Have you heard about Shinrin – the Japanese practice of forest bathing? I have always known that Japanese people like to saunter under cherry blossoms in the spring; what I didn’t know was that this is their year-round practice of both psychological and physiological healing.Forest bathing involves forest breathing, inhaling the oils and compounds that trees emit; these have been proven to lower your pulse, your blood pressure, and your stress hormones while they smooth your jangled nerves.
It turns out that we are the secondary beneficiaries of the scent pheromones trees use to communicate with each other. In The Hidden Life of Trees, German forester Peter Wohlleben explains that some emissions signal an infection going around and that trees often share an antidote via an intermeshed network of their own roots and fungi tendrils; while other compounds call in beneficial predators to combat destructive insects.
Thus trees in a forest community – even different species – converse about specific predators and illnesses while seeking the best for each other. “Beeches are capable of friendship and go so far as to feed each other,” Wohlleben astonishingly relates; forests have evolved through mutual aid rather than competition, taking care that the weak keep up with the strong.
I suspect that our human love of trees has an evolutionary dimension too. We are descended from lemur-like mammals who only came down from the branches an eye-blink of history ago. As a child, I never saw a tree I didn’t want to climb. Any tree with accessible lower branches was sheer delight, but I never hesitated to shimmy straight up any trunk that appealed to me. I particularly remember a tree friendship when, at eleven years old, I was left with a friend during my grandmother’s funeral. She was already back in school, so it was a long, lonely week. I spent most of it sitting on a branch near the top of a tall white pine, comforted by its companionship and by the needle clusters it provided for dollies.
These days I participate in more sedate forest bathing, visiting special trees once a year to tell them what has been going on, leaning against the maple in my back yard when in need of solace, and sauntering along forest paths to untangle my frazzled nerves, rebalance my life, and soak up a calming equanimity.