Forest Bathing: No Soap Needed

Most of us cleanse our bodies on a daily basis, but have you ever given much thought to cleansing your mind and spirit as well? I’m not referring to traditional religious practice, although that may serve a similar purpose for some people. I’m talking about shinrinyoku — forest bathing.

Walking in the Michigan winter woods
A winter walk in the woods

In 1982 this term was coined by the Japanese government to describe the practice of walking in the woods for refreshment and escape from the hustle and bustle of urban environments. They recognized the health benefits of being immersed in nature and encouraged people to spend quiet time among the trees as often as possible to reduce stress levels. Scientists in Japan are conducting a range of ongoing studies measuring the physiological effects of various elements of the natural world, trying to quantify exactly how our bodies respond to nature. But even without knowing their results, I think we all know how good we feel when we get away from our desks and the concrete jungle, even if only for a short walk on our lunch hour.

Scientists here in the U.S. are also trying to establish objectively measurable evidence of the health benefits of nature. For example, a study at the University of Illinois came to some interesting conclusions:

Access to nature and green environments yields better cognitive functioning, more self-discipline and impulse control, and greater mental health overall.

Less access to nature is linked to exacerbated attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptoms, higher rates of anxiety disorders, and higher rates of clinical depression.

The article goes on to explain that green spaces have more than just psychological benefits; they also have proven physical effects like helping you to recover quicker after surgery, improving your immune function, and even improving “functional living skills” among older people. In fact, I just read an article in the new issue of Birds & Blooms magazine that touts the benefits of “healing gardens” for dementia patients. Apparently these gardens are becoming more common at hospitals, senior centers, and even schools. I’m very encouraged by this, and I’ll have more to say about healing gardens in an upcoming post.

The scientists might need more evidence to satisfy them, but this is more than enough to convince me that I’ve named my blog appropriately: Nature [really] is my Therapy.

Gardiner River in Yellowstone National Park
Gardiner River in Yellowstone National Park

By the way, if you live in a location with lots of snow and bare trees right now (like I do), don’t despair; you can still get the benefits of “green”space without waiting for things outside to come back to life in a few months. All you need to do is decorate your home and office with pictures of flowers, gardens, rivers, or landscapes; then when you need a break, just gaze upon those peaceful images and feel your blood pressure go down, your breathing slow, your mood lift. If you’re skeptical that this works, try it. You’ll see.

Below are some photos of beautiful things I found because I was out looking for birds — I hope they make you happy too.

Looking up at birds is great, but looking at the ground can be rewarding too.
Looking up at birds is great, but looking at the ground can be rewarding too.
A carpet of woodland daffodils
A carpet of woodland daffodils
Beautiful ice formations on the melting Clinton River
Beautiful ice formations on the melting Clinton River
Just look at the intricate beauty of those wings! Imagine what it's like in his world....
Just look at the intricate beauty of those wings! Imagine what it’s like in his world….

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Sources for those of you who want to read more:

Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine: Trends in research related to “Shinrin-yoku” (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing) in Japan (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2793347/?tool=pubmed)

Science Daily: Green Environments Essential for Human Health, Research Shows (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/04/110419151438.htm)

You Need Some Vitamin N

That’s Vitamin N as in Nature, and most of us are deficient in it. There have been lots of books and articles written about the health benefits of ecotherapy lately, but many of them are supported primarily by anecdotal evidence and sloppy research. But now we have proof that time spent outdoors is essential for mental health and positive patterns of social functioning, based on rigorous research conducted by Frances Kuo at the University of Illinois. She says, In greener settings, we find that people are more generous and more sociable. We find stronger neighborhood social ties and greater sense of community, more mutual trust and willingness to help others…. In less green environments, we find higher rates of aggression, violence, violent crime, and property crime — even after controlling for income and other differences. We also find more evidence of loneliness and more individuals reporting inadequate social support.”

I encourage you to follow the link above to read more about the study. If that doesn’t make you go outside, I don’t know what will! In fact, as I was gathering info for this article I had an urgent impulse to take a walk around our woods. So I did. And it felt gooood.

I’ve also been reading The Nature Principle, by Richard Louv, and find myself highlighting passage after passage for future reference. Did you know that exposure to the natural world can actually increase intelligence for some people? According to Louv, it apparently stimulates “our ability to pay attention, think clearly, and be more creative, even in dense urban neighborhoods.”

I think most creative types will be familiar with the inspiration that can strike during a walk in the woods or a stroll on the shore. I get lots of good ideas when I’m driving on a pretty country road, or even in the shower (I consider that “nature-like” since I’m in the water….). Other studies cited in this book (done by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan) suggest “that nature simultaneously calms and focuses the mind, and at the same time offers a state that transcends relaxation, allowing the mind to detect patterns that it would otherwise miss.”

I just found another book on this subject that sounds pretty good: Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature. I’ve just ordered it and will let you know what I think after I’ve had a chance to read it. In the meantime, here are a couple of my recent “therapy pics.” Enjoy!

Ecotherapy to the Rescue

“Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.”    — Frank Lloyd Wright

Mr. Wright was definitely right about that (couldn’t resist the wordplay). That was true again for me last week as I found myself in desperate need of comfort. You see, my cat Mickey’s jaw was broken by our vet during a “routine” dental cleaning. The next morning he had to be taken to a feline dental surgeon 60 miles from home to have the jaw repaired, so I had to find a way to pass the agonizing waiting time somehow.

I noticed that the surgeon’s office happened to be very near the Matthaei Botanical Gardens in Ann Arbor, so after I dropped Mickey off I headed for the gardens with my camera in tow.

I would have preferred to be away from other people that day, but despite there being dozens of little kids there on a field trip, the gardens still felt like a peaceful place. (Normally I’d avoid any place with so many kids, but they stayed mostly in the Children’s Garden, so it wasn’t too bad.) So I spent maybe 90 minutes wandering among the lovely perennial gardens.  It was interesting to note that the bees and butterflies were all going about their lives, even though I felt that mine was on hold for the moment. That realization might have given me perspective if my worries that day hadn’t been so serious. But in any case, I did enjoy the lovely aromas of the flowers and the bright sunshine.

Imagine the sound of dripping water on a hot day….

There were fountains too, and I spent some time sitting on a bench just watching the cool water dripping over a pile of rocks. Water is always soothing to me, whether it’s a still pond, powerful ocean waves, or a gently cascading waterfall. I think that’s probably common, but I have difficulty explaining why water is so calming. Sometimes it’s the sound of it, as with rain or waves. And other times it’s the feeling of it, as in the shower or when you go swimming. And I notice when we go kayaking that I’m soothed by the gentle bobbing motion of the kayak on the water surface.  Water is a true elixir of life. It’s precious not only to keep our bodies functioning from the inside, but also for how our minds respond to it.

You look at that river, gently flowing by. You notice the leaves rustling with the wind. You hear the birds, you hear the tree frogs. In the distance you hear a cow. You feel the grass, the mud gives a little bit on the river bank. It’s quiet. It’s peaceful. And all of a sudden, it’s a gear shift inside you. And it’s like taking a deep breath and going, “Oh yeah, I forgot about this.”

That’s Al Gore speaking softly in the opening of his documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” with a peaceful river image on screen.  (And another quote soon after that: “I am Al Gore. I used to be the next President of the United States.” He got laughs for that one.)

I love this little guy!

Thankfully, Mickey’s jaw was “easily” repaired (in the words of an expert surgeon). He seems to be recovering well and should be able to eat hard food again in about another week. So we had a few traumatic days last week, but things feel much like normal again today and Mickey is calmly sitting at the window watching me as I type this. For today at least, we’re blessed with good fortune.

A Week in the North Woods – Part One

View of the lake from our dock

We spent last week in a secluded cabin on a small lake in the deep woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Sounds good already, doesn’t it? Wait till I tell you more….

The cabin was on 28 private acres, with a 60-acre lake just steps from the front door. We took our kayaks with us and enjoyed them on the beautiful lake every day. Well, except for the one time it rained all day. Other than that, we were lucky with weather and got to go for three nice hikes during the week.  (I admit there was one unpleasant part of the vacation though: the mosquitoes. Oh man, I couldn’t step outside unless I was coated from head to toe with repellent. Those buggers are vicious! I’m home now, but my arms and legs are covered with bites. Phooey on them.)

There was fishing from the dock….
…and fishing from the kayak.

We both agreed that this was THE quietest place we’d ever been before. I think there was only one time we heard a jet ski from a neighboring lake, but otherwise it was extremely quiet. One night I even got out of bed to make sure I’d left the window open because I couldn’t hear any noise at all! That’s a very odd feeling for someone who’s used to hearing traffic outside her door all day every day. But I could definitely get used to it.

Au Sable Lighthouse

So where did we hike, you ask? We drove about 30 miles east of Munising and walked a mile and a half to the Au Sable Lighthouse. Not only is this cool because it’s the most inaccessible lighthouse on the US mainland, but as you walk along the shore of Lake Superior you pass the wrecks of several ships from the early 1900s. The lighthouse opened in 1874, but I guess this area was still too treacherous for some vessels. I’ll talk more about our bird sightings later, but on this hike we were thrilled to have a Bald Eagle fly right over our heads. It was our only sighting of our national symbol on this trip.

Shipwreck on shore of Lake Superior

Our second hike was in Seney National Wildlife Refuge, a real jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge System if you ask me. We first did a 1.5 mile hike around a nature trail loop, where we saw a gigantic nest in a treetop. We thought it might be Bald Eagles, but couldn’t tell with out binoculars. When we got back to the nature center we found that they had a scope set up on it (duh) and it was an Osprey nest. We saw one parent and one youngster in the nest, and we think we saw another adult along our walk but couldn’t be sure of what it was. Wish I’d been able to get a picture of it because this was our first ever Osprey sighting. Gorgeous birds.

After that we killed time for a few hours, hoping to do the 7-mile driving tour nearer to evening hours so we’d have a better chance of seeing bird activity. We ended up starting the drive around 5:30 because we just couldn’t wait any longer. It’s a one-way only driving route with a speed limit of about 15 or 20 mph that passes between a whole system of marshes and woods. At the beginning we had our windows down but quickly had to put them up because of the swarms of black flies attacking the car. It felt like we were in a Hitchcock movie, with dozens of flies just hanging on the outside of the car trying to figure out how to get to us. Ick.  But after we made that adjustment, and despite the heat of the day, we saw Common Loons, a Red-breasted Merganser, lots and lots of Trumpeter Swans, lots of Eastern Kingbirds, an Ovenbird, Canada Geese, a Belted Kingfisher, Ring-billed Gulls (of course), a Great Blue Heron, lots of ravens, goldfinches, and some other warbler that we couldn’t identify — looked like a possible Redstart or Blackburnian. Oh, also this Merlin, another first for both of us.

Merlin

I’ll talk about our third hike and put up some of the other bird pics in Part Two of the story…stay tuned.

By the way, right now there’s a flock of House Finches at our feeders, with several males and about 3 times as many females. One of the males is a very bright red — just beautiful!