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Seattle's queer community finds refuge in nature

Forest therapy offers a meditative alternative to traditionally loud queer spaces such as bars and clubs.

Seattle University student Janelle Lauronal sits on a fallen tree during a Forest Therapy Walk for LGBTQ+ people at the Washington Park Arboretum on March 24, 2019. The session was led by Julie Hepp, a certified forest therapy guide. (Photo by Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

In a small clearing by a paved pathway at the Washington Park Arboretum, a circle of about 10 Seattleites joined me in kneeling in the grass and dirt. Towering evergreens and shorter trees still barren from winter surrounded us. Each person in the circle kept their eyes closed. I knew this because mine were open.

Standing at one end of the circle, our guide, Julie Hepp, asked us to reach down and touch the earth. I did so slowly, finally willing my eyes to shut. Our circle was just a guideline: Some participants wandered off into the trees or turned away from the circle, called forth by a natural force I hadn’t yet connected with.

I’d hardly moved. I was too worried passersby were watching me, and with a kid screaming from somewhere across the park and a plane roaring overhead, the whole scene wasn’t quite as peaceful as I’d imagined when I initially scrolled upon a Facebook post advertising the free forest therapy walk to go outside and “connect with other beings including fellow LGBTQ+ folx.” And this was supposed to last two hours.

While cultures worldwide have long ritualized interactions with nature, modern forest therapy is typically inspired by the Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku (roughly translated as “forest bathing”). In Japan, it’s been studied extensively and the country has official healing forests. Now the rest of the world is joining in the search to understand how going outside can decrease stress and boost mental and physical health. (The University of Washington has its own initiative, Nature for Health, which seeks to quantify what a “dose of nature” looks like.)

Despite continued media coverage, the organized practice of forest therapy is fairly new in the United States. Hepp was Washington’s first guide certified by the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy, which was founded in 2012.

Hepp is also one of two openly non-binary guides in an association of hundreds, at least to their knowledge. They say that they know few openly queer guides in general. In an effort to both extend the health benefits of the practice to the queer community and expand the LGBTQ+ presence in the outdoors, they offered their first no-cost forest therapy session for queer people last November.

“I am a part of a historically marginalized group, and I realize as a queer person and a person who is trying to be more of an educator for different levels of social, cultural and political and historical lenses of social justice [...] the great need for me as a practitioner of forest therapy walks to help when I can,” they said.

To me, forest therapy offers a sharp contrast to most queer spaces. They’re often loud places such as bars, clubs or festivals where there’s dancing, and I’m usually shouting to be heard. Gay clubs and bars can unintentionally exclude subgroups like queer youth, nondrinkers or people who feel uncomfortable in a party scene.

“There’s lot of different pressures to do different things or to be in specific places,” Hepp says, “A lot of meetups happen to be at places that have or serve alcohol [for example], and that’s not something I always enjoy doing.”

For their forest therapy walks, Hepp takes participants into nature — whether that be the woods or a park — and guides them through a series of motions and meditations, asking them to sense what’s around, to anchor one’s self in the moment and let intuition guide actions. It ends with a tea ceremony, where the group chats about their wider experience of connecting with nature.

Janelle Lauronal, a sophomore at Seattle University originally from Hawaii, found Hepp’s event while scrolling through Facebook. She almost didn’t come, but as someone who only recently came out, the event seemed like an easier queer space to join than a party.

“Usually, I'm really overwhelmed when I go,” Lauronal told me later, reflecting on past queer social outings where she’d often get caught up in conversations about queer relationships, which she hadn’t yet experienced. “It's not like I know a lot of stuff.”

“Even though I've been in Seattle for a year and a half, I'm not out at home, really,” she said. “So this is the place to do that.”

I can relate. I’ve only been out publicly for a couple years, and the process has been slow and careful. In college, even after coming out to friends and family, I was too nervous to face the intimacy of the campus queer club. But I looked at the noise of gay clubs and parties as welcome cover, letting me experience things without true participation — and if I did participate, it was with a large crowd of strangers who wouldn’t remember me later.

But I’ve felt dissatisfaction with that anonymity, too. If I never truly connected with anyone, where’s the community in that?

Rob Reed, who joined Hepp’s inaugural LGBTQ+ forest walk last winter, came again to connect with other queer people in nature. Reed had never been big on the queer party scene, opting instead for crafting days with friends or group hikes. They even found forest therapy to be a place of reflection different than other outdoor groups, which tend to focus on being active in nature.

“Every time I go, it’s a reminder of how simple it is — not necessarily easy, but how simple it is to slow down [and] connect to something bigger than me,” Reed said. “The winter was a time of really deep stillness. For me to notice that the plants, at the root level, underground, were in motion, and to trust that what they were doing was going to bring spring and flowers and green things again, really spoke to a deep place in me, of trusting myself — that I’m allowed to go through winter and then come back in the spring, also.”

At the walk’s end, we gathered around a picnic table as Hepp carefully extracted tiny teacups from woolen socks that they’d packed in their backpack, setting them out in a circle on a makeshift tablecloth for a tea ceremony. Hepp offered us cedar and stinging nettle tea from two thermoses. We spent the rest of the second hour discussing what we’d felt.

I realized it had been a while since I’d been, you know, out in nature — with no other reason or agenda other than to be outside and notice things. Some part of me was nervous about spending two hours with myself in silence and dealing with the self-consciousness or boredom that might ensue.

But I wasn’t by myself. I was with a group of people like me, some just as clueless about forest bathing and what it might mean. The quietness brought us closer together once we started talking about nature in a way I’m often too embarrassed to do — chatting about the calming effects, how we felt the trees’ “presence,” that sort of thing. We even opened up about our initial shared discomforts and self-consciousness.

Within this community, nature itself became more of a presence than I’d given it credit for. Like Reed, I noticed its constant movement, how the trees I thought were depressingly barren were actually covered in buds I’d missed in the beginning — even though I was the only one with open eyes.

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Seattle's queer community finds refuge in nature

About the Authors & Contributors

Manola Secaira

Manola Secaira is a reporter at Crosscut focused on environmental justice issues.