How to Heal Trauma in Nature

"As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives. - Henry David Thoreau, Walking

For Thoreau, a path in nature was a pathway of healing.

When he connected a path on the ground with a path in the mind, he did not know about neuroscience. Since then, a medical revolution has revealed the wonders of neuroplasticity. Our thoughts travel along neural pathways that become more ingrained with repetition.

This is a message of hope because anyone with a little knowledge and determination can change their thought patterns in about 42 days. It's a process called "rewiring".

However, the same research shows that the subconscious emotional mind, functioning below conscious awareness, operates up to nine seconds ahead of the conscious mind. It's not enough to have a single thought. You need as much knowledge, training and practice to override powerful and instinctive subconscious patterns as you do to move safely and joyfully over a wilderness track.

I ponder this while walking the rough track between Big Hellfire Hut and the next destination, Mason's Bay Hut. After so many weeks of walking, the mind soon slides into an easy groove  while the body does what it needs to do. It's a wonderful feeling of inner cooperation that allows the imagination to take wing.

However, not all trails are smooth and not all thought patterns are joyous.

Take trauma. Today, we know so much about how the chemical composition of the brain changes in response to a terrifying event. People who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder are quick learners. They have learned to fear a situation, person or event in milliseconds. In an instant, a new neural pathway is laid down and becomes reinforced over time.

Trauma is an uncontrollable, runaway process that lies beyond conscious control.

Yet, walking down this trail, I'm reminded again and again that our ancestors lived close to nature. And nature is as much a place of violence, blood and death as it is of peace, growth and life. The Maori who lived here engaged in warfare as a lifestyle and trained boys from the age of five to be warriors.

What process allowed Maori warriors to reintegrate safely back into their iwi or tribe after extended and brutal war expeditions?

The question is relevant because today we're seeing unprecedented levels of PTSD and associated symptoms in American, British, European, Australian and NZ servicemen and women returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I am told that more US servicemen have taken their own lives than have been killed in combat.

Out here, it is possible to tap into a sense of grief that this is the case and a renewed feeling of determination to play a role, no matter how small, in preventing further loss.

From the perspective of a former Army officer who went to war three times and from the viewpoint of a therapist who works in this area, I believe it is not the event that is the problem.

The problem is how much stress a person has at the time of the event. Our modern, fast-paced, over-crowded and socially-isolated life creates high levels of stress. The higher their stress level, the more sensitive a person is to an event.

It seems it takes only one too many stressful events to tip a stressed person over the edge into full-blown trauma.

Maoris, with such a strong sense of belonging to their iwis and tribes as well as to nature and with a rich history of myth and legend, were not stressed. Therefore, they could cope with the daily traumas of life, so much better.

Fortunately, we have a simple and elegant solution.

The way to heal traumatic memories is a three-step process. First, relax the mind and reduce stress levels. Second, neutralise the fear associated with the event. And third, "rewire" new and much more positive thought patterns.

It works in an indoor clinic setting. I've proved that over and over. However, this process will work even more swiftly in nature's therapy room.

I am going to bring former servicemen into wild settings like this to show them how to walk a trail of healing on the ground and in their minds.


"How do you spend long nights on the trail?"

Long Nights

One of my readers asked, "How do you spend long nights in the outdoors?"

The answer is, "Much as I'd spend a long night indoors."

I toss and turn, read a book on my iPhone, snooze and wake up again. If it's raining, I feel for leaks and tweak guy ropes. If I'm chilly or overheated, I put on more clothes or I take some off. If I'm sore or aching, I take an aspirin. I may even go through the effort of making a hot drink. If I want an adventure, I break camp and walk by head-torch.

At the start of a tramp, I curse, moan, question what I'm doing and laugh in disbelief at my stupidity in thinking this would be fun and enjoyable. Why forego the haven of a warm cosy bed next to my luscious wife for this?

The reality is that long nights will outnumber short ones but if I put comfort to one side, they are no different to ones indoors.

You still have to master your mind and this is where it gets interesting.

I remind myself that waking during the night has been the norm for most of human history. In fact, broken nights (or segmented sleep patterns) are still the rule and not the exception in many cultures around the world. For example, anthropologists embedded in contemporary hunter-gatherer societies report that their subjects are some of the happiest and well-rested people on the planet, despite waking up at night for extended periods.

Social scientists and historians also reveal that our pre-industrial forebears followed similar segmented sleeping patterns. The "Myth of the 8 Hour" sleep may be just that. When you take a longer term view, it can come as a pleasant surprise to acknowledge that we are "hardwired" to have two distinct chunks of sleep a night.

I tell myself that long nights on the trail are simply nature's way of recalibrating a more natural rhythm of rest. I don't need  a unbroken sleep to perform well the next day and nor do you.

One of my delights is to slip into a sound and refreshing at midday sleep in the same way that a modern day hunter-gatherer does. It is good for the brain as well as the body and surely contributes to the sense of intense well-being nearly all trampers experience after just a few days on the trail.

Knowledge is power. In this instance, knowing that it is normal and beneficial to awaken during the night helps me relax about it. The more relaxed I feel, the shorter the night seems.

I may not be as comfortable on the trail as I would be indoors. But when I lie awake at night, knowing I am cradled in the arms of Papa-tu-a-nuku, the Earth Mother, and blanketed by Rangi-nui, the Sky Father, I feel at home.

"You're Guaranteed to See a Kiwi"

Stewart Island Brown Kiwi Tokoeka

The DOC ranger in Oban had assured me, "You're guaranteed to see a kiwi in the wild." Yet four days into the trail, I had only heard their screeching calls. One by one, gleeful trampers reported sightings but not me. I tried not to show my despondency. It surprised me, how much I hungered for a glimpse of this shy, ground-dwelling, nocturnal bird. The longing might have been founded on a Maori woman's insight a year before, long before I thought about undertaking this te araroa through NZ. She told me with clairvoyant certainty that kiwi, the guardian of the forest, was my totem and guide.

To be honest, I felt disappointed about the unglamorous association. Who wants to be linked to such a dull, brown, dumpy, short-sighted, earth-probing bird? They can't even fly!

But when I read about how much Maori esteem kiwi, I changed my mind.

In Maori mythology, all living things are descended from the union between Rangi-nui, the Sky Father, and Papa-tu-a-nuku, the Earth Mother. Two children came from the joining: Tangaroa, who brought the fish and other sea-going creatures into being and Tane-mahuta, who made the forests, birds and humans.

Tane-mahuta's first-born, Kiwi, took on the role of protecting the children that followed.

Somehow, the natural order became imbalanced. Insects multiplied and feasted on the trees, causing them to grow sick and die.

Tane-mahuta summoned the birds for a family conference to deal with the crisis. He asked for a volunteer to leave the forest canopy and live on its floor where it could hunt the insects and protect the trees.

One by one, the birds refused. Tui feared darkness. Pukeko disliked cold and damp. Pipiwharauroa was too busy building a nest.

Only Kiwi agreed to forsake his love of sunlight and the company of his tree-dwelling family.

Overjoyed, Tane-mahuta nonetheless wanted to make sure Kiwi understood the magnitude of his decision. He warned the bird that he would have to grow thick strong legs and a long ugly beak to break apart rotting logs and dig into the damp earth, that he would lose his coloured feathers and wings and that he could never return to the canopies above.

Even so, Kiwi accepted his losses and stood by his choice.

Tane-mahuta rewarded the selfless bird by making him the most beloved and famous of all his creatures. Today, the kiwi is a national symbol and shows the qualities that all human Kiwis admire: integrity, courage and humility.

And what of the birds that refused Tane-mahuta's plea? He punished Tui by giving him the white throat feathers of a coward, by banishing Pukeko, the swamp hen, to the marshes and by preventing Pipiwharanuora, the cuckoo, from ever building another nest.

After hearing this tale, I had decided, "Give me a kiwi any day and to hell with glamour!". After all, I'm the eldest of my siblings,  into blundering over trails at night and prefer muted colours. And I'm growing more short-sighted by the year.

I also love forests. One purpose in walking this land is to showcase its imperilled beauty to others. If our children, recent immigrants and politicians do not value it, then we'll lose it for future generations. Once again, nature is out of balance and Tane-mahuta's beloved forests are under threat.

While I walked just after dawn on the fourth day, a fleeting grey shape darted across the path.

"Just another deer," I sighed. "How dull. I want to see a kiwi,"

Then another movement, a few metres closer, caught my eye. A long beak prodded the earth from behind a grass tussock. A rounded unmistakable shape followed.

No tramper ever stood more amazed and delighted at the sight of this dowdy bird.

The morning brought one more gift. After the kiwi had moved out of sight in single-minded pursuit of breakfast grubs, I paused to peer into the scrub the deer had entered.

Instead of a deer, a metre-tall yellow-eyed penguin glared at me through the tangled branches.

We eye-balled each another with marvel on my part and suspicion on his. Goose-bumps prickled my arms and neck.

Were Tane-mahuta and Tangaroa touching me? I could almost guarantee it. Stewart Island is the kind of place where the ancient stories come alive.

"The Map is Not the Territory"

I love maps. The ability to "read the ground" and navigate is a highly prized military skill.  I spent hours poring over contours, features and landmarks and still enjoy doing it. Maps are codes that can be partially unlocked by imagination. However, the only way to fully crack their mystery is to set your eyes on the land and put your feet on the trail. A map can show you the way but it cannot tell you what it is to like be there.

For example, no map, however well-detailed, can give you the full experience of moving through a forest at night. You follow a dim trail by your headlamp while a bright moon casts shadows and gleams on rocks and branches. A map cannot tell you what it is like to hear a kiwi calling or the liquid murmur of a rushing stream rising from a dark valley. Nor can a map give you that strange feeling of being vulnerable and being completely at home in wilderness. A map is not the territory.

I thought about this while I climbed through the dark forests of Mt Anglem/Hananui. At just under 1000 metres, it is Stewart Island’s highest mountain. I had left Christmas Village hut shortly after 4.00 AM in order to reach the summit in time for sunrise about four hours later. A glowing moonrise the night before had auspiciously forecast a clear dawn.

The trail looked straightforward on the map but two days ago in Oban, the DOC ranger had warned, “It’s steeper, further and tougher than it looks." Pulling myself up yet another ladder of muddy roots and rocks, I agreed with him. Yet the experience was worth every step. When the sky lightened behind me to the east and I could see more clearly, I hastened upward over spongy tussocks and moss, like a troll trying to reach sanctuary before the first rays of dawn turn him to stone.

Too late! The sun caught me on the ridge overlooking a black tarn and I turned, struck dumb and motionless with wonder at how the land flooded with colour.

The spreading blush reminded me of the common Maori name for Stewart Island, Rakiura. Translated and shortened, it means, “The great and deep blushing of Te Rakitamai”.

It comes from an ancient story about a proud young Maori chief, Te Rakitamai, who led his retinue of warriors to Stewart Island in search of a high-ranking wife. We can imagine this tattooed warrior stepping ashore from his waka in pursuit of his prize. After the customary greeting formalities, he would have taken his place of honour in the other tribe's marae (meeting house) where perhaps a hundred or more men, women and children had gathered to witness the high-profile offer of alliance.

The pride, dignity and reputation of both parties lay at stake. In an electric atmosphere, the visiting chief made his offer. But some misunderstanding had occurred. The eldest, highest status woman was already betrothed. The young chief blushed but manfully made an offer for the younger daughter. She too had been promised to another. Te Rakitamai's deepening blush of shame made such an impression on his hosts that they renamed their home and even its highest mountain after him. Mt Rananui means, "the great blush."

Like so many Maori myths, this one speaks directly of human experience. Who has not experienced the embarrassment of rejection, failure and loss of dignity? I think these legends are like maps. They show you the way but not until you enter the territory of experience can you fully understand.

I'm Hooked

Stewart Island had hooked my imagination long before it rose from the horizon, its forested and mist-shrouded hills outlined in the ferry’s salt-streaked windows. Once I stepped ashore and walked toward the small cluster of buildings that make up Oban, that hook sank deep into my heart and took hold.

The island of Te Punga o Te Waka a Maui is also embedded in Maori mythology. Translated as “The Anchor Stone of Maui’s Canoe”, it speaks of its part in the legend of Maui and his crew. From their canoe (The South Island) anchored by a stone (Stewart Island), they caught and lifted a great fish (The North Island).

Stewart Island is an anchor, it seemed to me, while listening to an enthusiastic and knowledgeable DOC ranger brief me on the 125 kilometre, ten day Northern Circuit Trail.

A large scale map reveals how it anchors New Zealand geographically, standing 30 kilometres from the mainland, lying exposed to the gales of the Roaring Forties, girdled by fierce seas and currents, sliding off towards Antarctica, only a seven days’ voyage south.

The island also holds modern New Zealand to a memory of how things were not so long ago. Remote, difficult to reach, wild, free and populated by small self-reliant groups of both Maori and Pakeha heritage, modern-day Stewart Island may have all the amenities of the 21st century but it feels as if you are stepping back in time when you leave the ferry gangplank. Under 400 people live there year round. There is no hospital (although there is a primary school and a well-equipped community centre, library and sports hall.) A hairdresser travels over from the mainland every six weeks to cut the islanders’ hair.

The bush and wildlife also anchors the other two islands to the past. Here, you can gain a sense of what native bush would have looked and sounded like centuries ago before logging, mining and invasive species of predators and deer devastated native populations. Nearly all the land is owned by the state and 80% of that has been set aside as a National Park. This is as about as good as it gets anywhere in the world today.

That anchor stone doesn’t just hold New Zealand to the best of the past and its values. While I walked the hilly five kilometres of road to the trailhead, I hoped it would cast a line forward to a future in which these South Pacific islands can rise to show the rest of the world how to care for the land and waters.

Meanwhile, I know that this trail will be a special one. It’s going to be wet, muddy, tangled, wild: a true tramping challenge even without the added burden of having to carry ten days’ worth of food and other supplies.  I don’t expect to meet many trampers, especially on the further reaches of the Northern Circuit. The Island now also boasts the Rakiura Trail, the latest Great Walk. It’s a three day circuit that has already made the rounds on backpacking forums, guides and travel sites. Stewart Island is becoming a “must go to” destination. However, once I’m beyond the reach of the Great Walk in a day or two, numbers will drop.

This trail has hooked me already and the line is pulling me forward onto it.

We’ll see you there.

River of Hope

River of Hope

I paused on the road five kilometres below Jerusalem and surveyed the straggling line of houses that make up Ranana-London. I smiled. If this hamlet had any connection with one of the world's greatest cities then it could only be as a reminder that from small beginnings, great things can grow.

River of Compassion

River of Compassion

Walking down the river road with sunshine breaking through the rain clouds and the river swirling, murmuring and sometimes roaring over shallow rapids, felt delightful. I bounded along the tarmac in high good humour, breaking into snatches of song, talking to myself, just your average tramping oddball.

River of Tears

River of Tears

When I rolled out from under my dew-streaked tarp and blearily took in the lowering rain clouds flooding over the hills to the north and tasted rain on the humid air, I didn't bother with breakfast. Instead, I raced to stuff my gear into my pack and slid downhill in a cloud of stinging black flies.