Homeyer: Forest Bathing

Sep 7, 2017

I learned a new term recently that dates back to 1982 when the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries coined the term Shinrin-yoku — which translates roughly as forest bathing - and introduced it into the Japanese national health program.

Long before everyone was connected 24-7 to an electronic device, the Japanese recognized that being outdoors is healthy.

To be clear: forest bathing isn’t swimming. Nor is it aerobic. The goal is to go outdoors and amble - often with others and sometimes with a paid guide - to experience nature, to see, smell, listen and feel it; to become immersed in its sights, scents and sounds. In many Japanese cities – and some American ones - it’s becoming fashionable.

Doctors have determined that taking a 2-hour walk in the woods promotes relaxation and has measurable medical benefits. Stress hormones diminish in intensity and blood pressure drops.

But the Washington Post has reported that an EPA study found that Americans spend 87% of their time indoors, 6% in a vehicle and only 7% outdoors. And that includes farmers, roofers, fishermen and gardeners like me. That 7% adds up to just one hundred and one minutes outdoors on an average day.

I’m a gardener and I write about gardening for a living, so for 8 months of the year I generally garden every day, especially in the spring when weeds and flowers are coming up.

Forest bathing guides teach their students to study the colors of green, to feel the texture of leaves and grass. As a gardener, I’d say that’s all part of weeding - an essential part of gardening – and I get plenty of practice determining what’s what in part by allowing “volunteers” to grow.

Volunteers are good flowers or vegetables that produce and drop their own seeds each summer and fall. I let them fall to the ground, knowing they’ll sprout in the early spring. And I can tell a volunteer lettuce seedling from a weed instantly by the color and shape of the leaves.

I'd like to think that qualifies as a kind of forest bathing, but there are still times when I fall short of the meager American average, so I’ll have to plan a few hikes this fall. But I don’t think I’ll need a guide to lead me through the autumn colors.