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August 31, 2021

PaRx People: Meet Michelle Reugebrink

Michelle Reugebrink is a certified nature and forest therapy guide who works for the USDA Forest Service’s Work Environment and Performance Office, Office of the Chief, as the Mindfulness & Resiliency Program Manager. Prior to this, she served on wildland fire engines, hand crew, and hotshot crews for 16 years. In 2008, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation named Michelle one of America’s 31 Firefighting Heroes for her outstanding acts of valour and commitment to the ideals of community service and protection of life as a Forest Safety Officer and wildland firefighter.

You’ve had such a unique career path as a firefighter and forest therapy guide. Tell us how this happened.

Leading up to my current job which covers all of the firefighters across the nation, I was a firefighter for 16 years, and I still hold a current red card to support fires when needed. I’ve experienced a lot of trauma and seen a lot of death. Eventually I decided to train to become a mindfulness-certified practitioner at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Because we can touch the landscape in such a bigger way when we don’t just lock ourselves into one thing.

Michelle with Smokey Bear.

I’ve always had a deep connection to nature and the land. When I was outside, I kept really thinking, “How come when I’m out here I can just feel the air on my skin, and hear the birds and just touch the dirt or the grass, and feel okay?” I had everything I needed to heal myself, just by my relationship to nature.

But my journey into nature therapy started when I thought we had to do something different to help our firefighters, many who got into this job because they loved nature, were drawn to nature. When I read Amos Clifford’s (founder of the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy) book, I got more and more curious. I went out on a forest therapy walk in Southern California, and I got to see the spark in people’s eyes, and the stillness, and slowing down, and it was enough to make me go, “Ah, this is exactly right.”

Here in British Columbia we’ve seen another record-breaking wildfire season. How is this affecting firefighters in the US?

People ask, “Why are you seeing so much post-traumatic stress disorder and suicides?” and part of it is the stress from the horrific forest fire seasons we’ve seen the past five years. We have a lot of people who are suffering and dealing with it every day, in their relationships and divorce rates. And how many of us know firefighters who drink after every shift?

A lot of firefighters are also paramedics. We respond to a lot of need for medical aid, in risky situations: hurricanes, tsunamis, we respond to all of it. Because there are more and more people who have moved into fire-prone areas where we typically didn’t see homes before, we have to evacuate more and more of them.

Michelle on the job as a firefighter.

Fires do not behave in the ways we would expect now—that’s what makes it so volatile and scary. There’s no break ever. There’s no off time ever. States that typically didn’t burn before are burning. It’s just relentless and more catastrophic. That’s hard on us, and that’s why this work is so important.

What’s it like taking firefighters out on nature therapy walks?

You’re taking individuals out who look like a football team, and people ask, “And you do what with them?” And they love it!

But I have to say, before they experience it, they say, “I don’t know, that’s touchy-feely,” and so I’m like, “All right, it’s an invitation.” I’m never telling or directing them, but inviting them to go give it a try. And as you’re outside in nature, you breathe as the tree breathes, and notice everything around you, and you slow down.

We all have different audiences. I’ve done some work with forest therapy guides who can almost be over the top with the language. A lot of our individuals don’t like the dog call at the end—they’re not going out there in the woods to get howled at—so we do an owl hoot. I talk like everyday people, and we can still have the same beautiful experience. 

At some trainings we host 350 people, and we divide them into groups of 35, and everyone experiences forest therapy. Then they go back to their local units and staff and share their experience, and build curiosity around that. We’re able to touch thousands of people.

Michelle by Wade Lake in California.

Have you seen nature therapy help first responders on the job?

I’ve had firefighters tell me that even when they were deploying in a shelter in the middle of a fire, they felt the connection to the earth even through the floor and the heat and felt at peace. Instead of getting lost in fear, they were able to stay calm in their connection. They started noticing, I’m shifting. I’m not becoming the suffering of the burnt areas, the wildlife that we see killed in the fire trying to escape.

It’s in the middle of the chaos that you can look to the tree, you can look to the forest floor, you can touch whatever that is in your immediate moment. In the middle of a freight-train noise of flames that are 250 feet high ripping up the ridge at you—you’re able to be one.

It’s also helped them understand that fires can be part of the ecosystem. And what’s so incredible is that there’s an immediate benefit. It seems so simple. Just by allowing that awareness to be experienced, they can take that into whatever they do. Some people turn to drinking or smoking, but instead they’ll take a walk in nature.

In New York, we have one responder who was working in the World Trade Center Ground Center on 9/11. They were deeply embedded in it. They said, “I was able to see a weed that grew out of the sidewalk, or this one bush, and think, ‘I’m okay.’” Forest therapy can be done in the middle of Chicago or New York, or Washington, DC, or wherever—wherever you choose to experience your relationship with nature.

It’s really powerful how it supports the work force. We’re doing forest therapy to be proactive. It’s a shift towards resiliency. It’s not how we endure it; it’s how we recharge.

Michelle during a reflective moment in nature.

How do your colleagues in firefighting perceive your work?

Anything we do can be scrutinized. People wonder, “Is this a waste of taxpayer dollars? How is forest therapy helping?” They perceive it as “fluffy,” and that mindfulness is a waste. They don’t perceive it as something that should be happening in the workplace. And then we try to educate and explain the science to them and invite them to a forest therapy walk—and then they understand.

Forest therapy is growing in popularity. Now, especially during COVID, is the time to be documenting and getting the evidence out there. Data is important for those naysayers, so we can say, “This shows how it helps for your productivity and your presence.”

How do you think we can bring nature and forest therapy into our healthcare settings?

Lots of hospitals are looking for mindfulness-based stress reduction therapists. But another complement to consider, is what would forest therapy look like right on the yard in the hospital? A lot of times we have a labyrinth, and trees with running water. Why couldn’t we have a certified forest therapist on site? If you’re in a wheelchair, or in a bed, we can take you out to have a forest therapy experience.

A lot of our smokejumpers—who jump out of a plane into fires—are actually working their way towards becoming doctors and making enough money to go to medical school. There are just so many talented, talented people. Firefighters are incredibly drawn to helping serve people and taking care of each other. We see people who work in fire for some time, then go off to med school and do amazing things. We’re always helping each other, and we’re all in this together.

My oldest son is becoming a physician assistant—he’s got one more year left. It’s neat to see where our children grow. Both my sons are actually really open and receptive to what I do. They use several resiliency techniques for stress reduction, and forest therapy is one of them.

Michelle and her family in Whistler, BC.

With COVID-19 the connection between nature and health is becoming more of an outside conversation. More and more people are going out into nature and wondering, Why shouldn’t it be for all of us? We saw a 70 per cent increase in sales of mountain bikes in the US. People are shifting their priorities. It’s caused a lot of suffering, but it’s also a blessing in a way, because there are a lot of things shifting in the world, with how we treat the environment and ourselves in it. So we’re waking up.

What advice do you have for health professionals and first responders who are experiencing burnout?

Don’t forget to take care of yourself. We can get so involved in our work sometimes that we don’t take the time to take care of ourselves.

It’s all about resiliency. Do the work on yourself to be more productive and be present, and work with your own internal self-awareness so you can bring your full self to your whole life. And spending time in nature is a huge part of that.

Read more about Michelle’s life and work here.

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