Strange as it may sound, I owe it all to Tokyo for two lucky sightings in the UP woods the other day. I consider one of my lucky sightings as a precious moment, and the other as a “lucky I made it out of the woods unscathed” moment.
How did I make the leap from sushi and sumo wrestlers to seeing wildlife in the 906? Two words: shinrin-yoku. Wait – is that technically one word because it’s hyphenated? I’ll bet no one cares except me, and I’ll bet what you’re really wondering is what the heck is a shinrin-yoku, and is it a form of combat, or something you eat?
Neither, it turns out. While my buddy Google and I were researching things to do in Japan this fall (I have a trip to Tokyo planned), I came across this term. Being a nature freak, I was intrigued by shinrin-yoku, which means “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing.” Japan developed it during the 80s, and they’ve actually incorporated it into their healthcare system since then, to encourage city-dwellers back into nature. They’ve also done their homework on how well it works. Here’s just one published study where they looked at 24 different field experiments in Japan and found that forest environments lower concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol, lower pulse rates and blood pressure, and benefit humans in other areas, compared to city environments. No wonder their average life expectancy consistently tops the world charts!
Before you hard core realists poo poo the idea, this is not some superstitious, mystical practice where people frolic naked through the woods and then jump into the river – although I do see some Yooper similarities with folicking naked in a winter sauna and then jumping into a snowbank. Nope, it’s simply the practice of spending time outside, breathing it all in, and connecting to nature in a healing way.
Sounds easy, right? Maybe. I’m an outdoor enthusiast and an avid walker-hiker who hops from one spot to the next, looking for the next perfect wildlife photo. I thought I’d been shinrin-yoku-ing all along, spotting birds in the trees and deer bedded down in the woods, hiking and taking deep breaths while contemplating the meaning of life. But after reading more about it, I’ve been missing out on the subtleties, which make a big difference.
Getting outside for cardio and zipping through the great outdoors, while tweeting about it or posting selfies on Instagram or Snapchat, defeats the purpose of connecting to nature. Have you ever had someone stop by to visit with you, only to lose them every few minutes or so when they get a text message, or they want to look something up on social media? My dad, heaven bless his old-school heart, actually enforces a “leave your cell phone at the door or no whiskey for you” kind of a policy when folks stop by for a visit or for a nip.
Now imagine you’ve come out to visit Mother Nature to have a nice convo, except in the middle of your heart-to-heart, you tune out to read about the latest thing your friends or your friends’ kids are doing on Facebook, right while Mama Nature was in the middle of her sentence. I know I’d feel slighted if someone did that to me!
After thinking about it this way, I decided to give it a Japanese try and test drive a shinrin-yoku activity, called an “invitation,” to see how my daily walk on the nature trail would change. I went after work so I wouldn’t worry about rushing through anything. Here’s the invitation I chose, from Amos Clifford’s guide, “A Little Handbook of Shinrin-Yoku”:
Walk as silently as possible, with all your sense on full alert, like a fox moving through the landscape. Try putting your toes down first, and easing onto the heel of your foot as you shift your weight forward. Pause when something catches your attention, and give it your full attention, as if your life depends upon it. As if, if you don’t pay attention, you will miss your daily meal, or become the daily meal for something else. If you feel moved to do so, walk on all fours.
I skipped the walking on all fours, not because I knew I’d look ridiculous, but mainly because the camera around my neck would drag on the ground. Well, plus I’d look ridiculous. I tried it and felt like a Yooper ninja, paying attention to every little movement that caught my eye. I think it was helpful to use the “miss your daily meal” analogy, because I can’t recall ever missing a meal in my entire life.
When I turned the corner into the deep woods, that “pause when something catches your attention” stuff really paid off, because had I not been completely in the moment, I would have missed a doe cleaning up her newborn fawn down the grassy hill near the river. The photographer in me immediately froze, turned on the camera, and took a video of the fawn nursing for what may have been its first time. I held that pose for a good couple of minutes, so still that I even let a hummingbird-sized mosquito take a chunk out of my left cheek. There was no way I was going to let these two be startled by me, regardless of whether I would miss a tasty Rapid River Pub cheeseburger and fries or not!
My proudest moment that day was that I don’t believe they ever noticed me watching, or if they did, they weren’t frightened of me at all.
While still euphoric over the gift that Mother Nature had given me for just listening and paying attention, I decided that there was something to this forest bathing concept. Ironically, I had this epiphany while watching the doe “bathe” her fawn. Sometimes the universe has to hit you upside the head with this stuff.
Continuing on my fox walking, still on a natural high, I stalked my way to the edge of an open field, wondering what I would discover next. Another rustling in the tall grass! Could it be another fawn hiding there? Oh, too good to be true!
When the blades of grass finally parted, they revealed a tiny, furry…wait a sec. Black and white, and ambling right towards me? Skunk! It was too good to be true.
At this point my memory gets a little fuzzy, but I’ll bet if you listed to Mother Nature’s side of the tale, she’d tell you that the skunk and I had a moment of shock at each seeing the other, and while I got my camera ready to take a video of what I was sure would be a skunk scurrying away from me, the skunk was thinking, “COWABUNGA!”
And that’s when he galloped straight towards me. Shit!
When I came to my senses, I realized I had somehow crossed the entire field in 2.3 seconds and was rewarded with a pounding heart, shaky legs, and lungs gasping for air. Thank heavens it doesn’t take much to outrun a skunk, or else the only forest bathing I would have completed that day would have been a nice soak in a tub full of tomato juice.
After wiping away tears of wheezing laughter at what I must have looked like – a chubby, wide-eyed terror-stricken middle-aged Yooper bumbling away from a little furball the size of a small cat – I realized that my only way out of the forest was doubling back past Pepé le Pew again.
I decided that the only reason Pepé had charged me in the first place was because I was such a ninja and had startled him. So I decided to let him know exactly where I was, hoping he’d run and hide after hearing a brave, fearless Yooper loudmouth returning to his field. However, after listening to my pathetic kissy-face noises and trembling “Nice skunky-wunky” greeting, Mother Nature and Pepé took pity and showed me that Pepé had moved far off the trail and onto a service road.
I may still have a lot to learn about shinrin-yoku, but shinrin-yoku has already, with just one invitation, helped me learn more about myself.
Mainly it’s that I can sprint faster than I thought I could.
Can’t wait to see what the next invitation dredges up.
Be happy, be well.