Toby Ranen, 8, collects cedar bark from a downed tree to make cedar “fluff” to use as fire starter at the Through the Trees after-school program in Topsham.  Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

TOPSHAM — For his first seven years, Toby Ranen was a city kid. He didn’t spend much time outdoors. Not to play, anyway. Certainly not to play in the woods.

Then his family moved to Brunswick.

Now 8, Toby spends almost every day at the Through the Trees after-school program in Topsham, wandering through the woods, collecting acorns, building fires, learning to whittle sticks. He recently cut down a small tree — a feat for a kid who’s struggled to concentrate.

The time in the woods has made it much easier, his father said, for the second-grader to “find his inner quiet.”

“It totally changed Toby’s life,” Mike Ranen said.

It’s called nature therapy, or sometimes ecotherapy or green therapy — that mental or physical boost people get from walking in the woods, relaxing on the water, climbing a mountain or just being outside.

If you’ve lived in Maine your whole life, you probably grew up taking that nature for granted. Because Maine is all-nature all the time.

People aren’t taking it for granted anymore.

“Nowadays, the trail heads on a weekend, you can hardly get a parking space. You didn’t see that 15 years ago where I am, and I’m right in the White Mountains,” said Will White, co-founder of a residential wilderness therapy program for teenagers in the Oxford County town of Stow. “What that shows to me is that people are dying to get outside.”

STRESS FREE ZONE

Researchers say getting out in nature can have all kinds of benefits — reducing stress, calming anxiety, lifting depression, improving physical health. A recently published University of New Hampshire study found wilderness therapy — which combines counseling and outdoor activity — was more effective and less expensive than traditional therapy for teenagers struggling with substance use and other problems.

Bryan Ayer, left, peers at the acorn flour and chocolate chip pancakes being cooked over an open campfire at the Through the Trees after-school program in Topsham. Around the campfire from left are Jenn Casoni, Quinn Griffin and Brogan Scott. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“It works on bringing back the basics of life, I would say: good food, good sleep, good exercise and screen-less beauty,” said Michael Gass, professor of outdoor education and director of UNH’s Outdoor Behavior Healthcare Research Center.

And then there’s the anecdotal evidence from people who say just being in nature changed their lives.

“This is really almost like a form of therapy for Toby,” Ranen said.

Maine has always been known for its thriving natural world. One of the state’s most famous examples: Poland Spring.

Hiram Ricker began selling water from his family’s spring in the mid-1800s. Soon, the bottled water — fabled for its medicinal properties — was in demand across the country.

“They had water depots in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Chicago. They’re selling it all over the country. In their publicity, they would print these catalogs, very extensive catalogs, pamphlets, brochures. And they’re getting testimonies all over the country, all over the world,” said David Richards, director of the Margaret Chase Smith Library in Skowhegan and author of the book “Poland Spring: A Tale of the Gilded Age.”

Demand was so great that Ricker turned the family farm into a seasonal resort. At its peak, Poland Spring had three hotels and served 2,500 to 3,000 people each summer. Guests, a lot of them prominent and fairly wealthy, tended to come from big cities that were hot, polluted, crowded and filled with disease. Poland Spring, in the center of rural Androscoggin County, Maine, was an oasis of clean water, cool breezes and open space.

By the early 1900s, Poland Spring’s popularity had waned. The Great Depression and two World Wars hurt business, and a new transportation craze made the situation worse. Trains had brought guests to Poland Spring in the 19th century, but cars took them away in the 20th.

Over the years, one building was destroyed by fire and another was taken down. The water and resort businesses were separated and sold. Tourism fell off.

But Poland Spring Resort survived. Now owned by Cyndi Robbins, it boasts an 18-hole golf course, Olympic-size swimming pool, hiking trails, kayaking and other outdoor activities.

In the 1800s, city dwellers wanted to get away from dirt, crowds and disease. Today, visitors want to get away from computer screens, job pressure and over scheduling.

Poland Spring Resort’s brochure for 2019 bills itself as a “stress free zone.”

“You can tell if somebody’s just been here an hour versus someone who’s been here overnight. They’ve come down from the craziness of the world,” Robbins said. “Most of the people who stay here are decompressing from the world.”

Jeff Brogan, owner of Maine Coast Explorers, stands in the Down East woods last winter. A couple of years ago, he also started offering “forest bathing,” which involves meandering through the woods to allow an immersive, deeper connection with nature. Photo courtesy Jeff Brogan

‘TREES AREN’T STRESSED’

Jeff Brogan sees that relaxation in his clients, too.

A registered Maine Guide, Brogan founded Maine Coast Explorers in the Ogunquit area more than 10 years ago. He takes clients — both Mainers and people from away — hiking, biking, paddle boarding, looking for wildlife. A couple of years ago, he also started offering “forest bathing,” a decades-old Japanese practice (known there as shinrin-yoku) that involves meandering through the woods to allow for an immersive, deeper connection with nature.

Almost half of his business is now forest bathing. And interest continues to increase.

“The concept of actually going into nature to heal oneself, it’s been there for years but it certainly isn’t mainstream. People are kind of waking up to that concept,” he said.

Forest bathing has become so popular in Maine that it’s made headlines in the Portland Press Herald, DownEast Magazine and on Maine Public Radio. People say they like it because it makes them feel more serene, less stressed, more joyful.

Various groups now offer professional-led forest bathing throughout the state. Bradbury Mountain State Park in Pownal, for example, will play host to forest bathing on Sunday, Nov. 24 and Saturday, Dec. 21, led by Jeanne Christie, a registered Maine Guide and nature and forest therapy guide. For those who feel more zen with a furry friend, both days include a 2-plus-hour morning walk for dogs and their people.

The Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust has offered forest bathing events for the past two summers and hopes to again. Program Director Nikkilee Cataldo said board members initially chuckled a bit at the thought of offering something so formal when Mainers are, historically, used to just getting up and taking a walk in the woods. But they knew, too, that not everyone communes with nature that easily. Not these days.

“Those stresses and challenges that most of us feel on a daily basis, those are modern creations. And when we get out into wild spaces and move our bodies, I think it’s easy for us to connect to that ancient self and sort of let go of that modern self. In the deepest sense, that’s what being out in wild places does for us,” Cataldo said. “Trees aren’t stressed.”

JUST PLAY

While forest bathing is the hot new outdoor trend, the old-fashioned activities are popular, too.

Through the Trees opened in 2017 specifically to connect kids and adults with the wonders of nature. The Topsham nonprofit now runs a variety of programs, including nature immersion camps and the after-school program Toby attends. Kids are encouraged to do something their parents probably grew up doing but they haven’t: play in the woods.

Wesley Scott balances on top of a large stack of truck tires at Through the Trees after-school program in Topsham. Quinn Griffin slides a plank into position for additional play as Amos Casoni, left, watches. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“We think kids should be kids, and so we let them run around and stomp through the woods and break sticks. All within the constraints of safety and respect and kindness and mindfulness, but we give them space,” said Jenn Casoni with Through the Trees. “We let them stomp in puddles and climb trees. All those things kids should do.”

Families, she said, notice a difference.

“What parents say is that their children seem much more calm and grounded after having been here,” she said. “It provides an outlet for their wild energy.”

In Stow, a Summit Achievement offers an outlet for kids who need greater help.

Founded in 1996, the wilderness therapy program helps about 20 to 30 teenagers at a time with depression, anxiety, substance use and other problems. The kids live, go to school and receive counseling on site, but they also spend half their week on outdoor expeditions, like backpacking, canoeing and snowshoeing.

Those outdoor adventures help teenagers build self-esteem, learn how to take care of themselves, work within a team and meet goals — all skills that can help once they go back home.

“It changes people’s lives. It changes perspectives,” said White, who co-founded Summit and wrote the book “Stories from the Field: A History of Wilderness Therapy.”

White and other experts say it doesn’t matter whether it’s summer or winter, the woods or the water; the slower pace of any natural environment helps soothe people used to a busy modern world.

“The speed that life is occurring is much faster than most of our processing abilities,” White said. “It’s the natural world. You’re going at the pace of it. You’re not going here, here, here, here, here.”

Nature as therapy has become a popular enough idea that “wilderness therapy” no longer seems unusual.

The children at Through the Trees after-school program in Topsham melt crayons over rocks heated in the campfire, an activity camp director Jenn Casoni says holds a lot of appeal to the kids because of the element of danger involved. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“I used to have to explain to people what we do,” he said. “Now it’s very rare that I have to explain it.”

The Maine Office of Tourism does not track health and wellness-based tourism, but a spokeswoman said officials there recognize it’s a growing trend. The 2018 Governor’s Conference on Tourism included a session on how Maine businesses could leverage interest in it. The office plans to work with other state agencies to tie the benefits of outdoor activities to well-being.

For Mainers who want to take advantage of the nature around them, experts have some advice.

• Don’t be afraid to go outside in the winter. You loved snow as a child; love it again as a grown-up.

• Keep it simple. Sitting under a tree can be as relaxing and rejuvenating as hiking a mountain.

• Be prepared. Don’t go wandering around the woods with a cellphone and nothing else.

• Look close to home. Your backyard is nature, too.

“Go out for a walk for an hour,” White said. “I bet you’re going to feel better.”

The Poland Spring House as shown in 1876. It eventually comprised over 350 guest rooms, a barber shop, dance and photography studios, pool room, music hall, bowling alley, dining facilities, fire sprinkler system and elevators, serving as the crown jewel of the resort grounds. And a testament to the public’s desire to “get away from it all” in nature. Courtesy Poland Spring Preservation Society


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