I recently attended Milwaukee’s environmental conference, nicknamed “Green conference,” held at a high school. Driving there was stressful, and leaving was even more so because I took a wrong turn. By the time I arrived home, I felt drained. But I didn’t want to plop down on the couch. As usual, I wanted to head to the woods.
Even though it was nearing dusk, I took a leisurely stroll down wooded paths, past meadows, and into a favorite valley. I breathed easier and relaxed. I had needed this.
There have been several times in my life when I’ve chosen the woods as a refuge or a place where I can find answers to troubling questions or simply to destress. Maybe you have too. You might have heard of the phrase Forest Bathing, which has become popular lately. Originating in Japan in the 1980s, “Shinrin-yoku” means bathing in the forest atmosphere, or taking in the forest through our senses. According to the Ice Age Trail’s website, (https://www.iceagetrail.org/natures-benefits/) the aim of forest bathing is to slow down and let ourselves soak in the natural environment around us.
“Humans have brains that are sensitive to social and emotional stress,” states Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative. “Perhaps what matters is not the source of stress but the ability to recover from it. This is perhaps what we’ve lost by giving up our connection to the night skies, the bracing air, and the companionate chorus of birds.”
Forest bathing differs from hiking because it’s more leisurely. Yesterday, my husband and I took a morning stroll around Clark Lake in Sylvania Wilderness National Park near Watersmeet, Michigan. My first instinct was to set off with purpose. The entire loop was 9 miles. If we wanted to try for the whole thing, we’d have to get going.
But I soon realized I didn’t want to whisk past the colorful burgundy bracket fungi, the soft tufts of moss, or the princess pine which I’ve always appreciated since they look like miniature Christmas trees. Instead of making the nine miles, I wanted to veer off the path, lazily stroll through areas of dappled sunlight. My husband felt the same way and at one point said, “Do you realize we could be standing on ground that hasn’t had a human on it for hundreds of years?”
I let those words fill my imagination. We were strolling in a virgin climax forest which made me feel like we had traveled back in time. The canopy of tree tops blocked out most of the sunlight so there wasn’t much undergrowth. Walking on the soft, loamy soil felt good on the feet.
We caught glimpses of the clear lake and spotted four kayakers. We wouldn’t hear the roar of boat motors since they aren’t allowed. The lone call of a loon made me pause so I could soak in the scene. An hour passed with only the sound of birds, the trickle of water from a rocky stream, the breeze moving through the trees, the occasional whine of a mosquito, and the gentle lapping of waves onto the shore.
My husband and I talked about the possibility of reserving a campsite here and discussed how we’d hang our food bag from a tree so we wouldn’t attract bears to our tent. Maybe we could get our grandsons, ranging in age from 6 to 11, to join us. We could either hike or kayak into our campsite. After we set up camp, we’d swim in the clear water, dry off, and spend the evening around the campfire. We’d slow down, watch the flickering fire, and together, enjoy the delights of forest bathing.