Though many people assume we go way back, Courtney and I met only three years ago. What struck me about her when we first met was that she radiated warmth and an intense present energy. I don’t remember the exact circumstances, but I know that within hours of meeting each other, we had both cried in each other’s presence. I knew from that day that Courtney was an intuitive and powerful healer. I also knew that I wanted to be her friend.

Courtney moves through the world in a different way than most people. She doesn’t just walk, she engages with all of her senses - she touches, smells, hums, and tastes her way through the world. This approach means that she experiences things intensely. This intense experience can be contagious and wonderful for those around her, which has served her well in the work that she does as a psychotherapist. But there is a reason she experiences things this way. Though Courtney has a strong resistance to talking about herself, over the past three years I have managed to piece together her story.

When I talk to Courtney about her work, she tells me she can trace it all back to when she was a very young child. Throughout most of her childhood, Courtney suffered from an undiagnosed illness that caused her to lose many of her faculties and meant that she was in constant chronic pain.

“Growing up and being sick is where it first started. I experienced ongoing severe pain that radiated and changed locations throughout my body. At the time I wasn’t actually aware of the severity of pain I was in because I had never known anything different - I would only know when the pain became more extreme. Having now experienced childbirth, I can tell you that the pain I went through as a child was significantly worse than that of labour.

“I would sometimes lose my ability to walk. I lost my ability to see at times. In some ways it was scary, but I started to realize that I had so many other senses that I could tap into. I would lose my vision, but I started to use my sense of smell, my sense of touch and spatial awareness to feel where I was going.”

Courtney tells me that she would also lose her memory. It was then that an interesting thing began to happen.

“There were times when I couldn’t even remember my own name. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I was also facing my mortality at a very young age. So I started to question, ‘Who am I?’ Even though I couldn’t identify with my memories or my body or the things that you would normally identify with, there was still a part of me there.

“I began to notice that there was a part of me that was constant. Rather than identifying with all these fluctuating emotions and sensations, I could sense a truer ‘me.’ ”

One evening, as we are walking through a deserted alleyway, Courtney reveals to me one of her most intimate stories, a moment in which she was able to separate herself from her pain, which brought everything into a new perspective for her. But before telling me this story she is quiet for a while. Talking about herself isn't easy for her.

She is looking intently at a bushy plant with spiny pale pink flowers growing from the cracks in the asphalt.
“Motherwort,” she says, “Or lion’s heart, for courage.”
“Draw on that,” I tell her.
And so she continues her story.

“I remember one experience when I was quite young, I was totally and completely immersed in extreme pain, to the point that I wanted to die, it was so intense. I don’t know exactly what happened - perhaps it was a moment of grace - but there was a shift in my awareness and I was able to experience the suffering as just a sensation. I stopped seeing the pain as a bad thing, as something I needed to defend against. It changed my relationship to the pain. It ended up being one of the most blissful experiences of my life. The pain was still there, but my awareness had changed. That moment changed everything for me.”

I picture Courtney as a small child, experiencing this profound transformation. It is something that many people strive for, that moment of detachment - through meditation or by other means. But I can’t imagine having to endure such acute suffering at such a young age.

Courtney tells me how this “shift” in awareness has been the basis of the work that she does today.

“Much of my healing that I have done since I was younger has been about shifting my relationship to pain, either physical or emotional. In life there is so much we can’t change, but the thing that we can always change is our awareness. And so I think there is an art to it - you can learn the art of awareness.

“I’ve seen the effects of this working as a therapist with individuals who have suffered deeply with severe mental illness, grief, trauma, loss, anxiety, and depression. I have been witness to the power of awareness in my work as a life and death doula. A person giving birth is one of the most powerful things I have ever seen. The state of mind that a person is in through childbirth and in death affects everything and there are small things that we can do that influence that. Breath, nature, body-connection, relationship to ourselves and others, the food we eat - all of these things shape and enhance our awareness.”

Because of her illness, Courtney was unable to attend most of elementary school and high school. But in her early teens, she began studying yoga, herbalism and ayurvedic medicine. She continued her studies into her twenties and connected with a community of people who taught bushcraft, nature-connection, survival skills and wild foraging. She went on to become a Registered Psychotherapist and did a thesis on ecotherapy which explores the importance of nature for human development and psychological wellness.

“The other major area of Art of Awareness is nature-connection. This stems back again to my childhood. My parents owned a one hundred acre property in Ontario, mostly a combination of swamp and forest with a large meadow. I always felt more at home in the woods than I did in the house. I would walk into the forest and feel welcomed and supported in a way that was different than at other times. There was something about being in that environment, being able to see the cycles of life that gave me peace. Seeing new, living, green vegetation next to rotting, decaying wood - seeing all of those cycles and feeling that it was all beautiful and all-encompassing - I felt that acceptance in myself.

“I would wander slowly by myself and I felt a deep connection with the plants and trees. As soon as I walked under the pine trees, I could immediately breathe more easily. My pain lessened and I felt uplifted. When I couldn’t do anything else, I would just go lie under the pines.

“I didn’t know it at the time, but when I started studying herbalism many years later, I actually found out that pines release a chemical called pinene that acts as an anti-inflammatory and an anti-depressant and has a chemical effect on the body. Nature effects us in ways we don't even realize, from the chemicals that trees and plants release to the effects it has on the brain just by looking at it. I experienced it so profoundly as a child, being in so much pain and witnessing such a noticeable change. But there are actual chemical, scientific reasons for it.”

When Courtney tells me these stories, I am immediately brought back to my own childhood. Growing up in the country in a large family (there were seven children living on the same property including my siblings and cousins), I was an extreme introvert and often needed time alone. I would climb the hill and wander to the very back of the property to my “secret” aspen grove. I would lie there for hours under the graceful, trembling trees, listening to the wind rattling and watching the way the light flickered through the leaves. I never knew why those moments brought me such peace at the time, but it makes sense to me now.

Courtney and I talk about nature a lot. In fact, our deep love for nature is part of what solidified our friendship. She tells me, “I’ve carried my deep love of nature wherever I’ve gone. It’s something I’ve always wanted to integrate into the work that I’ve been doing and I really don’t think that I would be alive right now if it hadn’t been for my experiences in nature. But we are at a point where there are a lot of people living in the world who are growing up without that connection and so it felt important to incorporate that into my work.

“I felt called to this work because I know that when people connect to nature, it benefits them. That was my whole area of study with my training in ecotherapy. Human beings need to be exposed to and have access to nature for healthy physical and psychological development. We need it, we are a part of it. It is something that every person across time regardless of culture, age or ethnicity has in common. It has been shown that there is a bi-directional benefit to nature-connection. There is a benefit to people, but also, the more deeply people connect to nature, the more deeply they care for it. We protect and care for the things we love.”

Early on in our friendship, Courtney and I knew we needed to start a project together that somehow unified all these themes. We have been talking about Art of Awareness for a long time, but it took a while for us to figure out what it should look like. We explored many ideas, but finally realized that it was very simple:

“The idea for this website is to encourage and spark connection. Whether it is through our own stories, the stories of other people, or through the photos we post. There is so much information out there but people frequently shut down when they are bombarded with information or are told what they “should” be doing. What we want to do is spark curiosity and back it up with the research that connection to our bodies, connection to ourselves, and connection to the environment has a therapeutic effect that can shift our awareness in a beneficial and medicinal way.”


Photo by Nathan Cyprys, edited by Dan Jardine.

Photo by Nathan Cyprys, edited by Dan Jardine.

Meet our friend Danny Miles, rockstar drummer and babe of Canadian alternative rock band July Talk. Danny took us on a walk through High Park, where we talked about his experience of being on tour for the past three years and how he recently started photographing birds and posting them to his Instagram with the hashtag #drummerswholovebirds, receiving an enthusiastic response from his fans. 

We enter High Park near the zoo and ask Danny to show us his favourite birding spots. Along the way, he tells us about how his interest in photographing birds began.

“It kind of just started. When you’re on tour, you’re together with everyone constantly, 24/7. So I started going for walks. It started as a bit of a joke. I said to the band, ‘I’m going to get into birding now, so that when I’m sixty I’m going to be the best birder around!’ And then I realized ‘Oh, I actually really enjoy this.’ It’s relaxing - it’s exercise - and it’s learning something new.

“I would probably consider myself an urban birder, that’s mostly where I’m taking all of my photos, in cities all over the world. It gives me a chance to get out and get to know a place in a way that I wouldn’t otherwise. I get excited because there’s also a collecting aspect to it. I think, ‘This is a new photo of a bird, I don’t have this one yet!’ And I get excited to post it.”

We arrive at the spot where Danny took his very first bird photos - a small pond where some ducks are floating about. Danny gestures to them. 

“I have a lot of people coming up to me saying, ‘I had no idea!’ Before, they would walk up to these wood ducks, thinking they are mallards because that is what everyone sees all the time. They would think that is all there is - just mallards, or robins, or sparrows. But if you look closely at all these birds, they’re different. They’re beautiful, and they’re cool to watch.

"The personalities of birds are different. It’s cool to see them. Like a killdeer, if you’re near its nest it will pretend that it broke its leg and limp away trying to get you to follow it - trying to get you away from its nest - it’s hilarious. If you watch them, they do interesting things that half the time are pretty funny.”

We ask Danny how he approaches birds and gets close enough to take their photos.

“It has a lot to do with being calm. Like a lot of animals, I think they sense if you’re a bit stressed out or aggressive. You need to let them do their thing. I like to stand there for a while, and often they’ll just come to you.”

As Danny says this, a female wood duck swims over to check us out. “I think that’s why I enjoy it, you just let go of your stresses and you appreciate it.”

Juvenile female wood duck . Photo by Danny Miles

Juvenile female wood duck. Photo by Danny Miles

“I get out and I get in there. I have a shitty camera with a shitty lens (just a little stock 75-300mm). Sometimes you see actual birding photographers out here and their lenses are 600mm long. They are so heavy that they can’t really move around. They’re stationary with a tripod, and that's just not what I’m interested in. I like running around through the forest and following birds.” Danny laughs mischievously when he says this. “I like getting out in the canoe and sneaking up on ducks.” 

“I get a lot of people reaching out, saying they'll show me some cool birds. And I'm down for it. But it can be hard to do that with someone, especially if it's someone that you're not really comfortable with. You have to go out and be alone and be able to be quiet.

“There are days when I’ll start out and I’m listening to music, but it’s hard, you need to hear. You need to hear the birds and you have to learn the calls. I’ll constantly hear something and think, ‘I don’t know what that is.’ I have a book and it comes with a CD with a hundred tracks of bird calls. But for me, I learn better by experiencing it. So, I’ll go out and just try and listen closely to the calls, and find the birds and go home and read about it later. I don't usually bring my book out. I usually just take the photo and follow my curiosity and look it up later.”

“You know, my hobby (drumming) has become my full time job. We’ve pretty much toured straight for three years. Drumming is probably my favourite thing to do, although, the more popular our band gets, the more pressure there is at shows. It’s still fun, but it's a lot more professional then back when it was, ‘Let’s play a club and it doesn’t really matter if we screw up.’ I needed something else to do.

“Especially when you're on a long tour. I mean we all love each other like brothers and sisters - we’re all very close - but there are times when you can’t be around anyone that much. I think everyone in the band has their own thing that they do to remedy that. I enjoyed walking around, it relaxes me and now there is a creative, artistic side.”

Danny has a tattoo of an American condor on his left forearm. We ask him about the significance of this particular bird. 

“They are the biggest bird in North America. They went extinct in 1987 - or almost extinct - there were only 20 left in the wild. They were going extinct because of humans and human behaviour. They are vultures, so they eat lead bullets from hunted animals and it poisons them. They took them into captivity and bred them in captivity, and they have just started releasing them back into the wild. So now there are something like 220 in the wild, and 400 in total. They’re the biggest bird in North America. They are big and need a lot of space. They live in places like the Grand Canyon, and the more space we take up, the less room they have to live. They’re a bit ugly, but I love their wing span.”

“As a little kid I used to draw a lot, and it’s funny because the two things I used to draw were music stuff - a lot of bands - and then I would draw birds of prey. I guess it’s just a little-boy fascination with them, they’re kind of bad-ass like action heroes. I think it’s just that little boy in me still.”

Click through the gallery below for more bird photos by Danny Miles and check out his instagram: @dannyptmiles #drummerswholovebirds


We joined four other artists for a week at the Stone Boat Artist Retreat in Lanark County, Ontario, hosted by Quote Unquote Collective. We came to explore the land, forage for local wild edibles and document the various meals and medicines we made, while others worked on their artistic projects.  

It was there that we met Nyda, a classically trained ballet dancer, now living in Toronto and focusing on contemporary style dancing, who came to SBAR to work on some solo pieces she plans on performing around the city. We spoke to Nyda about her experiences at SBAR as an artist working in a natural setting.

“Being in nature is different, it’s stimulating in a calming way and I'm really attracted to being outside. In the city I have a studio space I can use, but at Stone Boat there is no confinement - there is so much more freedom and inspiration from the peace of it. The energy that is felt when you are surrounded by nature gives you more creativity. That is so many people’s faults now - they don't get out and connect with nature and then they lose so much of their own sense of self, because that creativity is where you find yourself too, you know?”

Nyda told us she has lived in the city her whole life and never had much opportunity to be in nature, but has always sought it out whenever she could. We went for a walk with her, exploring the 220 acres of Stone Boat Farm, nibbling on some of the wild edibles we came across and introducing Nyda to some of our favourite plants.

“Going on that walk, or being out with you guys, it was different. In the city you have to force yourself to be outside, because you won’t just be in nature, you have to force yourself. Being with you guys walking around on the acres, I had to force myself to be tangibly engaged, to be there. It’s hard to explain. If I was there alone, I would just walk and observe, whereas you guys are using your whole bodies, and all of your senses. You need to absorb nature through all of your senses, not just visually.”