Monday, October 21, 2019

Trees that Hug Back

By Laurie Allee

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Celebrating the many benefits of forest bathing...

Occasionally I stumble upon something so obvious it seems revolutionary:

In a tech dystopia, we need to connect more with trees.  

Maybe you can relate...

The ubiquity of technology has placed a screen buffer between people and nature.  But because tech  regularly delivers synthetic versions of flora and fauna to us -- and we look at all those pretty pictures and videos of the natural world -- we might not realize how truly separated from Mother Earth we've become.

I'll use myself as an example:

I love nature!  I love it so much I  subscribed to newsletters from the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society and the Green Party. I followed NatGeo photographers on Insta and liked hundreds of their images.  I watched 4K videos of crashing waves and babbling brooks and long, epic GoPro-on-a-drone shots of Arctic glaciers and Greek islands and Caribbean beaches and Swiss mountaintops.  I binge watched Nature and BBC Earth. I watched a YouTuber survive in the Rockies for several weeks with nothing but his wits, a bag of trailmix and a few bottles of Dasani.  I read Into the Wild on my Kindle.  I had at least five relaxing nature sounds apps on my phone!

As a street photographer, I often found myself wandering off the beaten asphalt path and into one of SoCal's many areas of wilderness.  This is good, isn't it?  A chance to take a break from the digital realm and get my hands dirty, right?  Well, not exactly.  I was not outdoors to commune or connect with the natural world, but to take pictures of it. I once managed to get stressed out on the beach at sunset trying to capture a perfect sunset shot.  (I inevitably pushed the saturation on it because, you know, humankind is always trying to improve nature.)  As you might expect, some of my nature pictures would end up on MY instagram. (#sunset!)  One picture was even liked by one of those NatGeo photographers. (🙏)

All of that high def virtual worldliness ultimately made me feel even more disconnected.  You know how social media doesn't really make you feel closer to your friends?  Well, all those scrolling shots of sunsets and beaches and forests and flowers didn't make me feel closer to the earth, either.  Listening to digital rain sounds as I browsed gardening accounts on Twitter before bed was not exactly grounding.  

Nature had become just another thing I could Google. 

Stressing out over how to perfectly shoot a sunset kind of defeated the purpose of watching a sunset.  But is there really a purpose to watching a sunset?  I've come to think there is.  I think as humans we have a basic need to go outside.  I'm not talking about the need for Vitamin D synthesized from the sun (although that is also a basic human need) I'm talking about stepping away from all of our civilized creations and literally touching base with our roots. 

I started spending more time outside with my phone on airplane mode. I noticed that not only had I been missing out on connecting with people in real time, but I had been missing connecting with the natural world.  I'd forgotten what it felt like to just be outside -- not shooting pictures, not getting from one place to another, just being on the earth and under the sky.

So, I started staring more at clouds instead of my screen.  I started watching ant trails on the sidewalk and bees in my front yard.  I started noticing when flowers bloomed and faded, when leaves budded out and greened up and dropped off.  This may sound like obvious stuff, but the less I tried to analyze any of it -- with no Googling "diminishing bee populations" or "life cycle of ants" -- the more I started to relax and feel connected.  I'm not talking about the kind of relaxed you get from a glass of Prosecco at happy hour or a benadryl and a half before bed.  I'm talking about a deep, satisfied connectedness that, to quote Robert Browning, makes you feel like "all's right with the world."

And I noticed I felt this kind of zen bliss most when I was around trees.  It didn't matter if it was at a local park or on a dense, forested hike.  I even noticed it sitting in my backyard garden under our heritage oak.  I wasn't out there reading tweets.  I wasn't out there texting.  I was just there chilling under my oak tree.

Now I understand why Buddha got enlightened not by striving or searching or researching enlightenment... but just by sitting under a tree.  There is something about being near trees that turns contentment up to 11.  And when you're content, everything becomes illuminated.

As serendipity would have it, when I started making more effort to just hang out with trees, I happened to stumble across a book at the library called Forest Bathing, by Dr. Qing Li.  I'll admit, I first thought this sounded like a great title for a memoir from a 70s nudist colony member.  (Sadly, no.)  Turns out, it's a beautiful little book about the Japanese practice of Shinrin-Yoku -- yes, that is a word that actually translates to "forest bathing" -- and how it can help combat what many researchers are now calling Nature Deficit Disorder.    

Dr. Qing Li is the world's foremost expert in forest medicine (THIS IS A THING!) and he  shows us how the tradition of spending long, uninterrupted time among trees can reduce stress, lower blood pressure, strengthen immune and cardiovascular systems, facilitate weight loss, boost energy, lift mood, and even improve creativity and concentration.

This is not subjective hearsay, either.  Dr.  Li brings receipts in the form of published studies.  Dr. Li is a doctor at Tokyo's Nippon Medical School and has been a visiting fellow at Stanford University School of Medicine.  He is a founding member and chairman of the Japanese Society of Forest Medicine, a leading member of the Task Force of Forests -- which sounds like the coolest superhero legion of all time -- and the vice president and secretary general of the International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine. 

There's a solid materialist argument for forest bathing made by the book.  It's convincing.  What moved me more, however, is the poetry and spirituality of shinrin-yoku The book makes a tender case for reestablishing our relationship with forests -- even the little groves that grow along our neighborhood streets -- because it is good for our souls.  

When people began practicing shinrin-yoku in Japan in the 1980s, it came out of a common sense idea that being in nature and around trees was good for us. The early adopters also thought that in an era of ecological awareness, environmental chaos and deforestation, any practice that brought attention to forests was bound to be good for forests and trees as well as people.

Practitioners soon discovered that their intuition was right.  Dedicated walks in tree-filled areas offered measurable  improvements in human health.  It also led researchers to discover that moods improved  and productivity increased and relationships thrived when people hung out around trees.  As more and more Japanese citizens embraced the practice, more and more forests became protected.  Win for humans.  Win for nature. 

I loved learning some of the onomatopoeic words for nature in Japanese:

Kasa kasa is the word for the light sound of rustling leaves underfoot.  Gasa Gasa is the word for the heavy rustling of branches swaying in the wind.  The Japanese even have a word for the interplay of sunlight seen through leaves:  Komorabi.  It also means a melancholic longing for a person or place that is far away from you.

I guess I can say that our tech dystopia fills me with a kind of komorabiI miss a time before ubiquitous screens.  I miss who I was before I had a phone attached to my hand.  Regular practice of shinrin-yoku has been a way to not only see the interplay of sunlight through leaves, but to see an illuminated version of myself through all the shades of my civilized life.  I like who I see shining there.  She's one who wonders and appreciates and daydreams. 

To me, forest bathing is a low key combo of yoga, tai chi, hiking and blissfully wasting time.  (And yes, I'd kind of like to actually bathe in a forest, but I'm in Los Angeles and I think that might be illegal.)

Forest Bathing led me to read several other books on shinrin-yoku.  (You can browse through most of them here.)  All of the ones I read are helpful and informative, but I say start with Dr.  Li.  And be sure to read it as an actual book rather than on your Kindle app!  The book design is lovely, and the photos are even better than Instagram.

Multitaskers can arrange for rigorous shinrin-yoku hikes that your Fitbit will chart as calorie-burning workouts. Or, like me, you can incorporate little shinrin-yoku breaks during the day by taking walks along tree-lined streets or in city parks.  Leave your phone on your desk or in your bag, and plug into the healing energy of trees.

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