What Is Reciprocity

“We tend to look at nature as a collection of things: plants and trees and fungi appear as objects that can only be acted upon, rather than engaged with. But what happens when we look at them as living beings with teachings to impart to us? In this week’s article, Tam Willey explains how opening one’s self to a reciprocal relationship with nature can help us grow – and heal.”

What is Reciprocity?

If we are part of an animate earth that is constantly inflating or deflating in response to what is being taken or given, should we consider how we engage with it?  If every splash has an infinite ripple effect, then how do we want to splash?

“Attention is the doorway to gratitude, the doorway to wonder, the doorway to reciprocity.” 
-Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants


I met an Ash tree on my first day of Forest Therapy Guide Certification Training when we were invited to go off into the forest and converse with a tree. Given the limitations of the English language and the personal ways we connect with the land, trying to describe these experiences can be challenging and exposing.  At the same time, sharing our unique stories about what we notice and how we engage with the natural world can support and inspire others on the path towards deeper land connection (or reconnection).  This is a form of reciprocity.

I’ll refer to this tree by the name ‘Ash,’ and I will use ‘they,’ ‘them,’ and ‘their’ pronouns for Ash since we don’t have an animate word for “it” in the English language.  Using inclusive language helps me pay closer attention.  My path towards creating an ongoing practice of land reciprocity started in a human-centric world exploring race, class, gender, privilege, and the various -isms and phobias that perpetuate views of superiority and inferiority.  As I continue to unpack my Western conditioning as a white American of Eastern and Western European descent, I find myself peeling back the layers of human dominance.  By referring to Ash as ‘it,’ I fail to acknowledge that Ash is a living, breathing, animate being.



“To define another being as an inert or passive object is to deny its ability to actively engage us and to provoke our senses; we thus block our perceptual reciprocity with that being. By linguistically defining the surrounding world as a determinate set of objects, we cut our conscious, speaking selves off from the spontaneous life of our sensing bodies.”​
-David Abram, The Spell of The Sensuous

By acknowledging Ash as an animate being, I am more likely to form a relationship, opening the door for reciprocity and healing for not only humans but also for the trees, waters, and all the beings of the natural world – also known as the more-than-human world.  As a gender variant queer person, using ‘they’ as a singular pronoun has become fairly routine in my community. Adapting, modifying, discerning and reclaiming parts of the English language can be empowering and even fun.  If using inclusive language is a new concept for you, or if you don’t understand what I’m talking about, then I invite you to learn more. Setting the intention for Inclusivity will make the difference between being able to form that relationship or not.  Inclusive Language In Four Easy Steps

Respectfully, I began to introduce myself to Ash in my own quiet way without spoken language. I acknowledged Ash’s place in the forest and looked around, taking in the mushrooms and leaves and dry stream bed nearby. I reached my hand out and explored the woven textures of Ash’s bark, following the pattern with my gaze up into the impossibly high canopy, ablaze in sunlight.  I then looked down and wondered how deep Ash’s roots went below the surface. Were they as deep as Ash was tall?  Was Ash photosynthesizing right in front of my very eyes?


My thought web led me back up into my thinking brain. As if waking up from a dream, I suddenly remembered where I was. A wave of insecurity washed over me and I found myself asking the question, “Am I doing this right?” I looked around and noticed my fellow Forest Therapy Guide Trainees all engaging with their trees in their own way.  I shook my head, laughing at myself and remembering that there is no exact science to how to converse with a tree.  However, there is a load of research about what happens to our brains and bodies when we spend time being open with trees.  From increased cerebral blood flow to stronger immune defenses, there is plenty ofevidence demonstrating how relaxing in nature supports human health.

I stopped critiquing my conversation with Ash and began asking for support in bringing my best self to this training by being an active participant and not hiding in the shadows of self-doubt.  I had been anxious about the training and meeting a group of strangers, an issue that only arises in the human world.  In the forest, no one questions my gender or identity and I am reminded that I am natural and connected to the earth. Part of what drew me to wanting to become a Forest Therapy Guide is to be able to hold space for others who have internalized feelings of being unnatural, separate from, or even wrong.

I stepped back from Ash looking up and down and around, wondering what I could possibly offer and if it would be good enough. I leaned in and exhaled purposefully into the weave of Ash’s bark, offering a few dozen concentrated blasts of my carbon dioxide. I felt my heart rate slow and thanked Ash in my own way until the sound of a crow call told me it was time to say goodbye.


In an industrialized civilization where consuming is in and conserving is out, living in gratitude and holding ourselves accountable requires hyper-vigilance.  Reciprocity is a path towards healing and an effective coping mechanism in treating stress-related illnesses that result from living in a rapid, industrialized environment.  It can be as simple as picking up a piece of trash. It can be leaving some kind of offering of natural material from your own body or from the forest floor as a way to honor or acknowledge a tree or a place. It can be creating a small structure, like a fairy house or an altar. It can be a form of activism or a regular monetary donation. It can also be a random act that isn’t explainable in words. When we practice reciprocity, we can face our human experience with fewer symptoms of stress, anxiety, boredom, self-hatred, rage, and crisis.  We are less likely to cause harm.  We are less likely to internalize feelings of inferiority, and less likely to act under the illusion of superiority.

Guiding a Forest Therapy Walk is a practice of reciprocity in and of itself.  From start to finish, there are many opportunities to listen, notice, acknowledge, ask, and give. I always ask the land for support before I guide a walk.  I might ask for qualities like self-assurance, clarity, openness and patience. I recently asked an elder Cedar of Lebanon evergreen for support in remembering all the informational details I intended to share with my walk participants. As I asked for this clarity of mind, a small sprig dropped down from high up in the canopy, bouncing off on my head and onto the ground. I picked them up and tucked the little one into the fold of my hat, offering back a personal gesture of gratitude in the form of a bow. During that walk, whenever I found myself nervous or lost, I touched my hat, feeling for the cedar sprig. Later that day, I had a strong urge to pass on this little cedar sprig to another human.  I listened to the message and gave the offering.

“A gift comes to you through no action of your own, free, having moved toward you without your beckoning.  It is not a reward; you cannot earn it, or call it to you, or even deserve it.  And yet it appears.  You only role is to be open-eyed and present.”​
-Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants

Tam is an ANFT Forest Therapy Guide in Practicum and began guiding walks in Fall 2017 at the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain, MA, where she has lived since 1998. She works locally as a self-employedHandy Person and a teacher and custodian at The Eliot School. Tam has extensive experience working with LGBTQ Youth through BAGLY and The Theater Offensive’s True Colors. She also works as the Community Liaison for The Venture Out Project with whom she has guided Forest Therapy Walks and is currently planning a Nature Connection Retreat for May 2018. Tam has firsthand experience of the healing benefits of spending time in nature and strives to make her walks inclusive and accessible.  
For more information about Tam, visit her website: ToadstoolWalks.com



Forest Bathing At The Arnold Arboretum

I recently wrote this blog piece for the Arnold Arboretum:

Forest Bathing at the Arnold Arboretum

by Guest Writer: Tam Willey, Forest Therapy Guide in Practicum

October 31, 2017

When is the last time you took a long leisurely walk in a natural setting? Or sat under a tree and observed the many stories playing out in nature? Have you ever considered that when you touch a tree, perhaps this tree is simultaneously touching you? As humans industrialize at lightning speed, we have become more and more disconnected from the natural world – to the point where the term “tree hugger” is a derogatory put down.

Living in our urban, modern, industrialized civilization can be stressful. The cacophony of our phones, cars, computers, planes, trucks, barking dogs, crying babies, construction vehicles, machinery, yelling, and sirens can wreak havoc on our nervous systems. When we are stressed on a regular basis, we increase our risk for stress-related illnesses such as high blood pressure, headaches, exhaustion, anxiety, depression, moodiness and other mental impairments. Walking leisurely and sitting under trees not only helps us unplug and catch our breath, but it has also been medically proven to treat stress-related illnesses.

Forest Bathing

“Shinrin-Yoku” which translates to “Forest Bathing”, was coined in Japan in the 1980’s where infrastructure has been developed around specific forested trails to support wellness. Shinrin-Yoku is a prominent feature of preventative medicine and healing in Japan. It is practiced at designated Forest Therapy trails where visitors are met by medical and research teams that keep track of blood pressure and collect other data during the walk in order to show concrete evidence of the healing and preventative benefits.” Over thirty years later, there is a plethora of research studies showing how spending time relaxing in nature reduces blood pressure and cortisol levels, increases natural killer disease-fighting cells, increases energy, improves sleep and supports overall well-being. You can find a list of these studies here:http://www.natureandforesttherapy.org/the-science.html

I first learned about Forest Bathing/Shinrin-yoku on a day-long outdoor retreat I had signed up for through a local meditation center in Boston. I had no idea what to expect. We walked into the forest slower than I had ever walked and as we were guided through a series of gentle sensory opening prompts, I found my awareness expanding in profound ways. Even though I had previously spent extensive time outside, I had never experienced such the gamut of emotion and immersion within 15 minutes of entering a forest. I have sought plenty of refuge in the mountains and forests on many a hiking, camping, canoeing, and cross-country ski adventure. While it was apparent that these adventures would leave me feeling clear-headed, chilled out, restored, empowered, and strong, I hadn’t before had this context for what was happening to me physiologically from spending extended time in the woods.

“Walking slowly in the wide forest with Tam, a relaxed and knowledgeable guide, opened my senses and brought out the peace waiting within”
-Lea, 90, Boston

Forest Bathing

I began familiarizing myself with the science and research studies describing the many health benefits of connecting with nature. I came to understand that the healthfulness of what I was experiencing had less to do with the number of miles I could hike in a day or the views on top of a rugged mountain. My restorative healing and sense of well-being was a product of deep intentional reconnection with nature in a reciprocal way.

I come from a lineage of railroad and factory workers. I see the effects of industrialized civilization on my family, friends, and community in various forms of stress-related illnesses, diseases and oppressions passed down from generation to generation. It is my intention to do what I can on my micro level to work towards breaking these cycles and bringing awareness to how we can heal ourselves, the earth, and support the wellbeing of all beings. I am committed to deepening my own practice of nature and forest therapy so that I can share it with whomever wants it.

“During the forest bathing walk with Tam, I felt like I was discovering an entirely new part of the world around me. The experience was one of peaceful calm and exploration.”
– Tyler aka “TofuPup”, 16, FL

I am trained through the Association Of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides & Programs. This training both supports my growing nature connection and teaches me how to guide professionally. I am doing the bulk of my practicum work at the Arnold Arboretum. It involves a lot of observation, sketching, mapping, sitting and meandering. It also includes guiding a series of Forest Bathing Walks in collaboration with the Arboretum’s Event Programming. These walks have been well received and attendance has been full. If you have been unable to sign up for a fall walk I encourage you to sign up for one of my spring walks that will begin in March. I have had folks on my walks who have never been to the Arboretum before as well as those who have been regular visitors for years but have never experienced the collections in this way. One study I read showed that Forest Bathing is effective even for those who strongly dislike nature and don’t want to be outside. Studies show that it still works even if one is resistant while doing it. I find this an inspiring concept to sit with as a guide.

“This was the safest and most joyful I have felt in a long time. Tam’s facilitation is confident, kind, grounded in authentic presence. I live with the effects of complex PTSD and often don’t have an easy time relaxing or connecting in group activities. The miraculous support of nature and the skillful guidance of Tam made it so that I was able to be fully present and engage in each activity in a way that felt healing and nourishing to my heart and body.”
– Anonymous

Forest Bathing Scrolls

As I unpack my Western-conditioning and embrace my relationship with the more than human world, I find I am able to deepen my compassion, empathy and gratitude for not only my fellow humans but also for our waters, our trees, our animals, our bugs, my own self, and all the beings that I never really noticed or connected with before. My name is Tam, and if you feel so inclined, I invite you to hug trees with me.

Tam Willey
Forest Therapy Guide

Toadstool Walks

For the past 15 years I have been self-employed as a Handy Person.  Lately, its not my favorite thing to talk about.  Its not that I am not proud of my business and its not just that I’m burnt out on lugging my tools around and climbing up and down my step ladder. There’s a lot to like about being Handy Tam and I am deeply grateful for having been able to learn handy skills and acquire tools.  I try to not take my strong able body for granted.  My favorite thing about my job has always been the connections I’ve made with folks in my neighborhood and around Boston.  As my neighborhood changes and as rental units turn into million dollar condos,  these connections seem to be harder to find. As the industrial revolution amps up, as people move faster and faster, I have found that this culture moves way too fast for me.   I suddenly have found that I actually can’t keep up.  Its not a new realization…I’ve always moved fairly slow and even had the nickname Tam Turtle as a kid.  But lately, this fast-paced disconnecting flailing energy is becoming unbearable for me.  I find us humans to be way too loud and I often have to put my hands over my ears when I walk down the street amongst the sirens and truck engines.  I try to do what I can on my micro level to not add to the “noise”.  I try to practice vigilant discernment about who I will work for, who I will spend time with and how I will engage online, in person, and in nature.  As I retreat further, I am finding deeper connections, healing, and restoration among and with the more-than-human world.

I started this blog when I decided to hike the Long Trail of Vermont.  My main impetus for hiking the Long Trail was to find quiet.  When I started this hike (at Journeys End by the Canadian/Vermont Border) my ears strained to hear in the muffled quiet of the deep northern forest.  My ears rang constantly and I heard sounds and chatter that my brain created.  I heard lots of music in the distance that wasn’t there.  I knew it wasn’t there but I still listened to it.  This is what damaged hearing sounds like.  But in everyday urban life, it seems impossible to distinguish this ringing in our ears for those of us who don’t experience a break from the constant buzz of our industrial civilization.  As I write this, I notice the cacophony outside my window of planes, cars, car horns, yell-talking, leaf blowers, and the low hum of my computer.

I am always asking what I can do, what I can bring and how I can stay alive in this one magical blink of an eye life that we have without causing inevitable harm and without adding to the “noise”.  My western conditioning once had led me to believe that the earth and nature is here merely as a resource for humans.  I don’t like to come out as Handy Tam because sometimes I can see the desperation on people’s faces as well as the flicker of people’s brains waves as they scan their files for their list of broken things in their homes and stop seeing me as a fellow being but as a product they need to buy.

When I was young, I would foam at the mouth to help fix anything anytime for anyone no matter how condescending, entitled or unappreciative they were.  I worked in homes that maybe weren’t safe for me to be in.  I just wanted to make as much money as I could so that I could be free.  Ironic.  But now I’m so sensitive to being perceived as simply a resource.  A cash transaction is no longer enough for me.  Having worked in giant homes where the kitchens are filled with untouched stainless steel appliances, I feel lost and disconnected.  I work for people who have full time staff in their houses.  I work for families who don’t walk their own dogs, or mow their own lawns, or do their own laundry, or cook their own meals, or barely hold their own babies because they are too busy making as much money as possible.  Some folks are too busy to simply acknowledge me a being in their home.  I find I am less able to work in these environments.  They feel toxic and my brain literally stops being able to read a tape measure.  So part of my self care has been to mostly just work for friends at lower rates where there is connection present.  I say “no” to many Handy Tam inquiries.  I think I’m just listening to my intuition but I don’t trust myself completely.  I am currently trying to not stress out financially and trust in the trees that I will be okay and this will all work out.  I keep asking the earth for support.  I know I have the skills to make money but my heart is not on board with Handy Tam right now so I’m trying to be gentle cause I absolutely need Handy Tam in order to support this next cycle of life as I continue to ask what can I bring and how can I be of service and live authentically.

In April 2016 I discovered Shinrin-yoku and wrote about it in this post.  After returning from the Long Trail one year ago, a series of challenging life events led to me to pursue a deeper understanding of Forest Bathing and I started to imagine how I could incorporate this into my life.  I decided I wanted to be able to offer this healing and restorative practice to as many people as possible from all perspectives and upon looking for community and resources about this, I found a Certification Program with an Association.  This program is less than five years old has felt completely out of my budget.  I have taken a risk and invested all my money and a huge amount of my time into this.  I attended a week-long Intensive Training in the Berkshires this past July that was completely life altering and broke me open in profound ways.  I am now currently in month two of a six month Practicum working on a series of monthly assignments with the support of my fellow cohort that I trained with, a mentor, a co-mentor and a private facebook group of other Guides.  Last week I was invited to speak with my LGBTQ Elders about Forest Therapy at Rainbow Lifelong Learning Institute which offers free educational programs and social activities for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender seniors to build and strengthen community.  I got to present about Forest Therapy with one of my amazing trainers from the Association.  It gave me so much validation that I am on this path now.

I am going to start guiding Forest Therapy Walks this Saturday.

My New Website is Toadstoolwalks.com

I hope you will join me for a walk sometime!1