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Exploring the Forest through Protactile: The DeafBlind Way

Co-authored by Summer Crider, Hayley Broadway, and Jessica Ennis, with participation of DeafBlind co-navigators Kim Powers, Riss Leitzke, and Kelly Monahan


Originally published on the blog of Association of Nature and Forest Therapy (ANFT)

Available in Spanish

 
“A simple touch can electrify happiness.” ~Yashaira Romilus, DeafBlind activist.

I am excited to share the abundance of discoveries that came from experimental collaborative efforts to do Forest Bathing with humans of various sensory differences, especially those who take the unbeaten path in our sensory pathways in ways most of society puts most value- the senses of hearing and sight. The experiences coming from these connections expanded my mind on various possibilities, opened my heart to many “arrow-to-the-heart” stories, and gave birth to many ideas on bringing in different sensory experiences through the less dominant sense, touch, for Human-Nature connection.


One of these collaborations came by way of co-facilitating a two-day camping trip with Jessica Ennis, a hearing sighted person who hosted the trip as part of their Master’s thesis research, and three DeafBlind participants. I joined this trip as a co-host, utilizing my forest therapy skills to craft invitations for the participants and then support them in crafting their own invitations for us to engage with together. Several excerpts from the master’s thesis Jessica wrote (“We had copresence and we didn’t need lights”: An Interspecies, Multisensory Ethnography of DeafBlind and Sighted People in the Woods,”publication forthcoming) on the subject are included in this blog post.


We deconstructed abled-bodied, visual-reliant and sound-reliant Nature connection experiences, and allowed Nature to join us to create more touching experiences. So instead of listening to birds, we felt the crackle of leaves under our feet. Instead of watching sunsets, we sensed the slow change of temperature and moisture- as day transforms to night. Instead of sharing our individual experiences passing a candle as in traditional Harvest/Sharing Circle, we interdependently created a fire and wove a shared experiences story together. Oh, what a delight to feel a deeper connection to Nature through protactile, the language of touch! The touch of hands, bodies, deep in conversation- whether it’s about philosophy, social & environmental justice, sharing of life stories, or just simply being in the present moment, describing how we feel… this is a deeply sensory embodiment experience.


Before I delve into story-weaving, I want to first emphasize the importance of naming my able-bodied privileges and honor the stolen ancestral land which these stories take place: the Tonkawa, Lipan Apache, Ysleta del sur Pueblo, Yaqui, Coahuitlecan, Alabama-Coushatta, Kickapoo, Carrizo & Comecrudo, Tigua Pueblo, Caddo, Comanche, Kiowa, Wichita, Chickasaw, and Waco peoples. This particular region, McKinney Falls, had enslaved people that had a part of this land’s history.

My written contribution to this blog comes from the perspective of an able-bodied, sighted Deaf person where my perspective on nature connection is mostly visual-based. While I have other disabilities, I do not live or navigate this experience connecting with Nature as a Blind person. So sharing stories in the form of story weaving, my part is mainly an observation with some co-navigating1 participation in exploring Nature. In this article, I will be using the term “co-navigating” rather than “guiding” (although I’m a certified guide and guiding is what I do) because in the DeafBlind world, sight-based “guides” set the deficit perspective that DeafBlind people are less than human, always in need for assistance, rather than looking at them as a full human being with diverse ways of navigating the world.


Most media, literature, research, and/or outdoor recreation programs value independence as being “successful”. Often we applaud DeafBlind or DeafDisabled people who accomplish things like hiking the Appalachian Trail, summiting a great peak, or are competitive runners, and portray them in ways that are less-than-humans who should be applauded or glorified for being able to achieve able-bodied accomplishments.To truly connect to Nature, we should try to follow the DeafBlind way in this partnership which puts a lot of value on interdependence, not independence.

Here, I explain what I’ve learned through this partnership and include comments and observations from DeafBlind participants themselves:


Earth Walking

How we move across the earth reveals a lot about us- our pace, sense of time, sense of balance, and navigational skills. One of the very important invitations I use with both DeafBlind and Deaf sighted able-bodied participants is to slow them down and Earthwalking is excellent for that.


During the retreat, we all “improvised” how to adapt the EarthWalk into Moving Across the Land collectively. First, we removed our shoes so our feet had a better connection to the soft grass, closed our eyes (and some of us used bandanas in blindfold) and we put our hands in front of us to ensure we did not run into each other- eventually, we moved closer and used our bodies to steady ourselves. We balanced ourselves, using one foot feeling the ground like a cane. Jessica Ennis shares their observation as a sighted hearing person in this exploration:


It was not easy to find our balance as a collective, but with practice we came into equilibrium. There is something interesting that happens to sighted perception while blindfolded. Some people question the purpose behind blindfolding sighted people, comparing it to disability simulations like using a wheelchair or playing sports with one arm restricted. However, the tactile sensory modality must be practiced. There is an attunement that comes with restricted vision.



[image description: three people earth walk barefoot on green groundcover]
[image description: three people earth walk barefoot on green ground cover]

Returning to the idea of channeling that Terra Edwards applied to the protactile movement,

imagine a stream of water.

If it is untouched, the water will continue to flow in the same channels it has been. If a stone is placed in that channel, however, the water will re-route, creating new channels. Similarly, as sighted people our tactile sensibilities must be honed, and while I have experienced extreme deprioritization of my visual modalities while in PT spaces, there are lessons that only closing one's eyes can reveal. Ennis, 53.

DeafBlind participant, Kim Powers, shares how this “embodiment” with the earth has a spiritual experience/connotation. She shares that:

Earth walking made me think about my ancestors. It inspired me. I wish I could travel back in time and learn from them.

When we slow down and move across the earth with intention and compassion, we are brought closer to our awareness of the beings that have “walked gently on the earth.” This also shows we developed reciprocity and relational connection.


Reciprocity


For me as a guide, witnessing DeafBlind people practicing reciprocity and interdependence supports our reciprocity with Nature and other humans. Using protactile out in nature makes my experiences feel deeper, more connective, and allows me to focus on other sensory experiences.

For example, making a fire blindfolded. My initial (sight-based) fearful reaction was that fire is dangerous, but being blindfolded caused me to experience making fire in a different way- slowly and with more attention to how things take shape underneath my fingers. It contributed to an improvement in my fire-making skills: I am much more able to make a fire quickly in the dark. The same was true for earth walking using protactile. When we walked together, we became interdependent and found our balance together. I had a greater understanding of how I walk and use other humans and trees, for example, to find balance. That could benefit me in a survival situation. If I’m hurt,I already have an inner sense of how to rely on the earth for balance.

We can use that inquiry to eradicate the fears that we have been socialized into around safety when it comes to connecting in nature with DeafBlind people. Reframing the fear of what may hurt us may help us learn how to survive. For example, the experience of making fire blindfolded can teach us as sighted people how to make fire in the dark. Our skills can be built by letting DeafBlind people lead and teach us. Let’s explore that more with DeafBlind protactile nature connection.


Building Safe Spaces & Guidelines- How We Interact with Trees


My experiences at the 2-day retreat helped me establish a container in which I created a safe space for other DeafBlind humans I met on my cross-country trip. At the retreat, Hayley Broadway shared a suggestion for developing stability in the early stages of earth walking:

“Each person could start practicing by holding onto a tree and walking around it. Once they have gained confidence walking with the tree, then they can let go of it and start to walk without the tree. That way, they have a foundation, an anchor to start.”

I tried this technique later on with Kelly, a DeafBlind participant whom I co-navigated in the forest that had access to a creek. The result of this helped Kelly overcome her fear. She commented in a testimonial:

When we walked through the trees, we got to know them by touching… I let go from touching the tree. I was nervous at first, but overcame that by connecting to the tree. Then we walked and entered the water (Kelly’s arms and Summer’s tree indicated a creek). I was nervous getting in the water, but touching and exploring things in the water with Summer- I learned how to overcome the fear myself and allowed myself to open up to more experiences. -Kelly Monahan (DeafBlind), guided on the ancestral land of Ojibwe.

[gif description: Summer/Kelly co-navigating in the woods, touching trees and wading in the creek]
[gif description: Summer and DeafBlind Kelly co-navigating in the woods, touching trees and wading in the creek]

Challenging the 5 sense myth: Sensory Embodiment, Tactile Learning, and Tea Plants

In literature discussing DeafBlind people, in instructions for leading nature connection exercises, and in the popular imagination, the myth of humanity’s five senses persists… [T]hese five senses have repeatedly been ranked, with sight and hearing assigned a higher value associated with thinking and reasoning and touch, taste, and smell being relegated to non-language… Vying for attention, however, are scientific and cultural counter-narratives accounting for a multitude of senses. (Ennis, 16)

Our experience of nature connection isn’t limited to five senses. Some say that there are up to fifty-four different senses. Nature connection can help us learn to trust our other 49 senses that we have lost when we disconnected ourselves from Nature. Many of us sighted Deaf people prioritize our vision over our other senses. Exploration beyond our dominant senses can lead to new discoveries, composing counter-narratives that challenge the myth of the five senses. When, for example, I encounter nature with DeafBlind people using my less dominant sensory modalities, my own neuroplasticity kicks in and enables me to notice sensory input that I otherwise may have overlooked. There is so much that we can learn and remember by using the sense of touch.


I believe that my experiences in protactile Nature Connection spaces allowed my sense of touch to be attenuated to notice and identify the sting of a nettle leaf without needing to have seen the leaf first. When I encountered the nettle while guiding a group of schoolchildren, my first thought was “Ouch! Prickly!!!” Then all of a sudden, I became excited!!!! “I think it’s stinging nettle! It fits the description of what my herbalist friends explained to me in ASL. I thought to myself. Let’s see if Seek (the Nature identification photo app I had on my phone) confirms this! And it did. This discovery justifies that we don’t have to identify things by the naked eye.


Another experience I had where I learned plants through protactile was the toothache tree. Jessica had knowledge of identifying so along with other DeafBlind participants, I learned that tasting leaves would help with our experience remembering. We can learn and experience Nature collectively. It’s actually more memorable that way. Blindfolded interaction with Nature doesn’t have to be a “cautious” thing, rather we could encounter new plants through touch. If we normalize our interaction with plants using our less dominant senses, we amplify our experience with sensory embodiment.



[gif description: DeafBlind participants interacting (touching, smelling, tasting) with toothache tree]
[gif description: 2 DeafBlind participants interacting (touching, smelling, tasting) with toothache tree]

Forest Breathing the DeafBlind Way- DeafBlind Time and TreeBreathing

As mentioned previously, there are power dynamics present between sighted and DeafBlind people when out in Nature. Sighted people often pity DeafBlind or DeafDisabled people for not having access to the outdoors. We ask ourselves how we can support them in overcoming that, but I think that’s the wrong framing. Instead, we should ask how we can work interdependently to learn how to connect to the more-than-human world based on interrogating the value we place on our dominant senses like sight, or the ability to walk a certain way across the landscape. I wonder, what if we let DeafBlind people lead? What if we asked them to teach us to slow down? How to sense time passing intuitively without relying on a watch? How to touch without letting fear control us and instead use touch to explore Nature?


While exploring a “Forest breathing” invitation with a mixed group of sighted and Deafblind individuals, another discovery was made. At first, I taught some deep breathing techniques (including a 4-7-8 yoga breathing), but it became awkward because it was presented in ASL which was visually based. So modifying the activity to be more tactile-based, we stood up and moved over and huddled around a larger tree where our hands could touch the tree and each-other. My intention had been that we would, as a group, run our hands up and down the tree trunk in the same 4-7-8 pattern that we had just practiced. Hayley, a DeafBlind participant, suggested some modifications:

When we had moved from sitting in a circle practicing breathing to breathing with the tree, some people were confused and said that it would have been better to work on breathing one-on-one and make sure the different phases of the activity were scaffolded better before coming back together. When teaching a breathing exercise, [rather than fingerspelling numbers] we could count using taps for the first few rounds and then slowly transition to dropping the taps and just moving our hands up and down to indicate inhalation, exhalation, and holding our breath. (Ennis, 44)

This was a beautiful invitation that was two-fold: we learned to breathe without relying on sight, rather with our sense of touch, and then we moved our bodies along the tree- so we could be aware of our breathing together, interdependently- with each other and with the Forest.


Figuring Out How To Sign Forest Bathing in Protactile

One of the new invitations I created from my cultural and linguistic integration into this practice and honoring the origin of the word: shinrin-yoku. That Japanese word translates into English: “FOREST TAKING IN” which then in Japanese Sign Language translates into “FOREST/TREES” “BREATH IN” “FEELS GOOD”. But both of the signs (American and Japanese versions) use a lot of air space, which is difficult to catch while blindfolded because of similar signs like “CHEERING/APPLAUSE” and “WILD”- the DeafBlind participants decided to morph the signs into something more fitting for the tactile reception. So using the Japanese sign as a base, Kim, Hayley, and I adapted it into a kind of protactile chant. While we were figuring this out, Jessica wrote their observation of this trilingual language morphing… cascading like a waterfall:

Standing in a circle, hands touching in a reciprocal position of simultaneous expression and listening, they raised their hands, fingers spread and shaking as though branches and leaves on trees. Once their hands were outstretched, united in the middle, almost shimmering with movement, they each brought their right hand, still fluttering, flat against the chest of the person beside them, as in TAKING IN the forest. Still listening with their left hands, each of them rubbed up and down as a nod to the JSL sign for YOKU (feels good, well). They then once again fluttered their fingers, swirling their hands together around the whole circle, brushing each other’s shoulders with their fingertips as they went around, their fingers evoking the phytoncides that swirl in our midst when we commune with trees. They ended with a group hug. I was just a visual observer of this, but I paused what I was doing and caught it on camera. I found it fascinating that a phrase can be made up by the Japanese government, translated into English, and then that an American Deaf person obtained a JSL translation, adapted it to fit ASL, and then we again translated it into protactile. (Ennis, 52)


[gif description: Three people hugging after signing shinrin yoku in PT.]
[gif description: Three people play with the “Shinrin-yoku” sign in protactile.]

[gif description: Three people hugging after signing shinrin yoku in PT.]
[gif description: Three people hugging after signing shinrin yoku in PT.]


TakeAway: There is DeafBlind Gain in Nature Connection

Now, after over a year of co-navigating as a “guide”- I’ve integrated and shared the lessons I’ve learned through meeting with other DeafBlind people who came across my path. These experiences have transformed my guiding practice and there is much more yet to be discovered. A DeafBlind participant who did not have much exposure to Nature Connection using protactile commented:

It was an amazing experience. Before this workshop and because of the pandemic, I felt I lost all my connections to nature. [After this Forest Bathing experience] I felt reconnected and made friends!”- Riss Leitzke (DeafBlind queer person), guided on the land of Dakota.

Re-connection with other humans is very important in this process of healing together- especially during the pandemic. Rather than isolating ourselves, we invite you to participate in healing the relationships between humans and the more-than-human world. We should always examine our edges (or fears) and deconstruct how we should interact with nature based on sensory prioritization. Rather than thinking about how to guide people with “vision loss”, be open to the possibilities of “blind gain”- what do we gain from simply closing our eyes and experiencing the world of Nature through touch? The answers come when you let DeafBlind people guide you to connect with your senses in ways you aren’t used to.


[gif description: An adult and DeafBlind DeafDisabled child communicate outdoors through touch]
[gif description: An adult and DeafBlind DeafDisabled child communicate outdoors through touch]

My intention with sharing these stories is to “bring to light” (although we don’t need light) to how the sensory pathway of touch has so much to offer, like underground mycelium, to show what we discovered together, interdependently. Let's make the time and effort to get together and “give nature some love”. I look forward to more transformative Human-Nature connection experiences like this.


Basil Braveheart, the Ogala Lakota elder who I met during my travels, recounted a phrase from his grandmother when talking about spirituality and the Forest: “What You See Is Supported By What You Don’t See”. Like the roots of trees that we don’t see, I believe the intricate possibilities of Nature Connection could be shown by not seeing, but experiencing together- through interbeing.

So this is my experience, with much gratitude to the DeafBlind community for their patience, willingness, modeling of interdependence, and shared experiences/stories, so that I may share this with you all.


Note: All photos/videos taken with the knowledge of permission of the DeafBlind participants.

Co-navigators and Co-Authors:

Hayley Broadway: Hayley is a Protactile expert with experience in curriculum design, teaching, and working with families of DeafBlind children. From special education major to co-navigating the systematic oppressions as a DeafBlind person, working mom, and planting seeds everywhere she goes, Hayley truly believes that there are many avenues to take, with creativity and reciprocal relationships and shared experiences, there is a way to learn and nurture outside of the system. She believes that there is not a need to understand ourselves medically: that does not define who we are as human beings, and our purpose. She has found power through community work and immersion, powering through with resilience, and striving for reciprocity. Check out the TouchSeeds website


Jessica Ennis: Jessica is a queer sighted, hearing settler who resides at the confluence of three ecoregions in Central Texas. They are a student of the plants and other beings that make up this place. Jess is especially interested in finding a life in common, building autonomy through multimodal networks of care. They can be contacted by email: ennis.jessica at gmail.com


Summer Crider: Summer, deaf queer sighted, has a passion for finding ways to bring in restorative and healing justice dialogue within communities and folks with marginalized identities. An avid environmentalist with a deep interest in connecting humans and the more-than-human world through the practice of Nature/Forest Therapy- Summer finds creative ways to help restore that primal and natural bond through experimental cultural storytelling and other forms of healing practices. Their website is www.thegivingcypress.com




*Land acknowledgement: Retreat was hosted at McKinney Falls State Park, on the indigenous land of the Tonkawa, the Apache, the Ysleta del sur Pueblo, the Lipan Apache Tribe, the Texas Band of Yaqui Indians, the Coahuitlecan, the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas, the Kickapoo Tribe of Texas, Carrizo & Comecrudo, Tigua Pueblo, Caddo, Comanche, Kiowa, Wichita, Chickasaw, and Waco peoples.



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