The hemlock swamp was red-tinged brown, like tea left steeping too long. I knelt on the boardwalk, swirled my fingers in the murky water, and then raised a dripping palm to my face to inhale the aroma of smoke.
On the path just ahead of me, Marsha, an elderly lady in a prim raincoat, reached for the oblong seedhead of a cattail that towered over the wetland. I followed suit and touched a seedhead — the brown bulb felt rough and spongy. I looked back at Marsha, and her eyebrows were knit in concentration. Together, silently, we bore witness to the cattail’s curious texture.
This commune with nature took place in a forest in northern Vermont on a humid July morning. Marsha and I were part of a group of eleven strangers who had gathered in the Green Mountain Audubon nature preserve to practice forest bathing. Our facilitator was Duncan Murdoch, a certified nature and forest therapy guide. We were a motley congregation, the average age around fifty. At twenty-two, I was the youngest participant aside from the pre-teen sons of a woman in a fleece vest.
Before we ventured into the woods, Duncan called us with the deep vibrating boom of his gong. We stood in a circle at the forest’s edge and introduced ourselves, sharing our reasons for being there and what we hoped to experience. The consensus was that we wanted to feel a deeper bond to nature, to step away from everyday burdens and into the wilderness. Each of us, for different reasons, hoped to find peace and healing among the trees.
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I had learned about forest bathing the previous year while reading The Nature Fix by acclaimed journalist Florence Williams. Forest bathing isn’t just a walk in the woods. It’s a nature-based therapy that emerged in Japan, under the name shinrin-yoku, to combat the harmful effects of rapid technological transformation on human health.
The term shinrin-yoku was created in 1982 by Tomohide Akiyama, then Japan’s Minister of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries. The goal of the practice was to find a non-extractive way, other than logging, to derive value from Japan’s expansive forests, while also improving the health of Japanese citizens. The practice of shinrin-yoku is now popular in Japan, where around a quarter of the population partakes in forest bathing activities each year.
This practice is founded on principles of mindfulness, plus a healthy dose of environmentalism. Forest bathing is meant to help people engage all of their senses with intention and be wholly present in their immediate surroundings. The experience is often professionally guided, and group sessions may include breathing exercises and attention-focusing suggestions from the guide. Participants walk slowly and spend several hours in a very short stretch of wooded path.
Forest bathing has taken off all over the world—events are held around Europe and the United States, by guides certified by the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy or similar groups. The promises of forest therapy are not slight. Duncan, who led our group experience, writes in his bio: “I help guide people towards a healthier, more reciprocal relationship to the natural world.” Mindful interaction with nature can promote environmentally conscious behavior, and it has a crucial role to play in healing bodies and minds.
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Two years, almost to the day, before my forest bathing experience, I was hospitalized for a rare critical illness and very nearly died. In the realm of medicine, you’ll often hear about vital signs (heart rate, O2 levels)—yet hospitals contain very few signs of life. It is all sterility and sharp edges, glossy Formica, surgical steel.
My three months in the hospital were entirely devoid of natural life save for the bouquets that my generous friends would send, and these would smell like decay after a day or two. For a time, the doctors banned even flowers from the room because my immune system was practically nonexistent. They thought I might contract some bacteria from the plants which, though commonplace, could have proven fatal in my case. Meanwhile, therapeutic poisons flowed through my IV line and I struggled to glimpse a rectangle of sky through the window.
When I lay on the hospital bed, muscles atrophying and organs failing, I silently interrogated my reasons for wanting to live. It seemed critical to define for myself precisely why, apart from my innate stubbornness, I was resisting the end. My thoughts would flicker to a time and place far away, to a moment when life was unquestionably worth living. South Africa, years ago—hiking for miles and reaching the mountaintop, under a piercing blue sky. Body intact, wind whipping my hair. Bending down, peering at tiny purple wildflowers nestled in the crevices of rock.
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Research has started to reveal that human health and wellbeing can directly improve when we interact with nature. Those seeking solace have understood nature’s power for centuries, and forest therapy became popularized before its benefits had been empirically proven. Now, forest bathing is being validated by science as a preventative medical therapy and healing practice. Since 2003, Japan’s Forestry Agency has funded $4 million in forest bathing research.
Recent studies have indicated that breathing phytoncides—volatile compounds released by plants—can directly enhance human immunity. The benefits of time spent in nature include lower heart rate, reduced inflammation and cortisol (stress hormone) levels, and increased focus, energy, and creativity. These effects are increasingly important as so many of us cope with chronic stress, constant technology use, and higher levels of pollution. The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs endorses forest bathing as a supplement to pharmaceutical medicine and a tool for healthcare providers.
The interactions between humans and nature are not fully understood, but E.O. Wilson gives one interpretation with his theory of biophilia. Wilson, a renowned biologist and naturalist, posited that humans have an innate affinity for living organisms and natural environments, because we evolved for millions of years in the wilderness. Other scientists, like biologist Sir John Arthur Thomson, believe that the human body can heal itself when we make intentional contact with nature. Yoshifumi Miyazaki, a researcher at Tokyo’s Chiba University, explains that the outdoors is one of the only places in modern life “where we engage all five senses, and thus, by definition, are fully, physically alive.” Solace and healing, then, are not far behind.
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At the edge of the woods, Duncan unleashed us (his windbreaker-clad troupe) and our forest bathing began. We received minimal guidance as we set forth. Walk slowly, pay attention to your senses. We followed the narrow dirt path in a widely-spaced single-file line (although some in our party darted anticipatorily toward the Porta-potties). I tried to feel the earth through the soles of my sneakers. I stepped on tree roots that jutted through the dirt, just to feel the pressure, the dull ache, at the bottom of my feet.
The air was green, thick, soft. It was none of that crisp freshness you get in Vermont in the cooler months, instead an enveloping warmth that huddles, enclosed by the hills, in the summertime. At the outskirts of the forest, the trees were young and skinny, more shrubbery than majesty. A swath of small white flowers sprinkled the edge of the path.
I expected to feel awkward and self-conscious, foisting such overt intention onto a simple forest stroll in the company of strangers. But it was surprisingly comfortable. We were all there on purpose, awash in our subjective experiences but unified by our exploration. We breathed in the forest, each of us drawn by unique curiosity to different features of the landscape—a speckled leaf, a darting chipmunk, a patch of moss. Our path curved alongside a river gully, and the water swooshed over stones. We needed nothing more than the stream, the moss, the stones, and the quiet footsteps of one another.
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The roots of forest bathing can be traced back long before the practice’s official birth, and its ethos is found in Japan’s ancient Shinto and Buddhist traditions. Shinto was the earliest and indigenous faith of Japan, a lived tradition composed of rituals rather than sacred texts. It is based on the veneration of sacred spirits (kami) in the surrounding world.
In Shinto cosmology, kami are believed to exist pervasively in nature, embodied and represented by mountains, rivers, and trees. Japanese practitioners carry out rituals that are essential to maintaining the balance between modern life and ecological worlds, ensuring a beneficial relationship with kami and human communities. The long history of nature’s sanctity in Japan is also evident in ancient Buddhist practice. Buddhist priests called Yamabushi were hermits who practiced asceticism, living in the mountains with the belief that nature possesses the highest truth. Their ideology held that all things in the natural world are sacred and should be properly respected.
These historical beliefs in the healing power of nature have permeated Japanese culture. Such ideas and practices have also entered the global marketplace, embodied in Zen Buddhist philosophy, meditation, haikus, and now forest bathing. These products, when stripped of cultural context, are readily embraced by many Western consumers. The appropriative tendencies of white people in the West demand a consideration of whether practitioners and consumers in the United States and elsewhere should be co-opting, and reshaping, a tradition embedded in Japanese culture. My forest bathing guide, for instance, was a white man in New England, and there were no Japanese people in my cohort that day. In this context, forest bathing may be misunderstood as a one-off solution to stress rather than a practice that necessitates a deeper commitment to environmental and cultural connection. The practice should not be presented as culture-neutral when it is laden with historical and religious significance.
Yet what appears to be an eyebrow-raising trend in the Western marketplace may also be, on a biological level, something primal and potentially beneficial for everyone. The human bond with forests is based on our instinct and evolution—and our growing disconnect from nature can be damaging.
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There was a balcony on the fifteenth floor of the hospital, part of the newly-renovated patient recreation pavilion. For us inpatients, this high-rise balcony was the only way to get fresh air. It featured a few chairs, a wilting potted plant, some caution tape, and a giant power generator. I sat out there one afternoon, searching for silence and peace, trapped by the cacophony of New York City traffic and the generator’s drone. Noting my discomfort, my mother set me up with headphones and white-noise audio track of the ocean.
Given the severity of my diagnosis, it seemed likely that I would die in the hospital. I felt I had been delaying the inevitable, only prolonging the pain for my family and myself. So, in the sunlight on that balcony, I closed my eyes and readied myself. Too exhausted to go on, I offered myself up, tried to slow my breathing. The waves crashed against my eardrums. Not a bad time to go, I thought, listening to the ocean. I imagined the seaside, gulls swooping, wispy clouds. Footprints in the sand, rinsed away by the tide.
I awoke—miserably still alive—to a sunburn, and was carted back to my hospital bed and air filtration system. To heal, to rest. Encased in concrete.
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A growing cohort of health scholars and practitioners subscribe to the school of ecotherapy. Their approach is grounded in the claim that humans are inseparable from nature and the wild, so human health suffers when we are removed (or remove ourselves) from our evolutionary habitat. Ecotherapists believe that our alienation from nature leads to increased self-absorption and loneliness. One such practitioner, Larry Robinson, describes how humans exist within our isolated mono-species worlds, surrounded by things we have created. “Like Narcissus,” he writes, “we see only our own reflection everywhere we look.” Ecotherapy teaches that the solution is increased connection between humans and nature, returning us, in Robinson’s words, to “the more-than-human world.” Proponents of ecotherapy believe that experience of wild spaces can provide deep healing and promote harmony within human communities.
Ecotherapy is inherently tied to physical experience, requiring continual sensory engagement to repair the fraying links between mind, body, and environment. Forest bathing puts the philosophy of ecotherapy into practice. It’s about immersion in nature, sinking wholly into our bodies while projecting our attention outside of ourselves. This creates a broader, fuller, more compassionate experience—enabling growth, connection, and a new understanding of who we are.
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The trees grew taller, wider, as my companions and I ventured deep into the woods. Dense greenery brushed my calves, and the shadowed air grew cooler. I pinched the top of a fern and rolled it between my fingers, its lacy tendrils releasing beads of precious juice, like rainfall.
Near the hemlock marsh, our path grew muddy. Duncan gathered us in a circle. With his guidance, we placed a hand on the shoulder of the person in front of us and stood in silence for a moment, breathing. Duncan then invited us to share any thoughts or observations from the experience so far. Marsha shared how meaningful it was for her to be touched by another person, after complete isolation for a year of pandemic lockdown. She thanked us for supporting her, joining her, as she cautiously, bravely, reentered the world.
We walked on. A few of us removed our shoes and padded barefoot through the mud. “Why not, right?” one man whispered to his wife as he peeled off his socks. The soft earth squelched sensuously between our toes like butter. It was silly and somewhat absurd. I found myself laughing—at myself, the mud, the surprising comfort of this strange ritual.
Finally, one by one, we stepped out of the forest shadows and entered a wide meadow with tall grass. Gray clouds slid overhead, offering rain. Duncan had gotten to the field ahead of us and set up small cushions in a circle on the grass. We quietly took our seats.
During our walk in the woods, Duncan had foraged in the greenery to make a ceremonial tea. In hot water, he steeped a handful of fuzzy red berries from the staghorn sumac and a fragrant branch of hemlock (the nonpoisonous kind, he assured us). He poured the tea into small ceramic cups for each of us. In the center of our circle a bundle of sage burned in a low earthenware bowl. The tea had a delicate, sweet, nutty taste, and the sage smelled warm.
Wild-foraged tea is often the final element of a guided forest bathing experience, providing sensory closure. It is aesthetically inspired by the traditional Japanese tea ceremony and also has roots in spiritual practice. After certain Shinto rituals, participants perform naorai by drinking sanctified sake as a way to incorporate the kami into body and mind. Likewise, in shinrin-yoku one can internalize the forest, and embody its essence, by drinking tea from freshly-foraged herbals. Forest bathing is not meant to end once you leave the woods—it is meant to become a part of you.
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After our tea ceremony, Duncan welcomed us to share final thoughts about the experience.
The two young boys in our group leaned against their mother. One of them, the elder brother, shared that he had been happy to see the wild animals in the forest, especially the squirrels. John, a tattooed middle-aged man who was there with his wife, shared that his job kept him indoors, and he barely got the chance to interact with nature. Although he had been hesitant to try forest bathing and hadn’t known what to expect, it had brought back memories from his childhood.
Shelly, with blonde hair in a long braid, told us that her father was dying. As she had walked along the gully in the woods, hearing the tinkling sound of water, she thought of time spent with him by the seaside, and it had hit her that she was really losing him. She began to cry. Laura, an elementary school teacher, said that her dear friend had recently passed away, and she understood that pain. She gave Shelly a hug. They cried together, sharing the tragedy of losing someone you love.
I watched these two women, strangers only a few hours before, wrapped in grief and helping each other to cope. Ecotherapy teaches that the harshness of suffering and loss can awaken us to beauty. Forest bathing provides the time, space, and intention for this often difficult task. The landscape of the earth can inspire us to find new ways to connect to ourselves and one another, across space and time.
Like many others, I owe a great deal to the forest. When I was finally released from the hospital and began to regain my strength, I spent hours alone, immersed in the woods. Pharmaceutical medicine had kept me from dying, but the forest brought me back to life. I recovered in the embrace of the trees, rebuilding my will to live as I moved through the forest paths. Instinct led me to forest bathing.
Forest bathing was created as a means of finding spiritual, cultural, and medicinal value in wild ecosystems. Today, the practice has the potential to heal us, to forge new connections, and to bond communities with natural spaces in a non-destructive and non-extractive way. These spaces, whether mountains in Japan or forests in Vermont, become sacred in their wholeness. When we breathe within them, we return home, to the origin of our kind. Then, nature’s health is our healing.