The forest beckons.
You enter, and everything changes.
The dwindling hum of cars and trucks, the absence of power lines, the disappearance of blacktop and concrete, that’s one thing. That’s nice. But it’s also how you feel as you walk through these cathedrals of trees. In the woods, you’re relaxed. Contemplative. Acutely aware of your surroundings. Curious about what lies around the next bend or dip of the trail but not in a huge anxious rush to find out.
I’ve always thought of this experience as, you know, camping and hiking. But the Japanese have been using visits to forests as a cornerstone of preventive health care for 30 years. Who knew?
They have a term for it. They call it shinrin-yoku, which means “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing.” It’s an apt description. Because there is an element of cleansing and rejuvenation about a simple walk in the woods.
And now the practice is spreading. Forest bathing tours are becoming popular in the United States and Canada, and there’s an association for certified forest therapy guides based in — where else? — California. Forest bathing is emerging as a new therapy for overstressed film and TV types, according to The Hollywood Reporter, which directed the harried hordes to a spa in Sedona, Arizona. New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation recently posted a paean to forest bathing on its website, encouraging readers to “immerse” themselves in the woods for as little as five minutes.
If the cynic in you is picturing a cult of white-robed Gandalfs instructing their chanting adherents in some mystical New Age concept, let’s hit the pause button. There’s a good deal of science behind the concept of forests as medicine.
Start with studies in Japan and Korea that found that walking in the woods increases a kind of white blood cell called a “natural killer cell.” These are cells in the immune system that protect against diseases and might help prevent certain cancers. One study found that the increase in those cells lasted more than 30 days after three days of forest bathing.
It turns out the build-up of these killer cells comes from breathing the forest air. We often think of it as cleaner and fresher, right? We love to fill our lungs with it, gulping down huge draughts. But that air also contains phytoncides — antibacterial and antifungal chemicals that trees and plants give off to protect themselves from insects. And that’s just the start of the benefits.
Research shows that forest bathing reduces levels of cortisol and adrenaline, hormones that are related to stress. Blood pressure drops, whether you’re hiking through the woods or just sitting there looking at the trees. Forest bathers have had dramatically lower scores across a range of psychological measures, including anxiety, anger, confusion, depression and fatigue. The ability to focus improves, even for kids with attention deficit disorder, and you sleep better.
And the inverse, a life with fewer trees, is scary. The DEC reported on a study of areas with tree devastation from the emerald ash borer that found spikes in deaths related to lung and heart disease. We would do well to remember all of this when someone wants to cut down trees for another tract of houses or a shopping mall. They’re not just beautiful.
As for my own non-scientific observation: I’ve never had a bad day in a forest. Or a bad hour. Each hike, each night camping, has been special. I’ve always waxed rhapsodic about how it feels. Now I understand better why that’s so. And now I know something else, too.
I’d like to take Donald Trump for a walk in the woods.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.