TreeSong brings nature home

Washougal-based center offers online education, recorded nature walks during COVID-19 crisis

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The TreeSong Nature Retreat and Wellness Center is offering a new online program called Mama Fox's Nature School, which endeavors to connect children and their parents to nature with a variety of videos, downloadable activities and group chats. (Contributed photo courtesy of Michelle Fox)

The TreeSong Nature Awareness and Retreat Center, a Washougal-based nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering connections to nature, community and self, has traditionally carried out its mission through in-person programming.

But after the recent outbreak of COVID-19 forced TreeSong to postpone all of its on-site activities, executive director Michellle Fox began to think of new and creative ways to provide her services.

She was aided in her efforts by Jessica Becker, a member of the TreeSong board of directors, who learned that “nature is everywhere” after moving to the Pacific Northwest from the East Coast.

“You don’t have to live in the woods or mountains. Just by walking outside, you can find so much nature,” Becker said. “You just have to know how to find it, but once you see it, it’s everywhere. We want people to realize that even though they aren’t able to go to parks, forests and state land like they want to, they can still find nature. They just have to figure out how.”

Those thoughts led to the creation of Mama Fox’s Nature School, an online program that endeavors to connect families to nature.

“Honestly, I’m probably the last person that would do something like this,” Fox said. “It takes a pandemic, I guess. I’m not quite sure that if things carried on as usual that I’d have this right now. I totally think technology has its place, but it’s not my first go-to. I’d prefer to be running around in the woods with the kids. But this is great. It’s a way to get my message out there. I’m excited about it. It’s a beautiful thing to know that the magic (of nature) is enduring.”

Fox is recording and posting videos of her “nature walks” to the program’s group page, where participants can access a variety of educational activities that can be done anywhere. She’s also planning on hosting group discussions via Zoom, a video-conferencing platform.

“We have a lovely thing established here on site, and we’re hoping to import a lot of those routines (to the virtual platform),” Fox said. “As we go along it will be interesting to see what translates and what doesn’t.”

Becker, a Yacolt resident with a professional background in management, urban planning, and strategic and operational planning, said that TreeSong had to “find a way to keep the organization running until all of this is over.”

“Michelle devotes her life to connecting children and adults to nature, so we have no choice not to continue on in some regard,” she said. “From my view on more of the business side of things, I want to see TreeSong exist and flourish, so we needed to find a way to adapt and reach people in a different way. This is a great way to reach local families, but it can also be helpful to anybody. We’re casting a wide net and excited to hopefully meet some new people.”

The program’s curriculum includes journaling, naturalist practices, games, exploration, tracking and sign, native species study, ecosystem study, art projects, storytelling, songs, yoga and stewardship activities.

“We talked a lot about, ‘How do we take our programming, which is inherently set up for an in-person experience, and put it online?” Becker said. “The actual property is a pleasant, peaceful, inviting place. To not be able to be there and see it in three dimensions, and to (have it replaced) with a screen, is not the same. Also, Michelle brings decades of experience, and comfort and warmth, and we were concerned that could be lost in translation. 

“But we want to bring hope to people’s lives, and give them a  sense of what TreeSong does, and hopefully when all this is all over they’ll want to check us out in real life. If not, hopefully we have given them something meaningful while they navigate through these (stressful) times.”

The program supports groundedness in nature, the seasons, and connections to native plants and animals, according to TreeSong’s Facebook page.

“I’m a big believer in the benefits of nature on every level of being, especially now,” Fox said. “I always use nature as a support, but I’m leaning on it now more than ever. It makes a big difference. It helps us to connect with ourselves and each other, and feel like we’re part of something bigger. It gives us a sense of belonging. I couldn’t recommend (nature) more. That strong belief that I’ve always had is being validated right now.”

“Nature can provide a sense of groundedness when things go out of control,” Becker added. “We hope to offer support and stability for families on a weekly basis. People can reliably connect with us, and we can help connect them with what continues to go on outside. There’s still a whole natural world that continues as if the virus doesn’t exist. There’s something meaningful about connecting with that.”

Fox worked as an early childhood educator for more than 25 years, teaching Spanish immersion and art to elementary school students. She created a program called Roots and Wings, which mentored children in nature awareness, and taught children’s yoga for 10 years.  

She also spent six years as a mentor for a program called Maiden Spirit, which was designed to empower pre-teen girls and prepare them for a rite-of-passage ceremony.

In the summer of 2013, Fox attended a week-long training session in the art of mentoring at the Wilderness Awareness School in Duvall, Washington. She founded TreeSong later that year.

“There’s something about (Fox) that makes people feel really welcome and peaceful,” Becker said. “There’s a presence about her that is calming, reassuring, patient and loving. I immediately trusted my child with her when I first met her. Having her in my life makes me feel better, and I think other people also get that (feeling) from her.”

Mama Fox’s Nature School can be accessed through a Facebook group page, with new activities dropping every Wednesday for $25 to $50 per month. Participants can join anytime and proceed at their own pace, according to Fox, who added that 16 people had signed up for the program as of April 20.

“We’re looking forward to bringing more families on board,” she said. “We’ll keep it going  through this summer. It’s important to keep that connection. And I feel that even when we get back to ‘normal’ and people are back on site, we could continue with (the program) and keep developing it. It could reach so many people. Who knows where it can go? I’m excited to keep exploring and expanding it. Right now we’re at the sweet little beginnings.”