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 44: Oops

I woke up again this morning in my lovely private wooded site in the Kaibab National Forest (still smiling about dinner last night with new friends).  I wanted to stay there, spend the day reading and doing yoga and just being under the canopy of pines, reflecting upon my journey and the experiences I’ve had… For whatever reason, I didn’t do that.  I didn’t listen to my inner voice, even though it was speaking loudly and clearly (though gently).  I got back on the road again and regretted it all day.  I should always listen to that voice.  It knows me so well.  It knows what my soul and spirit need the most.

The day wasn’t terrible, but it was one of the most unsettled I’ve had.  I didn’t want to drive.  Or see any sites.  I didn’t want to leave the cool comfort of my forest for the heat of Utah.  I wanted to “bathe” in the trees, practice what the Japanese call shinrin-yoku – literally “forest bath” – slowing down, just being present in the woods, deliberately taking in nature with all of my senses.

But I didn’t.  I drove.  To Utah.  In the heat.  Wearing a long-sleeve shirt to protect my left arm from the onslaught of sun coming in my driver’s side window.  The day wasn’t fulfilling or peaceful.  All day, I felt aimless and at the same time like I was chasing something.  I didn’t make wise decisions, and I wish I could take back the day all together.  (But I can’t, and that’s okay.  I’m learning.)

I was grateful to find a quiet place to camp within the Grand Staircase Escalante…but the tiny ants that covered the red dirt beneath my feet and car and camp chair bit me relentlessly, as if to remind me that I’d chosen wrongly.  Still, the sunset above the desert landscape was beautiful and calming, and as the cool breeze cut through the heat of the day, I rested and read and tried to unwind.

In nature, I looked for forgiveness and restoration, for nature is redemptive wherever we sit with her and just be.  Today, I learned a valuable lesson about tuning inward, listening, and trusting myself.