It was a warm Sunday morning in June when I arrived at Middlesex Fells Reservation, a state park about fifteen minutes north of Boston. My chosen five-mile trail in the Fells was empty and damp from the morning rain. I had decided to take a “forest bath” during my walk in the woods to dull my nerves and lift my mood.
The practice of forest bathing originated in Japan, called shinrin-yoku, which translates as “taking in the forest atmosphere.” My reading cited studies dating back to the 1980s, which revealed that trees and plants give off volatile substances or oils called phytoncides. These invisible chemicals have been shown to lower blood pressure and heart rate, boost the immune system, alleviate anxiety by reducing stress hormones, and maybe even fight off depression. It sounded too good to be true. Yet here I was, looking for forest remedies.
The “forest as medicine” concept wasn’t foreign to me. I often went to the woods when I needed to refresh. Several years ago, when I had returned from a yearlong stay in southern California, I stayed in my father’s house in New Hampshire for a few weeks before starting a new job in Boston. Living so far from home in California and surviving off my dwindling savings had produced free-floating anxiety. To adjust the volume on my nervous system, I put myself on a regime of forest baths, hiking a small hill near my father’s house every day. At the top, I would soak in the beautiful views of rolling mountains and sometimes meditate in silence.
Having been raised in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, I spent much of my childhood outdoors. When my brother and I weren’t in school, my father would kick us out of the house to explore. We would dart through the woods, build forts in trees, wade into streams, and wrangle tadpoles in ponds. During summer camp, we paddled across lakes and hiked the majestic mountains of the Presidential Range.
For the last 15 years, I’ve been a city-dweller, but I’ve started to feel semi-captive, a condition the naturalist John Muir described as “tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized.” My father, who lives in the sleepy town of Eaton with a population of about 400 people, felt similarly when he graduated from high school in Sudbury, Massachusetts. The summer after he graduated, he went north and settled in Mount Washington Valley to live in the mountains. “If I lived where you lived, I’d be in jail,” he once confessed to me when we were deadlocked in Boston traffic. I could relate to the frustration that the city seemed to bring out in my father and I often felt rattled by urban life.
As I walked the footpaths in the Fells, I followed the advice of forest-bathing practitioners. I was supposed to be mindful of my senses as I strolled through the woods. I relished the absence of Boston’s clamor—car engines and horns, shrieking sirens, the dull roar of tractor-trailer trucks gearing down. As I walked, I felt the earth beneath my sneakers. I inhaled the scent of the white pines, felt the texture of the breeze and listened to the symphony of birds and insects around me. Ten minutes into the walk, I paused to look over a pond. The sun warmed my face.
In the middle of Middlesex Fells, I left the dirt path, walked to the edge of a cliff, and looked out over a tranquil lake. The wind blew the scent of hemlock trees into my face. I knew that I would return to a small apartment in Boston in a few hours and a cramped office space the next morning, but the woods would always be available to me when I needed to refresh. A dog strolled up beside me, closed its eyes, and lifted its nose into the air. I, too, closed my eyes and inhaled the forest’s chemicals.
BIO: Dustin Grinnell holds an MFA in creative writing from Pine Manor College, an MS in physiology from Penn State, and a BA in psychobiology from Wheaton College (MA). His creative nonfiction has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, New Scientist, Vice, Salon, Hektoen International, and Writer’s Digest, among others. His short fiction has been published in Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine, Ars Medica, 45 Magazine and Blood and Thunder: Musings on the Art of Medicine. Dustin is also a staff writer for a Boston-based hospital.
Photo by: Dustin Grinnell
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