Forest Bathing

“The Friendly City” is a weekly column about walking in Harrisonburg that will run during 2024. Each week, your friendly correspondent, writer and teacher Sofia Samatar, will reflect on a walk in our city. 

Do you know the entrance to the forest?

I don’t mean the Wood Between the Worlds, with its regimented, formal lines, the parking lot showing between the trunks. I mean the real forest. At the top of Westover Park, where the fence ends, a gap opens in the trees and you can go down a trail into a gnarled, secluded wood.

A sudden chill—it’s always a few degrees cooler under this canopy. The trail descends steeply among the gray trunks, the bright needles of young pines. A tawny carpet of fallen leaves covers the ground, sending up a delicate, smoky scent beneath my boots.

In his book Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness, Dr. Qing Li writes of the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku or forest bathing: taking in the atmosphere of the forest. Dr. Li, who directs the Forest Therapy Society in Japan, is quick to point out that forest bathing is different from hiking or jogging. You don’t even have to walk. The idea is to draw the forest in through all your senses. He recommends listening to the breeze in the leaves, watching the light through the branches, breathing in the natural aromatherapy of the air, tasting it on your tongue, placing your hands on the trees, and lying on the ground. His book is packed with data showing how shinrin-yoku can improve your odds against a host of ills from anxiety to cancer. I’m charmed by his authoritative tone. “Drink in the flavor of the forest,” he urges, adding confidently: “Now you have connected with nature. You have crossed the bridge to happiness.” 

As for me, I’ve crossed the bike path and plunged into the forest on the far side. I step over roots and rocks, clamber across a log. The trees grow thicker, the shadows dense. Huge stones lie tumbled in a shallow gorge. I observe the mossy boulders, the oaks that have shaded them for long years. I breathe the powdery air of the winter forest, savor its sweet bark taste. Listen to the oddly mechanical squawk of a squirrel. Pull off my glove, brush my fingers over a fall of ivy. Immersed at last: forest bathing.

How lucky we are, in this little city, to be able to soak in this deep, sylvan reservoir!

Walking back up the trail toward the park, I reflect with pleasure on the beneficial plant chemicals filling the air, which according to Dr. Li are now lowering my stress hormones, boosting my anti-cancer proteins, and predisposing me toward a good night’s sleep. I’m considering scraping my fingers through the soil to pick up some Mycobacterium vaccae, a boon for the immune system, when I realize the path before me looks odd and unfamiliar, the trees looming too close. I’ve taken the wrong trail.

With a laugh, I retrace my steps. There are several trails in this wood, crisscrossing each other, but I’m not worried—I just have to find one that leads uphill. I remember how the path rose along the gorge. The bareness of the February trees should make it easy to spot the way out.

It’s not this way, though. No.

The trail has changed. It’s wider, flatter, more well-traveled. This is not the way I came in.

Birds chitter. The squirrel’s chuckle takes on a jeering note.

Go back. Try another path. Stripes of light. Dry leaves underfoot. Trees. More trees.

A maze of trails. Forest bathing? I’m forest drowning.

Friends and neighbors, I assure you that you can get lost in the woods in the middle of our city.

Help! I’m walking faster, unbuttoning my coat in a flush of nerves. There’s no one around. Then the trees grow thinner. Relief—escape—a gap! But this outlet leads straight into somebody’s yard. Do I dash across the lawn? The street is so near, just a few yards away!

How far does the friendliness of the Friendly City go? I don’t think it extends to letting strangers run through your yard. I remember our next-door neighbor—an elderly woman who lived alone, with whom we got along very well until her death a few years ago—who kept two loaded shotguns behind her door. I consider the fact that as a person of color, I should be especially cautious when it comes to these sorts of risks. But what keeps me out of this yard is not an analysis of race relations or gun violence. It’s my sense of propriety. I’m held back by a certain reserve, almost a bashfulness—an absurd feeling, but one that’s in tune with the quiet little neighborhood on the other side of the trees.

Back into the forest. Oh! There’s a sign that reads Private Property: No Trespassing. I’m as embarrassed as if I’ve walked in on somebody on the toilet. Excuse me, forgive me! I rush up the trail. Enormous gray stones line the route, grinning at me like the very teeth of the earth.

Suddenly, there’s a gate: an iron gate in the middle of the path, all on its own, with no fence attached, standing open.

The eeriness of this gate all alone in the wood! If I go through, I’m sure I’ll be put to work as the Fairy Queen’s handmaiden for a hundred years. I’ll have to polish her beetle’s-wing shoes and take care of her sickly, squalling, pointy-eared baby. When I return to the world of mortals, everyone I know will be dead.

I back away from this eldritch door. And at last, as you have guessed, dear neighbors, I find my way out and write these words to you. I bring you news of the wildwood in the city, a dusky labyrinth offering all the elements, both material and imaginary, evoked by the word forest. Here you can practice shinrin-yoku, absorbing the leaf-rich air in an act as old as our species that’s also a modern therapy. Here you can lose your way. You can feel vulnerable, bewildered, thrilled, renewed. You can test and analyze your character. You might even be stolen by the fairies. It’s the expansive atmosphere of the forest, rather than what happens there, that constitutes the bridge to happiness.

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