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The Healing Power of Maine’s Forests

By Abdi Nor Iftin

Jun 4, 2021

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Maine offers trees, open spaces, and nature therapy.

Photo by Paul Frederiksen/Unsplash

Maine offers trees, open spaces, and nature therapy.

Abdi Nor Iftin fled Somalia’s civil war—and was diagnosed with PTSD soon after immigrating to the U.S. His cure? Mother Nature.

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This story is part of Travel Tales, a series of life-changing adventures on afar.com. Read more stories of transformative trips on the Travel Tales home pageand be sure to subscribe to the podcast! 

I live in an old farmhouse—it was built in the 17th century—in the countryside of Maine. My favorite part about it is this walk that I do every day on the property. [It’s always different], depending on the season. Let’s talk about spring: the flowers are up, the grass up, everything is green.

The property has dense forest. Yes, there are lots of ticks that hitchhike as you come back. I walk through the pond to the river and see the emerging generation of wildlife. The geese have their eggs hatching. The ducks are also sitting on their eggs. The little turtles are poking out of the water. The chipmunks run around; the squirrels are busy. The robins are building their nests.

I wave them goodbye and I proceed to do my walk. There is a dock by the river and there’s a little area that’s pretty open. After my walk, I sit by the river and it gives me a sense of vision to the water flowing in; to the activities of the fish and the birds coming in, getting their breakfast in the area; and the noise that’s happening all around me. I refresh my mind or remind myself of who I am, of the present moment. I take a deep breath and then breathe out, take a deep breath and then breathe out. At the same time, I’m listening to the sounds that are coming in from everywhere, particularly the birds. 

I’m not sure how far the birds have migrated, but I feel sitting with them that they’re connected to my own story. Birds migrate. They travel more than we do—when it gets colder in the fall and winter, these birds migrate to Florida, maybe sometimes even to Latin America. Some of them have probably traveled as far as Africa. That’s amazing. I appreciate that. And that is where the satellite connection to me begins.

Each morning, Abdi Nor Iftin takes a meditative walk to the river near the 17th-century farmhouse he calls home.

I wasn’t born here. I come from a completely different background. I grew up in a desert, in Somalia, surrounded by coconut trees and neem trees, which you will never find anywhere in the U.S. It’s hot and humid. Seasons don’t change. Whereas here [in Maine], things change. At some point, everything comes back to life, the flowers are blooming, the horses are shedding their winter clothes. The frogs and the turtles—everything that was hibernating is just coming back to life. And connecting the two worlds I have lived through, it makes me appreciate how far I’ve really come.

I was born into a pretty famous family. My dad was a seven-foot-tall basketball player who was famous in the area. So I was really born into a pretty well-to-do family, well until I was five years old. And then [due to the civil war that broke out] we lost everything that we owned within one day: the house, money, food, everything.

I’m not sure how far the birds have migrated, but I feel sitting with them that they’re connected to my own story.

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I lived that life—having nothing—for about 17 years until the day came that I actually had to jump on my farthest ever journey, which was leaving Somalia for somewhere else. That was a pretty difficult decision; however, it was worth it because I think if I stayed behind by now, it would either be two ways. Either I wouldn’t be alive (the chances of being killed was pretty high), or I would be a member of a local gang. Those are the only worlds that were open to us. And I decided to go for whatever else was out there, which [meant I had to] leave Somalia. 

In April 2008, I was doing guerrilla journalism in Somalia, dispatching audio diaries of the miseries around me. An American family I met through these diaries fundraised a few hundred dollars to catch a flight and leave Somalia. These Americans would come together soon and carry the title “Team Abdi” to support me in my quest to leave Somalia—Team Abdi included a family in Yarmouth, Maine: Sharon; her husband, Gib; their daughter, Natalya; and their son, Morgan.

“Nobody’s charging me for this. So why don’t I go stand by that tree by the river and understand that I’m completely surrounded by emptiness, air, warmth, beauty, and all the sounds?”

So in March of 2011 I flew into Kenya to live with my brother and became a registered refugee. What does that mean? That means that you are recognized as a refugee who can’t go back to his country because of existing circumstances. And because of those documents, I could at least be in Kenya—but only temporarily. It’s not like a work permit, and it still wasn’t very safe for me there. So I knew my migration was not over. 

I went ahead and applied for the U.S. visa lottery program. The visa lottery program is Congressionally approved and in the early ’90s anybody from any country in the world could put their names in and see if they were selected to gain entry into the U.S. In Somalia, not many people have thought of the lottery program. I was one of a very few people who had the chance to apply. It was a long and anxious process, but in July 2014 I found out that I got it. The same year I said goodbye to my brother and left Kenya and then it was a brand new journey to America. 

Getting onto that airplane, I had a feeling of overwhelming excitement, honestly. I think it was the fact that I knew for the first time in my whole life that I would be able to go to a place where I could vote, participate in the local elections, become a citizen, and basically be respected again. Compare [that] to being a refugee, which doesn’t give you any rights and responsibilities, and coming from Somalia where I had no paperwork my whole life—it was overwhelmingly exciting. I kept thinking, I’m going to be driving my own car, I’m going to be riding the bus without anybody asking me where I’m going, I’m going to be shopping. All the excitement about the things that every human takes for granted these days.

I knew the challenges that would be coming, including cultural misunderstandings, language barriers, and other things. I knew all of these would be a challenge, so I prepared myself ahead of time. [I told myself] if I don’t understand anything, I have to learn. So maybe the physical journey ended when I arrived in the United States. But the psychological journey began right at that moment I landed. 

For Abdi Nor Iftin, places like Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park are balm for the soul.

I flew into Logan airport in Boston at night and then my family who lives in Yarmouth, Maine, came up to give me a ride to their house. [That night] I remember lying in bed and looking at the ceiling all night. I couldn’t sleep because I was so curious. What would America look like during the day? Because I landed at night, I couldn’t see anything, and Maine is such a remote place—there aren’t many streetlights. So my eyes were wide awake when the sun was slowly rising. It was fall at the time, so the trees were changing colors and the leaves were not completely gone yet. It was so beautiful.

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I saw the old farmhouse [where I still live] clearly for the first time. And there’s a barn on this side of the house that has two horses and 24 chickens. I saw a bunch of turkeys crossing from one side to the other side—it was more animals than people. I was really amazed because I was like, “Well, where is America? Where are the people? Where’s the subway? Where are the buses?” And [my family said], “Welcome to Maine. It’s remote, a less crowded place. It’s a huge state with a little over a million people.”

[As the years passed] I got comfortable, started to feel more at home here. I was also diagnosed with PTSD. For me, trauma gets worse when I’m surrounded by walls—that’s how I find it. I can’t really be sitting inside that long. When it gets bad, I have a vivid memory of bad events in the past. My heart is beating faster, I start shaking, and cold is going through my body. So when the pandemic hit, it was really difficult. I had to stay indoors.

One day . . . during the pandemic, I did that walk down to the dock by the river. I remember sitting there for probably a couple of hours. I did not bring my cell phone because that’s quite a distraction so I decided not to really engage with that. So I was just watching the upstream water moving and absorbing the environment, the surroundings. And I was like, “Wow. I could sit here for the rest of my life.” That’s what I thought. And that was the moment I realized that being outside is free therapy. [I thought] “Nobody’s charging me for this. So why don’t I go stand by that tree by the river and understand that I’m completely surrounded by emptiness, air, warmth, beauty, and all the sounds?”

One of the blessings of living in Maine is that all the amazing things nature offers are only a 10-minute drive from where I live. The river is right in my backyard, the lake is just a short drive away. Bradbury Mountain, which gives a panoramic view of Maine, is only a seven-minute drive away. The ocean is a 15-minute drive. In the wintertime I cross-country ski through woods into the frozen lakes; in the fall I climb up bigger mountains of Maine such as Acadia National Park and Katahdin.

Mount Katahdin in Maine is another favorite place in nature for Abdi.

Maine’s community of color usually lives in overcrowded cities such as Lewiston and Portland—the outdoor activities are dominated by the white community, so sometimes Mainers who meet me during my ski trips think I am from New York or Massachusetts. And then the famous questions: Where are you from? I still say I am from Somalia. [And] then I am from Maine. 

They say what does not kill you really makes you stronger. You probably know the story of the fire on the forest: You know, when a fire goes through the forest, it’s good for the forest—it just comes back fresh and stronger. And that is the way I see [my life]. It’s more like a rebirth coming back again.

Now, I start my mornings off with a kind of meditation. The first thing I do after I wake up is make some coffee, even before I try to have anything to eat. I walk up behind where I live. Then I walk down to the dock and I pay attention to the breath that I’m taking, exhaling and inhaling, knowing that I’m right here and my eyes can still see and I still can hear and I still can breathe. —as told to Ninna Gaensler-Debs

Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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