Forest bathing is very much in the news lately. I researched it whilst writing Technobiophilia and I also recommend it in Nature and Wellbeing in the Digital Age. Most of the techniques I’ve seen involve a fair bit of walking and wandering interspersed with sitting but this is the first time I’ve come across the idea of finding a place to sit and returning to it regularly for days, weeks, or months, until you become almost a part of it. That seems very appealing.
I found it at In My Nature , the website of a Melbourne, Australia, based company offering a range of retreats including forest bathing. You’ll find lots to read on the site, but here’s a brief excerpt about this interesting forest bathing practice taken from Make your sit spot practice private and intimate.
Find time when your chores are done and you can slip away alone. Then quietly approach your sit spot and you’ll notice more. Having established a sit spot routine, you will soon find incredible things happening around you and with you: maybe an echidna will come out of the shrubs and feed a few meters next to you!
Sit for at least 20 minutes – quietly
It’s a practice of being completely present, opening all the senses to become aware of all that is going on in the environment. It takes time for animals to feel safe again to come out and continue with their daily routines. The other part to this routine is about sitting, about stillness. Focus on improving your sit spot and your observation skills. By being a quiet, unobtrusive guest you will learn to make yourself welcome again, as an accepted member of the natural community.
Go to your sit spot at different times, in all kinds of weather
To fully get to know your sit spot, go there at different times of day. Depending on the time of day you will observe different animals and different behavior patterns. Notice the different birds, flowers and animals through the seasons. Big umbrellas are good for rainy but also very sunny days!
Be comfortable and learn to be still
Sit quietly and comfortably as this is the best way to allow the natural world to get to know you as well. After a while, birds and animals may approach you with curiosity. Allow yourself a few minutes to start noticing. Once you sit quietly long enough, the birds accept the fact that you are there and there for good. As they return to their daily tasks, a previously hidden dimension of your landscape opens up. Simply try listening firs to different bird songs until you can distinguish between them.
Does your phone wallpaper/screensaver show a picture of nature?
When I give talks about how our love of nature intertwines with our love of technology, I often ask the audience to put up their hands if they have a nature photo on their screensavers or wallpapers. Usually, at least half of them do.
I’m not surprised by that. Environmental psychology research has shown over and over again that just looking at pictures of nature such as photos, paintings, and videos can slow the heartbeat and reduce stress and anxiety. Of course, nothing beats the real thing, but images come a very close second.
Last weekend I wondered how a quick random Twitter poll would answer a similar question – ‘Does your phone wallpaper/screensaver show a picture of nature?’. 59 people responded, of whom 68% said Yes and 32% said No.(Results) Those numbers roughly match what my live audiences say. I didn’t ask, however, exactly what aspects of nature those pictures portrayed. There may have been some trees, perhaps? As in Flatland, a new live wallpaper from Maxelus which animals and birds stroll across your screen.
If you’re feeling stressed, seek out some trees
Coincidentally, some interesting research popped into my inbox today (thanks @danfoxdavies) which adds an extra dimension to the screensaver thing. Scholars at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign and the University of Hong Kong have shown that not only do pictures and videos of trees reduce stress, but the density of trees is also important. They call it a ‘dose’, as in a dose of medicine, and ask which is more calming – viewing a single tree or a number of trees?
In a carefully designed experiment, they worked with 160 participants in a four stage exercise.
The participants underwent a series of tests designed to induce psychological stress. The tests included 3 minutes to prepare a public speech, a 5-minute public speech, and a 5-minute subtraction task performed in front of two interviewers and a video camera, and completed without paper and pencil or a calculator. To increase stress levels, participants were told that their performance would be recorded and assessed later, but actually no video recording was made. During the tests, they were asked to report on their stress levels several times.
The participants then viewed specially recorded 6 minute videos of varying kinds of landscapes.
Then they undertook the stress tests again.
Finally, they were given 15 minutes to write about how they had felt during the experiment.
The researchers analysed the resulting texts and identified keywords. For example, keywords used in the final piece of writing included “relaxing, calming, tranquil, at ease, comfortable, peaceful, serene, settled, safe, quite, a reprieve, mesmerizing, soothing, pleasant, unrushed, undisturbed, enjoyable, worry-free”.
They concluded that the percentage of people using keywords indicating stress recovery increases as the density of tree cover increases. At the lowest level of tree density, only 41% of participants reported a calming
effect but as tree cover density reached 36%, more than 90% of participants reported a stress recovery experience.
The team concluded that there is “a positive, linear association between the density of urban street trees and self-reported stress recovery”. In other words, if you’re feeling stressed, hang out in a place where there are lots of trees, and you’ll probably be able to relax.
One possible explanation for the fact that we feel better around trees is Gordon Orians’ Savanna Hypothesis, which argues that since humans originated from the African savanna where groups of trees like the acacias pictured below provided shelter and resources. Some deep ancient memory reassures us they offer safety.
Another reason could be that trees help us relax. Forest bathing or shinrin-yoku, involves walking or resting in a forest, breathing in the healing aromas of the trees and tuning into the abundant life around you.
The practice has been widely-researched in Japan, where a recent journal paper described an experiment with 19 middle-aged men suffering from high-blood pressure who were asked to take 80 minute forest walks on two weekends. Researchers said the activity “significantly reduced pulse rate, and significantly increased the score for vigor and decreased the scores for depression, fatigue, anxiety and confusion”.
Needless to say, forest bathing cannot really be undertaken in the sensory-deprived digital environment, at least not yet, but perhaps an image of forests might produce a sympathetic physiological nearby nature response? And, perhaps one day soon, we may even be able to produce virtual aromas to match.
Nearby nature on your screen
Nearby nature involves small suggestions of the natural world which, although seemingly insignificant and often out of physical reach, can play a powerful role in human well-being. People with access to nearby natural settings have been found to be healthier than those without, and often experience increased levels of satisfaction with their home, job, and life in general.
So, to wrap up, if you want some nature on your screensaver, consider trees.
“Tree climbing is a curious form of travel. Ascending, we cross the divide between two worlds, and the people passing beneath us become as separate as fish in an aquarium. Discovering a trunk with a clear path to the crown is enticing as finding a ladder to the moon; this is the essence of climbing, a method of passing between two spheres – the humdrum everyday and the elevated.” So wrote Jack Cooke in The Guardian recently.
First there was wild swimming and now, it seems, there is wild tree climbing. Not that the tree itself is necessarily wild, especially in cities. To see the world through Cooke’s eyes involves looking beyond the streets and buildings, and looking up as often as possible ‘Stepping off a bus or out from the underground, my first thought is to scan the street for its trees, learning to recognise crowns from afar and straying to catalogue new climbs.’
His list of the five best trees to climb in London includes parks – Clissold, Battersea and Lucas Gardens; Highbury Island, a large circle of green surrounded by roads; and the crumbling Paddington Old Cemetery. Find out more in his new book The Tree Climber’s Guide.