When I first heard the term “forest bathing” I was a bit uncomfortable.
Not for me, I thought.
Maybe it was the Kansas in me and my Midwestern sensibilities, but it sounded a little too “new age,” a little too “freak show” as I conjured up images of naked people prancing about in woods, spooking wildlife and doing unnatural things in nature.
Then I learned via podcast that some of these same “forest bather” types actually advocate finding and conversing with “soul trees” as a way to connect nature and people, and I thought: definitely not for me.
Turns out, though, “forest bathing” isn’t all that far-fetched.
There’s a lot of evidence — nearly 500 studies to date — that being outdoors is a remedy for some of what ails us mentally, emotionally and physically. The studies find that spending time in nature lowers blood pressure, helps improve short-term memory, mitigates depression and can even help alleviate pain and reduce inflammation.
John Muir talked about the importance of breaking away once in a while to climb a mountain or camp in the woods to “wash your spirit clean.”
That almost sounds borderline “new age,” but his observation is more than a century old.
“Take a course in good water and air; and in the eternal youth of nature you may renew your own,” he prescribed.
Henry David Thoreau talked about wilderness as a “tonic.”
More than 150 years ago, Ralph Waldo Emerson advised people to “live in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air.” That sounds a bit — actually a lot — like “forest bathing.”
So when I found myself in a foul mood recently and my wife suggested a hike or a bike ride, I thought it might be a good time to test the Japanese concept of shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing.”
I set off for an afternoon of riding the Frisco Greenway and Turkey Creek trails connecting Joplin and Webb City. I am a regular on these trails, able to get to them in a minute or two or three from work or my house, and I have walked, run on and ridden them regularly for years, in all seasons, in all kinds of weather. I know from experience they mitigate a lot of the stress and daily drama.
Near the trailhead at Zora Street and St. Louis Avenue, I often get the feeling of being in a natural tunnel, with trees from either side of the trail forming a canopy. I was deep in the green. The sensation is most noticeable at sunrise, when heading east, back to the trailhead.
Passion flowers are common near this trailhead in late summer; deer are frequent along this stretch of the trail all year.
Turkey Creek is another part of this nature cure; imagine, an Ozark stream flowing through the middle of an urban area.
Along the Turkey Creek Trail, the beautiful orange flowers of trumpet vine, the pink of coral honeysuckle and the blooms of mimosa were all on display. I crossed over St. Louis and rode to Florida Avenue before turning around. I frequently see turkey along this stretch early in the morning and have seen foxes here as well.
My afternoon ride flushed up deer, a common black snake sunning itself across my path and painted turtles, and I was accompanied for part of the way by the hooting of the barred owl from deep woods along the trail. Pretty cool, I thought, to see and hear all this in the middle of a metro area of 200,000 people.
I stopped and hooted back. I do a pretty good barred owl call, and sometimes they respond, and then it occurred to me that thinking I was “talking” to the owl was maybe not all that different than talking to a tree.
I rode on.
Something about being outdoors challenges us to stop looking internally, to take in the details around us. I noticed the last of the Japanese honeysuckle, which, although an invasive species, makes this one of the best-smelling trails in the spring. You could see the purple of spiderwort and tall bellflower, the red and orange of wild lilies, the yellow of coreopsis and also of mullein flowers, a plant with leaves that feel like flannel, and the pink of wild bergamot, also called horsemint.
You see, it’s not just seeing nature, but experiencing it — hearing it, feeling it, smelling it, touching it. And if sounds and sights and smells and touch aren’t enough, I’ve picked along a stretch of the Frisco Greenway wild grapes as big as my thumb in the past; blackberries will soon be ripe and ready for picking too, and that means blackberry cobbler and homemade blackberry gelato.
Now there’s a remedy for rotten moods.
Before long, that mood had lifted, and not only could I not remember what I had been wrestling with earlier, I didn’t care.
Washed clean, if you will, by the greenway.
Andy Ostmeyer is the metro editor for The Joplin Globe. Contact him at email@example.com.
Want to help?
You can help maintain the Frisco and Ruby Jack trails in the region by joining the Joplin Trails Coalition, volunteering for work days and getting involved in fundraisers, details of which can be found at joplintrailscoalition.org.