Apart from slowing down and smelling the roses apparently we would do ourselves a favour if we walked in the woods a lot more. In Japan, it’s already a “thing”. It’s called “forest bathing”, or shinrin yoku – shin meaning forest and yoku to bathe.
Japanese scientists have researched the reasons why “forest bathing” makes us humans feel so good. The university website The Conversation reports the Japanese investigations identified three major inhaled factors making “bathers” feel healthier in diverse forest ecosystems – beneficial bacteria, plant-derived essential oils and negatively-charged ions.
After reading German forester Peter Wohllben’s fascinating The Hidden Life of Trees, a gift from my thoughtful elder daughter, I know why I instinctively feel so upset by the sight of a felled forest giant, or upended tracts of massacred trunks, roots and branches. Wohllben sets out how trees are much like human families, living in communities, bringing up their children, parenting them as they mature, sharing nutrients, helping those who are ailing, communicating, and warning them when danger is approaching. Like human towns forests go through cycles of life, death and regeneration , only on a much longer timescale.
Wohllben talks about how trees isolated from their forest environment struggle to survive, just like abandoned children. And those specimens singled out to beautify our cities, planted individually along suburban streets and city boulevards, are just like street kids, left to fend for themselves. He also described the “pain” caused to a tree by cutting into its bark, rather like cutting into someone’s skin. And we should think of sap as the tree’s blood.
Dr Qing Li is the world’s foremost expert in forest medicine. A medical doctor at Tokyo’s Nippon Medical School and a visiting fellow at the Stanford University School of Medicine, he’s a staunch advocate of what forests do for us. “Forests are an amazing resource,” he says. “They give us everything we rely on in order to exist. They produce oxygen, cleanse the air we breathe and purify our water. They stop flooding rivers and streams and the erosion of mountains and hills. They provide us with food, clothing, and shelter, and with the materials we need for furniture and tools. In addition to this, forests have always helped us to heal our wounds and to cure our diseases.” Now his research is proving how “bathing” in the forest boosts the immune system, increases energy, decreases anxiety, depression, anger and stress and brings about a state of relaxation.
Dr Qing believes if people were encouraged to visit forests for their health, they would be more likely to want to protect and look after them. Which no doubt would make Peter Wohllben – and the forests – very happy.
The beauty of a Japanese forest in autumn.