Sunday, February 16, 2014

Forest Medicine

At this moment, there is a magpie perched in the highest branches of an old dead Russian Olive tree behind our house. Just watching him makes my heart beat a little slower, and I feel myself relax. Making connections with nature always has that effect on me. Sometimes I forget, and I pay the price of feeling disjointed, and like something is missing. Even though we all know the benefits of regular exercise, it is easy to let things slide when life overwhelms us.


Being outdoors is the best medicine in the world for me. Whether I'm skiing, hiking, biking, taking pictures, or just walking through the trees in the backyard, I always feel refreshed. It fills me up, and makes me feel whole.  The worries of the world lose their grip on me when I'm outside.


Last week was a rough week for me emotionally. My heart was still healing from losing Daddy, and I had just signed my divorce papers. My life was hanging in the balance, and there were so many unanswered questions. I became a "recliner potato," only leaving my chair to bask in front of the glow of the stainless steel refrigerator. Food had no appeal, but it gave me something to do. Often, I would return to the chair after selecting nothing, only to return a little later to see if my mood would allow me to partake of something, anything, to eat.

After a day of lethargy and sloth, I knew what my soul needed. The Japanese call it Forest Medicine, or Forest Bathing.  [Their term is Shinrin-Yoku, and it is simply spending time outdoors as a preventive healthcare practice. Although I have participated in this activity off and on for years, I was unaware that it was a real thing in any culture until my friend Janet posted a beautiful forest picture on my Facebook wall with an explanation of the practice. "This made me think of you," she commented below the link.  

Last Thursday I wanted to feel better, and I wanted to create memories with my Boston Terrier. I knew just what to do. Marley pranced around in front of me while I laced up my hiking shoes. He spun in front of the door as I put his walking harness and leash on his quivering body. I wanted to hike for at least a couple of hours on this day, enjoying the company of my sweet little dog.

Our Utah weather has been very warm lately, especially for February. Dressed only in a lightweight athletic pullover, I began to sweat in the 54 degree day. The worries nibbling in the back of my mind finally dissipated after the first mile up the road. Once we passed where the blacktop ends, we entered higher elevations where the snow had not yet melted. I was then glad for the long-sleeved shirt.   

Shinrin-Yoku information is available on the internet, if you would like to know more.  The Shinrinyoku.org website lists the following benefits of Forest Bathing:

  • Lowered blood pressure
  • Lowered pulse rate
  • Reduced cortisol levels
  • Increased vigor
  • Reduced anger
  • Reduced depression
This lovely quote from John Muir is included there: 


“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home. Wilderness is a necessity.” 

And so it is with me. As Marley and I climbed the 1,400 feet in elevation upward, I felt myself feel liberated from fear and sadness. I took in the smells of pines covered in snow, I listened to the creek gurgle down the hill, and I watched as magpies landed on overhead branches. A neighbor's peacocks screeched like Siamese cats as I trudged past their property.The peacocks and wild turkeys congregate together there, strutting about as one flock.  

Once we had hiked about three miles, the dirt road was covered in snow. We discovered where the four-wheeler tracks ended, and we continued onward, forging our own paths through the crusty layer of ice on top of the snow. I kept pushing myself to hike on beyond my previous turnaround spot, hoping to complete an eight mile hike on this day. Once My Runkeeper app announced we had indeed made it four miles, I paused, and took in the scenery around me. The snow sparkled where the sun was shining, and the trees cast long shadows across the road. I drank in the clear mountain air, and felt proud of us for making it four miles up the mountain. Going home would be easy, downhill all the way. 

We stuck to the snowy road, avoiding the mud bogs as much as possible. The warm weather was creating large muddy areas where the snow had melted. After a few minutes of our descent, Marley simply stopped. I knew he was tired. Having compassion for my little canine companion, I scooped him up, holding his cold paws in my hand as I set him on my hip. I would relieve him of hiking for awhile, and let him rest.

Marley only weighs about 15 pounds, which isn't much for a dog, but when arms unconditioned to weight-bearing exercise are required to carry a dog, no matter how light for longer than a few moments, the arms begin to protest. I shifted him over to my other hip, brushing off some of the crusted mud from his legs. After a half mile, we came to sections of road where the snow had melted, and I let him walk again.

That little Boston was such a trouper until we got to the Lonesome Dove cabin, a mile away from home. Then he just sat in the middle of the asphalt road, and panted, looking at me with his tongue hanging. Poor puppy. I gave him some water from my hydration pack, and that helped for a moment. Then he sat on one hip, and looked at me as if to say, "If you want me to go home, you're gonna have to carry me." And so I did, but only for another few blocks. That seemed to satisfy him, and he walked home the rest of the way on his own.

Two and a half hours spent under the overcast sky, soaking in the beauty of our canyon in winter, was just what my spirit needed. The exercise eased the tension in my body, and I was able to rest the remainder of that afternoon, knowing the activity met my body's need for fresh air and exertion. If you haven't tried Forest Medicine for awhile, I recommend it. You will reap the health benefits beyond the time you are actually outside. Go on; take a hike! You won't regret it.




4 comments:

  1. Such a hopeful post!
    I've been following your writings for a while now and I do hope the pain is lifting. It sounds like it is.
    Over the years, I've put in a lot of miles outside, just walking...I'm not sure it qualifies as hiking. But, I found that between cranking my MP3 loudly and walking briskly, there aren't too many things that don't look and feel better (or at least different) when I'm done.
    I had no idea that this practice had a name. Thanks for sharing.

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  2. Glad you found some solace, Denise, and a good work out, too :) I love being outdoors in God's creation. It is indeed great therapy. Wishing you peace as you journey onward... xxoo

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  3. Amen. Nature in all its forms. I can squat and study ants at work and be humbled, trees, plants, flowers, mountains, the sea, looking up at the sky. Oh my. So many treasures to reconnect us with our soul.

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  4. For now the snow is too deep and the temperatures too low to hike. However, you took me with you on yours in such a way that in reading this, my soul felt rest. Thank you.

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