“No one will protect what they don’t care about, and no one will care about what they have never experienced.”Sir David Attenborough
We were on a trip back from Vienna when I realized the stark difference between the city and the countryside. As our train made its way through the thick pristine greenery of the typical European landscape, the scenery changed from sprawling green fields and the occasional cattle sightings, to signs of modern civilization that included factories, buildings and bridges in addition to the landscape getting dotted intermittently by litter. Garbage like broken beer bottles or plastic wrapper/packets or plastic cups and straws, randomly strewn about, and as we crossed over from the countryside into the city, the frequency at which they appeared increased alarmingly. The air became thicker with the pungent odor of pollution, and increasingly warm, as we sped towards the city we’ve come to love and call our own. While looking at all of this, I wondered, how badly we have failed at doing our little bit to conserve and preserve. And if it wasn’t for one particular experience, I would’ve ignored this horrifying reality and moved on.
A few months ago me and my good friend Zsuzsanna decided to take our children on a play date to the park. Typically, taking my son out to the park used to be harrowing for both me and him. As the “quintessential” paranoid mum and a constant worrier, I would make his life difficult. “Don’t go there!”, “Don’t climb that!”, “Don’t touch that!”etc. Then that day Zsuzsie showed me how keeping my chill, how by not dictating every move of my child, how letting him be on his own, explore and learn on his own, could be pleasant for both him and me. And unsurprisingly, my son was an absolute delight when given a respite from my “overbearingness”. I think that’s why she is a fantastic mum and an excellent “Forest Bathing” guide. As we laid down underneath the shade of a magnificent tree, while our children played around, she told me all about this unique practice called “Forest Bathing”/”Forest Walk”/”Nature Therapy”. I was completely taken by the idea. I asked her if she could let me be a part of one of her sessions and she graciously agreed.
It was an unremarkable autumn day when we decided to do our Forest Bath. She chose the forest on “Nepsziget” or “Mosquito Island”, on the Danube, north of downtown Budapest. Once thriving with boat houses, water sport businesses, hotels and resorts, this island now unfortunately lies in a state of ruin. There still are some reminders of the bygone times of flourish and prosperity in the form of dilapidated remains of old buildings seized by overgrown wild flora and fauna. For a chronic city-dweller and cynic like me this nondescript island was everything I was scared off. A mystery, the great unknown and therefore to be avoided at all costs. But by the end of our Forest Walk, I swore I will be back for more.
We started our walk with Zsuzsie giving us a little background about the forest and the island. The whole time she spoke about this forest with the kind of child-like enthusiasm and innocent excitement that one feels when they go away to visit their grandparents’ house during summer vacations. I felt as if she was giving us a tour of her own home, not a forest. She walked us through the Forest Bathing “rituals”, like putting off our cellphones, generously applying tick/mosquito repellent and keeping ourselves covered against the slight chill in the air. I had already requested her if I could bring my camera along to take pictures for my blog, and she had kindly given her consent.
Our first stop was a small clearing among the trees. Here she told us to close our eyes and just be. “Breathe in the air, listen to the forest, let your senses guide you.”, she said. Admittedly, doing that for the first time was a little unnerving for me. When I closed my eyes and breathed in the forest air, it was definitely thinner, fresh, pure somehow but it was subtle and fleeting. When I tried to listen to the forest, my mind kept racing with all the thoughts of the “things that could go wrong”. From the preposterous ideas like maybe a snake would fall over my shoulders or slither past my feet (which is impossible as Zsuzsie told me later), or a big bug which would crawl over my legs to the more real ones, like “what if I crash into an unassuming tree trunk or a stray branch while walking with my eyes closed?” (I’d have only myself to blame, as a person with horrible hand-eye coordination even with my eyes open.) It was as if my whole being was rejecting the very idea of trying something like this.
Next, Zsuzsie asked us to bend down and feel the soil with our fingers, pick some up and breathe it in. I felt for it (with eyes partially open – sorry Zsuzsie, just to make sure I wasn’t touching any bugs), I felt its coarse texture, held it in the palm of my hands and took a whiff of it. And that’s when the ball dropped! It held the scent of my childhood, the first rain of the season on the parched earth, of running barefoot among the muddy puddles and the blunt pain from pebbles on my naked dirty feet, of muddy hands and the “all-teeth” grins, of dark thunderous clouds bursting at the seams and the peculiar scent of an impending rainstorm. The memories came back flooding, so vivid that I could practically taste the raindrops. It silenced my inner cynic for sometime. And I was present. Just like that. She told us to share what we felt, encouraged me to talk when I wasn’t forthcoming enough, but I couldn’t say much. My words were failing me. For the first time in years, my mind was quietening itself. It was as if my inner child had been throwing a tantrum for a long time and now all of a sudden she decided to “shut up” and take notice.
We ventured further into the forest. After my last experience (followed by a faint sense of euphoria), I was contemplative, introspective and unnaturally quite. I was noticing things that I would’ve never before. Everywhere I looked, everything I heard, or touched or smelled. All seemed magnified. The colors of the leaves, the branches and the trees looked as if saturated with greens, yellows and browns, burgundy, reds and purple. The sun light coming through the tiny dew-drops on intricately woven spider-webs appeared as if throwing off colorful light in every direction like a disco ball. The sounds of tree branches banging together and the occasional sound of birds chirping, saying hello to each other, along with the slight crunch of dry twigs and leaves beneath our shoes. Every single feeling was amplified. So much so that I started taking carefully measured light steps and tried to take as few pictures as possible since even the quite “clicks” of my camera sounded annoying and appeared to be disturbing the melodious symphony of the forest.
We reached our next destination and I could see a little beach on the other side. She asked us to play whatever game we could think of. And I was again transported back to my childhood when we would climb the guava tree in the community park. So that’s what I did. I saw a tree, a real giant lying supine, as if she had given up on the world and was taking a rest, and her weariness came from being alive for far too long. But, amidst all that melancholy, there were unmistakable signs of new life. She was covered with soft green moss, new branches were spreading out of her, upwards, defying gravity, with little sprouts of baby leaves. The whole picture was fascinating, representing the dichotomy of life. As our next task, Zsuzsie asked us to talk to a tree, and if she had asked me to do this at the beginning of our journey, I would have been completely lost. But now I couldn’t wait to talk to this tree.
So, I climbed up on the tree again and put the palm of my right hand on her trunk. Closed my eyes and tried to listen. A minute or so later I felt the trunk vibrating beneath my hand. I was shocked, and immediately leapt off of her, took a few precautionary steps back. The hair at the back of my neck stood up in attention, my heart pounding. I thought I was imagining things as usual. I made my way back to the tree, slowly and cautiously, put my hand back on her, at a different spot this time. A few seconds later, she vibrated again. I just couldn’t comprehend this for sometime. I was dumb-founded, utterly flabbergasted, overwhelmed, because of how unexpected it all was and I’d never felt anything like that before. After our next task, for which I sat at the little beach and wrote down what I’d felt in my little notebook, I reluctantly told Zsuzsie about it. I thought maybe I sounded strange and weird, but she was happy for me and told me that she has felt such vibrations as well.
At the end of the walk, we drank some rose-hip tea that Zsuzsie had brewed for us and talked about our experiences. All through our walk I’d noticed that there were trash littered all around the forest. We spoke about it and Zsuzsie told us how she always carries a bag to collect the trash whenever she’s on such walks and otherwise. And that, while we were off doing our tasks, she was picking the litter and trash from around the forest. For me that was the ultimate form of giving back. So I borrowed a wet and dirty glove from her and helped her pick some trash as well.
As we made our way back to the civilization I felt strangely mournful and light at the same time. And I promised myself that I will be back. That this will not be a once in a lifetime thing.
Forest Bathing, Nature Therapy, Eco-Therapy. These are all terms coined for a practice developed in the 1980s in Japan called “Shinrin-Yoku”, which means Forest Bathing in English. According to an article in The Guardian, various studies confirm that Forest Bathing (which does not involve any water), has been known to “reduce blood pressure, lower cortisol levels, improve concentration and memory. A chemical released by the trees and plants, called phytoncides, have been known to boost the immune system.” On a typical Forest Bath you are encouraged to use your 5 senses to explore the forest. Sight, touch, smell, taste and hearing. Leave your cellphones behind, open up your minds and let nature in.
In my case, this whole experience brought me much “closer to nature” (as they say) quite literally. I did know why trees are significant for the collective good health of this planet already, but after my forest walk I finally realized that just like us they own a spirit too and it is as true and tangible as ours. They have as much right to live and breathe as us or any other animal for that matter. Its now physically painful for me to see garbage littered around carelessly. The need to educate ourselves and our future generations about environmental responsibilities has become crucial to us and the overall wellness of our planet. There is so much that we can do! Like upcycle used paper or use recycled paper. Say no to plastic straws and lids. Say no to plastic. Vehemently! Shop at the local farmer’s market to promote ethical farming and support local produce. Do not buy unnecessary things, donate your old stuff instead of just throwing them away. Promote sustainability. Separate your trash and please please do not litter.
As Sir Attenborough says, it seems impossible for human beings to form empathy for the things they feel no connection with. So maybe, connecting with nature is meant to make all the difference? Then go take a Forest Bath or just a walk in nature & reconnect with her. We are in the middle of a climate catastrophe. Do whatever it takes but do your bit!