Spring: A Season For Hope

With the COVID-19 pandemic, my daily life has changed as I once knew it. More than ever, it’s important not to lose sight of those things that can bring us enjoyment, promote resilience and provide a sense of normality. Remaining connected with nature can do all that.

20200311_174421Another West Coast winter is about to conclude and Mother Nature is busy changing seasons. Spring in the Northern Hemisphere begins March 20, 2020. It’s the season that symbolizes growth, renewal, rebirth, and so much more. Leaves are budding, flowers are blooming, and birds are chattering. The weather is getting warmer, and hours of daylight will continue to increase. Seeds take root and vegetation begins to grow. Animals wake or return, often with newborns. Spring truly does bring with it a breath of fresh air, and countless examples of ongoing change around us.

During these extraordinary times, how will you give yourself the time to enjoy spring?

For me, the calling to spend more time outside becomes stronger during spring. Everything in nature is changing and I don’t want to miss a moment of it. At least several times a day, I try to mindfully connect with nature. I stop, take a breath, notice and listen to the nature around me. I take a few moments to look up at the sky and really notice what’s above me. I look for the tops of trees, hills, and mountains. Trees particularly captivate my attention with all their uniqueness and magnificence. Trees stand still for years, and occasionally hundreds of years if they are lucky. They penetrate the ground with roots, and connect with the earth’s atmosphere through their trunk, branches and leaves. Everything about a standing tree is about being connected with what’s around them.

Here’s a simple mindfulness exercise for you to try next time you are out in nature. It’s called STOP.

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  • “S” is for stop the next time you are in the forest, in a green space with trees, or in front of a window with a view of trees.
  • “T” is for take a moment to experience a mindful breath cycle, noticing your in-breath followed by your out-breath.
  • “O” is for open your palms to the sky and extend your arms out in various positions, like branches and leaves do. Be open, receptive, patient, and mindful of your breathing as you do.
  • “P” is for proceed mindfully on your walk or whatever you were doing before, opening your senses to whatever naturally attracts them.

During this time when social distancing is strongly encouraged to help slow the spread of COVID-19, self-care and people-care are critical now. If you know of anyone that may be impacted by the potential spread of COVID-19 and have had to self-quarantine themselves,

  • keep in touch with them through voice and video calls. It’s most likely going to be a very stressful, long waiting period for them.
  • encourage healthy coping strategies such as eating healthy foods, staying hydrated, and resting so natural immunity has what it needs to do its job.
  • offer to pick up food and household supplies for them, and then leave it outside their door along with a get well message, potted plant or vase of flowers to help lift mood.
  • encourage them to stay active in their space (health permitting) by suggesting lower effort activities like house cleaning, reorganizing, gentle home exercise routines, catching up on reading, journaling, starting an online course, creative activities, etc. These can help keep both the body and mind active, as well as provide a sense of productiveness and control.
  • and encourage them to continue connecting with nature daily. There are ways other than being outside to connect with nature like spending time looking out a window with a view of nature, or giving house plants a little extra TLC, or watching nature themed programs on Netflix.

Social distancing has temporarily halted the Horticultural Therapy sessions I offer but I’m still making time to go outside each day to garden and go for a walk so that I can remain connected with nature and experience its many health benefits. I’m looking forward to working with Stanley Park Ecology Society (SPES) once their programming resumes to begin offering sessions the public can register for. I love leading nature walks and found this CBC short film very inspirational.

Wellness to you all, and remember, when connecting with nature at any time of the year, allow yourself the time to EXPLORE, DISCOVER and STIMULATE YOUR SENSES.

Winter: A Season for Patience

20191217_165642Winter solstice 2019 in the Northern Hemisphere occurs on Saturday, December 21. It’s the day with the shortest period of daylight, the longest night of the year, and the sun is at its lowest daily maximum elevation in the sky.

Typically by March, I’m counting the days until the end of winter and the return of life in spring, the signs of hope, change, and renewal. I’m going to try and be more patient with winter and take a more mindful approach to it by noticing all the good things that winter has to offer.

Through my Horticultural Therapy practice, I’ve discovered so much can be gained by being more mindful as we move through the natural cycle of the year. As each change of season approaches, I encourage us all to slow down and notice what’s happening in nature. Is there anything we can learn from nature’s adaptation process that can help us through our own transitions?

To foster my own patience with winter, I reminded myself of what I liked most about winter. I came up with more than a few including:

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  • noticing the return of bald eagles to their old nesting sites to re-establish territories and Barrow’s goldeneye ducks are back in Burrard Inlet
  • looking forward to our first local snowfall of the season and feeling the peace and tranquility I associate with it
  • volunteering up at Nelson Creek Hatchery again now that a new cycle of incubation has begun for the chum eggs that recently arrived
  • exploring our local mountains through snowshoeing and skiing
  • continuing to appreciate the abundant examples of evergreen flora (like bryophytes) throughout winter
  • observing more closely overwintering buds, especially as they start to swell in late winter
  • and restoring my energy levels by giving myself permission to do less

My plan is to use this list as a reminder to live in the moment, to be patient with winter as it progresses, and experience all that it has to offer.

What do you enjoy most about winter?

Remember, when connecting with nature at any time of the year – slow down. Allow yourself to EXPLORE, DISCOVER and STIMULATE YOUR SENSES. You’ll feel better for it.

Leading By Example

I wear a number of professional hats. I’m self-employed as a Certified Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) Canada Instructor, Career Development Practitioner (CCDP) and Swim Coach. In addition to those three, I’m an aspiring Horticultural Therapist and have had a life-long passion for expressing my creative side through art making. One of the things I value most is leading by example.  When I’m working with clients in the midst of a career transition, I encourage them to continue seeking out opportunities for ongoing learning through taking courses or reading books on topics that interest them, volunteering, finding a mentor and completing an internship.

This past spring during my final course of the Horticultural Therapy (HT) Certificate program, I made a decision to undertake the Voluntary Professional Registration process with the Canadian Horticultural Therapy Association (CHTA) and apply for status as a Horticultural Therapist Registered (HTR). After completing the HT Certificate, I met with my mentor Ann Kent HTM, Registered Horticultural Therapist, to map out my application and came to the realization it was time for me to walk the walk and lead by example; I would need to complete a HT Internship first to gain the necessary practical points required for HTR status consideration.

As a CCDP, I’ve heard a lot about the pros and cons of internships. I was initially anxious with the thought of beginning an internship because I anticipated having to allocate more time to volunteering. As a self-employed person, I must make it a priority to secure paid contracts in order to survive and I was already volunteering weekly with the West Vancouver Streamkeeper Society, The Edible Garden Project and regularly providing ‘free” guided therapeutic nature walks to friends and family in order to grow my HT skills.

Ann agreed to supervise my internship and provided a framework to help me put together an internship plan that would take into account the HT activities I was already immersed in as well as help me set goals for gaining further knowledge and skill development. One of the areas I chose for further development was in my horticultural knowledge. A key HT service I am planning to offer is a self-care session for helping professionals that emphasizes a connection to nature through activities like a guided nature walk combined with other nature-based botanical arts, crafts and culinary activities. An objective I chose to help me achieve this goal was to first attend as a participant other guided nature walks in my area. My hope was to gain further knowledge into the native flora of BC while simultaneously checking out the competition.

Through attending these guided walks I have improved my knowledge of native flora and learned tips on what to do (and a few things not to do) as a guide. I attended guided walks through VanDusen Gardens, The Old Growth Conservancy Society and the Stanley Park Ecology Society. As a result of attending the walks, I have learned new terminology like “pit-and-mound topography” (a naturally occurring process of undulating forest floors resulting from uprooted root masses decaying and decomposing) and what a “burl” is (a gnarly growth on a tree containing regenerative tissue the tree can use to heal itself during times of stress). Did you know that within a living tree, a hollow space could serve as the ideal hibernating space for a wintering Black bear? Or that Blechnum spicant (Deer fern) have dimorphic leaves (appearing in two forms) and Polypodium glycyrrhiza (Licorice fern) is an example of an epiphyte (a plant that grows on another plant to derive its moisture and nutrients)? A favorite walk of mine was one that focused on Indigenous plant use led by an Indigenous guide. The guide facilitated us connecting directly with a tree through a step by step process that included first asking permission to connect with an ancient Thuja plicata (Western redcedar), resting a hand on its bark, attending to our breath and expressing gratitude while still connected to the tree, and concluding with reflecting upon the experience.

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Another goal I set for my HT internship was to develop structure and content for the HT services I want to offer in the future. By late September 2019, I had provided my first “paid” HT service to a team of 10 helping professionals that work with immigrants and refugees in the area of child, parent and family development. They were a great first group to work with because I already had a history working with them having previously trained them in both Personality Dimensions® and MHFA.

Our day together began with an activity called “Waking up the Senses”. It consists of forming a circle as a group and then moving through a series of gentle mindful breathing, sensory and body awareness exercises including tapping, cranial and hand reflexology. What made this activity so magical was the tide was out and we were able to walk out a good distance onto the beach and complete the activity with the smell and sounds of the ocean around us. Other activities that day included a guided nature walk through the Old Growth forests of Stanley Park, a scavenger search followed by a show & tell, and time for individual creative play making nature cairns. I learned so much that day about guiding others out in nature including to slow myself down and let go of the need to get a certain number of activities checked off as completed before the end of the day. I realized it was about me leading by example and demonstrating I too was taking the time to experience all the beauty and wonder nature has to offer in the present moment.

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Making Turtle Island

Making time for art has consistently been therapeutic for me in one way or another. It’s taken me to my fifties though to fully appreciate the many benefits art has brought me including personal growth, self-expression, stability during periods of transformation, and wellness. For many people, including myself, art making can be soothing and stress reducing.

For me art is a hands-on activity. The process of making art helps to alleviate my emotional stress and anxiety by creating a physiological response of relaxation and lifting my spirit. There is research to support that creative activity can actually increase levels of serotonin, the chemical linked to depression. Previously, I have written about my experience with art as a form of meditation, finding inner peace and calm through art expression. The repetitive, self-soothing qualities of drawing, coloring and painting induce my relaxation response.

During the trainings I provide, I try to integrate whenever possible some kind of art-based activity to stimulate participants’ creativity. While creativity is not something I believe can be taught (it’s inherently in all of us), there are conditions that can promote it including:

  • providing a safe and non-judgemental environment where there is lack of fear or concern about what others might think,
  • letting go of self-criticism,
  • and encouraging open-mindedness to trust that art will unfold exactly as it should.

Making art is a form of symbolic communication for me and creating images helps me to understand better who I am. It promotes the basis for a deep connection between my mind, body, and spirit.

Which brings to me why I am writing about my connection to art and telling you about it here. I recently completed making a new piece of art. It’s titled Turtle Island. During the process of making Turtle Island, I was more conscious than ever before that I was making art as if the world’s future really depended on it. It was much more than making art for art’s sake. This piece emphasizes my connection and empathy for every living thing around me and is a call out to us all to not just talk but to take personal responsibility and create action. It’s an invitation to take on a stewardship role of our most precious resource, the earth itself and all its parts.

The making for this piece began in January 2019. I took what seemed like a lengthy break from it during the early spring, instinctively knowing that my trip to Haida Gwaii would provide further enlightenment for the painting of it. My mentor Ann Kent, a Registered Master Horticultural Therapist, is continually encouraging me to take time to reflect on my experiences and Turtle Island is the outcome of following her wisdom and guidance. On my travels through Haida Gwaii, I learned about the plight of the Leatherback Turtle and its connection with plastic pollution. I prefer not to say more about my intention behind this piece other than sharing with you there are also the seeds of hope and optimism planted within it. Can you find them and plant them to make a difference of your own for the sustainability of us all?

Turtle Island 2019

Haida Gwaii…Much More Than A Vacation

Exploring Haida Gwaii this past June was so much more than a vacation. It was a week-long educational experience of a lifetime. Prior to going to Haida Gwaii, it had been at the top of my bucket list. It was a place I had often imagined visiting but just couldn’t put enough pieces of the puzzle together as how to make it actually happen…until this past June.

First obstacle I had to overcome was my fear of flying. About 10 years ago on a flight from Ottawa to Vancouver, I had a panic attack that was very scary and embarrassing for me. I haven’t flown since then sticking to road trips instead. As a Mental Health Instructor I know a lot about phobias and how to overcome them so it was time to practice what I preach. Many of my fears around flying in an airplane were based on inaccurate thinking so I started with researching the facts. Statistically speaking, flying is far safer than driving. The flight would be direct and short in duration (less than 2 hours). I would be travelling on a DH3. I did research into this series of Dash 8 and found even though there were accidents, fatalities and other incidents reported, none were associated with this particular series and none had occurred in Canada. I also felt reassured knowing I would be travelling with a friend who would be sitting right next to me the whole time. The morning of our flight, I practiced a number of anxiety/stress reducing techniques including calming breathing, Qigong, visualization, progressive muscle relaxation, tapping, hand reflexology and spent some time connecting with nature watering my garden. The flight there and back turned out to be a breeze with no incidents on my part. I learned an important lesson; phobias can be overcome by gradually exposing yourself to what you fear. The self-help anxiety reducing techniques I practiced combined with some focused CBT-based thought challenging exercises were effective for me, helping me to overcome my anxiety and fear in the moment. Now I need to keep at it and get back on an airplane sooner than later.

My interests for going to Haida Gwaii included learning more about its flora and fauna as well as Haida culture. Travelling to Haida Gwaii allowed me to directly experience a land and people rich in history and tradition. I witnessed firsthand people living off the land and sea as I watched locals clam digging and crabbing on North Beach in Naikoon Provincial Park. I saw in the people of Haida Gwaii a real pride in their land and a dedication to care for and protect it. Every forest I hiked through displayed reminders to tread lightly on the forest floor so that it would be around for generations to come. Some of the flora and fauna are different to the mainland where I live. During June, much of the forest floor was covered with Bunchberry/Creeping Dwarf Dogwood (Cornus canedensis). Even though it can be found across Canada, it especially likes forested upland and wetland areas.

Logging on Haida Gwaii has a long and checkered history. I saw firsthand examples of logging practices from years gone by that resulted in long-term destruction to the surrounding environment including fish-bearing streams and wetlands. Occasionally I came across logging equipment used years ago that had just been left there after forests had been cleared. I didn’t notice Douglas-fir trees which are plentiful here but instead forests filled with Western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) and Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis). I was amazed at the number of eagles and ravens that inhabit Haida Gwaii. Not surprisingly, the two main kinship groups of the Haida Gwaii clans are Raven and Eagle. I learned to read tide tables and respect the dangers of being caught unprepared for the high and low tide times in intertidal zones. Sometimes this meant skipping planned trips to explore recommended tourist attractions that required travelling across vast amounts of beach.

I recommend renting a vehicle as it will allow you to more easily travel to the many Haida Gwaii communities and attractions. Our road trip consisted of overnight stays or stops to visit Sandspit, Queen Charlotte, Skidegate, Tlell, Port Clements, Masset and Old Massett. One of the most prominent examples of the change of pace on Haida Gwaii was the complete absence of traffic jams. A couple of times while travelling along the main highway that connects the small communities of Haida Gwaii we were required to come to a complete stop due to infrastructure improvements taking place. I remember looking in the rear-view mirror and feeling pleasantly surprised that after 10 minutes waiting, there were still no other cars lined up behind us. There were no crowds of people anywhere, just small gatherings.

Haida Gwaii is long in history. A must see is the Haida Heritage Centre and Haida Gwaii Museum. While there, I joined an educational tour led by a young Haida woman who shared with us the stories behind each of the six totem poles that stand proudly facing the water before them. Inside the museum, there are many fascinating examples of Haida knowledge, scientific information and specimens of oral history and art.

One of my favorite things to do while visiting Haida Gwaii was to connect with local artisans. Authentic Haida art isn’t cheap but the art is diverse and the quality of the work is exceptional. On National Indigenous Peoples Day I attended a community celebration in Old Massett. It was a great opportunity to learn more about local Haida culture and art including carving. A distinct difference between Haida carving compared to other West Coast native art cultures is the use of a black slate material called Argillite. Black argillite is only found on Haida Gwaii. Argillite carvings often depict mythical spirits, animals, Haida family crests, replicas of totem poles, bentwood boxes, canoes and other carvings, as well as contemporary interpretations.

One of the most unusual places I encountered to grab something to eat/drink was a funky bakery operating out of an old bus hidden off the road to Tow Hill. Moon Over Naikoon Bakery certainly won over my taste buds. Their cinnamon buns were excellent. Look out for them if you’re travelling in the area. If you can’t find them or they’re not open when you’re visiting, there are plenty of other Haida Gwaii gems including Jags Beanstalk in Skidegate, Crow’s Nest Cafe and Country Store in Tlell and The Ground Gallery & Coffee House and Charter’s Food Truck, both in Masset.

One of the most spiritual moments of my trip occurred during an afternoon visit to the ancient Haida village of K’uuna Llnagaay (Skedans in English) on Louise Island. K’uuna Llnagaay is outside the boundaries of Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and National Marine Conservation Area Reserve, but it is within the Haida Heritage Site. Visiting here was part of a Moresby Explorers single day tour I participated in. The highlight of the expedition for me was listening to one of the Haida Watchmen and her explanation to our group how the village’s homes and totem poles were constructed, causes of their eventual destruction as well as her sharing with us her family’s personal historical connection to the village site.

One final learning for me was more of a reminder how important it is to take a vacation on a regular basis. Vacations mix-up the standard routine of daily life. Life is full of stressful challenges. Work for many of us is full of daily stressful challenges, both good and bad. Going to Haida Gwaii reminded me how important it is to change gears. Experiencing Haida Gwaii was enough of a change from my usual pace to help me reenergize. I’ve been back into the urban flow of things for a couple of weeks now and I’m still feeling the benefits of my Haida Gwaii vacation. I’m rested, productive, focused, calmer and more appreciative of the natural environment around me and of our great land. So please, take your vacation this summer and thoroughly enjoy it.

Seven Elements of a Healing Garden

It’s mid-spring and my garden is bursting with life, color, food, and healing power.

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Spending time in my garden is one of my favorite ways to practice self-care. As a Mental Health Instructor, I often instruct others on self-care. Self-care is consciously choosing to do something for yourself with the intended purpose to build, rejuvenate and restore well-being. It’s understanding that you can’t pour from an empty cup and if you’re a “natural” helper like me, understanding that equation is a matter of survival.

I have put a lot of time, energy and money into my little garden. I live in West Vancouver and the house where I live is situated at the bottom of a small cliff. My garden is tucked away at the back of my suite and consists of about 80 containers of all shapes, colors and sizes. I grow predominantly herbs, vegetables and Sedums. As you might imagine caring for 80 containers is steady work and I love it. I can’t tell you how many times I have come home from a stressful day at work and made a beeline for my garden. Just glimpsing into the space from the Dutch door that leads into it and I immediately begin to feel restored.

So what makes a garden healing? On one level, I think that’s a very personal and subjective thing. The Therapeutic Horticulturist in me though wants to share seven elements with you to consider as a reference for creating your own healing garden. Here they are in no particular order of importance.

1.      There’s a special entrance to invite/embrace the visitor so they can see and feel they’re transitioning into a place of healing and restorative energy. This could be a window, gate, door, a defined path, or arbour.

2.      The use of water in a garden can be very calming, soothing and uplifting all at the same time. I am very fortunate that my garden is located right beside a small man-made waterfall that empties into a soaking pond. The sound of water falling has a hypnotic tone that promotes relaxation, reduces stress, and helps to block out local traffic noise.

3.      Creative use of color and lighting can make an effective impact. My personal approach to color in the garden is less is more.  It’s amazing how many shades of green there are and I love weaving the different shades of green among plant groupings. Green is known for its calming and stress reducing properties. Other calming colors include blue, pink, yellow, white, grey and violet.

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4.      When creating your healing garden try to focus on using natural elements and materials. Natural elements in a garden include the flora (trees and plants) and the fauna (insects and birds), soil, water, rock, wood, air and light.

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5.      One reason my garden is so special to me is because it’s a home for my art. The integration of art can have a therapeutic effect. Art is very subjective so choose pieces that evoke joy and positive emotions for you.

6.      I’ve tried to make my garden a pollinator friendly garden. I have consciously chosen features that attract and provide habitat for a diversity of wildlife like flowering herbs and vegetables to attract bees, nectar rich plants like chives and sweet pea to attract butterflies, a hummingbird feeder for thirsty hummingbirds, and encouraging native plants to fill in the spaces.

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7.      Finally, a garden that is healing has an overall design that provides opportunities to comfort the soul and renew the spirit. For me that means the ability to interact with nature through a variety of activities such as designing and rearranging container groupings, caring for the plants, harvesting lavender flowers to make teas and bake with, and choosing a place to just sit, ponder, reflect, meditate or do nothing.

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I’m so fortunate to live where I do and have access to my own healing space. Every day I express thanks and gratitude to Mother Earth for all she provides me with in my little garden. The well-being produced from it allows me to continue helping others. If you don’t have your own outdoor garden space then create a healing space from what you do have. Even a small balcony patio or window ledge with a few pots filled with plant life, or a simple indoor grouping of plants can provide therapeutic and healing energy. It just takes a little initial planning, a creative eye and some ongoing nurturing care put into it. The rewards can be very healing.

Nature Is Healing

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“Hello, sun in my face. Hello you who made the morning and spread it over the fields…Watch, now, how I start the day in happiness, in kindness.” ― Mary Oliver

Nature is healing. I have found a regular connection with nature to be very therapeutic and a key requirement for my own well-being. By “nature” I’m referring to the parts of nature that I have an opportunity to connect with regularly like the ocean, local streams and mountains, regional parks and the plants in my home and garden. By “healing” I’m referring to the stress it alleviates, mind it calms, mood it lifts, exercise it inspires, connection to community it builds and resilience it strengthens.

Research to support the healing effects of nature includes:

Here are suggestions for how you can make connecting with nature a part of your day at work:

  • Schedule a lunch-time walk daily, even if it’s just for 10 to 15 minutes. Choose a “nature” route to exercise your body and activate your senses.
  • Now that it’s spring, head outside to eat your lunch. Find a spot with a scenic view and recharge your battery while you nourish your body, mind and spirit.
  • If you work by a park or some open green space, get some colleagues together to toss a Frisbee around or play some badminton during a break.
  • If your workspace has access to a window, situate your desk so that when you look out it you see nature.
  • Display nature themed art and quotes on your walls and as screensavers.
  • Listen to nature-themed soundtracks while you work as background music.
  • Bring nature inside by growing “easy to care for” plants in the office.
  • If your workspace has access to an outdoor area suitable for gardening, plant up some containers with easy to grow vegetables and herbs. Have colleagues share in the responsibility of caring for them and then everyone can harvest the benefits come lunchtime.
  • For your next team building session, plan an outdoor activity of some kind like a company picnic, hike in the forest, outdoor yoga session, or treasure hunt.

As a Therapeutic Horticulturist and Mental Health Instructor, I am trained to use plants, nature and nature-based activities like gardening to promote social connection, health and well-being. Connect with nature, it’s already part of you and you part of it. You’ll feel better for it.