There is a Japanese term, shinrin-yoku, which basically means ‘forest-bathing’. This is the idea that a forest holds healing properties, and you can take advantage of that by ‘breathing it in.’ In South Korea, they’ve adopted this idea on a national level, and are moving toward establishing ‘healing forests’ through the country, as an antidote to city living. This is running through my mind as I hike the ridge above Fort Collins, ‘breathing in’ a small grove of beetle-killed trees. Do damaged forests have the same effect?
It’s June 1st, 2017. My mom died three years ago on this day. And while I contemplated a grey tangle of branches, the POTUS was pulling the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord.
The weeks following the end of the school year hold a new heaviness for me. These have long been some of my favorite weeks of the year – with the warmer days, anticipation of summer activities, newly acquired (temporary) freedom from schedules. But the march into full spring bloom will always remind me of her last few weeks – of pain and tears, chemo drips and sterile hospital corridors.
Grief is a funny thing. Sometimes, he’s an unexpected visitor that barges into your front door, takes over your couch, eats all your food, and doesn’t give you a chance to rest. Then he leaves unexpectedly – on his own schedule, off to bother someone else. In the early stages of loss, he hovers persistently. You learn how to get work done and function almost normally with his presence, until, one day, you realize he’s just not there. Often, he likes to sneak up and spook you from behind when you’re least expecting it – such as when you’re pulling into a gas station, or washing dishes. That’s the worst, because you may not have tissue handy.
Later, you can begin to anticipate when he might visit. You feel him turning down the corner of the street, striding past blooming daffodils or poppies, walking up to the front door.
In anticipation of this annual date with Grief, last year I decided to lock up the house and get out into the world. Grief could tag along – or not. But he wouldn’t get in my way. Instead, I started a new tradition – a day dedicated to doing things Mom would have enjoyed: a wildflower photo walk, time wandering in a bookstore, coffee and chocolate, lunch in town somewhere.
This year, for my wild-flower hike, I revisited one of the first hikes I did when I moved to Colorado in 2004. My first house in Colorado was only about a 10 minute walk from the trailhead, and this walk was a weekly pilgrimage for some time. But I haven’t been up there much in the past 6 years or so, since I moved across town.
The Maxwell Natural area extends from near the old CSU stadium on the west side of town, up to the ridge that overlooks Horsetooth Lake. There is a large ‘A’ (for Aggies) painted on the hillside above the stadium. The rocks and bushes get repainted every year in late summer, but at this time of the year, it’s a bit faded by new vegetation.
It takes about 30 minutes or so to hike up to the road that overlooks the lake, and then another 10 minutes from there up to the top of the ‘A’. I love it when Colorado is so velvety green. I try to ‘breathe it in’, because I know it won’t be long before the hills become almost undistinguishable from California in the summer – dusty and dry.
Grief is a much quieter visitor these days. He comes riding in on other losses and disappointments. I often feel grief about climate change. Years ago, it scared me to see the forecasts for change – now it disheartens me to see the direct effects. We have lost so much already. (Yes, climate change deniers will say, ‘But Earth’s climate has always been changing!’ That is absolutely true. But, as I tell my students, the dinosaurs didn’t build mega-cities on coastlines, or have a global social system structured around one type of climate. The rate of change now is unlike what we’ve seen in the geologic record.)
On June 1st, I did not have to grieve the withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. I fully expected this would happen. In fact, I sat with Grief about this on November 9th, 2016, and in the weeks following that. Very quickly, I’ve come to have very low expectations for the US government. What I feel most is disappointment. Disappointment that the POTUS would thumb his nose (or, more accurately, flip his middle finger) at the rest of the world. This is basically what this decision amounts to.
Whether people like it or not, we are evolving into a global community. We face global-scale problems, and we need governments that can work together to tackle those. ‘America first’ just doesn’t work anymore. The responses of local governments and businesses to leaving the Paris Accord give me hope that whatever the federal government is doing (or not doing), we will still be able to hold up our end of the bargain to the rest of the world. Our forests, our livelihoods, our economies depend on this. It’s nice to know the fickle whims of one president will not deter us.
But it’s sad to see so much change so quickly in our environment. Maybe things would move faster if more people could practice shinrin-yoku. Maybe the South Koreans are really onto something here.
But, does ‘bathing’ in a dead forest have the same healing effect as a healthy forest? Can dead trees chase away Grief, just as the live ones can? Maybe. Maybe you just have to shift your awareness to the ground level for that ‘healing’ to take effect. There are always new seedlings taking root beneath the dead trees, new wildflowers that wouldn’t grow in the shade, new hollows in the shelter of fallen limbs for creatures to take shelter or nest. It’s harder for Grief to overcome you when you’re actively focused on small victories.
By the way, if you’re interested, you can learn more about nature and forest therapy here.