Everyone has their story. And, I am fortunate to be able to listen to a lot of them. I’m not a therapist, or doctor, or any profession traditionally thought to be a listener. I work in a Forest, though the term “work” applies loosely here. Yes, I report to work for a set number of hours and have a boss – all of that. But, this is something I “get” to do. It is a retirement job of my choosing, doing something I adore, even when it’s raking leaves or pulling non-native invasives from the beautiful natural landscape. My job title is Interpretive Ranger, and my office is a 65-acre old growth forest in Atlanta, Georgia. It is a forest I visited as a child with my family. It is my dream part-time retirement job, for which I traded a fancy title, a private office, and a staff, for a locker to stash my things and 65 acres of rolling landscape filled with a creek, an abundance of birds and other wildlife, and the majesty of hardwoods, which protect the space with their noble presence.
But, it is not just any forest – it is the forest I visited with my family as a child. It is the forest that my mother brought me and my three brothers to as a child to let us run freely along the paths, often on the third day of one of my father’s trips as a commercial pilot. The forest offered my mother the gift of her four children getting their energy expended in a safe environment, and we were unknowingly receiving the gift - if only appreciated later – of being in such a space and feeling safe as we ran free. We also visited as an entire family, and I’m sure I held my father’s hand at times as we walked along the wide paths – just as I held it yesterday when he visited me there. I have emotional ties to this forest.
And, I am finding that many others do also. Like the man in his mid-80s who can remember the exact spot at the pond that he broke his arm when he slipped from the rope swing. Like the man who, as a third grader, used the forest as a shortcut home as it became dark, and though he was still scared, was a little less so because the forest was also a familiar playground. Like the woman who played there as a child, and loves to discuss her interpretation of how “Elephant Rock” acquired its name. Like the woman who walks quietly along its winding paths to recharge and restore her soul.
I tell my story in brief, and listen to the stories of these, and many others like them. I have noticed that real listening exists in these conversations. Real listening like that of the mother of a newborn listening for the child’s next breath, or how one might listen to sounds in the night to rule out an intruder in the house. The kind of listening that is poised to hear how the story of another might relate to your own experience. And, something happens in those moments. Regardless of the details of the stories, that can vary wildly from our own, the presence of an emotional tie to that one sacred space in the woods is for what we are actually listening. That moment when we realize another human has a story, any story, is the moment we can say, “Yes, me too. I get your tie to this sacred space.”
And, so there are bonds - new bonds with other humans that understand what we feel in our hearts and very depths of our souls, though all of our stories differ wildly. To feel that understood from that place in another person is quite touching, and leaves that little mark on our soul – each and every time. It is an indelible mark. It is the kind of mark that makes you remember every detail of their story – because you have listened so well, and because their story sparked that emotional part of you that makes your own story special. And, so we continue telling our stories and listening to those of others – and we have peace in feeling understood.
Articles Published by the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy