C and I took a walk in the woods last week. It was only later that we learned we were practicing something the Japanese call “shinrin-yuko”, or “forest bathing”.
We are members of the Missouri Botanical Garden, and we spent an afternoon at the Shaw Arboretum in Gray Summit. I love trees, and an arboretum is essentially a tree garden, so I was visiting one of my favorite kinds of places. We saw bald Cyprus, oaks, elms, maples, all manner of native and non-native trees alike. Shaw is located 70 kilometers outside of The Big City, away from noise, exhaust, and people, and offers many different kinds of walking and hiking trails. There are few better places to take a walk on a clear, sunny December day than Shaw.
The Japanese call such a walk “shinrin-yuko”, which translates to “forest bathing” in English, though I have read that the expression “being awash in” is closer to the mark than “bathing”. The walker becomes awash in the totality of the forest and forgets the stresses and strains of daily living. It has a calming, therapeutic effect upon both body and soul like few other activities, and is the subject of medical research.
Biologists and physicians have determined that not only does a walk in the woods reduce blood pressure and the like, but we even breathe in the very molecules of tree resins released in the air, phyto-nutrients that appear in higher blood levels when tested after a single morning’s walk.
That is all well and good, I suppose, but C and I would go for our walks even if it were not true. For us, a walk in the woods is a pleasure we enjoy together. There is beauty there, life, serenity, God, and our love for each other. It is a place and a time of shared bliss – all benefit enough.
Some of humanity’s greatest writers and thinkers have recommended themselves to shinrin-yuko, though I am certain they would be surprised to hear of it. Thoreau comes to mind, who wrote a major essay entitled “Walking”. John Muir made an entire career out of walking, and we have some of the greatest national parks in existence as a result. Boswell and Johnson wandering about the Hebrides, Basho on walking tours throughout Japan, St. Francis traversing Italy, Tolkien and Lewis tramping over Britain… the list of poets, mystics, naturalists, and common wanderers is endless.
They remind us we are a part of this world, as much a part as any stately Cyprus or nodding willow. Our life as urbanites is new to our species, and is of increasingly questionable benefit to us. The same research that confirms the benefits of a walk in the woods also confirms the absence of many of those benefits with a walk in the city. We were meant for the woods, not the sidewalk. Thoreau was correct when he wrote that we are “…part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society”*.
It is little wonder why so many of us are drawn to the woods, as it reveals to us our oldest selves. There are others who are repelled by the woods, apparently because the reality of our oldest selves is so unknown to them that they find it frightening. Perhaps in discovering our oldest selves we discover God as we originally knew God, and like fallen Adam and Eve, we hide in fear and shame.
There is no need to hide, though. There is no judgment to stumble upon in our walk in Eden. Judgment was laid aside a long time ago by yet another wanderer who walked in Galilee. There is now mercy, simplicity, peace, and grace waiting for us among the elms and sycamores. They are no longer chopped down and hammered into crosses, but are living trees once again. They wait patiently for us to walk among them where we can find our oldest, truest selves.
*Walking, Thoreau, para. 2.