Today the longing for origin and idyllic nature is greater than ever. In the Almtal in the Salzkammergut region of Traunsee-Almtal, people seek out authentic, vibrant experiences in the forest – and thereby promote their own health.
It’s a foggy, damp Monday morning in November. A kind of day when it’s hard to get the children out of the bed. However, today is different. This day has been anticipated with high expectations. The classroom chairs of the primary school’s third form remain empty today. Excitedly, the children explain that today they are attending the ‘forest school’. The name itself promises a great adventure. The 18 children are unusually quiet as they step off the bus at Scharnstein in Almtal. To the amazement of their teachers, they line up without any prompting. Fritz Wolf, who brought forest pedagogy to Austria, meets the group in front of a former feed stall. Using various types of wood from his 50-hectare forest, Wolf has lovingly renovated the stall into the forest school. He’s wrapped in a green, all-weather cloak made of loden cloth and is wearing a hunter’s hat and high, black boots. Seeing his outfit immediately brings to mind the saying: ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad gear.’ Without a word of greeting, Wolf leads the group up the wooden stairs into the hut. An hour ago, he lit a fire in the oven, and now it’s cosily warm. The flickering of the fire through the oven’s window is as calming as the gentle expression on the 70-year-old’s face. The children take their seats on wooden benches. Concentrated and attentive, they listen to the words of Fritz Wolf. They have no idea that today they will walk barefooted and blindfolded along the forest floor, wade through the water of a stream, create artwork from pine cones, wood and brush and even make their own firewood.
Thanks to the UN-Decade with a World Action Program for Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), sustainability is on everyone’s minds. Sustainable development should serve as a guiding principle in all areas of education in order to solve global problems such as climate change, poverty or the exploitation of nature. With forest pedagogy, Fritz Wolf has been bringing this concept to schools and nursery schools as well as into adult education forums for a long time. Company groups often come to him for outings and professional development. “Some companies come to me in the forest in order to develop a feel for what sustainability means. It helps them find ideas for more sustainable production of their products.”
Wolf is happy to provide insight into his ecological ‘organic forestry’, as he calls it. In the meantime, he has handed the work over to his son who is the fifth generation to manage the family forest. “We watch to see how the trees react to climate change, plant the most species-diverse mixed forests possible and favor those tree species that grow well independently. The next generation will profit from my work,” says Wolf. “I can only lay the foundation for my decedents. That is the fate of us foresters.” From Wolf’s perspective, forestry professionals who focus on the annual bottom-line don’t truly understand the forest. For 45 years, he taught in a forestry education centre. “Throughout my professional life, I have been able to combine the most fantastic careers: forester, teacher, farmer and hunter.” His forest school in Almtal celebrates its 25-year anniversary this year. Over the decades, Wolf has trained thousands of forest educators. Even in retirement, he continues to be involved in the training for forest pedagogy at the Federal Office for Research and Forestry.
“People have continually distanced themselves from nature. This is a development that I’ve sadly observed during my forest tours,” the thoughtful forest expert explains. “More and more young people grow up without coming into contact with living nature. Both rural children and those in the city. I grew up on a farm. The forest, meadows and streams were my companions. We built treehouses and dammed up water with stones. These days, this is seldom the case. At the same time, the longing for nature is stronger than ever,” Wolf says. For this reason, the forest ambassador finds his ‘diplomatic mission’ even more critical. “The forest is good for us. We intuitively feel this.” In fact, the healing bond between mankind and nature is much stronger than previously thought.
‘Shinrin-yoku’ or ‘bathing in the forest air’ or ‘forest bathing’ for short is a natural cure method from Japan. It has long been considered a healthcare provision there and can even be prescribed by a doctor. Forests absorb chemical messengers called terpenes. It has been scientifically proven that these terpenes have a positive impact on the human body – especially on the nervous system, psyche and immune system. The magical atmosphere of an intact ecosystem, the power of trees, the gentle whisper of the wind blowing through the branches. Hiking along forest paths has a therapeutic effect on people. Enjoying the peace of the forest and opening all the senses to focus on the here and now. The forest achieves something that we often think is impossible – to turn off the voices in our heads for a short time. Anything that enlivens the body and mind promotes good health, improves the spirit and can help prevent burn-out.
Cooperation with nature conservation and the tourism industry is a very important matter for the ‘eco-forester’ Wolf. Therefore, the forest school and forest pedagogy make up one of the ten Waldness® experience branches of the innovative tourism concept of the Almtal. Under the guidance of trained Waldness®-Coaches, massages are also offered in the forest. Wald-Wyda, the yoga of the Celts, is practiced on the banks of the Alm River. A mountain pine bath, a forest buffet, forest cooking, a forest Kneipp programme, unwinding in special, regionally-manufactured relaxation furniture in the forest – all of these options are available for booking complete with a clearly defined assurance of quality. Since the beginning of 2018, the Almtal has been distinguished as the first Waldness®-Destination in Europe and entices visitors during both the warm and cold seasons. “To take a group into the forest with snow on the ground during a full moon is the most beautiful tour that I can have,” Wolf enthusiastically states.
In general, one can quickly find rest, regeneration and recreation in the forest. As an example, Wolf tells about professional stressed-out course participants who had run out of steam. “An hour-long walk through the forest and the batteries are often recharged,” he says smilingly. After a week-long seminar with Wolf, one burn-out patient had the following words of thanks: “that helped me more than a year of therapy.” A 70-year old woman broke out in tears during a barefoot walk over the forest floor because she felt so strongly transported back to her childhood. Wolf reports of ‘math-challenged’ children who go to the forest to learn Maths. “The forest as a location for learning is very special. While only the intellect is stimulated in the classroom, the entire brain of the child is activated in the forest. At the same time, it also imparts peace and harmony.” In fact, one can read about this aspect in Silvia Luger-Linke’s book Im Wald kann man mit allem Rechnen. Thus, for the sensitive forest educator, the many human encounters in his forest school have proven to be ‘no one-way street’ – as he puts it. “Naturally, I always contribute something. But the echo that I receive back is much stronger for me. The many life stories and worldly wisdom. Knowledge and information from the most diverse viewpoints – it’s simply indescribable.”
Dusk has already fallen as the school bus heads out with 18 children aboard. They all proudly wear a wooden pin on their jackets. Each pin is a smoothly sanded cross-section of a branch from the forest of Fritz Wolf and a beautiful memento of a day which has passed much too quickly from their perspective. They sleepily look out the windows onto the landscape as it sinks into a dark blue. The moon shines above. They can’t quite remember the exact wording of the poem that the man with the cloak and hat read to them in the forest. However, they can remember the feeling and that it was good.
Do you see the moon there?
It is only half visible
And yet it is so round and fair.
Thus it is with many things:
We thoughtlessly mock them
Because we cannot see them.
(From ‘Evening Song’ by Matthias Claudius, translation by Richard Wigmore, https://www.oxfordlieder.co.uk/song/2651)