Column: ‘Forest Bathing’ Isn’t What You Think, but It’s Peaceful

For the Valley News
Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Shirley, Mass.

Our group leader, Nadine, asks us to form a circle, breathe naturally, and let our senses record whatever they pick up around them. It’s about 9 on a Tuesday morning, so the main thing my senses pick up is the all-encompassing roar of commuter traffic that, though distant, seems huge and overwhelming. I’m wowed by the incredible red oak tree right behind me that’s got to be pre-Columbian. Also, now that I think of it, by the cool breeze blowing in one short sleeve of my summer shirt and out the other. It’ll warm up soon.

The crew and I drove here this morning from our motel in Leominster, Mass. Even though Steve, the videographer, had programmed the trip into my car’s GPS and turned up the lady guide’s voice so that even I could hear it, I stuck right tight to his tail all the way over here, like a Labrador retriever on the scent of raw hamburger.

The place is called Farandnear, a name given it by its original owner because it was far enough away to feel like a vacation home and near enough to get to in two days on horseback. It’s a well-preserved patch of fields, bogs and deep forests of primarily oak, ash and hemlock.

In some promotions of our television show, we encourage viewers to send in ideas for future episodes. Now and then someone takes us at our word and does. Thus did our doughty producer receive an e-mail from Nadine Mazzola, who — I’m quoting from her blurb here — “is a Certified Forest Therapy Guide, Trainer and Mentor with the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs. Her training includes special knowledge in guiding people of all ages in Shinrin Yoku, ‘Forest Bathing’ Walks. ... My passion is to keep introducing people to the healing ways of the forest.”

The producer checked out the idea, liked it, and informed me that he was scheduling a day with Nadine and a few other Shinrin Yoku enthusiasts for a few hours of forest bathing. I think I did my best Jackie Gleason rolled-eyes routine when I read it. But then I remembered that I often extol the virtues of trying new things. How could I decline?

There are no bathing costumes involved in forest bathing. Instead, you simply walk slowly and mindfully with your group (or alone, if you know what you’re doing), taking in everything you can and pausing occasionally to share impressions. You can see that some participants might slide right away into la-la land, describing how a puffball beside the path spoke to them, or a butterfly embodied the spirit of a lost loved one. So I was ready to scoff, at least inwardly.

Nadine led us slowly through an abandoned pasture ripe with little “fairy blankets” — my term, not hers — spider webs sparkling with dew that always portend a lovely day, and bumblebees working over goldenrod and wild aster blossoms. We paused for our first circle just inside the edge of an oak-and-hemlock forest to share initial thoughts.

Shinrin Yoku, obviously, is a Japanese invention. The fierce Japanese work ethic produces levels of stress almost inconceivable to us Westerners. Searches for solutions led, in this case, to meditative forest walking, which demonstrated reduced blood pressure and anxiety, and resulted in increased productivity and greater job satisfaction. Before long, corporations were encouraging employees to try it, and on company time! It made good business sense. As someone who likes his evidence empirical, rather than anecdotal, I found that persuasive.

Nadine next led us to the steep banks of a tiny brook bubbling down through thick hemlocks. Each of us picked a spot to contemplate and meditate. For my part, I wondered what were the odds that, in 82 years, I had previously met any of the millions of molecules flowing gently past. The odds were a little long, but it was pleasant to wonder.

It would be hard to imagine a better leader of this sort of exercise. Unbelievably pleasant and serene, consistently affirming, and treating each effusion of ours as if it were the brightest thing she’d heard in weeks, Nadine was a study in togetherness. A breast cancer survivor and refugee from a high-pressure marketing job, she had clearly found her bliss. I kept thinking how much more effective evangelists, for example, might be if, instead of exhorting folks to change, they simply let the light shine out of them, as Nadine did, creating a desire to share what she had.

We stopped at length on a steep, rounded knob, once a glacial esker, most likely, but now covered densely with mature hemlocks and called “Paradise.” Each of us was encouraged to pick a tree and respond to whatever it had to offer. I picked a tall, straight hemlock about my own age and reflected that, though we’d been on the Earth about the same amount of time, I was able to move about, and get out of the way of trouble if it approached, while this big guy could not. Thus the world intruded upon our relationship: I knew that the invasive hemlock woolly adelgid is on the march in New England, apparently relentlessly, and that if I lived longer than expected and came back here one day, I might find this tree and all its fellows devastated. Not a happy reflection.

Nadine called us all into one last circle. She placed tiny tea cups on a small mat, lit her Jetboil stove, and brewed us some Eastern hemlock tea, which we shared, along with a jar of trail mix. I had to admit, as I prepared to wrangle the headlong traffic back to southern Vermont and relative peace and quiet, that I faced the prospect with an uncharacteristic and preternatural calm.

Willem Lange can be reached at willem.lange@comcast.net.