Forest Bathing: Yes, It’s a Thing Now

Forest bathing does not require water or a bathing suit, nor does it even offer the opportunity for skinny dipping (well, actually, maybe it does but that’s up to you). Forest bathing is the act of entering a forested area and tuning into the sights, sounds, smells and surroundings such that you’re getting a dose of nature that will improve your well-being.

forest bathing

Simply being among these trees is an act of forest bathing. The sights, sounds, smells and surrounding have powers to improve our well being.

What Forest Bathing Is Not

Forest bathing is not about the act of walking or hiking among the trees. It’s simply about being amidst the trees and allowing the natural powers at work there to bathe you in goodness. Sure, maybe you’re thinking: Did someone lose power to all their electronics and was forced outside only to realize that, hey, being in nature makes your mind, body and spirit feel great?!

We recommend The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Creative by Florence Williams if you want to learn more about the science behind this “trend” which seems to have gained its name in the 1980s in Japan. (Do a quick search on the term biophilia to learn more.)

Speaking of Science: The Forest Community

Regular Horticulture contributing editor Jeff Cox has the following to say about the complex, active relationship that takes place above, around and below us in the forest.

We’ve known for years that plants communicate with one another through their roots and the networks of soil-borne fungi that colonize them.

But it’s only now that scientists are discovering that those connections are just the tip of the iceberg. We may sit quietly and enjoy the peace of nature in our local woodlands, but above, around and below us the forest world is humming with almost infinite activity. Think of Manhattan Island made of living tissue. Truth be told, our gardens and landscapes share in the thunderous communications systems buzzing in their biology.

Forest Bathing

Forest bathing isn’t about the walking or the hiking, or even if you do it with others. It’s about being in the woods and soaking in your surrounding.

Let’s take a look at a few discoveries, some of which are reported in an internationally best-selling book, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate — Discoveries from a Secret World, by a German forest ranger, Peter Wohlleben. Using layman’s language, he presents the science that shows trees are social beings. Trees can count, learn and remember.

“They nurse sick neighbors; warn each other of danger by sending electrical signals across a fungal network—and they can keep the ancient stumps of long-felled companions alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through their roots,” summarizes Sally Jan in The New York Times.

Of course, humans and plants have been communicating since the dawn of antiquity. George Washington Carver, a botanist and plant scientist, developed hundreds of products from peanuts and sweet potatoes, coaxing their secrets from them by talking to them. Luther Burbank, the world-renowned horticulturist, developed more than 800 new varieties of fruits and vegetables over his lifetime. There’s a well-known photo of him on bended knee, promising a blackberry plant that if it dropped its thorns, he’d make sure to protect it. The result was that within a few years, he had thornless blackberries growing at his farm in Sebastopol, California. They grow there still.

Their coaxing and cajoling might not have been scientific, but both Carver and Burbank were scientists who incorporated human-plant communication into their science. As Burbank wrote, “The secret of improved plant breeding, apart from scientific knowledge, is love.”

Today scientists are beginning to unravel the complex ecology that goes on in nature, not just in the soil, but in the above-ground vegetative structures of our gardens and among the insects that manage those plants.

Science columnist Jeff Cox writes from his home in California’s Sonoma Valley. This article appears in its entirety in the March/April 2018 issue of Horticulture which you can download here.

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