The Japanese have a practice called Shinrin-yoku to relieve stress, anxiety, depression and related illnesses. It translates as Forest Bathing.
It’s a simple antidote to hectic urban life: spend an easy half-hour in a forest or other natural area, walking slowly and focusing on the sights, sounds and smells of nature, and you’ll emerge washed clean…healthier, happier and ready to face your day.
The Japanese have found there are measurable health benefits* to forest bathing. There are also numerous studies in the U.S. on the health benefits of daily nature walks.
In Seattle, we’re lucky to have a number of city parks with gorgeous stands of forest, some of it actual old-growth. Most every neighborhood is within walking distance of a good forest bathtub.
How to take a forest bath
It doesn’t need to be a nice day—just bundle up. Rainy days are often the best, because you’ll find more peace and quiet.
Walk or drive or take the bus to your favorite natural area, and dive in.
A forest bath on a rainy gray Seattle winter day
I walk briskly through the city neighborhood—my trusty ipod blocking out the traffic noises. The trucks, buses and cars stink up the air with exhaust.
I pass the familiar sights: the house with the sad-looking golden retriever in the front yard; the tree that was pruned in half with a chainsaw; the yard with the statuette of Saint Somebody lying face down in the dirt. I pass the school and continue down the hill to where the street dead ends. It’s not an official park entrance—just a little path leading behind some bushes and under a Dump No Waste Whatever sign. I chuckle remembering the kids I once heard making fun of the City’s bad grammar, “Like, no waste…what-ever.”
A few steps later, I’ve left the city and I’m now on a trail in a bona fide old-growth forest. It seems like I’ve stepped off into another dimension. I take a deep breath and remove the ear-buds. Forest bath begins.
In summer the forest is cathedral-like, with a soaring canopy of bigleaf maple, cedar, doug fir and hemlock. The light filtering down has a greenish, almost underwater quality. Bright patches of forest floor glow with a riot of ferns and other plants. Summer in Seattle can be pretty nice.
Up until a few weeks ago, there were still bits of autumn beauty here and there. The forest floor was decorated with reddish-brown maple leaves, all crispy and dried and piled in hypnotic heaps of jagged, interlocking patterns.
Now, though, winter decay has seeped into everything and the entire forest seems to be covered with oozing black mud.
I lean over and gaze down, looking for little green shoots. Soon, I know, these swampy patches will be brilliant with electric-yellow skunk cabbage. I always marvel at how those plants can rise up from such vile muck and end up looking as squeaky-clean as if they’d just taken a shower.
I continue down the path, inhaling the dank forest smells and enjoying the silence. The forest is 80 acres tucked in a ravine that seems hidden from city noises. All I hear is the rushing of the stream and the squishing of my feet on the muddy path. Often, there are little flocks of chirping winter songbirds, but today is quiet.
The bare winter canopy reminds me of a fantastical greenhouse, with the flat gray sky framed in odd-shaped panes of dark branches. At one point the trail rises to an overlook where you get a nice wide view. I shift into artist-mode and squint a little, trying to imagine drawing the scene. It’s so complex…all jumbled shapes and overlapping lines. Forests are hard.
I cross the stream on the stepping stones and look downstream to check for coyotes. I saw one here once, and always look for it out of habit. Even though we’re in the city, large mammals stray in from time to time. A few years ago, a cougar was found to be living in a park across town, and a black bear was spotted not far from here.
I head up the hill and cross the little footbridge past a giant bigleaf maple, draped in moss and covered in licorice ferns. This time of year, when the most of the color has drained out the of the forest, the maples fairly glow. They look almost comical, like someone has dressed them up in green mossy sweaters.
When it’s thick enough, moss functions like a soil layer on the outside of the tree, forming a base for other plants to grow. It’s like a tiny ecosystem…a miniature forest.
I’ve almost reached the end of the loop trail. I huff back up the hill, past the giant cottonwood that’s covered in graffiti and carved initials, and I’m back in the city once again. Forest bath is over. Time to get back to the studio.
The Japanese are right, forest bathing relieves stress and makes you healthier.
I feel great.
*To read the science on forest bathing: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17903349
To read an article on the importance of trees: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/12/opinion/why-trees-matter.html?_r=0