Rx for All: Forest Bathing for Better Health

Photo of aspen forest by Donald Giannatti on Unsplash

By Michelle Curry Wright

I never saw a discontented tree. They grip the ground as though they liked it, and though fast rooted they travel about as far as we do. They go wandering forth in all directions with every wind, going and coming like ourselves, traveling with us around the sun two million miles a day, and through space heaven knows how fast and far! —John Muir

Chances are, you have important trees in your past.

These are the trees you think of in times of stress, or loneliness, or when your phone has become your ball and chain. Your happy place is populated by these trees, standing by, steady, calm and vibrant—and, as it happens, ready to serve.

My tree history began with a small fruit orchard of apples, pears, and cherries in France in the early 60s during my dad’s last tour of duty there. At five years of age, I lived among them, smelled them, touched their bark, plucked their fruit, and generally felt myself at one with their essence. This is what kids do naturally and without effort: They take it all in.

After that came the dense, wet forests of the Pacific Northwest; the lemon and orange groves in Southern California (before they all but disappeared);  and an urban phase of the plane and maple trees of Central Park in New York City. In each of these places, I found dreamy but tangible solace and nourishment from trees, whether through pores, olfactory receptors or eyeballs, whether subtle or strong, sere or misty.

For many years, however, it has been these southwestern Colorado forests that have filled me up like a balloon. The large swaths of pine and spruce and seeming continents of aspen groves. Their rippling beauty, their smells and feels, their relationship to the ground and to the sky. And yes, their vibe.

There is magic in our forests, as you may already have sensed. You’ve probably already hiked a number of trails, gotten up high enough to let your gaze rest on the endless seas of green or yellow or white. Down lower, in dappled sun and shade, you’ve felt the camaraderie of trunks lining your walk, as you slip between the light and dark of vertical sentries. On a spring day, when the world seems new, there is a blinding brightness in the green of the new aspen leaf quaking in a light breeze, and in the fall, a golden shower, as aspen coins rain on us—almost through us, really—body and soul.

What is the strength and goodness we derive from trees?

“Forest bathing” began in Japan in the 1980s as part of their national health plan. Though later scientific work on shinrin-yoku (its Japanese name) was specific to Japanese conifers, some of the science is applicable to forests the world over. The practical steps are simple, but for many Coloradans, not easy, as they involve non-aerobic and non-goal-oriented activity: Go into the forest for a long but slow walk. Practice a combination of no-mind and mindfulness, by being as present as possible with all five of your senses. Be alert beyond the space of mental distraction and into the stillness of nature. Then, receive what Mother Nature is intending for us to receive. Repeat. (You can take it up a notch—or down a notch—by “Earthing,” or removing your shoes for more amplified connection and grounding.)

A number of scientific studies over the years, which continue today, have shown the practice of shinrin-yoku to lower concentrations of cortisol, lower blood pressure, reduce cardiovascular disease, and reduce type 2 diabetes. How does this occur? The scents (phytoncides) given off by trees (their citrus-y oils) have proven, with adequate exposure, to positively affect the human endocrine and immune systems and boost natural killer cell activity and the production of anti-cancer proteins. Thus, trees, in their goodness, are serving us, whether we know it or not.

Sound farfetched? For many, it is not a stretch at all. Because these are the forests a great many have written and felt about, dreamed about, researched, painted, spent lives experiencing, even, regrettably, eulogized. The forests of naturalists, novelists, poets, hermits, athletes, walkers, and everyone else who loves them. These are trees that have forever accompanied us, given to us in so many ways, and we are still arcing upward to better understand them.  An aspen stand, in our neck of the woods, for instance? Its clonal root system, which can last 80,000 years, is one of the oldest living organisms we know of.  Trees are insanely cool.

When we are standing still in our majestic forests here in Colorado wondering why it is we feel so alive, so protected, so well accompanied, it is because forest bathing is good for the full spectrum of health, seen and unseen, felt and unfelt. All we have to do is slow down, slow way down, and be open to it.

Suggested reading:

Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness, by Dr. Qing Li

The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben