Forest bathing is the hot new breed of nature therapy to hit the US. It’s not as risque as it sounds; chances are many of us forest bath on a regular basis. Forest bathing is a Japanese practice called shinrin-yoku. Shinrin-yoku emerged in the 1980s as a psychological and physical exercise to counter the negative social effects of the emerging electronic technology, and also to reconnect people to the island’s lush and ancient forests. A conscious, intentional walk through a grove of trees, observing the scent of the soil and the air moving over the skin is forest bathing. It is mindfully walking through the woods.
Professor Yoshifumi Miyazaki of Japan’s Chiba University was the first research pioneer to explore the science behind the practice, and in 2016 he discovered that “even short periods of viewing or walking in natural places results in … lower blood pressure, decreased heart rate, reduced cortisol production, balance of activity and hemoglobin in the prefrontal cortex, improved blood glucose levels, higher immune function, and overall physiological relaxation,” (qtd.in Haupt 82). Our bodies and brains evolved to exist in nature, and scientists like Miyazaki believe that our modern lives have propelled us into a chronic state of stress; that heightened state is measurably more calm after only 15 minutes in a forest (Haupt 82-83).
While researching forest bathing to write this piece, I kinda laughed-out-loud when National Geographic suggested traveling to Kenya, Costa Rica, and New Zealand. Yes, that sounds fabulous, but until we have that cash on hand, let’s explore forests that are more accessible. All trees are created equally. I ventured across the Ohio River into the exotic land of Kentucky to share my forest baths with Danish giants.
The Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest is about 45 minutes south of Louisville, Kentucky. In 2019, they celebrated their 90th birthday, and invited Danish giants to join them for a three year party. The family of Giants, named Mama Loumari, Little Nis, and Little Elena, are lounging among trees, gazing into the water, and contemplating life in the solitude of a meadow, on a two-mile loop trail through old growth.
Where is the father, people might ask, noticing Mama Loumari’s belly, fertile with life. As the Danish artist Thomas Dambo explains in the fairy tale that tells the Giants’ story, “The Great Story of the Little People and the Giant Trolls: While the Weather Got Better,” the father, named Isaac, felt lonely on the mountain. He built his family a circle of love, where Mama Loumari rests, and then left to wander the prairie until the weather got better on the mountain.
The Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest is open during the pandemic, and advanced reservations are required. Although it is free to visit, they do request a donation of $10 for each vehicle that enters. None of the facilities are open, so plan accordingly. As always, forest bathing is free, and the Giants are happy to share their trees.