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Watoga Trail Report

“Pocahontas County – so much forest, so little time” K. Springer photo

Ken Springer
Watoga Park Foundation

Forest Bathing
Is it a gateway drug to Tree Hugging?

“Humanity is a biological species living in a biological environment, because like all species, we are exquisitely adapted to that particular environment in which we live.” ~ Edward O. Wilson

Recently, I met with friends for lunch in an outdoor setting. There were six of us seated around a table. It was a delightful time as we told stories, shared ideas and found good reason for laughter.

It was only on my drive home that it occurred to me why this particular gathering was especially nice, beyond even the vivacious personalities of my friends. No one had a smartphone at the ready – we actually had time to give our full attention to each other.

Contrast that experience with one I had a little over a year ago when meeting with four former colleagues in Cincinnati, whom I hadn’t seen for several years. After arriving at the restaurant where we had agreed to meet, we were ushered to our table.

Before the others seated themselves, they all reached into their pockets and simultaneously pulled their phones out and, much like the movie cowboys, placed their version of six-shooters on the table within easy reach.

Throughout the time it took to eat our dinners and enjoy a drink or two, my friends were constantly attending to the various beeps and audible alerts of their phones, their fingers ceaselessly sweeping up and across the face of the devices.

On several occasions the phrase, “Excuse me, I have to take this,” signaled a departure from the table for several minutes while he or she took a call. Invariably the phrase “Sorry about that, it was my so and so,” accompanied their return to the table.

Eye contact was nearly impossible for any appreciable length of time and no conversation was uninterrupted, nor heard by all of the listeners at once. Their little three by five-inch devices ruled over our gathering, as I’m sure it did all of their waking moments.

I admit to being disappointed with the quality of the conversation, but more importantly, I wondered if they even realized that they belonged to the phone, rather than the other way around.

What must their lives be like when their sense of being in the present with all five senses at play, has been co-opted by technology? More than once, I have seen hikers in the Arboretum at Watoga walking through the forest holding their cell phones up in the air, futilely searching for a signal, as nature was “happening” all around them.

So how do we tune in to the natural world and reap the benefits of doing so? And just what the h%#& is Forest Bathing?

If the term Forest Bathing conjures up an image of nudists running around in the woods under a full moon, immediately expel it from your mind. The modern concept of Forest Bathing actually comes from Japan.

Shinrin Yoku, transliterated as Forest Bathing, is a conceptual practice that came about in the early 1980s as a way to mitigate the stress experienced by the millions of over-worked Japanese.

Now a national program in Japan, many areas provide special guides who will lead you through the forest, teaching methods of breathing in the volatile aromatic compounds released by trees. Participants are encouraged to move slowly using their senses of seeing, touching, hearing, smelling and, sometimes, tasting, to fully experience nature and her health benefits.

The concept of Shinrin Yoku probably has its roots in the indigenous religion of Japan, Shinto. Shinto is generally regarded by religious scholars and the Japanese themselves, as a “nature” religion. Given that 70% of Japan is forested, coupled with a deep respect for nature, it is not surprising that Forest Bathing had its start there.

More recently, Forest Bathing came to the Western world where, as usual, it was not only adopted but adapted to western culture. For a fee, a guide will walk you through the forest and teach you how to become one with nature – tip not included.
So, is Forest Bathing Woo Woo?

Not really. There is a science to it as we shall soon see. Although a lot of Woo-types are attracted to the practice, as demonstrated by any number of YouTube videos on the subject.

Consider one image I came across wherein a forest bather was curled up in the crotch of a large oak tree holding an amethyst crystal; now that’s right out of the Woo playbook. But, Woo or not, the concept has potential value to us all.

Although we often think of nature as something outside of ourselves, something we visit occasionally, the fact is we are inextricably a part of nature. In the entire span of our evolution, humans have only lived in cities and towns for a very tiny sliver of that time.

We evolved in a world of trees and greenery, an environment that shaped all aspects of our physiology, anatomy and psychology; right down to the cellular level. Even if we live in the middle of New York City, we are already “one with nature” by birthright, however, starving for its considerable health benefits.

When we are deprived of being in the environment that nurtured us for millions of years, we pay a steep price. And that price comes in the form of maladies such as high blood pressure, diabetes, ADHD, stress, sleep disorders, heart disease and immune system disorders. We have not evolved long enough to stray far from mother nature for an extended period of time without adverse effects.

Does science bear this out?

The answer is a resounding “Yes.”

In an earlier Watoga Trail Report* we looked at the research of Ming Kuo, Professor of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at Illinois University at Urbana-Champaign. Her research shows conclusively, a link between greenery and health as well as violence and crime.

Other research has revealed what the ancient Celts knew thousands of years ago. Druids, the learned class of Celts, held the trees sacred for their airborne health sustaining properties.

In the last couple of decades that ancient belief has been found to be a fact of science. We really can inhale certain healthful aromatic compounds released by trees.

Trees and other plants produce volatile organic compounds called phytoncides. These made-to-order chemicals perform a very important function in protecting plants from invasive insects and fungus.**

When we humans inhale phytoncides while walking through a forest, we benefit from their antibacterial and antifungal properties.

Additionally, airborne organic compounds like Phytoncides stimulate the production of Lymphocytes (white blood cells), particularly a lymphocyte called natural killer cells or T-cells. T-cells are there to fight foreign organisms and recent research shows that they also destroy certain cancer cells.

It wasn’t too long ago that the word “mindfulness” was all the rage. It simply means intentionally “living in the moment”; you know, as dogs do.

Dogs are not thinking about a Milk Bone shortage sometime in the future, nor do they suffer pangs of remorse for eating that whole bag of treats that you left unattended last week. Dogs have this “living in the moment” skill down pat; unfortunately, humans do not. We struggle to stay in the now, preferring the future or the past.

Here’s a chance to save a lot of money in medicines, vitamins and doctor bills, plus you can throw away that library of self-help books. Just get out there and immerse yourself in our original home – nature.

So, did I actually try Forest Bathing? And did I hug a tree?

On one recent morning, I left my trail tools at home and wandered around in the Old Growth area at Watoga for the entire morning.

I walked slowly, breathed deeply, and just let the forest show me what it would. I saw things I would have passed by unnoticed while trail running or working on trails. I heard and smelled things that usually wouldn’t have registered. Upon returning I felt thoroughly refreshed by the experience, both mentally and physically.

As for hugging a tree; well, that’s just between me and that cute little maple I came across in the backcountry of Watoga.

Note: I know one person whose mode of spending time alone in the woods qualifies as Forest Bathing. Our very own Mark Mengele. Mark is the master of actually being in the forest with all five senses alert, as opposed to merely traveling through it.

Next week’s edition of the Watoga Trail Report will feature one woman’s mission to preserve the history of African Americans in Pocahontas County.

Ken Springer

* Ming Kuo Vitamin N, Ted Talk April 10, 2018
**Effects of Forest Bathing on Human Immune Functions, Qing Li – NIH

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