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Forest Bathing: Medicine for People, Medicine for Place

Until recently, it was absolutely necessary for humans to be in close relationship with the land around them. Knowing how to find and grow food, collect water, craft shelters, understand weather and seasonal patterns, live in harmony with the plants and animals nearby - these relationships kept our ancestors alive.

Today, for most of us, relationship with land is very different, or perhaps almost non-existent. Modern western culture doesn't require us to be in tune with land we live on, and perhaps wants us to be separated from nature. If we are disconnected from land, it's easier to fall into complacency with the multitude of ecological crises happening all around us.

Looking even deeper into so-called "relationship with nature", we can find ourselves getting to some really juicy questions. What exactly is nature? Is there anything that isn't nature? Am I nature?? Does cultivating my relationship with nature include cultivating a closer relationship with myself? Am I losing my mind? Good questions to ponder over a cup of tea in the woods.

Our disconnection from nature is a cultural illness worth taking seriously. It affects the land around us and affects our physical, mental, and spiritual wellness as humans.

Okay, so what now?

How do we work with our place in human history? With what we have inherited, what we have lost? How do we metabolize the reality of modern culture and the history and effects of colonization? How do we reconnect to nature in our technologic world? Living into these questions is no small task, and the answers may come to define our lives and our times ahead as a species.

One place to start is by going back to basics, to the personal, the simple. Enter the practice of forest bathing.

Forest bathing is essentially taking yourself into a natural area and just being there. It's a mindfulness exercise, using your physical senses to connect to what's around you and to what's inside you. You start to slow down, pause, re-center, return to yourself in a simple but profound way. Forest bathing originally comes from a Japanese practice called shinrin-yoku, developed in the 1980s, and since then researchers have been finding an impressive array of health benefits associated with it. To name a few:

  • Reduced stress and anxiety

  • Improved sleep

  • Lower blood pressure

  • Enhanced mood and general well-being

In addition to these measurable health outcomes, there is something else going on which is more difficult for scientists to measure: the restoration of a primal relationship between people and place, between self and nature. Although forest bathing is quite simple, it invites a powerful healing that should not be underestimated.

One more consideration for a practice like forest bathing: A personal, heart-felt connection to the natural world might be the only real place to begin true healing of our ecosystems. This isn't a new idea of course, intimacy with land is foundational to many indigenous ways of knowing and being. Here's a quote from Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botanist, decorated professor, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation:

"Restoring land without restoring relationship is an empty exercise. It is relationship that will endure and relationship that will sustain the restored land. Therefore, reconnecting people and the landscape is as essential as reestablishing proper hydrology or cleaning up contaminants. It is medicine for the earth."

This quote is from her book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants, which I highly recommend.

There are a lot of important conversations happening right now about the health of our planet - protecting and restoring ecosystems, how to mitigate climate change, improving the health and wellbeing of humans now and in the decades to come. Let's have these conversations while also rediscovering and cultivating our own direct relationship with nature.

You could even start right now. When was the last time you were outside? What's happening out there? Is it time to take yourself on a walk?


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