Holly Price is a freelance writer living in North Wales. Currently spending her time between renovating a house and travelling around the UK in her van, working periods with her rescue border collie, Koba. Aside from the outdoors, she is passionate about snowboarding, surfing, dogs, good music, good chocolate and France - her goal is to relocate to a crumbling french farmhouse in the next few years and live a sustainable, serene life with plenty of wine. Follow her on instagram @hippy.holly
Adventures In... Forest Bathing.
I’ve always thought that I could only achieve solitude when suspended in the sea; belly up, arms wide and head back, floating in an endless abyss. For me, the ocean is a wild, desperate, desolate thing that roars and crashes and pummels and gasps. A serene, sparkling stillness at sunrise and a golden expanse at her descent. A cruel mistress, yet one with eternally open arms for all those who wish to embrace her. It’s somewhere that mirrors so many of my own juxtaposing emotions.
But recently, I’ve been embracing somewhere closer to home that requires an entirely different kind of bathing. The forest. Contained within a dense, delicious thickness, I find I’m unequivocally in the present. Not distracted, not chewing over yesterday's thoughts or tomorrow’s plans - just entirely in the moment.
Thirteen percent of the entire land area of the UK is forest. Special spaces where pine needles and moss create a cushioned carpet underfoot and ferns unfurl unseen. The forest is the antithesis to the vast nothingness of the ocean, it’s a place where wizened trees whisper to each other and the wind blows a symphony through their leaves. I take a heavy mind into the forest, and emerge with conscious clarity. You could blame it on the extra oxygen, or you could call it part of the whole forest bathing experience.
What is forest bathing?
Coined in 1980s Japan as a means of battling the tech-boom burnout, forest bathing, or shinrin yoku is a physiological and psychological exercise rooted in mindfulness and our connection to nature. With over 68% of Japan being covered in woodland (in 2010, anyway), it’s no wonder that the Forestry Agency began recommending the sights, sounds and cathartic cocktail of natural emissions that the forest provides as a remedy for stress and depression as early as 1982.
Science has since continuously proven that they were right to do so, with a 2019 study revealing that intentional forest bathing sessions can reduce stress, lower blood pressure and alleviate the symptoms of depression.
The 2019 study drew inspiration from deputy director of Chiba University’s Center for Environment, Health and Field Sciences’ Yoshifumi Miyazaki. The scholar has dedicated his career to advocating for shinrin yoku, giving a TED talk in 2012 and publishing many extensive research papers on the subject.
One of the key points Miyazaki makes is that humans have passed the last 5 million years in nature, and it’s only in recent times that men and women have had to adapt to the artificial environment that we have created for ourselves. This means that, me, you and everyone else alive right now has spent 99.99% of our evolutionary history in natural environments. The point is - we need to spend time in nature in order to survive.
Tackling pandemic burnout with trees
Along with presumably the majority of the global population, the last 18-months have seen my mental health take a nosedive. Being (and staying) alive during a pandemic is one thing, but trying to stay inspired throughout is another mission entirely. As a content writer, creativity isn’t something I can afford to be without.
Despite being lucky enough to live within the rolling green hills of North Wales, the sea is around 40 minutes away, which wasn’t a journey I was prepared (or legally allowed) to take at times over the last year, which is why I’ve swapped my usual salty sanctuary for a lush, leafy one just a short drive from my home.
Practising shinrin yoku in North Wales
I’ve known this forest all my life. But we’re getting to know each other even better more recently. It’s accessed along narrow lanes and a bumpy track, and Koba, my rescue-border collie, knows every turn and trough, which means he reaches the point of uncontrollable excitement long before the engine quiets.
It’s misty this morning, which is all the better for absorbing what’s on offer, in my opinion. Rolling open the sliding door of my van, I sit and lace up my walking boots and watch as Koba bounds over to the gate and sits, expectantly waiting, excitedly shivering. Off we go.
We follow the usual stone path around most of the woods, only seeing two other walkers thanks to the early hour. Tall trees envelop us entirely, and we merrily drink in the benefits of the leaves and the moss and the dew, returning to our usual sacred spot. The path snakes and stretches, lifts and dips, flanked by trees on either side for its circular entirety. There are moments of stillness and silence that border on suffocation, but there’s also airy, open segments where the cold breeze kisses your face and teases your tresses.
When it comes to our time to take the path less travelled, where we dare to deviate from the safety of stones, the forest floor is spongy and soft. It’s easy for me to see here how quickly the forest can become foreboding, as I find myself throwing a glance over my shoulder or pausing to question whether I spotted a figure standing silently between the branches. This, I know, is simply another evolutionary asset, coined by leading psychologists as an ‘agent detection mechanism’ - where we have a heightened sense of alarm due to feeling at risk of predators or enemies. Ambivalence is inevitable in the outdoors, and if our ancestors hadn’t had it, it’s likely that none of us would be alive today.
Setting down my rucksack, I take out my hammock, contained in a perfect, portable pouch for any scale of adventure, and tie it between two familiar trees. I take great care to ensure that my ropes don’t damage their bark or branches, and we are ready to bathe. We both nestle into the hammock and quieten, letting the sounds and sights around us take centre stage.
From the chirrup of a house sparrow and the sweet song of the blackbird to the staccato of the goldfinch, the birds offer up an intermittent chorus that effortlessly stills my soul. It’s as if the thick carpet of moss beneath us is a living, breathing, sighing thing inviting us to join its peaceful pondering. Should we care to gaze skywards, the sinewy spikes of pine branches against stark white act as an art form above our heads.
And there, suspended in a different kind of solitude, is where I practise shinrin yoku in North Wales.