In Praise of Forest Bathing

When you open a book you got for Christmas and it’s titled “Forest Bathing”, it’s hard not to envision kicking back in some big old clawfoot tub with shiny brass fixtures filled with perfectly warmed water out in some lush forest under a bright green canopy of oaks, maples, elms and pines.  Ahh.

Well, that’s not actually what the book is about. It’s not even about taking long ‘clothing optional’ walks on some lushly forested trail. It is, however, about taking long walks on some lushly forested trail. And if wearing clothing optionally was your thing, it wouldn’t seem to preclude that, necessarily. I personally (usually) opt for clothing, mostly for the benefit of others.

The book is “Forest bathing: The Japanese Art and Science of Shinrin-Yoku”, written by Dr. Qing Li. “Forest bathing” is a centuries-old ritual practiced mostly by the Japanese, but now apparently catching on worldwide.  In Japanese, ‘Shinrin’ means ‘forest’ and ‘Yoku’ means bath and there are 62 officially designated Forest Bathing sites throughout the country. Forest Bathing has been a focus of the Japanese government since the 1980’s.

According to Dr. Li, “A two hour forest bath will help you to unplug from technology and slow down. It will bring you into the present moment and destress and relax you. When you connect to nature through all five of your senses, you begin to draw on the vast array of benefits the natural world provides”

And the benefits are pretty darn vast, including: stress reduction, lowering blood pressure, reducing the risk of depression, improving concentration and memory, strengthening the immune system, increasing anti-cancer protein production and even helping you lose weight. What more could you ask for from a forest?

Okay you may say, Scott, I’m ready to reap some of those benefits! Well I say: not so fast! So does Dr. Li, apparently. The rate of walking while forest bathing is about one kilometer per hour. Yes, you heard that right. Here I’ve been working on getting my 5K under 45 minutes, and this guy says I’m supposed to walk 1K in an hour? How is that even possible?

And apparently the perfect time allotment for a forest bath is about two hours. During which time, you’ll cover approximately two kilometers. So lesson one is: slow down!

Dr. Li: “Slow walking is recommended for beginners. It is important not to hurry through the forest. You are not going on a hike. Walking slowly will keep your senses open, to notice things and to smell the forest air. Stop every now and then to take in your surroundings and see what else your senses notice.”

Dr. Li explains that “the key to unlocking the power of the forest is to engage your five senses. Let nature enter through your ears, eyes, nose, mouth, hands and feet.” Walking barefoot is recommended to get the most out of contact with the soil. And naturally, you’ll need to unplug and leave your electronics behind. Sorry, you’ll be taking no selfies with your arms around a tree to post on Instagram so your “friends” will know what a tree hugger you are.

But do consider the wonders of the trees as you walk, and you may even want to stop and hug one, if you feel so moved. After all, trees are pretty amazing and deserve our love.

Dr. Li reports that a single tree can absorb 4.5kg of pollutants in a year. As a matter of fact, a tree survey in London calculated that London’s trees remove 2.241 metric tons of pollution, store 2,367,000 metric tons of carbon sequestration, and capture 3,414,000 cubic meters of storm water runoff annually.

And they talk, too. Another book on my bedside table is “The Hidden Life of Trees: What they Feel, How they Communicate” (I’ll return it soon, Bruce, I swear), which tells the tale of trees engaging in conversations with each other, and helping each other out in times of stress, without us even being aware of it.

Apparently they communicate by making faint clicking sounds, or by emitting and receiving scents and fragrances through the air, and they are connected to one another through their root systems where they can communicate chemically as well.

And if any loner trees out there in the forest start feeling disconnected from their compadres, they can get connected through fungi that operate like fiber-optic Internet cables to guarantee quick dissemination of news. Over centuries, a single fungus can cover many square miles and network an entire forest. These connections transmit signals from one tree to the next, helping the trees exchange news about insects, drought, and other dangers. In the journal Nature, Dr Suzanne Simard refers to this as the “wood wide web” that pervades our forests. Forests and trees are amazing things.

It’s time to get outside and begin your forest bathing experience. According to the US EPA, the average American now spends 93 percent of their time indoors, of which 6 percent is spent in cars. And according to data from a UK government survey of over 20,000 people, those who spent two hours in nature, were significantly more likely to report better health and well-being than those who spent less time outside. And the good news is: that could happen in one trip or several smaller visits to a forest preserve or even a city park.

Physicians in Japan and now, increasingly here in the U.S. are practicing “Nature Rx” (Google that to find an awesome video prescription drug ad for “Nature”). That is, physicians are actually prescribing – in ineligible handwriting on little prescription pads – people to spend time in nature.

Researcher and writer Richard Louv describes the gap between children and nature as “Nature Deficit Disorder” and links the lack of nature in children with rising behavioral disorders, obesity, a lack of vitamin D, and an increase in short-sightedness. And it’s not enough just to increase their knowledge of the outdoors, what’s important is that children are out there in it. Children report they are happier when playing outside than when playing on electronic devices.

Moreover, Dr. Li explains that “all the research shows that we will look after what we love. If we give our children these experiences, they will love the places in the forest where they played and learned. In the end, it is our children’s relationship with the natural world that determines its future. If we let our children go out in to the forest, they will become adults who will protect it.”

True confession here: I’m one of those kids. I have a direct stake in promoting and encouraging you to get started in your outdoor adventures. I’m a founding member of the Upper Sangamon River Conservancy and a Commissioner on the Champaign County Forest Preserve District. In both of these capacities, we specialize in providing you with great opportunities for Forest Bathing. There are 6 preserves and over 3800 acres of land you can traverse, and one amazing local river, the Sangamon, where you can join the USRC for regular canoe and kayak trips. And while none of our activities are “clothing optional”, I’m thinking of certain remote areas in some of our Preserves where…nah, better not mention that.

So what are you sitting around reading the newspaper for? Get up and get outside! Dr. Li: “Engage your five senses: listen to the birds and breeze rustling through the leaves, look at the different greens of the trees and the sunlight filtering through the branches, smell the fragrance of the forest, taste the freshness of the air, place your hands on the trunk of tree, dip your toes in a stream or a river, lie on the ground, drink in the flavor of the forest and release your sense of joy and calm. This is your sixth sense, a state of mind. You have crossed the bridge to happiness.”


Appeared as Rivers and Roads, Mahomet Citizen, by Scott Hays, June 20, 2019


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