Courtenay Crucil incorporates ecotherapy with her professional work as a registered clinical counsellor to help her clients heal from pain. (Natalia Balcerzak/Terrace Standard)

Skeena Voices | The wild path

Courtenay Crucil is a nature-based therapist and herbalist who helps people with the earth in mind

Growing up on Vancouver Island, the lands outside Courtenay Crucil’s door had plenty to occupy a curious child.

She would venture off into the marshy forest, feeling a sense of comfort that a framed structure just couldn’t offer. She marveled at the creatures occupying the ponds and trees, and how they interacted with their space, welcoming nature to fully show its presence.

“I was fascinated by the other beings, I was fascinated by the frogs and their existence, the sounds they made, the ways they moved, and the fact that they were living, breathing entities like me,” says Crucil.

That energy that Crucil first felt when she was out in the wild never left her and eventually led her to become a nature-based therapist, working in the areas of complex trauma and grief. Although still practicing and building her profession as a psychotherapist, she has realized that a closed room session isn’t for everybody and has begun intersecting her skills to complement nature’s healing power.

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From trail running to a simple sit to think, Crucil always felt better after being outside and tuned in that it was more than just getting a breath of fresh air that changed her thinking. She would then walk slower, observing different parts of the woods, learning how it changed with the seasons.

She says that as humans, our well-being that encompasses our mental, emotional, physical and spiritual health, directly affects the places and other beings with which we co-exist. By intersecting a level of depth with both psychology and ecology, we’re able to make connections within ourselves that are reflective in the natural world.

“I started to really open up my eyes, heart and mind by intentionally showing up in wild spaces. I started developing this immense gratitude for the many metaphors that exist in the natural world as well,” she says. “The natural world gifts many teachings about the cycles of life, so many processes are alive and reflected in the natural world, like change, death, growth, adaptation, co-existence. And, when we enter into those spaces with an open mind and heart we might see parts of our internal experience reflected back to us.”

READ MORE: Skeena Voices | Rings of fire

In her early undergraduate years when she was studying psychology and First Nations studies at Vancouver Island University (VIU), Crucil worked part-time with at-risk youth and was exposed to the hardship they were struggling to overcome. She loved being present and listening to the young people that she worked with, but she knew she lacked the clinical training and skills that could ultimately make a difference.

“That was my first experience of a job not feeling like work, I just really loved showing up in that space and supporting the incredibly resilient young people that I was working with, to navigate the various life experiences that they were going through,” she says. “I felt that pursuing graduate training would support me to have more of an impact.”

During her time at VIU, she was taught about Coast Salish culture directly from the elders who co-taught her courses and immediately felt drawn to their teachings. The way they spoke about reciprocity and the human connection to nature mirrored her experiences in the wilderness.

Eager to learn more, she made an effort to fully understand another way of life and their traditions, along with how colonial history affected First Nations across Canada. Aware that she was coming in as an outsider, she was surprised by how inviting the elders and their communities were.

“We laughed a lot… and the biggest takeaway for me was the sense of awe and compassion that I then felt for my clients and their abilities to survive some incredibly challenging circumstances,” Crucil says.

“I feel so grateful to have been welcomed into a number of sweat lodge communities as well. The sweat lodge ceremony has been a really important part of my own healing and evolution as a human. Healing happens in community and within this powerful spiritual space the healing is palpable, words don’t do it justice.”

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Finding her spark, Crucil moved to Vancouver to pursue her masters in Counselling Psychology at the University of British Columbia (UBC). During that time, she worked in youth engagement and advocacy, working alongside young people in and from foster care. She coordinated a youth engagement program with the Adoptive Families Association of BC, with the main program goal being to advocate for permanency, which she notes is an important human need for everyone.

This work affirmed her calling as she says she continued to be astonished by the resilience in humans to survive and thrive, even after experiencing horrific and devastating trauma.

Alongside her studies and work, Crucil developed a keen interest in plants — with a special interest in those that support the nervous system. Elders spoke of the medicinal uses that the plants carried and she witnessed how they were called on for traditional healing. This was another note-worthy realization for her.

She then began to study herbs through various programs and with an ongoing connection with an herbal mentor. She learned how to ethically harvest herbs, make medicines and how to incorporate those practices into the healing journey. She had moved back to Vancouver Island to get away from the city and start a private practice but felt a yearning for a more expansive and wild place.

“I’ve been wildcrafting throughout my 20s and when I started, I felt so much alignment in that learning,” Crucil says.

Creating a vision board, she imagined living in a small cabin close to waterways where she could access the rugged wilderness with only a step outside. Browsing online one day, she stumbled upon a rental listing for a tiny home community north of Terrace and everything clicked together. Feeling incredibly confident and inspired, she decided to minimize her life and move to a place she had previously never heard of.

She drove with her dog across the province in the heat of summer onto the property of Bluegrass Meadows Micro Village and was welcomed by wild yarrow — her favourite plant — at full-bloom along the gravel road, waving her in.

When she made the decision to move, she transitioned her private practice to being online and most of her clients made that transition with her. Her practice is now based in Terrace were she sees folks online, in-person and in the wild space of the Northwest.

READ MORE: Skeena Voices | No villager left behind

Despite living in a more rural place, Crucil says she feels that her connections have deepened significantly to colleagues nation-wide who also specialize in Complex Trauma. She is highly involved in the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation, chairing their Student and Emerging Professional Committee, and also acting as an Editorial Assistant for their clinical journal, Frontiers in the Psychotherapy of Trauma and Dissociation.

Crucil says she navigates her practices here by continuing her study of wild medicines and deepening her relationships with the many beings in this territory.

She adds she is always striving to improve her work by pursuing continued education and integrating all of her learning. Slowly, the clinical world is opening up to these more holistic approaches to healing.

For some clients, who find the office setting too clinical and daunting, the open skies are now showing a tangible path to healing.

And oftentimes, the wilderness has a lot to say.

“I don’t think there’s such a thing as coincidences in the wild, and in really significant moments in session, certain beings will show up or we’ll come face-to-face with a composting log when we’re talking about death or, you know, the eagle will start circling above,” says Crucil.

“There are just so many synchronicities and teachings that show up to reflect the inner processes of our journey and also remind us that we’re not alone, that we’re connected to everything.”

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