Sometimes going for a walk in the woods is not about discovering interesting new plants or listening for birds. Sometimes the walk is about improving personal health and encouraging a state of well-being. It happens that being in trees—being in relationship with trees—can have measurable benefits on lowering blood pressure, improving heart rate, and boosting the immune system. A cluster of new publications* is helping many people build this intentional relationship with trees and encouraging them to regularly retreat to forests for a special kind of walking mediation-like experience. Practitioners emphasize that while some parallels exist between meditation and forest bathing, forest bathing is more relational, more about sharing and giving, of what you can gain from the forest but also what you bring to the forest. This is not an extractive service like what has come to be called eco-services but something special, like being a friend with trees, opening your heart to the possibility of communing with these elders of the living world.
I had read a little about what to expect before joining a small group on April 13, 2019 for a forest bathing walk in LBA Woods here in Olympia. Our leader Kathy Jacobson introduced the group to the main concepts of what forest bathing is—and is not—and gently led us down the path a ways in silence as we began to absorb the tree-laden atmosphere and slow ourselves to a pace for best taking in our surroundings and our own inner pulse. She drew our attention to special plants that were coming into bud and helped us experience them using all of our senses, including taste and smell. We could hear the calling of birds and the gentle sound of the wind moving through the trees, and it being April, the sound of rain plonking on leaves and steadily dripping and saturating the very air. We talked in hushed voices when we talked at all. We fell into the spell of the trees and rain and our own yearning.
For me, the most powerful moment came when Kathy asked us each to find a tree and spend some time with it, talking and relating to it, and giving it something of ourselves. Around us were towering Douglas firs and large, mossy Big-leaf maples, all beckoning and impressive specimens. But then, nearby, I saw a rather skinny and broken trunk of a fir tree, a snag with several woodpecker-sized holes and other signs of a life reaching its end. This tree had a quiet dignity. It didn’t need me but I felt that I needed it. I picked my way to it through the salal and accumulation of downed branches and vines and shyly touched its bark. I looked into the ragged holes punched by strong beaks; I noticed the broken trunk and few branches. I felt a wave of what I can only describe as generosity emanating from the tree. It was giving, freely, everything it had, not holding back but offering itself to whatever beings needed sustenance. Although ravaged, it was whole. I was overcome with tenderness and understood that I was also somehow thinking of my mother, now aged and stripped to her core by dementia but also whole and abiding with dignity. The tree released something in me; I felt a welling up of acceptance, of acknowledgment. I warmed a small patch of it with my hand and thanked it for this teaching. It was all I had to give. It was, perhaps, enough.
Some Forest Bathing resources:
Click here for a story on NPR about forest bathing.
Your Guide to Forest Bathing: Experience the Healing Power of Nature, by M. Amos Clifford
Shinrin-Yoku: The Art and Science of Forest Bathing, by Dr. Qing Li
Forest Bathing Retreat: Find Wholeness in the Company of Trees, by Hannah Fries
And many more at your bookstore and library, more being published as this movement gains attention