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Forest bathing

Trees are good for the earth, good for you

By Jennifer Stern

, |

Forest bathing

Trees are good for the earth, good for you

By Jennifer Stern

, |

5 min read

We all know that planting trees, and – even more critically – refraining from cutting down trees are important strategies in the campaign to slow down global climate change. Trees are good for the earth, but trees are good for people too.

Studies show that the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) helps to reduces stress, lower blood pressure and heart rate, and even improve immunity. Which means that – wherever your estate or development is – planting trees is a good practice. And think long and hard before cutting any down.

The trees can talk back

It’s an old joke that talking to the trees doesn’t mean you’re insane – it’s just when they start talking back that you need to worry. Well, German biologist Peter Wohlleben would disagree. In his 2015 book The Hidden Life of Trees, he explains that trees communicate with each other, and have relationships. Some old friends grow tall together, sharing the sunlight by giving each other sufficient space in the tree canopy, and intertwining their roots to such an extent that, if one dies, the other does not survive long. For anyone who’s spent significant time in the bush that’s not news. As field guides are fond of relating on safari, acacias will ‘allow’ browsers like kudus to munch on their leaves for a while, but if the antelope gets too greedy, they secrete a chemical that makes their leaves unpalatable and poisonous. And – here’s where it gets freaky – so do all the other acacias nearby (or at least downwind). So, yeah, they ‘talk’ to each other.

If you find that hard to believe, try this for something really implausible – flat earthers believe that trees don’t exist.

The harmony of the leaves

Another northern-hemisphere biologist, George David Haskell, in his 2017 book The Songs of Trees, narrates poetically how trees sing, describing the refrain of an eight-metre tall balsam fir as sounding like ‘fine metal work – tink tink, zriiiiit’. He shares Wohlleben’s thesis that trees communicate in an intricate web, explaining: ‘Understanding that nature is a network is the first step in hearing trees talk.’ So walking into a forest can be likened to stepping into a church or temple – it’s no surprise that forests are often described as ‘cathedral-like’ – or perhaps a particularly subtle concert hall. Haskell also describes how the breeze from that same balsam fir disperses the clouds of mosquitoes, which gives relief from ‘the hundreds of mosquitoes that gathered at my mammalian blood buffet’. Forests are havens, not just of harmonious white noise, but also of a subtle and pleasing scent. And we all learned in high school how they produce oxygen. So it should hardly be surprising that we feel good when we walk in the woods.

The wood wide web

In her 2016 Ted Talk ‘How Trees Talk to Each Other’, Suzanne Simard explains that trees in a forest are connected through ‘below-ground fungal networks that connect trees, and facilitate underground inter-tree communication and interaction’, which enables them to behave ‘as a single organism’ – a concept that scientists call the wood wide web.

Wohlleben explains how ‘mother’ trees ‘suckle’ young saplings with liquid sugar through underground connections. It sounds a bit away with the fairies, but think logically. How can tiny trees photosynthesise when they are growing in the shade of venerable forest giants? The simple answer is ‘not very well’. So, in the spirit of Occam’s Razor, it’s easier to believe that the giants with their crowns in the light share the products of photosynthesis with the little trees than to believe that teensy weensy little saplings deep in the forest canopy find sufficient light to fuel their prodigious growth.

The bottom line here is that trees are amazing, but forests even more so.

How forest bathing works

You may have visions of groups of flighty individuals stripping down and frolicking unclad among the trees but, really, forest bathing needn’t be any more complicated than taking a gentle stroll in the woods – clothes not mandatory but recommended.

And then, to differentiate a forest bathing session from a post-prandial constitutional, or a stroll with the family and dogs, slow down. Look up, look down, be aware of the trees and feel the quality of the air on your skin. Acknowledge the trees as sentient beings. Or just enjoy the scenery and the quiet (or the music, if you can hear it). Clothes may be optional but earphones are definitely contraindicated for anything approaching real forest bathing.

The only tricky part, really, is finding a good patch of forest.

Head for the woods …

In Japan, shinrin-yoku has been quite formalised, and you can even do guided forest bathing sessions. I guess that’s not so surprising for a culture that has elevated the making of tea to a formal, aesthetically complex ritual. In workaholic Japan, it’s offered as a mindfulness practice and a digital detox.

The first formal forest bathing club was started in San Francisco, California (unsurprisingly), to facilitate and lead group forest bathing excursions, and to ‘inspire you to reconnect to nature as a way to heal – yourself, your community, and the Earth.’

Assuming you could fly to California, you could join a group or one-on-one forest bathing experience but – and here is where it gets a bit odd – in the meantime, you can do a virtual forest bathing experience. I haven’t tried it, but I suspect you may need to supply your own forest.

No passport required

You don’t have to travel to Japan or California to immerse yourself in the magic of a primal forest. If you live on the Garden Route you’re sorted, of course. I confess to being in awe of some of those giant yellowwoods (Podocarpus latifolius), and the sight of a Cape chestnut (Calodendrum capense) in flower has – on more than one occasion – brought a lump to my throat. And Hogsback in the Amatola Mountains has been touted as the inspiration for JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth – erroneously, as it turns out, but it’s a good story so it’s worth repeating. And it is quite the most magical of forests. And even the Bushveld – although not forest in the classic sense – offers extensive areas of natural vegetation with lots of trees. But much of South Africa is virtually treeless so, unless you are lucky enough to live close to some lovely big old trees, you may have to travel – but you don’t need to get on a plane, and you certainly don’t need your passport.

Start a forest bathing club

If you have lots of natural forested space or even just a tiny pocket on your estate, you can start a forest bathing club – it may be a good community-building initiative, and it’s certainly a way to celebrate the wild areas on your estate.

It does sound a bit odd, but it’s not that away with the fairies. You can find out all you need on the free downloadable guide from the Forest Bathing Club.

Just one more reason to protect, nurture and cultivate the trees that would have naturally occurred on your estate.

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