Days 84-87: Forest Bathing

John Muir, environmental philosopher and activist, once wrote “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home. Wilderness is a necessity.”  I hadn’t heard of Muir before my journey (or his writing had yet to resonate with me), and when I “discovered” his simple wisdom of the wild on a bookshelf early in my travels, I was quickly taken by his words, experience, and loving admiration for all things natural and wild.  One of my favorite memories of my time on the road is hiking away from the crowds of Redwood National Forest, finding a fallen tree, and climbing atop it to read from a collection of Muir’s works.  I laid there, soaking in the energy of the tree, and looking up at the clouds moving ever so slowly past the canopy high above me, completely present in the moments.  It was my first such experience of the journey, and it felt right to conclude my trip in a similar state of just being – doing what the Japanese call shinrin-yoku.

Shinrin-yoku is “forest bathing.”  It’s the “practice” of going out into nature to move slowly amongst the trees and plants, taking it all in, without timeline or expectation, just being in a state of mindfulness with nature.  (The fact that it’s been given a name and become a “recommended practice” reminds me a little of the modern movement toward eating simply and organically.  This “practice” was just eating before the advent of processing and fast foods and genetic modification; there wasn’t an alternative.  And there must certainly have been a time when going out in the woods for rest and rejuvenation didn’t need a name or recommendation from doctors; I imagine it’s just what people did.  Funny how far we’ve come from that place and time… Still, forest bathing is definitely a wise prescription for what ails us as a modern people and society.  And I’ll continue partaking!)

I’d planned to spend the last two weeks of my journey in Washington State, exploring the North Cascades (apparently breathtaking in the fall) and the Olympic Peninsula.  I was looking forward to completing my travels in places I’ve never visited relatively close to home…but I was also tired of rain after spending several days in it on the San Juan Islands…so when I discovered the forecast was calling for most of a week of it in both the Cascades and Olympic National Park, I planned my escape.  I journeyed quickly south and east of the mountains and found a quiet, secluded place in the southernmost area of the Baker-Snoqualmie Wilderness.  In four days, I saw or heard probably only ten vehicles, and, much to my relief, none of their drivers had any interest in me or my location.  Plus…I had next to no cell phone service!  Couple that with the babbling creek I found to pop up my tent beside, and I was set for some shinrin-yoku.

Sitting beside the creek, just listening and breathing in the forest, it struck me that flowing water provides a great analogy for a Zen Buddhist way of life…and these words just seemed to come to me.

The river doesn’t wonder
about the rocks it just flowed past.
It never stops to think
on the trees along its way.
The river curves and winds,
sometimes falling over cliffs.
It never seems to question
the path it’s meant to take.
It doesn’t look back
or try to change what was.
It never stops to wonder; the river, it just flows.

Water has always spoken to me but never quite so literally as this.

For a few days, I walked around the woods, slowly, without intention or destination.  I stopped to watch, listen, and even speak gently to animals.  I was struck by the way that one squirrel and two finches in particular seemed to engage with me, sticking close by and just being, the way animals do every day, so wisely.  The squirrel cocked his head, back and forth, as if he were really listening to whatever I said.  The birds chirped away, dancing on their branches, close by me without flinching, seemingly comfortable and content.  I sat by the creek and took in the sound, the scents, the essence of the forest.

It’s when I’m in nature I feel closest to my own true essence.  I feel alive and connected with the Universe, at once energized and at peace.  It’s my happy place.  And if I had my druthers, I’d occupy this space everyday for the rest of my life, in a state of shinrin-yoku, bathing in the forest that Muir regarded as the ultimate healer.

Day 22: Radio Silence

I’m a big fan of music all different genres.  I love everything about it – the way it sounds but more than that the way it makes me (and others) feel, the emotions it evokes.  Often, I listen to music that matches or reflects the way I’m already feeling.  I love the way we, as humans, relate to one another through music, its lyrics and stories.  Sometimes, I let music guide my feelings – or listen in hopes it will illicit new or different emotions in me, maybe shift me out of a mood or funk.  Still, other times, I seek spiritual refuge or inspiration from it, specifically tuning-in to music by artists who share my values and make me think.

On my journey, I’ve listened to lots of tunes in my car, but today I decided to drive sans radio.  I made my way through Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Parks listening only to the sounds (and silence) of nature, and there was comfort in that.

When I came down from my campsite way up in the mountain (slowly, by way of that steep and winding road that pushed me to my limits last night), the temperature climbed quickly.  It topped 90 by mid-morning, and I wasn’t especially looking forward to spending the day in a forest I expected to feel more like a jungle, with giant trees trapping the heat below their canopy.  Then, thunder cracked, and the skies opened up, and there was more RAIN.  It came down hard and fast, and the park rangers stood outside in awe of the sight of water falling from the skies, apparently a rarity here in July.  Within 30 minutes, the temperature dropped to the mid-70s, and we humans breathed a sigh of relief in union with the trees and other creatures of the forest.

The giant sequoias are a sight to behold.  The redwoods, which grow along the northern California coast, are the world’s tallest tree.  Giant sequoias, on the other hand, have immense trunks which make them the largest tree in the world by volume.  Redwoods grow tall and relatively slender, while sequoias grow up and around.  

Walking through the “Giant Forest,” as John Muir nicknamed the area replete with the biggest of the big, was both awe-inspiring and humbling (especially when I made my way out of the crowds, standing in line to take pictures with the largest of the trees).  It’s crazy to think what tiny blips we humans are in the history of the world.  Some of these trees have stood majestically in place for thousands of years, with bark that protects them from fire and root structure capable of warding off danger and even communicating with other trees and plants nearby.  I understand Muir’s fascination and tried to imagine myself walking through the forest in his shoes, before maps and tourists and sidewalks and noise.  It must have been amazing.  And so peaceful.

Alone in my car, driving the expanse of both Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Parks, I tried to tap into a similar peace and quiet.  Thoughts still rattled around in my head, but I tried to tune into the wisdom and grace of the forest and let it inspire my thinking, just like I might do with my favorite music.