Forest Bathing

The early morning light filtered between my eyelashes and I squinted at the clock… 6:30 AM. Campbell’s Ferry nestles deep in the Salmon River Canyon, a cut in the earth between mountains. We have ‘high horizons’, what I mean is, unlike the flat lands, the sky gets quite light before the sun actually tops the mountain to the east. One of my morning pleasures is to watch the first light paint the highest ridge of the densely forested mountain to the west and track its glow as it gradually descends toward the river, illuminating the trees.

One morning before rising from bed I decided to count all the trees I could see without lifting my head from the pillow. When I reached 500 I stopped. I had covered only a very tiny percentage of the visible trees and was now looking at an area where trees were thicker than hairs on a dog’s back. It was hopeless. There are thousands upon thousands visible from my pillow, not to mention all the other trees that completely surround our property that I can’t see from the bedroom.

I had been reading about forest bathing. The Japanese have a phrase for it, shinrin-yoku, meaning “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing,” the healing that comes from just spending time in the woods immersed in nature. There have been numerous studies in Japan on the health benefits induced: lower blood pressure, lower pulse rate, lower levels of cortisol, lower sympathetic nerve activity. My first thought was that Doug & I must be very fortunate, health wise, to live in this healing environment. Information on how the forest actually does this healing was sketchy so I began to ponder the question.

Our ancient ancestors lived lives surrounded in nature. No one was around to measure their vital signs but it seems they weren’t living all that long. Still, does this legacy of our ancestors sing the siren song of the forest in our blood? Science reveals to us that everything on this planet had the same origin. Do we have some kind of tribal affinity for our genealogical heritage to nature that we find calming? Healing? Is this what is really meant by our “family tree?”

On a chemical level we are not only related to nature but also interdependent. In his book, Cosmos, Carl Sagan wrote, “What a marvelous, cooperative arrangement – plants and animals each inhaling each other’s exhalations, a kind of planet-wide mutual mouth to stoma resuscitation, the entire elegant cycle powered by a star 93 million miles away.” Since plants produce oxygen is there more oxygen floating around in the air of a dense forest? We know that Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (breathing pure oxygen) helps to reduce swelling, control infection, stimulates growth of new blood vessels and allows stubborn wounds to heal. Of course the forest won’t have pure oxygen but will it have more and does even this limited difference, make a difference?

I am not exactly sure what all this means and the more I thought about all these trees, I wondered…should I be worried? Since we spend so much time in the midst of trees, could this be problematic? Will my blood pressure, pulse, cortisol, nerve activity get too low? This can be trouble, you know. Look it up.

On second thought, it is unlikely that I need to worry about vital signs plummeting. Occasionally while walking through the forest we catch sight of a mountain lion or a bear engaged in its own Forest Bathing. Such a sighting is enough to rev up all my physiological systems. My heart rate and blood pressure rise, sympathetic nerve activity prepares for fight or flight (fortunately, neither has been necessary so far), and I am guessing that the cortisol levels are right in there with the rest and it all balances out.

I am feeling so much better.