On an unusually warm but cloudy March day about two weeks before the vernal equinox, I took a group hike in the woods at Prairiewoods Franciscan Spirituality Center in Hiawatha. Over an hour and half, we traversed about a quarter mile, a half at most.
Let me revise my language. This was not a “hike.” This was a walk — a guided shinrin-yoku (pronounce the “r” as a “d”) session, to be more specific. Coined by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, shinrin-yoku — translated as “taking in the forest atmosphere,” “forest bathing” or “forest immersion” — is a healing and preventive health practice developed in the 1980s. More and more scientific evidence shows how being in nature is good for you. It not only provides good opportunities for moving your body, but the healing powers of nature also have been shown to reduce stress and blood pressure; improve memory, mood and sleep; promote faster healing; and more. Often, the physical benefits are nearly immediate. Intentional nature experience can also have profound emotional, ethical, metaphysical and spiritual effects as we reconnect with the world that is our home.
My own interest in experiencing shinrin-yoku is less medicinal and more focused on learning to understand nature more profoundly. The practice’s immersiveness, or “bathing,” is midwifed by slowness and the senses. Modern Americans tend to have a competitive, fast relationship with nature. We often see the natural world as an obstacle course, an opponent, even an adversary — trails, mountains, woods and waterways to conquer, to cross over or through as quickly or as far as we can and the more rugged the better. Certainly some connection with nature can come of such activities, but they can sacrifice depth of understanding and relationship in the name of victory and territorial mastery.
Shinrin-yoku is less assertion and more invitation. Dipping into the forest bath, we slow down both our physical and mental velocity, and we invite the sights, sounds, smells, textures and flavors of the woods to greet our senses in a deliberative, even meditative way. We open our attention to both the minute particulars and the wide, deep wholeness of the land around us.
On that morning in the small Iowa forest at Prairiewoods, our group leader, Dr. Suzanne Bartlett Hackenmiller — a self-described “recovering OB/GYN” who is now an integrative medicine practitioner — had us walk the path slowly with “deer ears” (cupping your hands around your ears to amplify sound) and “owl eyes” (putting your hands to the sides of your eyes to focus your gaze). We stood stationary, closed our eyes, opened our ears and turned to the next cardinal direction every couple of minutes to hear the gradations in the forest song. We examined plants with magnifying glasses and small mirrors. We touched the winter ground and dipped our hands in the cold creek water. We put our hands on a tree for several minutes — and, yes, hugged that tree if we wanted to.
Shinrin-yoku is not a one-time activity that you tick off a checklist. To be meaningful and effective, it must be a regular practice and a formative posture toward the natural world. Even so, in my first short session, I gained new insight. I perceived the complexity and variety in even the smallest — as well as the largest — aspects of the woods in new ways.
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I place my hands on the ground, my left on some dead, dry, yellowed grass and my right on a cluster of emerging fresh green shoots. In this time of transition between the sleep of winter and the awakening of spring, my left palm feels the brittle, warm remnants of last year’s grass, and my right the cool, moist burgeoning of new growth. The sensations on my hands upend my expectations a bit. Our minds associate death with cold and life with vital warmth, yet my palms tell me a different story.
Suzanne asks us to stand still for five minutes, look into the woods and pay attention to movement. The day is breezy, the flowing air strong enough to penetrate the forest. I notice the short, delicate grasses and other ground cover plants sway in the wind, as do the thinner branches at the treetops. The larger, solid tree trunks stand still between the undulating ground and canopy. I notice these multiple layers of movement in the woods because my own slowed movement and opened senses allow both my target and field focus to play between the near and the far. With today’s life spent so much on screens, many of us have diminished, even lost, the ability to smoothly move between our perceptions of the close and the distant. Nature immersion can help us restore this essential skill of discernment.
It’s tree-touching time. I choose an ash and place my hands on either side of its mature trunk. On one side, my palm senses rough, textured lines of raised bark. On the other side, the slick green coolness of moss softens that feeling. I stand where trunk meets ground, where the tree’s solidity is fullest. My hands sense this sturdy, nearly immovable strength, yet I also feel the delicate pieces of bark that could easily break off with the slightest pressure of my fingers.
* * *
Complexity and variety abound in these woods, writ both small and large. The forest is a spectrum of the particular as well as a unity of the collective. In slowing the pace of both my steps and my mind, in opening my senses, in immersing myself in the presence of the natural world, I heightened my attentiveness and deepened my connection to these woods. Yet in these fleeting moments and sensations, I have barely begun to know this small forest. I have only stepped up to its threshold and accepted the invitation of shinrin-yoku. To truly know this place, I have many more trees to touch, creeks to listen to and breezes to watch.
In answer to Euell Gibbons’ eternal question, yes, Thomas Dean has eaten a pine tree. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 211.