Bonding with nature: Westerly Land Trust starts program that touts benefits of being outside | Westerly

WESTERLY – It was a few days before Earth Day, and Lauren Barber, the conservation programs manager for the Westerly Land Trust, was walking through Riverwood Preserve – 148 acres of woodland, rocky ridges and freshwater wetlands located just off Old Hopkinton Road.

Barber, 31, a lifelong outdoor enthusiast who met her husband – Westerly native Willie Barber – when the two were teaching marine science on Catalina Island off the coast of Southern California, had come to Riverwood to talk about a new program at the land trust, one that developed rather organically throughout the pandemic.

Called “Wellness in the Woods,” the program “aims to connect mind, body, spirit and the great outdoors,” Barber said, pointing to the spate of scientific studies touting the health benefits of spending time outside.

Since the land trust understands the countless benefits of nature for mental and physical health, she said, developing a new wellness initiative made perfect sense.

“I believe we all crave nature,” said Barber, who has worked for the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey, Cape May Whale Watch & Research Center, Catalina Island Marine Institute, and New England Science & Sailing. “And everyone can benefit from time outside.”

While the pandemic had its obvious downsides, it also brought about a renewed interest in nature, she continued, and in the 35-year old land trust with its 31 properties totaling nearly 1,700 acres.

Both the land trust and its properties have been experiencing something of a popularity boom since the pandemic took hold two years ago, Barber said as she walked along land that features quarry remnants, river views and a breathtaking descent through a beautiful gorge.

Barber, a New Jersey native who moved to Westerly in 2015, said there was a definite “uptick” in interest and membership during the pandemic, and many new visitors to the land trust sites.

“There was a lot of foot traffic,” she said, “a lot of interest.”

“People want to be outdoors,” continued Barber, the mother of a 1-year-old son named Weston Paul. “They want to be in nature and want more access to open land.”

Wellness in the Woods, she said, was inspired by this growing interest. At present the program offers events like mindful walks, guided hikes and paddles, outside yoga at Winnapaug Preserve, and forest bathing, or “the pleasant practice of spending time in nature for the purpose of enhancing health and happiness.”

The guided hikes are held weekly at one of the local conservation properties or preserves, “unique themed” hikes are held monthly (and include seasonal refreshments,) and the guided paddles in the summer months.

During the guided hikes and mindful walks, Barber said, she likes to “hone in on the journey.”

As she walked past patches of bright green moss and budding ferns, Barber, who is also a yoga teacher at Barre Coast (she teaches vinyasa yoga and both pre- and postnatal yoga), said that as interest in the land trust programs keeps growing, the staff will continue to explore new programs.

There has been talk of creating a program with an herbalist and an event called a “Gong Bath” that involves the healing power of sound.

“We want to expand our programs,” Barber said. “We are open to ideas and we are open-minded.”

There are already plans for a summer solstice event, she said, and of course there are many other programs on the regular calendar, aside from the Wellness in the Woods initiative.

The land trust, which recently acquired 21.47 acres of land in the Potter Hill area of ​​Westerly called the Cottrell Family Preserve, bases its operations at Barlow Nature Preserve on Westerly-Bradford Road and sponsors the seasonal farmer’s market held in downtown Westerly.

“We also want to be a resource for the community,” Barber said, noting that the land trust partners with a number of local organizations – Westerly Track & Athletic Club, for instance, and Barre Coast Yoga – when developing programs.

Deirdre O’Connor, of Westerly, a retired naturopath who leads the forest bathing events at the Wahaneeta Preserve, said that “living in a community where there is an active organization promoting the connection of body, mind and spirit in the great outdoors” gives her “great happiness and hope.”

“It gives me great joy to align myself with an organization with that type of mission,” she said.

The land trust’s programs and activities, according to its mission statement, “are directed to the protection and enhancement of the environment, agriculture, and water resources as well as the community’s ‘sense of place.'”

“Westerly is recognized as a place with special charm and attractions which are a source of pride to its residents and a magnet for tourists and new residents,” the statement continues. “The Westerly Land Trust aims to protect and strengthen that reputation.”

O’Connor, who also speaks of the healing power of nature, said she has been “consistently impressed with the energy, passion and commitment” of the land trust staff.

The more opportunities to share events that offer “respite and relief,” the better, she said.

Back at Riverwood, which was acquired by the land trust in 2002 as a gift from the Nature Conservancy, Barber walked past patches of bright green moss and budding ferns. Soon, she said, the property will be resplendent with colorful rhododendron and mountain laurel.

“It’s a hidden gem,” Barber said. “Westerly is a gem.”

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