The nature of healing

Staff Written Featured, News

By Andrea Gable

staff writer

Sunlight filtered through towering trees and soft winds carried bird song and sounds of water to a tranquil new trailhead at Hundred Acre Farm in Madison on Friday, where a group gathered in reverence to celebrate the nation’s first certified forest therapy trail. 

The gently-sloping, mile-long trail winds through the woods, along the Apalachee River and Lake Oconee, offering “invitations” to connect to nature, explore your senses, discover wildlife, and meditate outdoors. It was designed to be more than a nature walk or hike. Visitors are encouraged to immerse themselves in nature – to bathe in the forest – a deep-sensory practice modeled after the Japanese “shinrin yoku,” or “forest bathing.”     

Forest bathing has found popularity in the West in recent decades as more discover the health and healing benefits of reconnecting to nature. Studies have shown it relieves stress, improves immune function, and increases feelings of well-being, creativity, and focus. 

Amos Clifford, of California, spent his career as a wilderness guide and also worked as a psychotherapist. When facing retirement, he came across the concept of forest bathing and saw an opportunity. In 2012, he founded the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy Guides with the goal of training a network of guides to work with healthcare referrers and show them the benefits of forest therapy. Just three guided walks, he said, can significantly change the way many people perceive their situations and permanently change their outlook on the future.

He is careful to point out that the guides themselves are not therapists – the forest is, he said. 

He quickly discovered a growing need for eco-health tourism. 

“I was blown away by the level of interest,” said Clifford during the trail’s opening. “We now have guides in 44 countries.”

Though there are networks of trails and guides scattered throughout the country, specifically in the Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Denver areas, Madison is now the nation’s first certified forest therapy trail.

Pat Homer, a certified guide and owner of Southeastern Nature & Forest Therapy who led the development of the trail, said it checked all the boxes for what the association wanted – it has a canopy, lake, river, wildlife, and more. 

“This one is very unique and dear to my heart,” said Homer. Homer crafted the “invitations” along the trail that encourage people to stop at selected points and interact with the environment in different ways. 

Michele Bechtell connected the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy to Hundred Acre Farm, and planted the seed for this growing movement. 

“It’s been a very exciting process,” she said during the opening ceremony. 

Naomi Takahashi, Japanese Consul of Economic and Intergovernmental Affairs in Atlanta, was also in attendance, describing the trail and its eco-tourism mission as an integral part of Georgia-Japan relations. She said the trail offers a way for Japanese visitors to come and experience the rich culture here and hopes it will spark interest for Georgia residents to travel to experience Japan’s own rich culture.

Crystal Johnson, who owns and operates Hundred Acre Farm with her husband, Ellis, said the trail was a perfect addition to the sprawling sanctuary, tucked between historic Madison and Lake Oconee. The 105-acre farm hosts special events, small retreats, and outdoor activities throughout the year and welcomes groups of foreign exchange students to the Farmhouse Inn to experience rural exploration, local history, and regional cuisine. 

“We really love people to come here and share this space,” said Johnson.

Now, she said, Johnson is looking forward to opening the farm to new visitors, ones seeking solace along the peaceful trail.

The farm will host a guided walk on April 13. For more information, visit thefarmhouseinn.com, or find a local guide anytime through the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy Guides and Programs at natureandforesttherapy.org.

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