Stef, Charli, Chris and I had most pleasant walk through the temperature rainforest called, most appropriately, Cathedral Grove MacMillan Park B.C. I could not help but think about forest bathing. Many people, like me, believe that there is a power in nature to heal. This is not heebie jeebies stuff. Nor nude walks through the forest. While this is not yet scientifically proven, there is growing evidence that there are healing powers in nature that are becoming increasingly well documented.
In Japan there is a interesting notion that they call Shinrin-yoku. This refers to walking and/or staying in forests in order to promote health. It is a major form of relaxation in Japan; however, its effects have yet to be completely clarified. There was a scientific study there whose aims were: (1) to evaluate the psychological effects of shinrin-yoku in a large number of participants; and (2) to identify the factors related to these effects.
Shinrin-yoku means literally forest bathing and the activity has become a recognized stress management and relaxation technique.
Some people, like Richard Louv who wrote the book The Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, points to research that shows that the diminution of life in the world of nature has been one of the causes of increased rates of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (‘ADHD ‘) as well as other mental health problems. He is the person who coined the term “nature deficit disorder” to describe what happens when virtually a generation of young people is disconnected from nature. The result is an illness—a disorder.
Louv says that it is a short hand way of describing what people knew was happening but had no short way to describe. It is related to the increasing alienation between children and the natural world. That is the alienation or disconnect that humans feel toward the natural world. He points to recent studies that show that the symptoms of attention deficit disorder frequently are minimized with just a little contact with nature. There are other studies that show childhood obesity is partly caused by the absence of a natural connection between children and nature. Some of those studies also show the extraordinary benefits of connecting to nature for both children and adults.
Frances Kuo is the Director of the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois where they studied the relationship between green spaces and human health. She said that the range of outcomes related to deprivation of nature were staggering. Everything from earlier mortality in adults to general ailments in the population, ADHD symptoms, cognitive functions, mood issues and social functioning were often related to this deprivation of nature that many of us too often experience. The symptoms of this deprivation are vast.
On the 2011 CBC radio series The Bottom Line Professor Kuo said “just everything across the board,” is improved in nature. According to Kuo the presence or absence of grass or vegetation in a landscape is a huge predictor of whether or not people will like a place. People like nature. They want to see it. They want to be in it. They want to be a part of it. And if they do not feel that connection they often react adversely. They may not understand why, but that feeling of disconnection from nature is uncomfortable. It is literally disconcerting.
Kuo also studied the effect of nature on cognitive and emotional functioning. Her group went to homes in the inner city of Chicago. Some had more green areas than others. They looked at verbal and physical aggression and they found that people who had more grass or more shade trees were significantly less aggressive than nearby neighbours without any green space. Even a tiny green space helped a lot. She was surprised how such a small space could have such a remarkable effect.
Kuo points out how people often feel rejuvenated or refreshed after a brief walk in nature and she said, “It turns out that refreshment effect is quite documentable and quite consistent.” Her research shows that the part of the brain that deals with effortful activities gets a respite when one walks in nature or is around nature. “By giving that part of the brain a little vacation it gets rejuvenated and is able to operate better afterwards,” she said. It really is resting and then recharging the brain. It is good for us to be in nature. I know this is exactly how I felt after our brief walk through the woods in Cathedral Grove this afternoon.
Kuo also pointed out how there is research that showed that people in prison with no connection to nature had more self-aggression than people who have some connection to nature. They get aggressive with themselves because often there is no one else they can be aggressive towards. That research also showed that the nature deficit prisoners tended to have all kinds of illnesses more frequently than those better connected to nature.
She said that when we design cities we have to recognize the importance of nature to community health and stop thinking of trees and parks as “merely pretty.” They are much more important than that, though that is very good too. One of her colleagues calls it “the parsley around the pig.” According to Kuo, “nature in the city is functional. It helps to provide a healthy human habitat and it is as essential as providing vitamins.”
Diana Beresford-Kroeger is another person who understands the profound importance of nature on health. In particular she concentrates on the value of our relationship to trees. What better place to think of her than Cathedral Grove? She is a botanist who describes herself as “a renegade scientist.” Her latest book is called The Global Forrest.
Even in Victorian times they recognized the “forest as a spa”. They knew how it could rejuvenate and heal a person. First Nations people thought along those lines too when they initiated the sweat lodge system. They used the natural antibiotic fungicides from a forest to help heal people. Walk in to a pine forest when the temperatures are about 60º C and the air is rising, the pine trees produce a huge chemical factory from the needles, which are really modified leaves. From a distance you can even see a slight bluish haze rising from a pine forest. This reminds me of the Blue Ridge Forest, which was mainly deciduous. Chemicals are literally exhaled from the trees. They help breathing and provide a mild anesthetic.
Beresford-Kroeger says that in Ireland where they do deep meditation in forests they can actually “hear the trees”. Like children who have much better hearing than adults, can sometimes actually hear the tree. Her theories have not all been scientifically validated at this time. Yet, perhaps, it makes sense to hug a tree.
Many of us realize that nature infuses us with an inexplicable calm. Without understanding why, many of us find refuge in a park, even if just for a short stroll. That was how I felt at the Cathedral Grove.
This was forest bathingat its finest.