I’ve never really been into Halloween, with all its costumes and ghost stories. While I had not planned on celebrating this Dia de Los Muertos, I may have actually encountered a spirit in Rock Creek Park on Halloween morning.
That day, Melanie Choukas-Bradley, a well-known naturalist and author in the D.C. area, was leading a forest bathing walk for the Conservancy. I immediately asked my supervisor if I could go, since I take every chance I get to go on hikes and walks with Melanie (This was probably my fifth or sixth one in just a few years). I had never heard of forest bathing before, but if she was into it, I knew it had to be good.
What is Forest Bathing?
Originating from Japan, the concept of forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku in Japanese, is to truly immerse yourself in nature. While many of us enjoy hiking or running in Rock Creek Park, we generally do not take the time to notice all the gifts of nature. Forest bathing encourages you to connect with the Earth through all of your senses: we looked at the autumn foliage and the sunlight dappled on the forest floor; we heard the leaves rustling, sounding eerily similar to a burbling brook. And forest bathing cannot be rushed. We walked very slowly, and even stopped completely several times, to observe the world around us and take it all in. The intention is to live in the present, in the moment, and forget everyday concerns while becoming one with the Great Outdoors.
When you're very quiet, even little streams start to sound mighty. The sounds of Rock Creek accompanied us throughout our walk.
Photo credit: Kate Arion
Throughout the morning, Melanie gave the group “invitations,” or assignments, to complete while we were together. We would find a spot in the woods, sit in a circle on our tripod stools, and connect as a group. She asked us to close our eyes and breathe deeply, accepting rather than assessing the forest and ourselves. Then we would go around in a circle and discuss what we were thinking and feeling. We expressed our gratitude for the chance to explore nature on such a beautiful day and described how playing in the outdoors as children impacted all of us now as adults. Then Melanie invited us to split off on our own for other introspective exercises. Each of these helped us center ourselves and focus on the small things that we may not usually notice or tend to take for granted.
Forest bathers take their time, soaking in all that the forest has to offer. Photo credit: Kate Arion
What Do We Treasure?
One practice was to focus on “treasure.” Melanie pointed out that treasure can both be a noun, like an item you find, or a verb, to care for something. We all searched the forest for treasure. Many people found colorful leaves, so iconic for this time of year, and of course, someone came across an old soda can. Melanie thanked him for picking it up, describing the act of picking up litter as “tending the forest,” just like you would tend your own garden at home.
“Has anyone ever hugged you before?”
Next we each communed with a tree: some of us simply looked at the tree, examining the bark’s texture and craning our necks to see the very top branches; others hugged trees, their fingertips far from touching each other due to the diameter of the trunks, and still others leaned against tall giants, one person claiming her tree was “the best chiropractor.” A few people pondered the fact that this is the most attention any one of these trees has ever received since they are usually seen not as single trees but as the collective “forest.” One woman said, “I asked my tree, ‘Has anyone ever hugged you before?’” The main part of forest bathing is connecting with nature, and here we were, building relationships with trees.
Later on, we made our way down to the creek, where we saw many fish and even a frog swimming in the still, frigid water. Melanie invited all of us to pick up a rock and contemplate the stone, touching it, holding it in the air, feeling its weight in our hands. Then we compared the rocks to those of our neighbors and passed them around. We each became possessive of “our” rock, trying to claim a tangible part of this reflective, cerebral experience.
These literal tree huggers are showing Rock Creek's tallest inhabitants some love. Photo Credit: Kate Arion
“Another Glorious Day”
Of course, we were not the only ones provoked by nature. Years before us, others have written words about the amazing world we live in. Melanie quoted John Muir multiple times throughout the morning, each sentence so apt for our outing. “Another glorious day,” she read, “the air as delicious to the lungs as nectar to the tongue.” And the air was delectable, smelling distinctly of freshly fallen leaves and crisp autumn. Later, as she read, “Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you…” a breeze did pass above us at that very moment; not only were we listening to nature, but Nature was listening to us.
Otherwise, words resonated with our group that day. One participant quoted Albert Einstein from a fridge magnet she owns, saying, “There are only two ways to live your life: as though nothing is a miracle, or as though everything is a miracle.” Forest bathing certainly makes you believe the latter. Every tiny leaf and spider, every towering Tulip Poplar, each birdsong and river rock, all are amazing miracles that we can find right here in the backyard of our nation’s capital.
Here in Spirit
For our final group circle, while enjoying maple sap tea, maple candy, and walnuts, one group member read Mary Oliver’s poem, Wild Geese:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
This poem was not only fitting for this one occasion. This man in our group had actually read the same poem at his brother’s internment when he passed away. He spoke of his brother, describing what an incredible naturalist he was and how he could identify birds not only by sight but by sound as well. Earlier in our trip, when we were communing with our trees, he said he looked up and saw several species of birds around his tree, and he felt like his brother was there with him in the forest.
Legend claims that Halloween is the day when the barrier between the present and the after-life is so thin that spirits can visit us. On this Halloween, I think there may be some truth to that.
During our outing, many people expressed how thankful they were for the opportunity to get outside and really appreciate nature in a way they hadn’t before. We were noticing little details we would normally walk right by, and acknowledging not only our surroundings but the feelings we had while we were there. All of us seemed to have a calm, serene feeling while we were in the woods, and we felt “Mom Nature” around us as we visited. Not only did we feel more linked to nature, but also to each other. Even in just a few hours, we had created a miniature community among ourselves. Several of us commented how it felt like we had known each other for longer than only one day. This experience brought us closer to nature and to each other, and hopefully to the rest of mankind.
Want to learn more about forest bathing? Melanie was featured in an NPR piece about forest bathing, as well as in an article from the National Parks Conservation Association.
This article was written by Kate Arion.