Long before social distancing and self-isolation were on everyone’s lips, there was something about the way the world is and the way I am right now that had me feeling stir crazy—a kind of urgent restlessness. The only remedy for me then, as now, is to walk and move and be outside. Walk off the pandemic terror. Run off the hand-sanitizer fumes. Breathe in nature to overpower the scent of existential dread.
Which is one of the reasons I found myself in a large, well-treed Barrie, Ontario, park in the middle of winter forest bathing.
A term first coined in the 1980s in Japan, forest bathing (known as shinrin-yoku in Japanese, which is also translated as “taking in the forest atmosphere”) is the practice of being in nature and consciously absorbing the sights, sounds, tastes and smells. It can be as simple as a mindful stroll in the woods, or it might involve a walking group meditation led by a trained forest bathing guide, many of whom are also therapists, social workers and teachers.
When I first heard about shinrin-yoku, I was, admittedly, skeptical. I wondered why a person would need to put a label on a walk in the woods or employ a guide in order to enjoy a local park. I imagined middle-aged hippies cavorting naked among the trees. Or, perhaps worse, oxygen-starved city dwellers who, in their bid for a Disney-fied nature experience, would destroy the forests they claimed to love. But I had also experienced how guided meditation indoors could help hush the cacophony of my mind, and I wondered what might happen out of doors.
Beth Foster, a former high school teacher turned certified nature and forest therapy guide, met our small multigenerational troop of women at an erstwhile golf course turned urban park. I thought I knew this green space well. I’d spent my entire childhood exploring it, playing on the grass and in the many iterations of the playground. I even learned to downhill ski there when someone erected an ancient rope tow on what is now a top-notch tobogganing hill.
But that day the familiar park was transformed. Dressed in snowpants, long coats and warm hats, we began by wading through the recent snow to a small glen of trees (once a sand trap). We stood in a circle around a tiny snow person with stick arms and a crown of pine needles as Beth told us that we would be in the forest for a few hours—but wouldn’t walk more than 800 metres. She would guide us through a slow, safe, walking meditation, but we were to take it at our own pace. Being among trees, she explained, promotes well-being and allows us to connect with both the natural world and ourselves. Even a short walk in the forest can have positive effects on our mental and physical health. In fact, some doctors are even prescribing it to their patients as preventative medicine to reduce stress. She said we were likely to sleep well that night—and might even have interesting dreams.
Given my urgent need to move, I was worried about the short distance we were to travel. Indeed, our first stop was no more than 100 metres away. We perched on a fallen log atop what Beth called “sit-upons”—bum-sized pieces of a cut-up yoga mat that she carried in a backpack—on the edge of a slope inside the forest.
She invited us to engage with all our senses. Taste some snow, smell the air, listen to the sounds the trees make. I noticed how the recent snowfall had left the branches lined with a coating of white, some of it coiled like a snake around the limbs. We sat silently and watched the wind bending the trunks, branches swaying, sending snow drifting downward like the gentlest snow globe.
A friendly dog came and sniffed near us, its owners hanging back uncertainly.
Beth suggested we close their eyes and simply notice the crack and groan of the trees. A breeze whistled through the bare trunks. As we finished she asked us to open our eyes slowly. I pictured my eyelids like a curtain rising on a stage and as they rose I saw a small red fox flicker across my view. I blinked and it was gone. It felt like a gift.
And, in fact, something about seeing that creature in a busy urban park allowed me to slow down, to breath in the sweet air, to truly see and hear the trees. I stopped worrying about constant movement and simply walked as a fellow creature in the forest. We moved unhurriedly down the slope toward the river. Beth encouraged us to notice what was in motion and what was still. I paused to look around, clambered up and down a small rise, watched the squirrels shift the snow from upper branches, sending clumps twisting and curling as they fell. Light shone through the branches and it looked like sunshine filtering through stained glass in a vast outdoor cathedral. Tears welled up in my eyes, but it felt less like sadness and more like gratitude.
It’s not hard to imagine doing something similar on my own or with my children in the midst of the current madness. We’d head into a nearby park or perhaps a local forest, staying clear of other people, taking time to smell and listen, to watch and hear the trees dancing in the wind. We’d definitely put away our phones and other devices and try to simply be—without planning or anticipating—tuning into the rhythms of the natural world. We might spot the sap oozing from a pine trunk or the elephant skin texture of the beech. We might see the muddy tracks of a coyote or the footsteps of a neighbour. We would do our best to clear the clutter and the fear from our brains.
We ended our forest bathing that day down by the river at the bottom of the hill not far from the old rope tow site. Beth had brought a thermos with hot pine needle tea sweetened with maple syrup as well as some snacks. She placed battery power tealights in a circle and we stomped our cold feet and shook our icy fingers, revelling in this unexpectedly enchanted place.
I felt my breath slow, my heart open, dread sloughing off me like old skin. I could have stayed there forever.
Andrea Curtis is a Toronto writer. Her new book for kids is A Forest in the City, out April 1 from Groundwood Books.