After a long week of news, this seems like a good moment to turn off the television, to log off social media, and go out for a long walk in the woods.
In Peterborough, the local library has teamed up with the Harris Center to offer a guided approach to communing with nature. It’s called Forest Bathing.
(Editor’s note: we highly recommend listening to this story)
At noon on a recent Monday, Susie Spikol calls over a group of 15 or so people who are lingering on the edge of the forest, and asks them to form a circle.
“So I want to welcome everybody to Forest Bathing, and in case you are concerned that we might actually be bathing...no,” she says.
Spikol is a naturalist with the Harris Center. She’s dressed in blue jeans and brown boots and is totally in her element. She’s co-leading today’s Forest Bathing session along with Marilyn Wyzga, a yoga instructor and educator.
Forest Bathing is a Japanese technique that uses an immersive experience with the environment to achieve greater wellness and relaxation.
“We are going to enter into the forest in a gateway. A path there,” says Spikol. “And we enter into something we call ‘forest time.’ We are slowing down, and being surrounded by the trees, and the woods.
“And we are going to do a coyote walk, which is a very slow, heel-to-toe walk. It is just very slow. And you don’t have to worry. Just be the coyote that’s in you.”
It’s kind of fun to walk this slowly, or at least watch other people walk this slowly. Down a path, into the woods we go.
“Take a deep breath and feel the difference in air, now that we are in the forest, the difference in temperature, difference in light, difference in sound,” says Spikol.
There aren’t rules for Forest Bathing and if there were they wouldn’t be strictly enforced. You are encouraged to reach out and touch trees, leaves, and moss. To slow down as much as possible.
“As you breathe, listen to the sounds that trees make,” says Wyzgah. “The rustles, the squeaks, the scrapes, the quaking.”
A breeze kicks up and the canopy comes to life. The group moves a little deeper into the woods, a little deeper into forest time.
“We are going to invite you to find a tree, find a tree that’s really speaking to you, and you are going to go spend a little bit of time having a conversation with that tree,” says Wyzgah.
The Bathers fan out. It’s hard to get into the mind of a tree, what it thinks, what it would say right in this moment. Maybe it’s a “hey, thanks for finally noticing.”
After a few minutes of conversation, the group reassembles.
“What I want to share with you is, we’ve listened to the trees, some of us maybe smelt the trees, we’ve touched the trees, we sat with the trees. We’ve conversed. Now we are going to taste the trees,” says Spikol.
The Eastern Hemlock, its needles like breath mints, officially rescinds that thank you.
“What I like to do is kind of put it in my mouth, chew it right in the front, and then kind of breath in at the same time, and it kind of amplifies the flavor of it,” she says.
Spikol pets the tree like a good dog, thanks the participants, and everyone exits the forest. Even if you hike or hunt or get into the woods regularly, the Forest Bathing approach creates a different sensation.
“When I was sitting by a tree, for example, at the end, I could see about 50 little birds flying like a foot or two off the ground. I wouldn’t have noticed that if I was hiking or trying to move through the forest quickly. So there is something about slowing down,” says Jim Hannon, who is visiting Peterborough from Arizona.
“Exactly. That’s what it is. It’s time. And sometimes you think you don’t have time. And you probably do,” adds Susanna Toumanoff, from nearby Hancock.
The group, fresh from Forest Bathing, still operating on forest time, coyote walks to their cars. Nobody seems to be in a rush.
The Peterborough Town Library and Harris Center for Conservation Education will offer a Forest Bathing session on Monday, Oct. 1, at noon at the Shieling Forest. The event is free.