By Joyce White
When I first heard the term “forest bathing,” images of naked people frolicking through the woods and splashing in a forest brook flashed through my mind. Maybe they then stretched out on sun-warmed pine needles, perhaps even taking a snooze – but certainly not in black fly season. Or winter.
But no, “forest bathing” is organized and has a Japanese name, shinrin-yoku. The July 27, 2018, issue of The Week describes it as “using the senses to soak up the sights, smells and sounds of the natural world,” all of which sounds pretty much like what most of us do on a woods ramble anyway. But wouldn’t you know, there have been scientific studies – “more than 140 studies involving nearly 300 million people in 20 different countries” – revealing that spending time in nature or living near green spaces contributes to good health and is associated with lower risk of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, early death and high blood pressure, for example. I wonder if all those studies were necessary.
Last year The Boston Globe ran an article entitled “Stopping by woods and breathing in deeply” by Brian Connor about forest bathing, which, he said, “encourages immersion in the natural world, a mindful meditation that embraces our surroundings rather than excludes them.” It is an organized therapy, and one of its practitioners, Nadine Mazzola, has learned about “phytoncides, aromatic volatile substances emitted by trees that boost the ‘natural killer’ or NK cells in human immune systems.” She went on to become certified as a forest therapy guide and founded New England Nature and Forest Therapy Consulting, from which she leads forest therapy sessions.
Imagine having to pay someone with a long title to lead you on a walk through the woods! And I had thought it was the oxygen that forest trees were showering me with that increased my sense of well-being. But no, it’s also those phytoncides stimulating my immune system!
Another forest bathing proponent, Tam Willey, told the Globe that forest bathing is most effective when practiced regularly over time so that NK cells build up in the blood and lower the production of stress hormones. Willey leads regular forest bathing walks at the Arnold Arboretum but, like Mazzola, also partners with groups such as the Audubon Society and Appalachian Mountain Club.
In her 2017 book “The Nature Fix,” Florence Williams puts the forest bathing concept into perspective. It got its name, shinrin-yoku, as an organized practice in Japan, where forest land is scarce. “People come out from the city and literally shower in the greenery,” a forest bathing guide told her.
We in Maine, on the other hand, don’t usually need to go far to find a woodsy spot for a ramble. I’ve wandered the woods in several parts of Maine since childhood, most often without a guide but sometimes with the company of an individual or group to learn more about some aspect of nature. So having woods walks organized as forest bathing and advertised as therapy for a price seemed like just another way to commodify nature. Yet I know from experience that I feel better in body and soul from walking in woodsy places, especially those with a brook is running through, so if other people are willing to pay for someone to lead them in forest bathing, what better way for them to feel healthier and happier? It surely is less damaging to the environment than golf. I suppose I need to recognize that we’ve come to a situation in our culture when a simple woods ramble is not part of everyday life for too many people.
Williams uses the work of Qing Li at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo to discuss the NK cells that protect us from disease agents and can be measured in a laboratory. “A type of white blood cell, they’re handy to have around since they send self-destruct messages to tumors and virus-infected cells.”
Li experimented to find out if nature could increase NK cells by taking a group of middle-aged Tokyo businessmen into the woods. They spent a couple of hours hiking each day for three days, after which blood tests showed their NK cells had increased 40 percent; the increase lasted for seven days. Even a month later, the NK count was still 15 percent higher than when they began.
Henry David Thoreau is probably best known for the time he spent at Walden Pond, and Williams quotes from his essay “Walking”: “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least … sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all the world’s engagements.” No need for shinrin-yoku then – but times have changed. What hasn’t changed, I think, is an innate human yearning to feel a connection to nature.
About the author: Joyce White gardens in Stoneham, Maine, and is a frequent contributor to The MOF&G.