“The Japanese influence on forest therapy,” smiled Susan, as she looked up from her ornate cast iron teapot. “Take a seat.”
We all huddled around and watched as hot tea bubbled out of the teapot into delicate Japanese tea-cups.
“Don’t drink just yet. Wait until everyone is served. We will take our first sip together.”
We all sat in silence while teacups were passed around, and I felt the warmth of the cup permeate my fingers and hands. The tea was honey coloured, with hints of eucalyptus and citrus wafting from the rising steam.
“We’ve experienced the forest today with all our senses - with our sense of sight, sound, touch and smell. Now it’s time to taste the forest. This tea is made from the leaves of local plants,” Susan said.
Everyone in the circle now had a cup. I looked hopefully at Susan to give us the signal that we could drink. Instead, Susan started pouring another cup of tea. She held this cup up to the sky, reverently, and then to the four directions around us.
She then did something I wasn’t expecting - poured the entire cup’s contents onto the ground. “The first cup of tea is for the forest. To honour the forest and this land for giving so much to us over the last two hours. To show our respect and to give back.”
Wow. That was out of the ordinary. It reminded me of a trip I took to Broome,Western Australia when I was 15. Some local Indgenous people took me out to collect mudcrabs in the mangroves. We cooked and ate our catch but as we were leaving,, I saw the biggest crab was left whole and untouched next to the fireplace. I went to take it and was told: “Leave that there. That’s for the ancestors.”
I didn’t quite understand as a teenager, but I think I do now. Offering the forest the first cup of tea, leaving the best mud crab for the ancestors - these are symbolic rituals.. It doesn’t really matter whether the forest likes to drink a cup of tea, or if the ancestors actually eat the mud crab. Rituals like these force us to think beyond ourselves. To be aware of what other humans and non-humans provide for us and be grateful. To be less self absorbed and more respectful of all that has gone on before us, and all that supports us.
In that moment, seeing that first cup of tea offered to the forest, I immediately felt a sense of warmth and gratitude to the forest. And I saw it as a living, breathing entity - all of it, the beautiful trees I’d laid under, the birdsong I’d listened to, the smooth rocks I’d touched in the cold stream, the clouds I’d watched pass overhead, the fresh air I’d breathed in - all of it was the forest. And all of it deserved, my respect and appreciation for what it had just given me.
I now guide forest therapy groups,conducting tea ceremonies at the end of each walk, and the small ritual of offering the first cup of tea to the forest consistently has the same effect. It’s an act of reciprocity - I’m not just taking and expecting the forest to give me what I want.
Honouring this entity that is much larger than ourselves reminds me to be humble and thankful for the abundant gifts that nature is always offering us, whether we notice them or not.
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