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Connecting with forests

By Jeff Zeringue

Shinrin is the Japanese word for forest. The word for bath in Japanese is yoku. Put together you get the phrase that has been popping up in stories across the globe — forest bathing — encouraging people to spend more time in forests as a way to decompress or reset.

The Japanese culture has a close connection with the natural world, as described by Dr. Qing Li, who has promoted “forest bathing” in a book by the same title. Li, chairman of the Japanese Society for Forest Medicine, explains how in his culture, trees and forests play a huge role in changing moods from stressful to calm.

Many folks in America who enjoy spending time outdoors probably don’t call it “forest bathing,” but being immersed in a sea of trees and drink in all that it has to offer allows them to shed the tension of work and life and don a sense of tranquility.

“It’s simple, really, not complicated,” said Cristy Garcie, a nurse who lives and works in Central Louisiana. “It’s just to get away from the hustle and bustle.”

Garcie, 42, is fond of hiking and tries to hit the great outdoors often.

“I try to do it weekly or every other week,” she said. “ Or if I do a vacation, its usually some kind of adventure in the woods.”

Although Garcie has spent much of her life in Louisiana, she spent her younger years in Alaska, where her love for the outdoors began. Her family had a camper and they spent many times enjoying getting away.

When she was 14, her family moved thousands of miles south, away from what she had known growing up. However, the family’s property was adjacent to the Kisatchie National Forest, which allowed her to ride her horse in the woods, further developing her love of forests.

“I don’t think I’ve ever tried to put it into words,” Garcie said. “It’s just my adventure.”

Now she seeks the sights of forests within a several-hours ride of her home, taking on adventures with her trusty sidekick, Haze, a black lab mix she adopted a while back. On any adventure in the woods, she said it takes about 30 minutes to clear her mind. After that, the time spent is more serene.

For Mary Lynn Ward, spending time in the forest might seem to be a little more on the spiritual side. Ward is a nurse practitioner at the VA Hospital in Pineville.

“Just being in nature, with all the stress we deal with, it (time outdoors in the forest) restores my soul,” Ward, 52, said.

“There’s something spiritual about being out there and connecting with nature. You get to play and be a kid again.”

That playful attitude includes much “cutting up” and lots of laughter, she said.

Spending considerable time away from the forest is easily felt.

“I get very tense in my neck and shoulders, and my blood pressure” is often raised by the end of the week, though she admits that she has gone as long as a couple of weeks without spending time in the forest.

Ward said for her the benefits of forest bathing go beyond emotional de-stressing. The physical benefits of forest bathing include an improved immune system.

In his book “Forest Bathing, How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness”, Li writes “it is also well-known that stress inhibits immune function.” He describes a type of white blood cell referred to as “natural killer” cells, which are described as cells that can kill unwanted cells in the body that can cause illness. In his first forest bathing study, he said activity of those cells, increased more than 50 percent for people who forest bathe.

Checking the length of time those benefits lasted, Li writes that the effect can last about 30 days.

“It definitely reduces stress,” Ward said.

J. Aubrey Bolen III is artistic director at the River Oaks Square Arts Center in downtown Alexandria. He returned to the woods in 2016.

“This all stemmed from an exhibit we had here at the art center that featured the Wild Azalea Trail, which was just an idea to have a painting from the different segments of trail. It’s broken into six different segments,” Bolen said.

As a boy in scouting and later in high school and college, he spent much time “hanging out” in the woods. Now 45, the visual artist said he returned to Kisatchie in 2016 just to unwind. The stress was building from a busy schedule of work and raising a family.

“I needed something. It was either go out there or get on blood pressure medicine and all kinds of other things,” he quipped.

Bolen began just walking the trail at a slow pace and take in the sights and sounds of the forest.

“It worked,” he said. “Just to reconnect to that is something that I felt I had to do.”

Those short jaunts turned into backpacking for two or three days at a time. After those trips, he said, he could feel a difference.

“I felt completely better,” he said. “My blood pressure went down; it changed me in numerous ways. It’s reconnecting with something I can’t even explain.”

The initial trips also led Bolen journaling, which led to the ideas of painting the different segments of the Wild Azalea Trail for the exhibition.

For middle school teacher Lisa Yates, the forest calling came after a trip to California’s redwood forests.

“I actually had sort of a spiritual experience there,” Yates, 58, said about a group tour several years ago. “As we entered the forested area, everybody got quieter and quieter ... then there was silence.”

Yates, who describes herself as “not terribly outdoorsy,” said that as the silence fell, it was like being in church.

“The atmosphere was other worldly,” she said.”I didn’t expect that ... I was just going there as a tourist to see some big trees.

“There was a peacefulness, a serenity in being away from the concrete.

The teacher-turned-journalist returned to Central Louisiana and with the help of a friend discovered a big stress reliever in venturing outdoors. Even spending time outdoors in her suburban neighborhood among her garden was a relaxing experience she said.

Yates has since returned to teaching and now lives in Jefferson Parish where vehicles might be more numerous than trees, but she still enjoys meeting with her friends for outdoor treks or just taking her 8-year-old rescue dachshund to a local dog park to spend time among the trees.

“I think I enjoy the dog park just as much as he does,” she laughed.

Landowners experience the same serenity of nature, though they don’t refer to it as forest bathing, said Tim Holland, a forester and part owner of Red Oak Lake in Bossier Parish. Scouting and church groups are occasionally invited to the private property, on which 10 miles of trails meander.

“We encourage them to walk the trails and be out there in nature, just take in all that’s going on around them,” Holland said.

One of the things the landowners manage Red Oak Lake for is turkey habitat, he said. The property is on a three-year rotation for control burns and taking the advice of the Turkey Federation its forest roads have been widened a bit. It seems to be working as Holland has witnessed a hen and her poults near the lake.

Forest landowners have different management plans, but conservation is usually high on the list. With that, they often make the time to spend among the trees taking in the sights and sounds that nature has to offer.

Li writes in his book about the necessity of spending time outdoors. In his book, he cites statistics from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that the average American spends 93 percent of their time indoors, 6 percent of which is traveling in our cars. People, just like all other living things, are part of nature.

“We are part of the natural world. Our rhythms are the rhythms of nature,” he writes in Forest Bathing.

So, whether you are enjoying your own forest or seeking the public trails of Kisatchie National Forest, time spent among the trees is time well-spent.


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