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This is my brain on forest bathing

26 Mar 2019
An ode to unstructured time with trees

Forest bathing will be the topic of a GLF Digital Summit on 28 March, 2:00 p.m. (CET). Visit here to join.

We bring a certain amount of reverence to places to which we arrive unsolicited and seeking something. Potential for refusal gives the other party power. Desire breeds respect.

I’m lucky to say forests have always been an uncontested – encouraged, even – part of my life, from climbing magnolias in my childhood backyard to living in Indonesia with rainforests in close reach. But when I recently took Bus 603 to the Kottenforst on a cold misty morning in western Germany where I live now, my focus was set not on what I would do in the forest but on what I would take from it, what it would give.

I can’t remember when or how I first encountered the concept of forest bathing, but I do know that it has been increasingly appearing in whatever zeitgeist it is that I’m in – which, admittedly, includes a lot consumption of media like the TED Radio Hour focused on optimizing thoughts, and therefore habits, and therefore life. Less coffee, more meditation; less meat, more vegetables; fewer screens, more plants. Delay gratification, grow, invest, etc.

Forest bathing slides right into this sort of holistic approach to self-improvement. In just a couple of hours, the phytoncide chemicals emitted by trees can help reduce cortisol levels, strengthen the immune system, lower blood pressure, boost creativity and aid sleep. Exposure to the nonpathogenic bacteria in the soil, Mycobacterium vaccae, can release more serotonin in the brain. So too do negative ions, oxygen atoms with an extra electron that are found near water and fill forest air.

Forest bathing was also a concept first coined by the Japanese – shinrin yoku – which never hurts.

Gabrielle Lipton, Global Landscapes Forum

The thing about optimization, though, is that it has a lot to do with speed and making better use of what time we have – in a morning before work, in a day, a vacation, a life. Forests are on a different clock, perhaps spherical, in which time moves in circles in all directions at once. Life in a forest is not just the species being born or growing, but also those dying and decomposing. If uninterrupted, life will continue seemingly forever, yet will continue standing still.

This is all to say that in the multiple books I read on shinrin yoku prior to visiting the Kottenforst, my main takeaway was that the best use of time while forest bathing is to try and let go of it, or at least what happens within a block of it (as who has the time to completely abandon timeframes anymore?). Don’t make plans for the bath, just let the forest give you its chemicals. Soak them in and be grateful. Be still.

I gave myself four hours to bathe and wore a watch so I wouldn’t have to check my phone. I would like to say the bath immediately immersed me in bliss, but I missed my first bus to get to the Kottenforst, and arriving 30 minutes later than expected made me slightly anxious. A blister I’d developed from training for a half-marathon was bothering me, and the run I’d taken that morning left me hungry, so I immediately sat down on a stump and consumed my only snack. (Here’s a tip: to optimize your bath time, be physically prepared.)

However, beginning by sitting gave my eyes time to adjust to the forest like they do to the dark, the pervasive gray becoming a neutral backdrop making the ecosystem’s colors more potent. The tan, tawny, umber, plum of leaves and branches underfoot – only in nature does brown seem to twin so magically with purple. The occasional hummocks of long grass shouting through in chartreuse; the emerald clover patches. The chandeliers of pine needles dripping down their phytoncides overhead, which raised a question: For all the attention we give chemicals in the air, why don’t we ever think of those from trees?

Gabrielle Lipton, Global Landscapes Forum

I had done no mapping of the forest past the bus stop, so when I began to wander, I went wherever I felt drawn – down a horse path; off the path to a group of those dripping pines; over to a filmy pond surrounded by trees that, despite the lack of wind, were bouncing and bobbing in the air like an infant waving its limbs, extra-energized with all the negative ions surely floating here. The forest is always innocent.

The sound of far-off cars was the closest mention of wind, though I hadn’t noticed when exactly the road noises had percolated into such a hush. I hadn’t noticed that my blister had stopped hurting. I live in an attic, and I’d recently noticed that the trees below my window had begun to bud. I noticed that on certain trees here, too, buds had begun to show.

A tree with cotton-like white and yellow buds caught my eye, but a maze of thorny brambles stood between us. It wouldn’t have been difficult to crush them down underfoot, but I snaked between them to keep them intact. I made it to the tree with some scratches and metaphors in my mind about traversing through brambles, and how I place my steps. It’s funny how much thought steps can require, if I let them, as I should.

The longer I stayed in the forest, the more I found to do. I meandered through a grove of spindly white trees that looked like lassos stuck in the ground in some Dalí dream of a landscape. I tried to be quiet. I stood in a clearing to meditate for a few minutes and noticed how much louder the birds became when my eyes closed. A woodpecker started and stopped. When I looked outward again, there were hundreds of thousands of twigs on the ground, on top of all the leaves, on top of all the soil and the root systems therein. Up above, the fractals of branches diverged into smaller and smaller patterns reaching for their food from the sun. They looked like capillaries in lungs, neural networks. Perhaps the closest things I will see to the fractals inside of me is an old tree naked in winter.

Gabrielle Lipton, Global Landscapes Forum

This went on for a while, not doing much of anything but walking around, picking things up and putting them down, sitting, standing, stepping, breathing. I cannot deny that my mind at times left the forest and drifted to work, relationships, family – the usual suspects of where thoughts go when left to roam. But these thoughts, too, seemed like fractals, one leading to another to another. Perhaps part of thought optimization is making sure they are, at least mostly, moving toward some light.

At some point, I checked my watch, as well as my location on Google Maps. I saw I had a few messages and thought how to respond. I took a few photos and began heading back so I wouldn’t miss my 12:43 bus. But I wasn’t ready to leave the colors, the chemicals, the quiet, or the thoughts. I had begun to feel that if I tread lightly and left no trace, perhaps taking without giving wasn’t necessarily selfish, if it results in appreciation. Really, the only thing that spurred me out was hunger. (Here’s another tip: to prolong your bath, don’t go light on the snacks.)

Later, I debated putting the photos on Instagram, and in the end, I did (those cotton flowers were very photogenic). I wondered if this was somehow sacrilegious for forest bathing, but then I got a message from an old high school friend currently getting his masters and writing a paper on shinrin yoku. Did I have any good sources on it? Perhaps forest bathing is something to give forward, an inward experience meant to be shared. If the ecosystem of forest bathers grows, so too will love for forests, and remembrance that some chemicals in our atmosphere are meant to be felt, appreciated and protected.

I gave him a few recommendations, but said the best, really, is just to go take a bath.



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