“I am hoping the researchers are right when they say that breathing in and touching soil bacteria can strengthen the mood and immune system.”
Three years ago, the red lacy limbs of the Japanese maple in the beautifully landscaped garden of the building where I live enticed me.
Lush branches hung low to the ground. As I was taking my usual 6 a.m. walk in this enclosed city oasis, I suddenly noticed that there was about a foot between the ground and the tree’s lowest branches. Without hesitating, I knelt down and crawled under the tree. It mattered not that I was 75 and 16 floors of balconies and windows overlooked the garden. I sunk my rump into the earth, raised knees to chest, and planted feet firmly on the rich, brown soil. Looking up, I could see the blue sky through the delicate openings in the lace. I raised my arms and wrapped a hand around each limb.
How enthralling to create this tree cathedral that encompassed my whole being! I could see out of the lacy limbs, but no one could see in. Crawling in to enter seemed apt. A challenging pilgrimage to a sacred place.
A lifelong lover of nature, I had been hugging trees for years, but I hadn’t heard of forest bathing at that point. The garden, the size of a whole city block, is bordered by a cement patio where I had done this early morning walk for at least a decade. The level surface enabled me to increase my clip and heartbeat. Breathing in the fresh air was my focus. I knew the path so well, I often mused that I could do it blindfolded.
Discovering forest bathing has unexpectedly transformed my walking and relationship with my backyard.
Forest bathing originated in Japan in the 1980s. Scientific evidence has proven that among the many benefits of contemplative walking in a forest are a boost to the immune system and improvement of overall well-being. (Read more here on the health benefits of forest bathing.)
The same garden delights that I have, ashamedly, only noticed peripherally have now become part of my forest bathing ritual. A plush mound of bright green moss about three feet wide and two feet long sits atop three steps that lead to the upper garden level. I have always loved running my fingers slowly over moss wherever I see it, even if it’s just a patch of two inches. A feeling of tenderness inevitably rises in me, almost like I’m stroking a loved one. Now, in addition to the stroking, I press my bare feet or hands deeply into this one-inch mound for a few minutes to begin my forest bathing ritual.
I study each of the 19 trees as I would a new friend. Barks range from dark brown to silver, rough to silky smooth. Leaves are a rainbow of green hues. The girth of one tree is so huge that my hands can’t meet when hugging it. Another is so slim that my fingers overlap during the embrace. I wind my way around flower beds and ferns sprinkled among the trees. Total attentiveness is required when walking here, where there is no straight and level path.
New Forms of Tree Hugging
So far, I have created special rituals with six of the trees. Two new forms of tree hugging have emerged. The tree that I can cup my hand around has a trunk that ends at my eye level. I am 5'3". It is capped with a canopy of delicate, light green leaves about the span of a beach umbrella. I clasp my hands around the trunk at the top and slide them down the smooth bark. This requires squatting to reach the bottom. After a pause, I slide my hands back up the tree.
This doesn’t feel like exercise but more like a special dance. An unfamiliar type of evergreen tree is exactly my height and as wide as my arms extended straight out. Hands, not arms, hug as they travel gently from top to middle, palms tickled by the soft, delicate floppy leaves of variegated green.
Ending at the cathedral tree, I crawl in and situate myself for a new activity—digging with my bare hands into the earth. Never a gardener, at 77 I take delight in simply playing with the dirt. All the while, I am hoping the researchers are right when they say that breathing in and touching soil bacteria can strengthen the mood and immune system.
For years, I had walked back and forth on the concrete patio, increasing my speed and heartbeat. Barely had I noticed the beautiful garden beside it.
Now, I head straight for the garden and the glorious forest bathing ritual I have created. The patio is a mere gateway to a path that is still unfolding.
Want more? Read Joan's story “Trees I've Loved.”