The Call of The Wild
Rebecca Robinson renews herself through Shinrin-yoku
For many years, I have worked in the city. My mornings have passed me by, breakfast-less, in a blur of rushing. I have been on trains full of commuters staring at their phones, never looking up to see the world passing by their window at 120 mph. I have been one of them. But sometimes, something jolts me out of autopilot. I suddenly notice my surroundings and the people around me, a sea of suits and briefcases. I smell the coffee that other passengers gulp from their overpriced cups, barely noticing the taste. I watch as everyone strides purposefully through grey streets to make it to work on time – for many their only exercise before sitting at a desk and staring at a screen for 8 hours. As we walk, the congestion of the roads and the sound of car horns assault our senses, and the sameness of the daily grind makes us switch off. Our awareness shuts down and we stop seeing life around us. We walk past the homeless man who is in the same spot every morning, yet we no longer even notice him, and we fail to see the small flower that has struggled to grow between the cracks in the pavement.
Wake up and smell the coffee
Being caught up in city life can feel thrilling. The fast-paced nature is exciting, and the multitude of department stores and coffee shops to indulge in on your lunch hour can be one of life’s little pleasures, but the temptation to shop and spend money we don’t have is a strong one. The occasional treat is nice, but when it becomes an expensive habit that keeps us in debt and prevents us from connecting with our selves and nature, we need to stop and think. I became aware of how often I had been treating myself, using hot chocolate with cream and slices of cake as a conduit to ‘me time’. A costly habit; one where you lose pounds from your wallet yet add pounds to your hips. Modern city life has its appeal but leads to apathy and a disconnect from real life. We miss what’s happening right under our noses in our natural environment because we stay cooped up indoors, tethered to our screens.
When I had my epiphany, brought on by a combination of reading about Shinrin-yoku (the Japanese wellbeing practice of ‘forest bathing’) and looking at my bank statement - which had landed with a particularly heavy thud that month - I realised something had to change. Materialism was becoming too big a part of my life, it was costing me money and I was losing a part of myself in the process. Being indoors all day at work and on my lunch-break was severing my connection to the natural world that I have always loved. We are part of nature, and reconnecting with our wild inner self is something that calls to us all, yet we often dampen down and anaesthetise our yearning for something more real with the pulsating lights of city life and an accumulation of more ‘stuff’.
Aside from materialism and the negative effects on our wallets, I had read about the negative physical effects of living in a city. Air pollution from particulates - such as black carbon from car engines - can seep into our bodies and make us ill. I became acutely aware of the lack of trees - which pump out oxygen and absorb pollution - and I craved more of nature. The effects on our mood and mental health are well-documented with studies showing that noise pollution and city-living can make us anxious, stressed and depressed. The city was losing its allure, and I began my quest to claim back nature for my own wellbeing.
I bought a digital alarm clock to wake me with a simulated sunrise and the song of birdsong, yet neither I nor my husband could make it work correctly. Again, I had reached out to ‘buy’ a piece of nature rather than opting for the real thing. After I returned it to the shop, I then began to open the curtains and let the real morning light flood in. I embraced the seasons. I listened to actual birdsong in the morning as I dressed, tuning in with the natural world around me. I began meditating on the train to work, looking at the landscape flash by. I was amazed at how much of the natural world I had tuned out of. It was there to see, but I had just stopped looking. I noticed trees growing at the side of the railway, grass growing wild and abundant between the tracks, clusters of snowdrops forcing their way through winter’s cold, hard earth, and moss growing on the entrance of damp, north-facing tunnel walls. Nature was all around me, and the more I looked, the more I saw. A v-formation of geese flew overhead, symbolising freedom. I made it my mission to carry on looking for nature in my everyday life. I started to go out on my lunch break, just sitting in nature and writing poetry about the natural world within the city around me.
Into the Woods
My reignited senses and focus on reclaiming the wild had started to make me feel better – happier, calmer, with renewed concentration, awareness and vitality. Yet I was keen for more of nature and wanted to try Shinrin-yoku. ‘Forest Bathing’ does not involve stripping off to a bikini, but instead means walking deep into woodland and soaking up the atmosphere.
It is a type of nature-mindfulness which began in Japan in the 1980s and has long been a part of Japanese medicine, with extensive studies showing the physical and mental benefits of immersing yourself in the forest. Trees are believed to give off compounds that boost the number of natural killer (NK) cells we have in our body, thus boosting our immune system and helping us recover more quickly from illness. The NHS state on their website that ‘access to green space … reduces cortisol (stress) levels, increases physical activity and speeds recovery if you have been ill’. Since 2009, the NHS Forest project has seen 150 NHS sites plant thousands of trees on NHS land, enabling more people to access green spaces whilst at hospital to improve patients’ lifestyles and aid recovery processes. For more information, visit https://nhsforest.org/. Reading the evidence that shows how our environment and health are linked is empowering. A walk in the woods seems to lower our heart rate and blood pressure, improving our energy levels and mood, making us happier, calmer, more relaxed, with increased focus and fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety.
The woods were calling to me, just as they have called to others throughout time, urging us to reconnect with our true nature and renew ourselves. ‘It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts,’ wrote Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘as for that subtle something, that quality of air that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.’ So, I began my journey to a local area of woodland. Even if you live in a city, there will be somewhere nearby with trees if you look.
When I arrived at the opening to the woods, I stood still for a moment to take a deep breath, drawing in a lungful of air so pure you could almost taste it. It is true that when we are around trees the air seems fresher. I walked slowly, meandering along paths that snaked across the leaf-covered earth beneath my feet. Using my senses, I drank in everything. The feel of the ground, the pebbles beneath the soles of my shoes, the air on my cheeks. I noticed the colours of the leaves, the patterns etched into tree-bark, even spotting lovers’ names carved into the trunks. Dappled light shone and danced through the canopy of leaves above my head. The rushing of a stream cut its way through the forest. I walked toward the sound. Sliding over rocks, crashing over waterfalls, it energised the air. Its sound mingled with the chattering of wildlife and the singing of birds. As I breathed in the scent of the evergreens, breathing slowly, deeply, rhythmically, I entered a meditative state where I felt aware, focused, yet deeply calm.
After 45 minutes of forest bathing, my hunched shoulders had dropped, tension had drained from my body, and I felt rested and restored. After my mindful walk through the woods, I slowly made my way home, promising myself that I would make more time for the healing powers of nature in my life. As conservationist John Muir wrote, ‘Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilised people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.’ I promised myself that I would look for the wild in the every day, I would notice nature wherever I went, and I would keep the countryside within me, knowing - in truth - that it had been there all along.
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