Sick of all those pills you take to treat your blood pressure, diabetes, anxiety and heart disease? Struggling with depression, hostility or metabolic syndrome? There’s another way to go, and it’s free! Try Shinrin-yoku, the Art of Japanese Forest Bathing, no disrobing or soap required. How difficult is it? Like a walk in the park, or in this case, the woods.
The Japanese have been wandering their forests for years. They love the outdoors; their national pastime is picnicking under the cherry blossoms. In 1982, forest bathing first became part of that country’s National Health Program. They’ve spent more than $4 million over eight years studying the physiological and psychological effects of walking in the woods. Now, before you call them out for a Golden Fleece award, consider they’ve applied some serious science to the problem. Exhaustive studies were conducted measuring blood and saliva of research participants, as well as their respiration and mood. Scientists were able to prove that “natural killer” cells which respond to viruses, tumor development and immune system health substantially increased after a forest visit. These positive effects lasted up to a month.
So, what’s the catch? The clue is to do nothing but relax in the presence of trees. No power walking, no Fitbit peeking, just chill. Trees, plants and some fruits and veggies produce oils which contain phytoncide which help protect them from assault by germs and bugs. Inhaling the phytoncide appears to improve human immune systems, too. Remember when mom kicked you outside to play for the entire day when you were little? We were happy then, maybe this is one reason why. One hundred years ago, 40 percent of Americans lived in cities, today it’s up to 81 percent. In 1920, an urban area was defined as having over 2,500 people. The Danes (recently determined to be among the world’s happiest souls) discovered in 2006 that children who played close to nature in outdoor kindergartens were 58 percent more likely to invent new games than their counterparts in indoor schools, with only 16 percent of them creating new pastimes. Our young children use electronic devices over 52 hours per week on the average, but spend less than 49 minutes playing outdoors.
Humanity’s appreciation for trees goes way back. The Druids, translated as oak-knowers, viewed trees as symbols of strength and longevity and employed them for shelter, food and transportation, also recognizing them as sacred and worthy of worship. The lowly pine tree known as the “sweetest of woods” was identified as one of the seven chieftain trees by the Druids. Juniper and cedar needles were mixed together and used for purification in the home and bath. The yew, one of the world’s oldest trees, represented both death and renewal. A bough was laid on graves, indicating that death was only a temporary state before rebirth. It was used medicinally then, as it is again today for cancer treatment. In 1854, Henry David Thoreau spoke of his prescription for society and its ills, a dose of the forest, in his “Walden – or Life in the Woods.”
As a global society we now recognize the importance of preserving the diminishing rain forest, with its vast variety of plant and animal species that can cure disease. In addition, we understand the relationship of trees and plants to the health of the air we breathe. Locally, the people of Harwich, in 1964, had to make a tough decision whether to vote to maintain their beloved Exchange Building in Harwich Center, or purchase 259 acres of forest in the Bells Neck area. Their forward thinking vote that year preserved the Bells Neck Reservoir woodland for all future generations. The Harwich Land Conservation Trust has continued the good work, adding land as they are able.
I’ve just spent some time Shinrin-yoku-ing myself while creating fairy and gnome homes for my granddaughter’s preschool fair for the Partnership School. I’ve been busy gathering bits of bark, acorns, lichen and twigs in the contemplative midst of primeval pines and oaks. I think it’s working! I feel great! Looks like the tree huggers were right after all. Pack up a basket of goodies and wend your way through the nearest wood. Breathe deeply and remember, sometimes the best medicine is no medicine, just be one with the trees. After all, if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?