Friluftsliv “open air living” is the desire to be in nature. The Japanese call it shinrin-yoku “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing.” I first heard of this concept in a yoga class. We were asked to gaze out the window and find a tree in the near distance and study it while in a quiet posture for one minute. Then we did the same with a tree in the mid distance and another at the furthest distance. We then closed our eyes and felt in our bodies what that meditation produced in us. I was swaying, the same swaying I observed in the trees. This is one small example of how we might use trees to teach us calm. As I am sure you have heard, forest bathing produces health benefits such as lowered blood pressure and heart rates, a sense of well-being that we experience while simply walking in the woods.
I find this experience especially heightened in winter.
The sharp contrasts of white snow against the dark trunks of trees, the shades of sky in soft lavender and pink. Maybe it mirrors how we feel, blood pumping to keep us warm while feeling the icy cold seep through our clothing. And don’t you wonder in the stillness of a subzero night, how these frigid landscapes could possibly support life? Yet this desire to be out in nature is especially strong for me now, to be in the woods or on a trail.
Just last week I was bathed in a light snowfall in the Chequamegon National Forest of Wisconsin, while skiing up and down the gentle hills of a snowy trail that curved through stands of aspen, birch and maple. In moments like these I feel most alive and grateful for the gift of nature and my ability to be out in it. I see the benefits of being my age, not so focused on the kilometers traveled or the speed and thrill of the hills, but accepting the silent gifts of a snowy forest. Glittering crystals on top of the snow, the constellations of pale green lichen that spread on the trunks of maples. The ease I feel as my breath comes in rhythm with my pole plants. I don’t want to miss days like today, when the snowy roads almost prevented me from coming at all, because I know the snow is only like this a few times this season, and so many other things might prevent me from being here.
And now a week later, all of this has mostly disappeared. Sap flows in the maples. Buds are plumper on the trees. Rivers of water run along the edges of what used to be tall snow banks, now the consistency of a snow cone. Our winter has been replaced with a new season.
I have been writing about growth in maturity, and the natural cycles of life and death. I am learning that trees have much to teach us. My husband has been sharing with me some fascinating facts about forests and their natural processes from The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. He compares tree communities to human families in the way they live, support growth of their young and protect one another. In the natural forest ecosystem, trees can communicate, draw nutrients, defend themselves from blight and pests, even the dead live on by sharing what is stored within their roots. Trees in community are much better off than their solo friends and can live to be very old.
Maybe as I walk among the forest trees, I am also being fed unseen nutrients through their roots, just below the ground where I step. The roots already working ahead to the next season by sending sugars back up the tree to make the sap that flows freely. Young trees fed by their parents, old trees being fed by the younger trees. Roots drawing nutrients and feeding one another, all living in a healthy community.
Like the Scandinavians and Japanese, I can feel the healing presence of the forest–mind, body and spirit.