I have a cure for stress. No incense is burned. No chants to Hare Krishna are uttered. I simply close my laptop, slip on my Merrells, and leave for the woods.
The moment I enter the shaded canopy, my eyebrows relax and the industrial ice begins to melt from my addled brain. Calm prevails. Then, from somewhere behind me, I hear the telltale hiss of gears.
“Biker ON!” I hop to the side, and, in an instant, a blur of neon orange whooshes by. With poison ivy hugging my leg, I watch him zip around the next corner, ready to run down another hapless hiker in a bang of noise and color. I exhale. It’s rush hour on this part of the trail.
Relaxation takes time. After 1, maybe 2, maybe 3 hours I enter a dimension where my quotidian worries are replaced by an awareness of one sense or another. My eyes fill with vibrant green. My ears take in the low buzz of crickets and locusts. My nose sniffs floral fragrances floating through the air. I’ve forgotten all about my busted A/C unit.
Why this profound effect? To start, the trees provide blessed relief from the artificial environments we spend most of our lives in. People need space, and nature provides it in spades. Yet we wall ourselves in. Our rooms and offices are nothing more than cages, and, unless you happen to be Elon Musk, nowhere near as large as what the big cats enjoy at the zoo.
But unlike the yawning lion, we can’t just chill. At the first hint of boredom, we reach for our smartphones, remotes, magazines – anything to stave off the emptiness of the here and now. “Animals spend much of their time dozing and idling pleasantly,” writes philosopher Alan Watts, “but, because life is short, human beings must cram into the years the highest possible amount of consciousness, alertness, and chronic insomnia so as to be sure not to miss the last fragment of startling pleasure.” We feel guilty about doing nothing.
What’s more, we seem to be constantly catering to our future selves – anything to make them happy. We think that if we get that promotion, woo our hearts desire, escape to that ocean front condo – our troubles will be over. But when we finally land in a paradise of palm trees, our mind has already floated to the next vacation: It’s a little muggy here…maybe somewhere with mountains next time…hmm the Rockies are nice… need to find a direct flight though. I speak, of course, from experience.
So what can we do? We are anxious beings, always thinking of the future. This is the human condition. The only option remaining, once this is understood, is to do nothing about it. Relax. Don’t worry. And if you worry anyway, that’s fine. Just don’t worry over worrying. Worrying is natural.
And where better to let go than in the woods? There, we finally have the space that 8-foot ceilings can’t provide. The aroma of the pine helps us unwind. Soon we find an easy smile at the sight of a sunlit alpine meadow. Soon a gnarled stump comes to life, an ancient spirit of the wood. Next a steep descent requires a singular focus, and we skip from rock to rock like a woodland elf. (Note: please don’t come after me if you try this and break something.)
Scientists are even talking about my beloved palliative. A series of experiments from Japan show that “forest bathing” results in lower blood pressure and cortisol levels, both markers of stress. And lingering in the woods might even prevent cancer. Spending just a few hours there boosts natural killer cell activity and induces anti-cancer proteins.
But we needn’t review any data from the lab to notice that the forest brings on a meditative state. What could be more centering than a stroll through towering oaks and poplars? What could be more cleansing than an afternoon of fresh oxygen in our lungs? To understand, we don’t have to sit cross-legged until blood stops circulating. Walking in the woods is meditation.
I’m not the first person to have noticed this. Thoreau spent his life ambling through the countryside, senses attuned, scanning for details that would later appear in his writing. Here he is, drunk off nothing but the smell of the woods: “As I walked, I was intoxicated with the slight spicy odor of the hickory buds and the bruised bark of the black birch, and, in the fall, the pennyroyal.”
Thoreau, Henry David, and Damion Searls. The Journal, 1837-1861. New York: New York Review, 2009. Print.
Watts, Alan. The Wisdom of Insecurity. New York: Pantheon, 1951. Print.