Forest Bathing

A standing joke among us “forest bathers” this past weekend was to “not forget your fig leaf!” This form of ecotherapy translated as “forest bathing” was one of the multiple-offered courses at the Minnesota Master Naturalist’s Gathering Partners conference on Prairie Island. One of the two leaders, Kristen Mastel, had lived in Japan where she handled her cultural stress by venturing into an eco-antidote practice called “shinrin-yoko,” translated to mean “taking in the forest atmosphere.” Or, as it’s now known in the U.S., forest bathing.

Rather than fig leaves, we students were advised to wear sturdy but comfortable walking shoes and to be prepared for unpleasant weather along with a bit of a hike. Our leaders used the term “slow walking” at the beginning, although this was later amended to “sauntering” after being told that naturalist John Muir used “sauntering” for the same gait. 

“I don’t like either the word or the thing,” wrote Muir of hiking. “People ought to saunter in the mountains — not ‘hike!’ Do you know the origin of that word saunter? It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going they would reply, ‘A la sainte terre’, ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.”

Our saunter near the Mississippi River town of Redwing certainly had towering bluffs, though no mountains. We were on a portion of the Cannon River Trail that meandered through an aged deciduous forest and seemed perfect for sauntering. We didn’t know quite what to expect in the course, although after a few stops I began to realize that our pace was rather similar to the numerous nature “saunters” my artist friend, Lee Kanten, and I have done on numerous occasions: Sauntering through the woods, and somewhat similar to Muir’s ideal saunter, the rugged outcrops at the headwaters of the Minnesota River in the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge. Age, perhaps, had more to do with our decision to saunter than a meditative mindset.

Like many meditative practices, certain disciplines awaited us, and sound can interfere. How would we handle the nearby highway noise with semis barreling through, or even the St. Paul to Chicago freighters rolling on the rails. Neither proved insurmountable.

Initially we gathered at the head of the trail and took a few minutes to engage in a deep breathing exercise quite similar to yoga breathing. With heads bowed and eyes closed, we drew in a deep breath, held it for a long moment before releasing. This came rather easily. That nearby traffic noise became rather muted the longer we practiced our meditative breathing. “In Japan,” said Mastel a bit later as she explained the discipline of forest bathing, “we sat on a mat to meditate. Shinrin-yoko, which is roughly translated into forest bathing, helped me handle the stress of being in a different culture along with a language barrier.”

As we sauntered along we would stop to practice a different discipline, or sense, along the way, concentrating on each until the next stop. Interestingly, “seeing” was the last of the disciplines, meaning I was forced to use senses rarely used in the saunters that Lee and I have done through the years. Photojournalists and artists are somewhat adept at seeing, and as we sauntered through the picturesque trail, composition and lighting emerged all around. Yet I kept my camera zippered inside my backpack … until a couple of the other students eased their cell phones from their pockets, one to photograph a wild flower, and the other a well hidden lichen. 

At one of our stops we were encouraged to smell. I admitted to the group that this was rarely one of my practices, yet when I forced myself to pay attention, the sense of smell came alive. First there was a rich muskiness, interrupted several steps later by a sweetness of a tree in bloom. There were other scents I couldn’t identify although there was an awareness. 

My weakest was that of hearing, for not only have I suffered a hearing impairment since I was a teenager, and have only recently found hearing aids that actually work well, I’m not used to “listening” when afield. Again, forcing myself to concentrate on the different sounds of the forest such as having the birds high in the canopy come to life. A rustle of leaves in the slight breeze. Then the sound of running water in an adjacent stream on private land close to our trail. On our walks in the Bonanza Education Center, spring-fed rivulets in the deep ravines do come to life and we make it a point to reach such a stream on the lakeside trail just to hear the sound of running water. And, yes, for meditative purposes.

My pivoting in different directions attempting to find a singing bird might have been counter-productive to the exercise although I wasn’t alone in doing so. Momentarily I recalled the audio rapture over the years … of the “jungle-like” sounds in the “blue hour” before darkness at the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge in western Louisiana; the volumness of the sandhill cranes through the night in a blind on the North Platte River in central Nebraska; and of sea lions on a remote island near Juneau, Alaska. Those sounds were so dominate that hearing aids were unnecessary, and perhaps loud enough to rupture any thought of quiet meditation. On the Cannon River Trail, though, Mastel and her partner, Leah Masonick, had awakened another sense.

When the time came for awakening the sense of sight there was a feeling of comfort, for permission was now granted. One of the other Master Naturalists on the saunter shared thoughts of walking through various and ever changing compositions of nature all around us, and there was comfort in this sharing of likeness. 

Masonick said forest bathing encourages you to slow down, to cultivate a sense of presence and deepen your connection with nature … that it is done intentionally with a hope of engaging all the senses to stimulate creativity and to inspire wonder and awe. At the end we shared a comforting herbal tea and spoke of our individual awarenesses and awakenings.

I found myself in a zone, making it difficult to switch gears heading into my afternoon activity … about a four mile hike through a nearby Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) on the lip of the Driftless Area. I was ambling along (sauntering?) in a peaceful daze among others who were seemingly in a rush of aim and discovery. Meanwhile I was stuck in my “sight” mode, mainly, while listening for birds I couldn’t find and bending to smell native flowers along the path of whacked buckthorn stubble and in the narrow prairie hillsides. My eyes were drawn to the beautiful sturdy limbs of burr oak and the contrast of stark white birch against a greening, leafing out forest covering the deep ravines between the hilltops. And wildflowers a man of the prairie rarely encounters.

Here I was using old, under-used senses with renewed vigor, and I couldn’t have been more blessed. Interestingly, the fig leaf was unnecessary.

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About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

1 thought on “Forest Bathing

  1. I am certainly glad to finally know the etymology of saunter, and now that it’s out, I’ll saunter the rest of my life. Thanks for a piece that was as relaxing as your bathing.

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