by Mark Davies
In Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, you’ll find the Nyamandhlovu platform. Here, you can sit for hours and watch all Southern Africa’s wildlife visit the watering hole. Alongside elephants, giraffes and impala, you might find the lesser spotted Eco Monkey, luxuriating in the nature that gather there, year-round.
“It’s such a beautiful place,” the Eco Monkey – also known as Holly Barber – told me during our chat in early May 2022. “I feel very connected to Africa, when I go to Zimbabwe more than any other place,” she continued.
Holly told me that she feels most at home watching the wildlife pass by the Nyamandhlovu platform. “In the space of couple of hours, I’ve watched herds of elephants come through. Watched giraffes come. Hippos, crocodiles, baboons, warthogs, impala, kudu.”
It sounds incredible, I suggest. Holly concurs. “There’s something very special about being under an African sky and just watching life.”
I can see why. It must be almost overwhelming to see that many different species in their natural habitat. The closest I get is watching seagulls maraud along the seafront, guzzling stray chips left by careless tourists.
Evidently, that’s not quite the same.
A big life change
Being from the UK, the Eco Monkey wasn’t founded in Zimbabwe. For that, we need to travel to Playa Uvita in Costa Rica.
“I took myself off to Costa Rica for a month,” she said, talking about becoming frustrated with her job in 2019. “I knew I needed to make big life change. I knew I needed to make decisions. So, I went to one of my favourite places, a place I feel very connected to, which is Playa Uvita in Puntarenas Province on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica.”
She wandered up and down the beach, wondering what she wanted from life.
“To this day I don’t know whether it was the Pacific Ocean to one side of me or the jungle to the other, but something told me I wanted to be in nature.”
From there the Eco Monkey was born. It has evolved and grown since, eventually becoming what it is now: a way to help people with their wellbeing through a connection to nature.
But what does that really mean?
Harmony with the natural world
“In a practical sense, wellbeing through nature connection is going back to our roots. Going back to our origins.”
Holly explained that we all, ultimately, hark back to our hunter gatherer ancestors. But, to find our inherent connection with nature, we don’t need to go nearly as far back as that.
“Even in pre-Industrial Revolution times we were living in harmony with the natural world,” she said. “But we’ve lost that ability. We’ve lost that connection.”
And so, much like The Wellderness, Holly is using the Eco Monkey to reconnect people with nature. Her purpose is to help people with their wellbeing, as well as their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health.
“After the past two years, looking after your wellbeing is more important than ever,” Holly continued. “It has been a challenge on so many levels, going through lockdown and a global pandemic. Reconnecting with nature is a good way to centre, to ground and to bring a bit of wellbeing back into your life.”
It’s hard to disagree. During that first lockdown, when we were only allowed one hour to explore each day, there was an almost universal appreciation of nature as we found great comfort in the great outdoors. Even if we didn’t necessarily realise it at the time.
Holly’s work builds on that.
Nature as therapist
Her approach is centred around a common theme – nature as therapist.
A trainee of the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy guides and programmes (known as the ANFT because “quite frankly, that’s a mouthful”), Holly is a Forest Bathing guide and an Eco Nidra teacher.
She also works with corporate groups through the Wellbeing Inspired by Nature programme.
“I’m their first certified consultant in the UK,” she said. “Which is about bringing that wellbeing mindfulness into the workplace.”
The ANFT motto is “nature is the therapist; the guide opens the doors.” And, while Holly refers to natural forest therapy, she recognises that she’s not a therapist.
“I trust that my partner in this practice is the forest – is nature – and that nature will provide whatever you need in that moment, whether you realise you need it or not.”
We all experience nature differently and a reconnection with nature will affect us in a variety of ways. The same is true of Nature Therapy.
“For some people it can be a deeply emotional experience. It can be quite cathartic. It can be a release of so many things. It can be a joyous, uplifting experience.”
In her role as a Nature Therapy guide, Holly is there to open the door. What we find on the other side of that door is ours to own and to embrace.
Get out and play
Nature Therapy is “a very personal experience,” where participants are invited to explore nature, whether in a forest, on a beach or even in their own home.
Holly told me that she “quite consciously uses the term invitational, because there is no right or wrong way to take anything that is offered to you in a session.”
Participants are offered a suggestion – something they might want to explore in connection with the world around them – but each person will experience that in a different way.
“I might offer an invitation about exploring the different textures and bark of the trees around us,” she said. “It could be that I do sessions down on the beach and it’s around treasures that have been left by the tide.”
After each invitation (which could be up to 15 minutes) the group comes together to share their discoveries. This could be in words, movements, gestures – even silence. The important thing is to reconnect with nature and experience it differently.
“It’s also about bringing elements of play into it,” she continued. “As a child when you’re out in nature, play was an automatic thing. But as we’ve grown up, we’ve lost that ability.”
Nature Therapy challenges the idea that we mustn’t play as adults. As we explore, we should notice smaller details with the same wonder we had in our childhood. It’s something we lose as adults “because we’re too focussed on a destination, rather than on the journey.”
As a Nature Therapy guide, Holly doesn’t prescribe the outcome. Whether that means participants choose to play, to explore or just to sit in quiet contemplation. And that’s important, as no two experiences are alike.
In fact, no two sessions are alike. In many cases, the experience differs wildly within the same session.
Holly’s customers come from a variety of backgrounds and places, made easier using Zoom. While it may seem strange to practice a shared experience over something as impersonal as Zoom, it can bring people together, from all over the world.
Holly went on to say that people can be absolutely anywhere. After all, we’re as much a part of nature as the bees, trees and birds, so we’re always in touch with nature.
“If you look at indigenous cultures and languages, many don’t have a word for nature. Because, by giving nature a name, you’re separating it from yourself. And were not separate; we are nature, as much as everything around us.”
Our shared connection with nature is what brings people together during the Zoom sessions. While online sessions offer a more diverse experience, the nature of the sessions allows participants to share their connection.
In The Wellderness
Of course, we’re most interested in the sessions Holly hosts in person – particularly those that happen in the Wellderness.
We found each other through the power of “properly targeted social media,” which Holly knows all about as a part time marketing consultant. She saw a Facebook ad for our first event, and it spoke to her.
“I kind of went yeah! Nature photography? Tick. Tai Chi in the woods? Yep. Campfire cooking? Yes please.”
At the time, Holly was looking for partners and organisations to team up with to offer Nature Therapy, “so I booked my place, contacted The Wellderness and went ‘I’m coming along, it’d be great to talk to you about what I do.’ And you haven’t got rid of me since!”
Since coming to that first event, Holly has joined our incredible team of facilitators, as well as contributing regular Wellbeing Wednesday posts to our Facebook group.
To us, that’s testament to the power of nature. Whether it’s a Nature Therapy session in West Sussex or watching wildlife gather in Southern Africa, when we reconnect with nature, we build stronger connections with each other.
And that’s good for everyone.