Bodies of Evidence
A Forest Therapy Guide Finds Her Church
by Kimberly Ruffin
Kimberly Ruffin is a Certified Nature and Forest Therapy Guide who leads walks and gives talks in the Chicagoland area and wherever else she is called to serve. She is the author of Black on Earth: African American Ecoliterary Traditions and Associate Professor of English at Roosevelt University.
Dawline-Jane Oni-Eseleh is an Oakland-based visual artist whose current work is focused primarily on the shifting urban landscape. An avid observer and photographer, she uses a range of media in her work, including relief printmaking, pen and ink, photo transfer, and encaustic.
As Kimberly Ruffin revisits her upbringing and spiritual heritage, she compiles the bodies of evidence that have invigorated her spirit. She explores where “spirit power” can be found, both within a church community and in the places where faith rises up within the land.
Mama, you win. I joined church today. You and Aunt Louise said it would happen, and sure enough, here I am, a Certified Nature and Forest Therapy Guide with a church home. It’s not because I found the Truth, though. Not sure I need that anymore. It’s just that, when it comes to belief, the phrase that feels right to me instead is “body of evidence.” I’m a church member and forest therapy guide because, in my life, there are two bodies of evidence that are compelling and undeniable.
Getting here wasn’t quick and easy, and if I’m honest, I don’t know if this is my final destination. Even if it isn’t, I am going to hang out here awhile. My spirit feels good in my body. There have been lots of twists and turns on this faith-journey. I’ve wrestled with being both a Christian with more interest in earth than heaven and a firm believer in religious pluralism who knows that an earth-based religion would not be enough for me. Free from finding the one and only “TRUTH” in a religious doctrine, I know faith is my evidence-based real thing. Faith is the method we use to support the spirit of our human animality. It’s what fills us up, keeps us ready, and calls us out of the grayness of a Chicago winter. Poised between two bodies of evidence, I’ve found my faith. Nature is my church, and church is in my nature.
As a kid, I learned about the outdoors as a faith fact through my elders, my mom, and my little life. On my dad’s side, seared in my memory is my cocoa-brown elders’ skin glistening in the sun as they relaxed in the ecological wealth of their minimalist North Carolina farm home. Deep peace from a life lived close to the land emanated from their hearts and their faces. Grandpa Rufus, a collard green wrangler, grew a garden on his small city plot into his nineties. Mama’s the baddest self-trained landscape artist in the Chicagoland area. And I had a bike and a “go outside until dinner’s ready” kind of childhood. I learned that the outdoors is where important stuff happens—you would want to be out there.
The church is one of my faith facts too. This body of evidence was built by Black folks. Wherever we lived in my Navy-brat childhood, from Virginia to California, we went to church. Sometimes it was a church on a Navy base with a chaplain, orange juice, White people, and lots of guitar. More often, it was a Black church with a gospel choir and long sermons peppered with call and response. Mom looked extra hard for the Black churches, and now I see why.
Even if they don’t comprehend all of a minister’s exegesis, squirmy kids in the pews with crayons in hand get exposed to the human culture a church supports. Black churches are usually a direct pathway to places where our humanity is not in question. Little babies come under this protective covering and have neuropathways formed in a place where church ladies and gentlemen smile at you and a congregation awaits your performance in an Easter play. Even those no-nonsense ushers look at you with eyes that seem to say, “Yeah, you belong here, but you betta sit down where you’re supposed to” and “No, you can’t come in yet; it’s time to pray. Hands this way.” Black women and men in authority transforming congregations through word, deed, and song. Spirit power. Brenda Dixon Gottschild explains, “The spirit power in a traditional black church service is generated by the active body-and-soul participation of the communicants. Spirit stirs voices to shout spontaneously and moves bodies to stand, stomp, or wave lifted arms.… All emergent manifestations of spirit are embraced, and waiting arms catch the enraptured ones before they fall, just as consonant voices join in with the person who shouts ‘Hallelujah!’ or ‘Yes, Lord!’ Spirit heals soul and reinvigorates soul power.”1 Black, spirit-filled bodies made strong. Any nonsense about Black inferiority in racist, sexist America thrown at my mind was deflected off the walls of the Black church. Tenderness and opportunities to grow were there and, yes, some boundaries too.
Nature is my church, and church is in my nature.
My teen years were filled with “Controversy” and lots of other nasty Prince music. (Prince knew his Bible though, especially that Song of Solomon, the sultriest book of the Bible.) I was questioning things constantly. Lord knows what my Sunday School teachers endured. Atheism seems to have a tinge of truth, but absolutely no Spirit. Rants and righteousness, yes, but no good music. Bummed out by the feeble expressive culture of atheism, I kept searching. I went way out there. But that “Jesus was a Vampire” sticker in my spiral notebook … well, I don’t blame that on nobody but my buddy Marybeth. Sorry, Mama, I didn’t mean it. Dad, thanks for saying Mom shouldn’t have been looking in my makeshift diary no way. I was just searchin’. I was a nerdy, New Wave teenaged kid in 1980s, Boy-George-inspired fashion, pushing boundaries and going every Sunday to a Black church that put up with me anyway. I left my teen years with an understanding of Christian fundamentals, church culture, religious pluralism, and questions about where exactly to put my faith.
Faith is so necessary, because supporting your human animality as a Black person in this day and age is no joke. You’ve got to deal with the cards dealt to other modernized, urbanized, digitalized, and globalized human beings on a planet that’s warming up and flooding at the same time. Then, you got to deal with this heap of hot mess from other people: racism, sexism, colorism, heterosexism, classism, ableism, and ageism. Anytime, any-damn-where, this shit can pop up on you, especially in this age of tRump. Monkey “jokes” and blackface STILL making the rounds among these idiots. Every racist White person thinks they’re deputized to police Black folks doing anything. Every Black woman I am—and every Black man I love—at risk. As Taryn Finley’s “Existing While Black” online series shows, we’re surveilled shopping, working, driving, talking, walking, moving, sleeping, waiting, parenting, having fun, fishing, selling, and eating.2 Makes me wanna holler or at least go outside where I don’t have to deal with these fools. I can hang out with the trees; they never call the police on me.
All the stress from human community “othering” takes a significant bodily toll on Black people. Public health researcher Arline Geronimus calls the body blows from stress “weathering.” She says that it “causes a lot of different health vulnerabilities” and contributes to the “early onset of chronic diseases, in particular, hypertension and diabetes.” In an NPR story about Geronimus’s work, Nina Martin and Renee Montagne report, “Her research even suggests it accelerates aging at the molecular level; in a 2010 study Geronimus and colleagues conducted, the telomeres (chromosomal markers of aging) of black women in their 40s and 50s appeared 7 1/2 years older on average than those of whites.”3 Can you imagine the impact of enslavement on Black bodies during the antebellum period? Black folks didn’t just succumb, though. They had the church and the outdoors; sometimes they mixed the two together in secret backwoods ceremonies, maroon communities, and revivals. As an adult, I’ve finally decided to put my faith in the two-piece combo of nature and church, because of the body of evidence left by my ancestors, my elders, and my very skin and bones.
But make no mistake: I have no Disneyfied, Bambi-realness version of nature. Global climate change is now; poisonous plants are real, and mosquitoes call me “Sweet Thang.” But if there was a cheerleading team for Planet Earth, I would try out for the Over 35 Cheer Squad until my feet bled. If anything deserves a worldwide, multicultural cheer team, isn’t it Mother Earth? “The air we breathe. (Cartwheels … ) The water we drink. (Foot stomps … ) The food we eat. (Claps and shouts … ) Hell Yes! Give Mother Earth Your Best … Gooooo Earthlings!!!”
I have no rose-colored glasses about the Black church either. It’s an institution with a past and a present filled with plenty of hurt and imperfect human beings, myself included. But it’s a method with an untold number of individual and collective reasons to believe. Even my dad goes to church now. In my youth, the fact that he didn’t go to church stood as a steady example that critiquing religion was okay, as long as you did so as an adult in the confines of your home. We sometimes tease him about coming around. Lightly, though. Don’t want to mess up my mom’s church date. Nostalgia didn’t bring us to church, though; it’s an active, collective friend of our spirit and The Spirit. Just right for our souls.
We’re going to need any and every life-giving nature practice we can find to turn this ship around.
Since I’m a new member at my church, I’m gon be quiet about the forest therapy thing for a while. This will give me more time to check out the scene and see how the two parts of my faith might come together. For now, I’m mighty happy just having each of them on their own. Forest therapy came at a time in my life filled with midlife disappointment and an overreliance on a cerebral connection to nature’s delights. I had grown weary of one wing of American nature practice that was starting to feel a little ascetic: silence, stillness, and solitude. (Picture John Muir in rain-drenched clothing perched in a tree during a windy storm.) While I respected the need for any of those things on occasion, I longed for something more. Forest therapy gave me more, in the nick of time. It’s a Western take on the Japanese practice of “shinrin-yoku,” which is translated in English as “forest bathing.” The worldwide scientific community is accumulating an impressive body of evidence on its effectiveness in supporting human health; however, I know firsthand that it works. Focused on inviting sensory connections to nonhuman nature through easy-paced group walks, it’s complementary with the best of what I’ll call Black nature practice: dance, song, and all-a-y’all. Steppin’ under the stars at an outdoor dance festival, camp meeting sing-alongs, and somebody else out there besides me, ‘cause you don’t know ‘bout these racist folks and people who mean you harm. Like Native American hip-hop artist Supaman said, “The power of the song is shown through our movement and connect[s] us with the earth. Dance like everybody’s watching.”4 Whether it be outdoor dance or forest therapy, a sensory connection to nature opens us up to the wonders of being human bodies in our first home—the outdoors.
We’re going to need any and every life-giving nature practice we can find to turn this ship around. We need a new human animality that will let us make the rigorous changes on individual, governmental, and industrial levels that will reinvigorate us as caretakers of the life support system that is this planet. My faith has shown me that we need to avail ourselves of human communities that nourish us and the more-than-human nature connections that help us enjoy the (re)discovery of our embeddedness in this planet.
Inside church, I’m guided by a pastor and a fierce music ministry. Given what the Black church has given me, I’m convinced that tithing may just be debt repayment. Outside, with my forest therapy hat on, I guide others too. Thankfully, new members’ classes at church will be during the winter when there’s no conflict with forest therapy walk season.
Next question is:
Will I join the choir?
No matter how that gets answered, “I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living” (Psalm 27:13, NIV).
- Brenda Dixon Gottschild, The Black Dancing Body: A Geography from Coon to Cool (New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2003), 228.
- Taryn Finley et al., “Existing While Black: What Does It Feel like When Every Move You Make Is Policed?” accessed December 11, 2008, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/interactives/existing-while-black.
- Nina Martin and Renee Montagne, “Black Mothers Keep Dying after Giving Birth: Shalon Irving’s Story Explains Why,” NPR’s All Things Considered, Special Series: “Lost Mothers: Maternal Mortality in the US,” accessed December 11, 2018, https://www.npr.org/2017/12/07/568948782/black-mothers-keep-dying-after-giving-birth-shalon-irvings-story-explains-why.
- Supaman, “Dance like Everyone Is Watching,” accessed December 11, 2018, https://www.facebook.com/Supamanhiphop/videos/10155131608833636/?v=10155131608833636.