The earth is a living thing. Mountains speak, trees sing, lakes can think, pebbles have a soul, rocks have power. Henry Crow Dog
I awaken anew each spring. The earth comes alive and so do I. A variety of body memories accompany spring’s sensual feast: the melodious calls of red wing blackbirds, a quick shiver with morning’s early mist, a whiff of ozone after a cleansing rain, the pungent taste of that first stalk of rhubarb, vibrant colors bursting from dreary gardens.
My daily walks take me to a city park where I lose myself in spring’s slow unveil. Like a gallery opening, new sights and sounds await me — without the crowds. Nature rolls out her green carpet. I accept the invitation.
While my neighborhood park provides a sample taste of what my winter weary soul longs for, when I yearn for greater immersion into the natural world I know it’s time to head deeper into the wild. I visit a state or regional park with an expanse of wildness and miles of unpaved trails to wander. Here I escape concerns of home, the political prattle no longer confined to its own season and task lists on hold for another day.
As I begin meandering I feel my body relax, my focus narrow, my gait slow. It takes a while — 20 to 30 minutes or more — for this to happen. As I slow I notice a patch of white anemone blossoms peeking through dried oak leaves or catch sight of a flitting warbler made known by its short chirps. I feel alive and in tune with something greater and timeless.
The Japanese have a name for this experience, Forest Bathing, or Shinrin Yoku in Japanese. It’s an immersion into our natural world. The idea is quite basic — if one simply visits a natural area and walks in a relaxed way, one can experience calming, rejuvenating and restorative benefits. Such benefits include reduced blood pressure and stress, improved mood and sleep, as well as increased energy level.
The Japanese, of course, are not the first to acclaim the benefits of spending time in nature. John Muir, born in 1836 and considered the father of our National Park System said, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home. Wilderness is a necessity.”
On a visit to Norway last July we found people out and about in the long summer days undeterred by the 40 degree temperatures or persistent rain. Native Americans have long reminded us of the sacredness and healing powers of the earth. “There is a way that nature speaks, that land speaks. Most of the time we are simply not patient enough, quiet enough, to pay attention to the story,” says Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan.
Japan’s medical community is promoting Forest Bathing as a way of dealing with stress, depression and self-focus. The idea is to let nature enter our body through all five senses. Japanese scientists are documenting the physiological benefits through measuring hormones and monitoring brain activity. People on nature walks tend to engage in less rumination or negative self-talk common with depression.
How do we go Forest Bathing? Slowly, deliberately and clothed. Those promoting this activity have a few suggestions.
- Go untethered. Leave your phone and camera behind. When I don’t, an invading text brings me right back to tasks or concerns or ruminations I was just trying to shed.
- Leave your goals behind. Step counters are not needed. I don’t have to get somewhere or go so far or accomplish it in a set amount of time. Not every moment needs to be purposeful.
- Practice silence. Even if you bring a friend, be still. It is amazing how much we share an experience without speaking a word.
- Allow yourself to wander. Follow a trail or simply meander in the woods. I remember doing just that, meandering in a woods when the leaves were still tightly held in spring buds. I noticed a brand new fawn nestled in autumn’s leftover leaf debris, curled up like the fiddle-head of a fern. The doe was nowhere to be seen. The fawn was still and so was I, present to the awe of new life.
- Touch the earth. Go barefoot in the open grass or the soft moss of summer woods. Feel the cottonwood’s rutted rugged bark, the dandelions’ soft seed heads, the cold stream fed by a natural spring.
- Stop to sit. Listen to the sounds, notice movement, smell the earth. As I am quiet I notice the active life around me — floating butterflies or colorful insects or cranky chipmunks. I miss so much when I whiz by.
While I appreciate all the health benefits of being outside, be they physical or psychological, I am also drawn by the spiritual gifts. The beauty and power of the wild remind me of the vicissitudes of life, the comings and goings, the birth and death cycle that we all share. Spring’s new growth builds on autumn’s death and winter’s pause. Spring flowers — ephemerals like Dutchman’s Breeches, Hepaticas and Trout Lilies — gladden me as they bloom for but a few days. Such beauty is as delightful as it is fleeting.
Writer and Quaker Parker Palmer says, “in the visible world of nature, a great truth is concealed in plain sight: diminishment and beauty, darkness and light, death and life are not opposites. They are held together in the paradox of “hidden wholeness.” We leave the linear world of accomplishments and notice how we are all part of a great cyclic whole held together by a creative spirit that flows in and through us all.
The Japanese have given us a new word for this experience, but we know it in our bodies and in our souls. We are one with the living earth. Let us reconnect. As poet Mary Oliver reminds us, “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”
Mary Lou Logsdon is a Spiritual Director and retreat leader located in the Twin Cities. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.