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  • Writer's pictureHannah McQuilkan

Forest Therapy and three prisons in three different countries

Updated: Dec 17, 2022

Receiving the opportunity to present a Forest Therapy experience in an Auckland Womens Prison was a daunting task. Not only would I not get to choose the environment we were in, I was reliant upon the prison grounds offering up some sort of inspiration. I couldn’t even check out the area where I was to do this and was dubious as to the response I might get from women who have been hardened to life in ways I can’t really imagine.

I woke up to a glorious morning, at least the weather was of no concern. However as I got in my car to make the commute a few hours later, the heavens opened, the roads were flooded, what if it was too wet to do the walk at all?! The strange thing is that in my six months of guiding Forest Therapy Walks, the weather has always, almost magically synchronised with me. Granted we have had a dry summer but even in the colder months, the rain clouds part whenever I turn up for my walks, surely today of all days nature would be on my side.

Sure enough, by the time I arrived at the Auckland Womens Correctional Facility some thirty minutes later, the sky was brighter.

The effects of nature on human health and well being has been under intensive research in recent years. The Forest Therapy trend, first started in 1980’s Japan with Shinrin Yoku or Forest Bathing. Researchers have found that spending time in nature reduces anxiety, depression and high blood pressure as well as increasing your immune system response by up to 50%. I highly recommend the book, ‘Shinrin Yoku’ by Dr Qing Li if you wish to delve into this deeper. Studies have been done on prisoners as well. A team of researchers, led by ecologist Nalini Nadkarni at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, published their findings on 1 September in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. The researchers and prison officers monitored the moods and violent behaviour of inmates in solitary confinement at Snake River Correctional Institution in Ontario, Oregon, USA. Those prisoners that had access to nature videos had a noticeable decrease in involvement of violent incidences by up to 26%.

Some two months prior to this day, a friend had mentioned my work to New Zealand Fashion Designer Annah Stretton who runs an initiative called ‘Raw’, along side her sister Rebecca:

Raw works with women in prison, supporting them through educational opportunities and workshops like mine, providing ongoing support and mentorship to create a stable and prosperous life.

Rebecca met me at the front of the facility where she helped me clean out my bags – no personal items such a wallets or mobile phones are to be brought in. Then after signing in we went through security checks and scanners to ensure we had no prohibited items with us.

My first impression of the prison reminded me of a girls high school, clean and sterile, not unpleasant but far from inspiring. As we walked to meet the women Rebecca asked me if I had ever been in a prison before and to my surprise in that moment, I answered, ‘Yes, Twice – in two different countries’. And it occurred to me that perhaps this was more unusual than I had recognised.

Spiralling back in time to 1999 Cochabamba, Bolivia where I was visiting an exchange student my family had hosted in New Zealand. I was 19 at the time and very keen to do some volunteer work. After asking around I was offered a place run by a Christian Charity who worked with the children of people in prison. If your parent goes to prison in Bolivia and no family member offers to care for you, then you go and live in prison as well but can leave during the day to attend the prison school. The lack of public funds in Bolivia and the fact that Bolivian Prisons are armed by Police, rather than a hired Civilian Force as in most countries means that there is very little if any control about what actually occurs inside the prison itself. This wikipedia article on a Bolivian Prison located in La Paz gives a fascinating insight into how this all works:

You need to provide your own income to survive in a Bolivian prison and for most women that means making handicrafts that are sold by friends or family outside the prison. Your prison accomodation also depends on your wealth, if you have more money then you can buy yourself a cell but if you don’t have any money you could rent one, or just sleep wherever you can find. Most people in Bolivian prisons are not hardened criminals but rather desperately poor people whose limited options cause them to become involved working on the poppy fields that make cocaine. Much of the time there will be a mass arrest, where anyone working there will be prosecuted.

The prison school was filled with delightful, charming and romantic children of all ages, their favourite past time was trying to set me up with the other male volunteer. I was surprised by the joy and lightness in these children, they seemed happier and more alive than children in my own privileged country of New Zealand. One memory that stood out was their distain of two boys who were addicted to glue sniffing. The prison children saw these other children as very ‘malo’ or bad, a novel perspective given they live in the local prison. I suppose they had a home at least, while these two boys as high as kites, lived on the street.

My next prison adventure occurred in 2008 and took me to Sydney Australia’s ‘Long Bay’ prison located about 30 minutes from Sydney City. I was in Sydney to do acting work and while it never really took off, it did give me interesting opportunities including this one, to dress and pose as an inmate for the day along with three other actors. The reason we had been hired was for the prison website, which needed images and obviously could not use real inmates for the task! As far as I was concerned, $500 for a days work was a great deal.

We donned the dark green track suit that was the prison uniform and were taken to an area where a few prisoners were waiting in small cells for a video hearing. Seeing grown men behind bars is a chilling sight and one that has never left me. I can’t imagine the frustration and humiliation one must feel being kept in such restricted conditions. I knew then, as I know now that it can in no way help whatever caused the crime in the first place. While keeping society safe for all has to be a top priority, my gut knew upon seeing this, that there must be another way.

Then I was asked to please stand inside one of the cells for the next photo. They shut the door. I felt the hopeless sense of being trapped with no way out and I felt sad. Sad that the modern prison system is the best we can come up with, sad that people commit crimes, usually out of pain and desperation, sad at the lack of life and love in these places where people need these things more than anyone.

And here I was in 2019 in a very different prison again. The women were waiting for me when I finally reached the Prison Library. I was expecting a group of twenty but today there were only seven because of International Women’s Day preparations. We walked to the horticulture garden, lovingly made by both guards and prisoners, a vibrant display of vegetables, herbs and flowers to delight the senses. Maybe today would work out better than expected.

The women seemed happy to be here and to be doing this. We sat in a circle on the grass, the sun came out and I shared about myself and Forest Therapy.

‘Hi I’m Hannah McQuilkan, qualified Naturopath, Medical Herbalist and Forest Therapy Guide with The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy. Forest Therapy is my latest love and I’m so happy to have the opportunity to share it with you all today. Forest Therapy is a series of invitations designed to connect you more fully to nature. It is not a hike or any kind of meditation and there is nothing you have to do if you don’t want to. If you have any questions please come and ask me. For many people, the most challenging thing about Forest Therapy is the slow pace. In our busy modern world we get so used to being constantly stimulated, today we will be slowing down and just being in nature for a while.’

We started with a Pleasures of Presence Guided Journey to awaken the senses to nature and moved through a series of invitations. The most popular invitation was ‘Perfume Potions’. Each woman was given a cup and invited to create a signature scent from the plants around us. We met back and passed the unique fragrances around the circle. ‘Its wonderful that we can create something of such beauty in such and ugly place’ one woman commented.

We finished the experience, as is traditional in Forest Therapy with a Tea Ceremony of found plants, in this case fresh chamomile and lemon balm from the garden.

The women were delighted in how much calmer they felt and none of them seemed to want to leave. ‘I feel so present now, my mind is calm, it makes me realise how much of my day I spend thinking about the past and worrying about the future, when are you coming back?’.

Considering the vast amount of research backing the fundamental connection between humans and nature, then surely depriving people of this vital connection, whether its at work, school or prison is a breach of human rights. Given that study after study has shown that people who regularly connect with nature recover faster from illness, experience less anxiety and depression, live longer and perform better in all areas – how can we not as a society attempt to include nature connection in all aspects of our day to day lives?

This is the start of humanity waking up to what was there all along. I see it as a kind of Renaissance. In the 15th Century humanity re-remembered the incredible wealth of knowledge from the Greek and Roman times. We produced art, music and science that the middle ages had all but forgotten about. Today, our Renaissance takes us even further back in time, to when the earth was inhabited by indigenous groups across the world, who understood the fundamental human/nature connection as one vital to life and well being. Even if you spend time in nature, that does not mean you actually relate to and connect with it. One of the biggest blocks I see to people taking this on is the argument ‘But I already spend lots of time in nature’. What they don’t acknowledge is that they are usually rushing past it, working in it, exercising through it, socialising in it – just being in nature with no agenda is a whole different experience, one which I find few people have actually done. How can we make changes in areas such as prisons who so desperately need it, when we don’t recognise the need for yourselves?

I invite you to step into this Renaissance with me and make Forest Therapy your first step on this journey. You won’t regret it and the only thing you have to lose is wondering how you went without a natures healing hand for so long.

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