Speaking of Nature: It’s time to try some forest bathing

  • A quiet stroll into the autumn woods may produce a genuine physiological and psychological benefit for anyone who tries it. FOR THE GAZETTE/BILL DANIELSON

Published: 10/13/2021 2:31:35 PM

I don’t remember the exact day that I heard the term “forest bathing” for the first time. What I do remember is the sense of confusion that I felt when I heard that some of my fellow teachers had signed up for this activity as part of a professional development workshop. Forest bathing? Were towels going to be provided?

When I saw my colleagues the following day I was full of questions. What did you do? What was it like? The answers to these questions didn’t help the confusion go away. “We went into the woods for a couple hours and it was really nice.” This is a thing? So I decided to package up my confusion and toss it into the pile of odd questions in the back of my mind. In about two seconds I had forgotten all about it.

With the passage of time the term “forest bathing” has popped up with a little more frequency every year. Still on the fringes it was easily ignored, but I eventually had to figure out what this all meant. I suppose the real impetus for my decision came when I heard the term used in a commercial on a local public radio station. So, what is forest bathing anyway?

Well, the answer is pretty simple. Just as you might immerse yourself in a pool of warm water to experience a sensation of relaxation and calm, so too can you walk out into the woods and immerse yourself in the peace and quiet of nature. I suppose my confusion about this process came from the fact that I have been doing this all of my life without realizing that it had an official name.

Official credit for the term is granted to the Japanese. Back in the 1980s the term “shinrin-yoku” was first coined to identify the process of “taking in the forest atmosphere.” The literal translation of this term comes from the direct meaning of the Japanese words “shinrin,” which means “forest” and “yoku,” which means “bath.” I’d also like to take a moment to acknowledge that this is the first time Japanese has been featured as the language of origin for anything discussed in my columns over the past 24 years.

The basic idea is probably aimed most directly at people who live in urban environments who also spend little of their time in natural settings. Studies into this practice suggest that there are genuine health benefits to spending quite time in the woods, especially if the person in question intentionally allows the mind to shift focus away from worry and toward the peace and quiet of the moment. This evokes another term that has popped up in the last decade or so, “mindfulness.”

I’ve been doing this for my entire life and when I decided to write this column I knew the exact example that I would use from my own experience. Back in the 1980s, perhaps even at the same time the Japanese put a formal name to it, I was a college student at UMass Amherst. I was enrolled in the Wildlife Biology program and I spent most of my study time thinking about nature and trying to understand it. I was immersed in nature, but, apparently, I still wanted more.

During my fall semesters it was a common practice of mine to wander off into the woods over in the Orchard Hill section of the campus. There were some beautiful trees in that fragment of forest and although I could still hear distant road noise and the hum that comes when you are in proximity of 20,000 people, it was genuinely peaceful. I would find myself a comfy spot under the trees, lay down on the ground and take an afternoon nap. My dorm room was within walking distance, but I found the idea of sleeping among the trees to be extremely soothing. And that is the essence of forest bathing.

The Japanese didn’t discover anything new in the 1980s, they just came up with a term for something that people have been doing for as long as they have had access to the woods. The whole idea of camping is basically a “bathing” exercise, if you think about it and the forest is not the only place you can “bathe.” Pick any ecosystem and you can find restorative peace and calm there. Wander out into a desert and let your mind wander. Stroll out onto the prairie and let the quiet soak into your bones. Sometimes simple images of these places can trigger good feelings. Imagine what it would feel like to actually go there.

So now you can truly appreciate the brilliance of my closing remarks each week. Turn off the TV, leave your cell phone behind and go outside. The weather forecast suggested that the weather for today’s holiday would be calm, cloudy and fairly warm. We are also just about to reach peak color for the fall foliage. This is the time to try some forest bathing for yourself. Find a quiet country road, or an even quieter forest trail and take a stroll into the woods. Then stop, close your eyes, smell the forest and feel the trees around you. Chances are that you will feel better after a good long soak in nature.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 24 years and a practitioner of forest bathing his entire life. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or head over to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.

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