This week, I woke during the night to a series of upsetting Facebook posts from friends in the West Coast state of Oregon. “Moron with fireworks starts Columbia River Gorge fire” read a headline on one local website. A 15-year-old boy had thrown firecrackers at Punch Bowl Falls on the Eagle Creek Trail, a popular gathering point in the foothills of Mount Hood. The surrounding temperate forest, tinder-dry after a hot summer, was set alight, and more than 12,000 hectares are still burning. The trail and various other spectacularly beautiful natural areas have been devastated. This only added to the dozens of wildfires already burning elsewhere in Oregon, California, Idaho and Montana.
I walked the trail at the end of May, and the memory of the wonderland of ancient, luminous, moss-clad green trees, pouring waterfalls and dramatic cliffs has sustained me through this Abu Dhabi summer. I have always loved forests, and draw both energy and calmness from them. Nowhere was this more so than in the Danum Valley, a rare tract of primeval rainforest in Borneo. The richness of the ecosystem filled the air and powered me on a run to the top of a mountain and back down again.
This year, the benefits of “forest bathing” are being recognised by the mainstream. What started as a Japanese phenomenon known as shinrin-yoku, or “taking in the forest atmosphere” has now spread (pardon the pun) like wildfire. Shinrin-yoku started in the 1980s, with researchers establishing a scientific body of evidence demonstrating the myriad health benefits of being in nature, and specifically trees, which are believed to give off organic antioxidant compounds that boost the immune system and fight cancer. Other benefits of being in forests for at least two hours include reduced blood pressure and stress hormones, better sleep and increased ability to focus.
Numerous travel companies are now offering forest-bathing holidays. Mohonk Mountain House, a Victorian castle resort in upstate New York, offers guided forest-bathing experiences in its surrounding woodlands; in the United Kingdom, Forest Holidays has “forest therapy” in nine different locations, including Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire. At Trout Point Lodge in Nova Scotia, Canada, programmes take guests into “Acadian forest ecology” to breathe in phytoncides – antibacterial organic compounds – to aid relaxation and reduce stress. Guests wade barefoot through rapids, bounce on beds of moss and observe local wildlife.
What’s not to like? Yes, there is an element of commercialisation to all of this, which is essentially just returning humans to their natural state within nature for a limited period of time. But when so much of our precious life is dominated by unnatural environments, pollution and noise, not to mention forest fires, any recognition of the value of forests gets my vote. And yes, unless you come across a hot spring during your trip, you do keep your clothes on.