Kari Krogh

Forest Bathing and disabilities: the healing power of nature, from science to one’s own experience

Kari Krogh could barely move or talk, but a single blossom in the backyard, “the pattern and the movement of the shadows and the light streaming down through the canopy above, just those little moments”, released some of her pain. She has a degree in Psychology and Environmental Studies, a Master’s Degree in Instruction and Special Education, a PhD in Psychology and a Post PhD in Disability Studies when it did not yet exist. She became disabled herself due to Lyme disease and an even more poisonous spray against the ticks. 

Later hit by a truck, Kari, an FTHub Forest Therapy Practitioner, knows as much about resilience and interdependence as she does about research and science. Now living in the wild, close to the pristine Algonquin Park in Canada, lots of insights from her groundbreaking research showed her the way. She integrates inclusion in her offerings in EcoWisdom Forest Preserve and as an FTHub Lecturer to support Guides and Practitioners on how to approach inclusion when working with people with impairments. 

Interdependence

“While working as a professor of Disability Studies, I was traveling to present my research at a conference. Afterwards, my colleague and I decided to take a couple of days to go to an ecotourism vacation spot. The cabana that we were in was infested with ticks, only I did not recognize them as ticks.

“She and I got Lyme disease and four co-infections. What complicated matters even further was that the resort staff sprayed everything with an insecticide. Within a 24-hour period, my colleague became severely ill and that night I was in the hospital. Our symptoms came on quickly. Almost immediately I had trouble with balance and walking, then with memory. I lost my ability to really talk, to walk, and was too fatigued to sit upright. 

Disability can look like lots of different things. And I’ve had all kinds of impairments including those affecting communication, physical mobility, neurocognition, and hearing. Eventually I relearned how to walk. And now most of the time my disability is less or non-visible.

“It took 3 years to diagnose Lyme disease and 12 years before they figured out the pesticide exposure. Whenever I would take antibiotics to treat the Lyme, I would go into an anaphylactic reaction. Eventually, environmental health specialists at a local hospital figured it out. This pesticide has now been banned – entire families on vacation wouldn’t wake up or they would develop permanent neurologic disability”.

Nature, disabilities and inclusion

“All of these different strands of my story have come together to this moment. I did my post PhD fellowship because I wanted to study social, political, and economic issues that affect the experience of disability rather than biology. I didn’t want to medicalize disability. This led me to want to become a professor of disability studies and become involved with the UN to develop international disability policy.

“When I became disabled, I drew upon lessons I learned from disabled community members through my research. The community had taught me that we can still achieve goals using various supports from mobility aids to nurturing support workers – individuals who help a disabled parent to engage in child-rearing activities. My daughter was three years old when I became severely disabled.

“I had the gift of hundreds of hours of interviews and insights from all of these years. People showed me that you can have a quality of life even if you use a wheelchair, even if you need support, that it’s really about interdependence more than independence. And of course, that’s what we learn from nature”. 

“These beliefs underlie the activities of EcoWisdom including our Accessible Nature Well-being Programs. We support a co-facilitation model and believe that you have capacities alongside impairment.

“Years later I was hit by a truck. I asked myself, ‘What do I need to do to heal?’ I listened deeply. This is when I started going on regular silent retreats in nature.”

A pristine paradise for inclusion

“My partner and I now live off grid on the EcoWisdom Forest Preserve. We live off solar power, collect rainwater, and melt snow in the winter for our water source. We share the land with bears and moose. I’ve even had a wolf come to my door.

“In our virtual and in-person nature programs, we explore issues around interdependence, inclusion and belonging. And nature allows us to feel those things very deeply. It also helps us to connect to the miracles of life. We had one participant who had multiple sclerosis and could only move one finger. And there were these little bits of fluff in the air coming down from the trees. Because one piece of fluff fell on that particular finger, she could move the piece of fluff. She shared how this gave her a sense of empowerment and delight. We shared in her sense of wonder“.

It’s all about celebrating the little miracles and enlarging them. Nature not only offers us a sense of awe but also humbles us – all of us, having disabilities or not. In our EcoWisdom nature programs, everyone is welcome – people with speech impairments, with mobility impairments, those living with pain and fatigue issues.

“Given that 22% of the world’s population lives with a disability, we need to know how to make guide training programs accessible and to support guides in knowing how to approach inclusion and accessibility, for example, what to do when someone comes to participate in a program who doesn’t use speech to communicate. There are simple strategies that can be used to help make people feel included– that they are a part of it too.”

It’s not about the tea

“I started to attend some FTHub information sessions, and I was really impressed with the research foundation. For me, given that my background is science, it really matters that the training and the teaching has a foundation in science. And I love the multicultural aspect of it.

“So yeah, I remember attending one information session and it was like the tea ceremony isn’t necessarily the most appropriate ritual to end your programs with, in some countries, in some cultures. And that was so refreshing to hear since a tea ceremony is not always the most accessible activity. I think it’s about ritual. It’s not necessarily about the tea ceremony.”

Holding space to witness one another’s experiences and supporting people in coexisting with the pain and beauty is central. Disability often includes pain or grief, not necessarily, but at times it can be part of the experience alongside the beauty and the wonder and the awe and the connection that also coexist.

“My desire is to have EcoWisdom work with FTHub to promote disability inclusion – making guide training more inclusive and making forest bathing programs more accessible. When we spoke, we agreed that it sounded like a really great idea to collaborate in this way. It’s invaluable”.

 

Ph: Courtesy Kari Krogh and Laurel Goodings 

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