All my life I have spent my summer vacation in places as close to nature as my family is inclined to rough it. When I was a kid we spent two or three weeks at a rented turn-of-the-century camp with no indoor plumbing or electricity on a wooded island aptly named “Jolly” in Lake Winnipesaukee. In the last 20 or so years, weeks have shortened to one; we’ve rented other camps on other bodies of water and welcomed certain modern amenities. (Indoor plumbing and Wi-Fi are pretty great, but we always throw a quilt over the TV.) I’ve gone blissfully back off the grid to a rocky island in Georgian Bay, Ontario and this year we relaxed in a log cabin tucked in pine woods on the Damariscotta River in Maine.
No matter where I go, I rely on this annual time away to recharge my batteries and I look forward to next summer’s vacation almost as soon as I’m home again. I thought what I required was stretched-out days of do-nothing time spent reading, napping in hammocks, floating in the water, and eating blueberries. But I realized recently that what I really need to soothe my soul is nature. Full immersion, or close to. Even though I grow and work in a garden full of plants and wildlife, being in a relatively undisturbed place listening to the kind of quiet that’s filled with bird calls and the buzzing of cicadas helps me let go. I need to feel the rain, hours after the storm passed, still dripping off the trees. To walk barefoot on rocks and fragrant pine needle paths. To collect chips of mica and count toadstools.
My a-ha moment came when I learned about the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing,” which began in the early 1980s as a Japanese Forest Agency marketing campaign to promote health, and is now considered bonafide preventative medicine. Studies show what the Japanese — and the rest of us in our bones — knew all along: a mindful walk in nature, basking in all of the physical sensations, sights, sounds, and smells that catch our attention, does a body good. For starters, it reduces stress by lowering cortisol levels, alleviates the symptoms of depression, and improves immune function. Scientists attribute some of the health benefits we see after a walk in the woods to the phytoncides plants emit to defend themselves against bacteria, fungi, and insects. Whatever works.
The good news is, I know now that I won’t have to wait until next summer to charge my batteries again. I can take a forest bath any day of the week and so can you. There are walking trails all over Rhode Island and South Coast Massachusetts. From where I live I’m only a ten minute walk from Mt. Hope Farm, at 250 Metacom Avenue in Bristol, which has a lovely road that winds past meadows and through the woods to Cove Cabin and back again (2.5 miles total). On the other side of the peninsula off Hope Street, The Claire D. McIntosh Wildlife Refuge (a.k.a. The Audubon Society) has paths through woods and wetlands to the shore boardwalk.
Even though I have to drive there, Weetamoo Woods in Tiverton is one of my favorite places to bask. Miles of well-marked paths, shared with dogs, horses, and mountain bikers, circulate through 650 acres of mature forest habitat. Destruction Brook Woods over in Dartmouth, Mass., is another pretty drive from anywhere and has about eight gorgeously woody miles of marked trails.
For a list of nature walks in Rhode Island, visit exploreri.org/gtraillist.php. Use The New England Mountain Bike Association’s map at nemba.org/trails/massachusetts to find multi-use trails in Massachusetts.
I don’t know about Japan, but in this part of the world, before we engage mind and body in shinrin-yoku, we really should practice safety first. Be sure to douse yourself in insect repellant, wear orange during hunting season, carry plenty of water, and check yourself for ticks afterwards.
May the forest be with you.
Kristin Green is the interpretive horticulturist at Blithewold Mansion, Gardens & Arboretum and author of “Plantiful: Start Small, Grow Big with 150 Plants that Spread, Self-Sow, and Overwinter” (Timber Press). Follow Blithewold’s garden blog at blog.blithewold.org.