America Needs a Forest Bath

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<p>Your forest bath awaits</p>

Your forest bath awaits

Loren Kerns

It feels like we have reached “peak anger” in American life. Regardless of our personal passion or politics, we all sense an imperative to struggle harder, work longer, and stay constantly connected to the events of the day. While this is certainly a moment for deep citizenship, that must be balanced with taking better care of our emotional selves.

Yet we cannot seem to turn off the struggle and stress. Here in Washington, D.C. and other major cities it is common to see people leave work after a day inhaling information and then hungrily bend over mobile devices to devour more content on the way home.

And what content we are all devouring! When we are angry, we often look for more things to be angry about. Online sources and traditional media feed into this by fighting for our attention with the next outrage. We lurch from one upset to another, sometimes too busy being angry to convert that heat into the light -- of change.

If you believe that real social and political change comes from active listening and empathy, as I do, then we need to break this cycle of feeling angry and overwhelmed. We need to find ourselves so that we can find our common ground with each other.

This is where time in nature comes in. The Japanese have a concept known as “forest bathing” (Shinrin-yoku) that is a true antidote to stresses that ail us.

Forest bathing is not a chatty walk in the woods recording every sight on your phone. It requires entering a forest free of technology and allowing the woods to take over your senses. Forest bathing is free of the need to accomplish any end, such as reaching a destination in the forest. Just take in the “forest atmosphere” and let it heal your heart and mind—this article explains how and why it works.

As someone who has worked on forest conservation and restoration for most of my career, you might assume forest baths have always been part of my daily regime. But my days at American Forests are often much like other modern professionals: a lot of screen time and conference calls in the office, complemented by consuming information during my down time to enhance my work the next day. I work for the forests, but not in them!

Like a lot of other achievement-addicted folks, I also manage to make my “recreation” feel a lot like work. “Hey, I’ll train for the Boston Marathon. That will really relax me!” Well, training for and running this year’s marathon was fabulous experience, but it also fed the same driven intensity that animates work days for so many of us, and kept me mostly running the busy roads near my home and less often on forest trails.

So I have taken a very different approach of late, my own version of “forest bathing on the run.” This has left me convinced there is a path forward for America in places like the National Park Service’s Prince William Forest Park near my home in Northern Virginia—no Yellowstone Park, mind you, just the kind of quiet woods that many of us can find near home.

Instead of pounding the roads counting the seconds and seeking to set a personal best, I have been running very slowly in the woods of Prince William Forest Park with no watch—a pace so comfortable that I can see and hear everything.

The tape in my head is the same every time. For the early miles the sounds of Quantico Creek and forest birds compete with what I just read in the Washington Post, heard on the radio, or my latest work dilemma. I worry whether I am running fast enough to get a “real” workout, and think about what I have to do when I am done with the run.

But somewhere along the trail those words drop away. I am making a sound map of the world around me, hearing another layer of forest sounds and quiet below the constant babble of the river and call of birds. Somewhere along the forest trail my head gets quiet enough to truly rediscover perspective and capacity to open my mind to others’ experience—even a different political point of view!

If this “call of the forest” speaks to you, here are great online maps from Adventure Projects to find places like Prince William Forest Park close to where you live. One good forest bath and you might find yourself seeing this political-cultural moment differently.

If you feel this all sounds far too quaint given our high-conflict political moment, I really understand. On many days I feel too busy to slow down and take the long way around, even when I know it would be more likely to create lasting change.

But the urgency of finding a new way hit close to home for me last week when a horrific shooting in my hometown of Alexandria, Virginia targeted members of Congress. The very next day I was on Capitol Hill, and watched members of Congress and staff coming together across suddenly trivial partisan lines. The kind of political compromise that built our country starts with the personal spirit we all bring to the process, a sense that we are all on one team called America even when we totally disagree. Maybe if we all make more time to bathe in the peace and calm of the forest, we have a chance to once again find lasting common ground.

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