Have you heard of the term forest bathing?
If you’re like me, you may have heard about it, or even read a few articles about forest bathing in Japan and some of it’s incredible health benefits. But it wasn’t until I met Melanie Choukas-Bradley that I really understood it. Melanie has just finished the book, The Joy of Forest Bathing: Reconnect with Wild Places and Rejuvenate Your Life, where shares the science of forest bathing, also the practical ways we can it into our life. It is a lovely book and a perfect gift by the way! The illustrations are beautiful. I recently got the chance to have coffee with Melanie and ask her some of my burning questions about her background and this practice.
Leigh Stringer: When you are at a dinner party, how do you describe what you do?
Melanie Choukas-Bradley: I always lead with the fact that I write nature books. Years ago this would elicit glazed eyes, but people are much more receptive to careers that are connected with nature these days! If I meet with a receptive response, I may go on to describe the tree tours, nature trips and forest bathing walks I lead in the Washington, DC area and, increasingly, farther afield.
LS: You probably know more about the trees in Washington DC than any other person on the planet. Why are the trees in DC so special and how did you develop this expertise?
MCB: The trees of Washington are special for many reasons. We are located in the fall zone between the Coastal Plain and Piedmont and midway between North and South. This gives us natural botanical diversity. Then you add to the natural flora all the favorite trees people have brought from far-flung parts of the country and the world. When George Washington and Pierre L’Enfant planned the capital, they incorporated green spaces and trees into the original plan and this legacy still serves us well today. I came to Washington as a young woman when my husband entered Georgetown Law School. I had been the news director for a radio station in New Hampshire and thought I’d sail into my dream job here in Washington. During my lengthy job search I fell in love with the trees and my life began to take a different turn. We were living on Capitol Hill and those were the days when you could thumb through a physical card catalog at the Library of Congress and request books that would be delivered to the historic main reading room. While my outdoor explorations were focused on the magnificent trees of Capitol Hill, my library research began teaching me that the trees of Washington had many stories to tell. I discovered that Washington had been known for many decades as the “City of Trees” and that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were serious tree lovers. I don’t consider myself any kind of an expert. I simply wanted to learn everything I could about the trees of Washington and this led me down almost every street and avenue and to experts at the National Arboretum, National Park Service, Smithsonian and the City who were incredibly generous with their time and knowledge.
(I recently read Melanie’s book, City of Trees: The Complete Field Guide to the Trees of Washington DC, now in it’s third edition. If you’re from the area or a frequent visitor, it’s a fantastic guide if you want to know more about DC’s amazing tree history and tree diversity).
LS: How would you describe forest bathing to the novice? I mean, how is it different than just taking a nice hike through the woods?
MCB: It’s all about pace and awareness. On a forest bathing walk you slow way down, breathe deeply, and tune into your surroundings with all your senses. It’s a very immersive experience and it’s hard to describe what makes it so special. When you grow quiet and open your heart, mind and five senses to all that’s around you, it’s extremely restorative. Your “to do” list and the day’s headlines simply cease to exist when you’re on forest bathing time. I have a hard time meditating in a room but nature helps me to achieve peace and serenity.
LS: What are the health benefits to forest bathing?
MCB: Health research conducted in Asia, Europe, and North America has revealed many mental, physical and emotional benefits derived from quiet time spent in nature. The research shows that forest bathing lowers your blood pressure and cortisol (stress hormone) levels, lowers your pulse, increases heart rate variability (a good thing), and improves mood. I participated in some of the Japanese health research during a forest bathing trip to Japan last fall, both in the field, where my vital signs were checked before and after each forest bathing walk, and in Dr. Miyazaki’s lab at Chiba University. Dr. Miyazaki and Dr. Li are pioneers in the field of forest bathing health research. Dr. Li is studying how phytoncides, volatile compounds emitted by plants to protect themselves from pathogens, have a positive effect on human health as well.
Melanie on a forest bathing walk in Okutama, wearing a booklet recording her vital signs before and after forest bathing walks in Japan.
LS: Are there benefits to sneaking in “mini baths” during the workday? How would that work?
MCB: Even if you have just 15 or 20 minutes to spare, there are enormous benefits associated with a “mini bath.” If you can find a quiet spot in a small park, a garden, or under a tree near your office, put your phone in airplane mode (I call it “forest bathing mode”), get settled and take a few deep belly breaths. Once you feel yourself letting go of the cares of the day and growing calmer, focus your senses on your surroundings. Notice what’s in motion; tune in to sound, both birdsong and city sounds; smell the earth and the plants around you; take off your shoes if you can, and bury your feet in the grass.
LS: There are several great books about forest bathing out there. What are some of them and how is your book unique?
MCB: I recommend Florence Williams’s book, The Nature Fix, as well as books on forest bathing by Dr. Li, Dr. Miyazaki and Amos Clifford, the founder of the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs (from which I received certification as a nature and forest therapy guide).
What’s unique about my book? I take you through the three major steps of a forest bathing walk and describe ways to forest bathe in each of the four seasons. As a naturalist, I’m able to go into some depth with creative ideas for connecting with nature as the weather changes. I describe ways that you can adopt a “wild home” and forest bathe near where you live and work even if your time is limited. I discuss forest bathing for all ages and suggest ways you can combine forest bathing with other outdoor activities such as hiking, cycling, paddling, yoga, tai chi, meditation and nature journaling.
Melanie with shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) guides Akira and Kouriki in the Japanese Alps
LS: Where can people learn more about your books, your forest bathing walks and retreats or just generally connect with you?
MCB: My website address is www.melaniechoukas-bradley.com. I will be posting fall events in early September on my website calendar. Upcoming book talks/signings for The Joy of Forest Bathing: September 25th—Chevy Chase, MD Library; September 26th—Politics & Prose, Union Market; October 23rd—Audubon Naturalist Society, Woodend Mansion, Chevy Chase, MD. I have several forest bathing walks scheduled for this fall.
Leigh Stringer is a workplace strategy expert and researcher. She works for EYP, an architecture and engineering firm and is the author of The Healthy Workplace: How to Improve the Well-Being of Your Employees—and Boost Your Company’s Bottom Line.