A Walk in the Woods

“I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.” ~ Henry David Thoreau, “Walking,” The Atlantic, June 1862. Republished online.

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Many of us will agree with Thoreau that a walk through nature can have a wonderfully restorative effect. Some doctors have even prescribed it as a way of reducing stress and increasing a sense of well-being. (See this article for more about “forest therapy” and the Japanese practice of “forest bathing.”). What are the causes of this beneficial experience? The beauty of the natural environment? The silence of the forest (underscored by birdsong and the rustling of trees) compared to our usual noisy soundscape? It’s hard to argue with audio ecologist Gordon Hempton who says that silence is hard to come by these days – it’s like an endangered species. (Krista Tippett interviews Hempton on her On Being podcast.)

Scientists have only recently been able to observe what actually happens within our brains while we take a walk in the woods. Brain wave measurements or cognitive tests in a variety of experiments have shown beneficial effects of being engaged with nature, for example a greater calm, a meditative state of mind, or an improved ability to concentrate. But there hasn’t been a way of capturing brain wave data while we are taking that walk. That changed with the development of a wearable version of the electroencephalogram (EEG), an instrument that collects brain wave patterns. This version of an EEG enabled researchers to conduct a study where the brain waves were recorded of a group of participants walking through three different types of areas, one of which was a “green space.” The results of the study published in The British Journal of Sports Medicine “showed evidence of lower frustration, engagement and arousal, and higher meditation when moving into the green space zone; and higher engagement when moving out of it.” I can’t help but smile whenever science with its carefully methodical approach simply confirms what we know to be true from experience. (I take the report’s meaning of engagement to be the same as Thoreau’s “worldly engagements.”) A summary of this study titled “Easing Brain Fatigue with a Walk in the Park” appeared in the New York Times.

More of us live in cities than ever before. At the same time, popular journals and magazines carry articles about ways to cope with stress, anxiety, and depression. Might an environment composed of mostly concrete and glass cause these psychologically negative states? To find out if there are any causal links, psychologists and other scientists are engaged in the relatively new science of urban stress. (See, for example, this article in the research journal Nature.)

Some city-dwellers are turning to meditation, yoga, tai-chi, and other practices that offer ways of creating a more balanced and peaceful space in their lives. As mentioned above, another path for dealing with stress has been forest therapy or forest bathing. Its success has led to the formation of a professional organization for forest therapists as well as the availability of consulting services. Clearly this approach is meant for people who have lost their ability to connect with nature on their own or never had any such ability, the latter case perhaps more true of people who grew up in the city. All the more reason to take seriously Thomas Berry’s thoughts about the need for people to be introduced to nature at an early stage in their lives, especially children being raised in an urban environment:

A truly human intimacy with Earth and with the entire natural world is needed. Our children should be properly introduced to the world in which they live, to the trees and grasses and flowers, to the birds and the insects and the various animals that roam over the land, to the entire range of natural phenomena. . . . (TB, 34)

The photo at the top of this post is from Harvard Forest. Located in Petersham, Massachusetts, its mission is “to develop and implement interdisciplinary research and education programs investigating the ways in which physical, biological and human systems interact to change our earth.” City born and raised, I have a lot to learn about the natural world and so was truly grateful to learn what its various educational materials had to offer on recent visits. But even without a deeper knowledge of forest ecology (for example, unable to name or say anything intelligent about the flora around me), I have always enjoyed a walk in the woods, be it in a park or the countryside, thankful for its gifts of quiet and moments of reflection.

Given the recent surge of interest in the scientific study of trees and forests (e.g., the popularity of The Inner Life of Trees), I will do a bit more exploring in future posts about their potential role in our spiritual lives.

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