By Tom Hart
Working outdoors is great. You generally get to breathe fresh air, move around, see long distances, and aren’t crammed into an office chair in an office, or forced to stand in one place or work in a contained area for hours on end. It’s healthier than being indoors all day in most cases, and at the end of the day, you feel like you’ve really worked your body, depending on the type of job. I’ve had several jobs over the years where I’ve worked outdoors all day. Two of my current jobs are related to forest management and tree research.
One of my current outdoor jobs involves gathering data from trees for a scholarly study, a very peaceful process, which is mostly about hiking from tree to tree, measuring each one, and observing its foliage and overall health. Another job is about removing fire fuel from the perimeter of private roads which involves using chainsaws, hauling logs, branches, and whole trees to piles to be chipped later; very demanding physically, along with the noise and exhaust from the saws — a very different experience from the first job. The first job, while being peaceful, was still work and fairly fast-paced work at that. It allows me to be present in the moment as does any physical activity, but I am not really able to soak in my surroundings (bathe) as I have to stay focused on the intellectual task at hand and be constantly on the move between measuring trees in the study. The second job, while very physically taxing, also has the detriment of killing trees and shrubs due to the proximity to human habitation, and their danger of becoming fire fuel and blocking escape for those of us living in the WUI or Wildland Urban Interface. Fire season has become “year ’round” in Sonoma County, so I am hopeful that this destructive activity of removing the fire fuel will make the forest healthier and save lives.
Forest bathing is altogether different from working in the woods. Forest bathing is a meditation, started in Japan as Shinrin-Yoku, aka Forest Therapy, and is somewhat like mindfulness meditation, where you bring yourself into the present moment through your breathing or by focusing on an object in front of you, in this case the object is everything in the forest that you can sense using all of your senses. It’s best done in a meditative posture, sitting, or standing, or walking slowly, sometimes you might hold a rock or other found object and let it draw you in to its world in the context of the forest. It is about being fully observant of the natural surroundings in a non-judgmental way and has become a cornerstone of Japanese preventive medicine for relief from extreme stress.
Some of the best times I’ve had while working in, bathing in, or just passing through the woods have been when unexpected forest inhabitants appeared. The other day I was walking through some trees on my college campus on the way to class when a tiny yellow-chested bird hopped out from under a bush next to the path. I stopped hurrying to class and just gazed at it as it haltingly hopped down the path. It was beautiful. This reminded me that while my life and goals are important to me, there are countless lives, both great and small, that are equally important in our beautiful world. Forest bathing, even if done for only a moment or two, as busy schedules allow, helps to put life into a perspective that includes and celebrates our roots and fellow inhabitants in the natural world. It is and always will be a healthy practice to “stop and smell the roses” as folks used to say.