Shinrin-yoku


“When I am among the trees, especially the willows and the honey locust, equally the beech, the oaks, and the pines, they give off such hints of gladness.

I would almost say that they save me, and daily. I am so distant from the hope of myself, in which I have goodness, and discernment, and never hurry through the world but walk slowly, and bow often. Around me the trees stir in their leaves and call out, “Stay awhile.”

The light flows from their branches. And they call again, “It’s simple,”they say, “and you, too, have come into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled with light, and to shine.”

-Mary Oliver

My friend Lisa and I agreed to celebrate our birthdays each year basking in the joy of a shared Asian salad and a small plate of avocado egg rolls at Cheesecake Factory, a restaurant near here that neither of our families like. We agreed that our only gifts to each other would be treating for lunch on the other’s birthday. This year, however, Lisa broke the pact by bringing along a book for me. When I protested, she insisted that this book was a party favor at a philanthropic luncheon hosted by the YMCA, of which she and her husband are big supporters. The book, entitled The Joy of Forest Bathing, written by Melanie Choukas-Bradley, is a beautiful read about something I’ve experienced my whole life, but didn’t realize was such a re-emerging international practice being promoted these days.

In her first chapter, Ms. Choukas- Bradley speaks of Shinrin-yoku, the practice of immersing oneself in nature to decompress. This idea originated in Japan, but she points out that the Norwegians engage in friluftsliv (or open air living), and the Germans celebrate waldeinsamkeit as the feeling of peaceful solitude in the out-of-doors as well. Many cultures surely celebrate the joy, health benefits, and happiness that result from “bathing” in the forest or other natural spaces. The American Indians had to feel it. I know we did as kids.

I remember hiking out in the woods behind our Henry house in northern Michigan many times growing up. There, our mother led us down a path leading (after about a half a mile hike) to a bubbling, shallow, but swift moving creek; the entire time we were enveloped by tall beech nut, Pitch Pine and maple trees, jumping over fallen trees, observing ferns; we felt an essence of sheer joy that only nature can bring. In the winter we could spot tiny holes or tunnels, scat and yellow spots left by woodland creatures. My mother used to have us gather around and point out the leaves, tree types, ferns, Jack-in-the Pulpits, violets, and her favorites, the lilies of the valley growing along the creek bank. In winter, we spent more time being super quiet so that we might identify birds, spot squirrels, and maybe see tracks. It was magical and wonderful to kids!

I am so grateful for this gift and all the memories it conjured up. I am reminded of a book I read entitled Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv. He speaks of something called “nature deficit disorder,” something he believes is at the root of many of today’s maladies: not enough time outdoors. I can only attest to being dismayed at seeing long lines of children at lunchtime waiting to receive their medication for attention deficit disorder(ADD) and such in a public school I worked in. Perhaps the lovely gardens, grounds, and greenhouses that are springing up at schools will be used as places of peaceful reflection for urban students who otherwise don’t get to spend much time in nature. Another amazing book I read years ago, entitled Before the Test (I apologize, but Donna Charbula may have been the author), talked of taking students outside as step one–work on getting them to sense nature—sights, sounds, smells, touches. My students baked cookies and compared the tastes of similar recipes. Sensory development, the author felt, had to be the first step in preparing these young folks to do well in reading, and ultimately the state reading test. After all, if a reader didn’t know what a “wind whipping you in the face” felt like, then it would be difficult to immerse in a reading describing it, or answer questions about what it might mean.

My new year’s wish: let’s all get outside more often. Best wishes for a healthy dose of shinrin-yoku in this upcoming new year!

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