Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Trending: Forest Bathing, Forest Loss

Fall Equinox 2016

When I visited the Mohonk Mountain House in the summer of 2004, it was like stepping into a fairy tale or back in time a hundred years. This enormous wood-shingled Victorian castle on Lake Mohonk ninety minutes north of New York City is set in a lush landscape that has been meticulously cared for since the resort was built in the late 1800s. Rolling lawns, orchards, gardens, cliffs, clear waters, and forests invite nature immersion. And now there’s a new offering on the activity menu there: for $160, Dr. Nina Smiley will take you on a fifty-minute walk through the woods and remind you to attend to the present moment and embrace your senses.

The Seattle Times explains: “In Japan, it’s called ‘shinrin-yoku,’ which translates as forest bathing. It’s the practice of immersing yourself in nature to improve your well-being, and interest in the concept is growing, with spas, resorts, retreat centers, gardens and parks offering guided ‘forest bathing’ experiences.” The Washington Post calls it “the latest fitness trend to hit the U.S.” and reports that “a number of scientific studies emphasize that reveling in the great outdoors promotes human health,” lowering stress levels, improving working memory, and causing people to feel more alive.

Duh. Until the era of “I prefer to play inside because that’s where the electrical outlets are” (Richard Louv’s finding in Last Child in the Woods), we just knew that. Edward Abbey, who blessedly left this plane in 1989 before the onslaught of email and cell phones, knew that and gave us this succinct admonishment: “Our suicidal poets (Plath, Berryman, et al.) spent too much of their lives inside rooms and classrooms when they should have been trudging up mountains, slopping through swamps, rowing down rivers. The indoor life is the next best thing to premature burial.”

It seems a measure of how far we have fallen from grace with the natural world that we need scientific studies and certified guides to remind us to go outside. Still, we’re told there’s reason for optimism: “‘I think about where yoga was 30 years ago and where it is today, and I realize that forest therapy is making the same journey toward cultural definition in a way that will mainstream the practice,’ said Ben Page, a certified forest therapy guide who founded Shinrin Yoku Los Angeles” (quoted in the Post article).

That’s nice. But I wonder if there will be any forests left by the time the practice is mainstreamed. Deforestation has been proceeding apace for three thousand years, and according to 2016 figures from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, forests are being lost worldwide at the rate of 3.3 million hectares per year (a hectare is about 2.5 acres or roughly the size of two American football fields)—at least in part so that forest bathers can live in wood houses and eat meat. One wonders if at some point the two trend lines will cross: more forest bathers than forests to bathe in.

I can only offer this suggestion to budding forest bathers: take the $160 that’s burning a hole in your pocket and send it to TreeSisters or Plant-for-the-Planet. Then step outside, bring your attention to the present moment, and open your senses.