In the weeks and months after Judith Foster got the phone call that her youngest son was murdered in 2013, she found herself often in the forest.
She escaped to nature, a place her son Paul had always loved, in hopes of finding some piece of him lingering there, whether in an ant colony or a cardinal. As she walked and walked her grief away, Foster began to feel in touch not only with her son, but with the wildlife itself.
“There’s a scab that grows first, before the deep healing happens,” said Foster, 56, of Medfield. “But trees scab, and heal, too.”
The founder of the Healing Empathy Redemption Oasis (H.E.R.O.) Nurturing Center, Foster organized the center’s first major Nature Healing Walk and educational program since the pandemic Saturday in an effort to bring people struggling with trauma together with environmentalists to both seek individual healing, and advocate for greater access to nature in urban communities.
“I can feel my blood pressure go down when I’m here,” said Mark Scott, a Dorchester pastor who also works with the Boston Public Health Commission. “When we think about how one recovers from trauma, this is a prescription of sorts, a healing modality that’s available to our city, and could be made more available.”
A light drizzle dusted leaves and eyelashes mid-morning Saturday when Foster led the group of roughly a dozen along a path forged through the woods surrounding the Boston Nature Center in Mattapan. Footsteps softened as pavement gave way to dirt, the foliage of oaks and aspens slowing the rainfall to a few errant drops as the group sunk deeper into the forest.
Each individual or family moved at their own pace without straying too far from their guide, who paused periodically to note the similarities between plant life and humans: whether in the pattern of a tree’s bark or the communication between different root systems.
“No two trees are alike, but they live in community,” Foster said, gesturing to two red oaks with broken branches. “You’ll see, even the fallen ones still live in community, so we can learn a lot from them about coexisting.”
Near the rear of the pack, Shelley Yen-Ewert stopped to let her daughter Zaia stroke one of the oaks. A Dorchester resident, Yen-Ewert said she recently became a certified forest-bathing guide, and has been teaching the practice to her daughter. At the end of the exercise, Zaia eagerly told her mom that “the forest is our friend and our family!”
“The sensory connection we can have with nature is pretty profound,” said a smiling Yen-Ewert, who described the Japanese tradition as “spending time in nature as a way to bring healing” and grow in one’s understanding of their environment.
Back at the Nature Center, a panel of speakers shared their thoughts on the utility of the environment as a healing tool and the importance of restoring access to nature to marginalized communities, particularly Black and indigenous populations.
“We forget that we can also use the natural tools God gave us when he placed us on this earth,” said Jay Winter Nightwolf, a Cherokee, Shoshone, and Taino descendant who came up from Washington, D.C., to attend the event. Nightwolf described the importance of nature in surviving his battle with cancer, and how he intentionally sought out quiet and fresh air away from the city in his most uncertain moments.
“But now the climate is in jeopardy,” he said, “so what are you doing personally to get involved and save the only place we have to live?”
A former Marine, Nightwolf also connected with Sal Hernandez, a fellow combat veteran who flew in from the Hawaiian island of Kaua’i to visit his daughter Adriana at Harvard. Hernandez said he met Foster virtually through an online course on indigenous history, and was drawn to her work and the opportunity to meet her in person for the first time.
“It’s interesting to consider [the history of American Indians] going back to the land and looking to nature to fix a lot of our problems,” Hernandez said. “It can be a way to heal from the trauma of combat and free your mind from old ways of thinking.”
Foster launched her first walks with the H.E.R.O. Center in the Blue Hills in 2014, often focusing her efforts on mothers and young men who experienced lasting trauma due to gun violence. Over the past eight years, the center has extended its work from educational programming, such as Nature Healing Walks and service trips to Cuba for first-responders, to include advocating for environmental justice reform at the state level.
The organization’s mission statement boldly declares a commitment to fighting for nature “not instead of, but as a supplement to medicine,” pointing to policies in Japan and Canada that permit doctors to prescribe their patients time in nature, in addition to traditional medicine.
“Making nature prescriptive, that’s our end goal, and creating more spaces like this because we desperately need them in our community,” Foster said. “The trauma we suffer as Black and brown folks on an ongoing basis, there’s no pill for that, but nature is the one size that fits all.”