and discovered forest bathing as a way to help heal the increased anxiety levels she’s witnessed.
“Basically, I’m trying to promote wellness of the mind, body and soul,” she said. “Also, I want people to really love nature and realize how we’re so interconnected. If we don’t take care of nature, we’re not going to be healthy.”
For now, Burress encourages people to contact her about private group walks and pricing through her Facebook page.