I step off the northeast corner of our little farm and into a forest. It’s a small patch of trees really; semi-trucks can be heard barreling down the roads that border two sides of this small Eden. But despite its diminutive size this woodland packs a biodiverse punch.
On my arboreal path I have encountered white tale deer, an American beaver, red-legged frogs, rough-skinned newts and birds of copious variety from owls to warblers to heron flying in cruciform overhead. And then there are the trees—magnificent Douglas Firs and towering Western Red Cedars whose branches fall like shawls off the shoulders of giant women.
As I walk amongst these trees I brake spider webs with my face and am reminded of Mary Oliver's poem about the spider with her “surplus of legs” and injurious glare.
In the fall, when the spiders have grown to the size of coins I walk with a stick, held out like a machete, allowing me to hack my way through the gossamer threads, a hacking which sends the spiders sailing like trapeze artists to safer shores under twigs or leaves. But in spring and early summer I let my face lead the way. The light is usually so dim I don’t see the webs coming, but I walk on anyway, until strings of web and pencil point-sized spiders dangle from my head like Hasidic curls, imply a vow.
And this is my vow: to map this place with my walking. To, every day, wake to the gratuitous wonders served up by the hand of a generous Creator. To breathe in creation, and in that breathing find myself restored, recalibrated.
It sounds very Walden Pond Wonderful, doesn’t it -- the epitome of nature therapy!? Walk in the wood, and, voila, a new saner self. It sounds so Walden Pond Wonderful, that even I, an every day forest walker, am tempted to roll my eyes and get on with the daily work of making the world a better place.
But what if I told you that science backs me up on this one? What if I told you that walking in woods lowers the stress hormone cortisol in the brain, while at the same time increasing cerebral blood flow, immune defense and overall mental health—all health benefits that the same amount of walking in the city or on a treadmill do not confer. This is true—studies have shown it, my friends!
This is why in the mid to late 1800’s doctors and hospital administrators built tuberculosis sanatoriums near woodlands. Patients who spent time under trees got well faster and in greater percentages than patients in the city sanatoriums.
Recent studies have shown that even if people can’t walk or sit under trees, nature therapy can include just being near or seeing plants. In a fascinating ten-year study at a Pennsylvania hospital it was shown that patients recovering from gallbladder surgery in rooms with a forest view recovered remarkably faster and used less pain medication than patients recovering from the same surgery in rooms with views of brick buildings. A Norwegian study showed that office workers with a view of a plant (not even a whole forest, but just one solitary house plant) recorded fewer sick days than office mates with no view of a plant.
The studies and pro-plant findings go on and on and have been applied to everything from ADHD (yes, forest walking reduces symptoms in children) to depression and high blood pressure and road rage (yes, yes, yes in reduction of symptoms and incidents).
Why do plants make us healthier and happier? The answer is long, but it has to do with things like the aromatic chemicals evergreen trees emit, as well as the negative ions, those charged molecules found in abundance in forests and near moving water, both of which promote the release of happy hormones and antioxidants in humans.
Besides the physiological benefits, a recent theory on the plant-brain relationship centers around a psychological benefit dubbed the “provocation of fascination” effect.
In other words—forests incite fascination, aka wonder. And wonder is psychologically good for us.
It is also good for those around us. A study just coming out in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology shows empirically that people who participate in wonder-inducing activities are more immediately altruistic. In other words, people who regularly look at trees or the night sky are more likely to make their world a better place.
So, I walk in the woods.
Spider webs and all.
I walk in the woods because life is hard. It is beautiful and fascinating, but hard, and sometimes I don’t have the emotional grit to keep pushing against so much hardness—I need all the serotonin and negative ions I can get.
May I offer this bit of health and wellness advice? Not only for you but also for those whose lives will be better because you followed it?
Find some trees.
Walk under them.
Studies cited are referenced in the book Your Brain on Nature: http://www.yourbrainonnature.com/