02 January 2012
With Cynthia Paulson
‘Forest Bathing’ in Paradise
It had rained in the night. One of those quiet gentle rains that lulls you into a restful sleep and washes away all the remnants of manmade debris from the earth. In the morning the sun awoke to bathe the outdoors with golden light. The myriad mixed shades of vibrant greens against the muted browns stood out starkly like an enhanced photograph of deeply saturated color. The air was clean and smelled of freshly laundered earthiness. The sharp coolness that often follows a winter rain stung the rosy cheeks of the group gathered along the old wooden bridge that crossed the Pinhook River for the start of their hike deep in the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.
The group had been walking in the woods now almost weekly for the past few months. What was it that drove us out of our comfortable beds at daybreak to gather our gear, lace up our boots and head into the woods? I knew it couldn’t be for the enticing peanut butter sandwich that sat at the bottom of my backpack waiting to be eaten for lunch. Or for the countless opportunities that allowed us to capture spectacular photographs of flora and fauna. Or even for the camaraderie shared amongst my companion hikers that absolutely rated high on my list. It was something else I would soon realize in greater depth that repeatedly drove us to do what we did. It was indeed an evolutionary natural familiarity that innately pulled us into the woods each week - to cleanse our souls and shower us with restorative energy. We had all arrived today for our weekly forest bath!
For the better part of each day the group met, we totally immersed ourselves in our wild surroundings and didn’t look back. We allowed unconsciously the sights, the sounds, and the scents of the natural forest environment to wash away visions of the artificial asphalt world and connect us back to our primal ancestral roots. For once there was a time when we lived harmoniously with nature blending all our senses with the natural environment into one. We were with and of the earth. Is it any wonder then why a walk in the woods so nourishes our very human spirit and makes us feel alive? It is easy to comprehend that outwardly our physical health can be improved just by the mere action of walking. But forest bathing I was to learn has numerous other qualities that also impact positively our inward health and wellbeing.
It was the Japanese that coined the term, forest bathing, or Shinrin-yoku which means “taking in the forest atmosphere.” Scientific studies have proven that inhaling forest air actually boosts the immune system. Forest bathing as a practice has become a recognized relaxation and stress management therapy prescribed by many Japanese physicians. The essential oils of a tree called phytocides serve as a natural protectant to ward off harmful insects and strengthen the immune system against disease. It has been discovered these same phytocides can also act to strengthen ours with measurable physiologic effects as well. Breathing in these airborne natural chemicals can lower blood pressure, slow down the heart rate and reduce the blood glucose level of diabetic patients. It has also been shown they stimulate the activity and number of lymphocytes or “killer cells” known to fight off infection and attack cancer growth.
But it is not only the air that has these restorative powers. Surrounding ourselves with nature heightens all our senses. Exposure to the soothing sounds and sights of a forest environment lowers stress levels, and decreases anxiety and depression. It actually lowers the concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol, leads to better concentration and diminishes pain. Amazingly, the effect of all these productive health benefits can last up to 30 days.
I didn’t know all of this when I entered the woods that particular morning. Every week the collective face of our group varied slightly. Many of the old faces reappeared, but often there were new ones too. Today I walked alongside one of the newcomers, an attractive dark-haired young woman from Costa Rica. As we walked and talked, we moved forward through the canopied woods. Past the translucent shiny fronds of the saw palmetto lined up like armed sentinels along our path. Past the magnificent pair of eagles performing aerial acrobatics, bald heads flashing white with every graceful swoop and turn. Through the waterless swamps that smelled still of musty dampness. Past the pulsating treetops that shook with the joyful sound and movement of singing robins that spilled out from all directions like a broken bag of sand. Point A to Point B blended seamlessly together and for the hours we all walked through the woods we were simply living with and within the wild. We may have had control over our direction and our pace, but all the rest we had surrendered and just existed in the moment and our space.
“This is called ‘forest bathing,’ my new friend said suddenly, snapping me back to reality from my woodlands trance. “What we are doing now.” I stopped and took in a large deep breath. All at once everything made perfect sense in a cascade of clear insight and I completely understood. It was a basic essential human instinct that attracted me so powerfully to the outdoors and drew me time after time back into the woods. And I knew then exactly what my New Year’s resolution would be.
“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” – John Muir
Join the group for forest bathing as we begin our trek westward through the Apalachicola National Forest beginning, January 28, and weekly thereafter. For the full hiking schedule and registration details, go to www.apalachee.floridatrail.org or visit Facebook, Apalachee Chapter of the Florida Trail Association.