One of my favorite placebo effects is to walk in a forest. I had not thought of it as a way to preserve my sanity, or as a rehabilitative exercise, until this was pointed out to me. I just did it as an occasional response to an attractive forest, when I could find a way in. To my imagination it is better than, say, swimming in hot tar.
I think that professional medical research has found no conspicuous benefit to this activity, although it is only banned as part of Batflu precautions.
If I were Japanese, which I have never been, I might call this activity Shinrin-yoku, which means, apparently, “bathing in the forest.” It is an art form invented only forty years ago by some bureaucrat in the Japanese government, who thought it would be good for people, and ought to be encouraged. It then spread overseas.
Since, complaints about people trampling the precious flowers, picking posies, &c, have come to light. Not everyone is pleased when nature gets touched by her lovers; the faction for sterility is surprisingly large. Yet oddly, gardened nature seems to benefit from loving attention.
The same country, Japan, is a beacon to the world’s “forest farmers.” This is the branch of permaculture that consists of cultivating things (for profit) in the woods. Not only mushrooms but fish, and a large variety of other products, may be harvested from the understories of trees, by farmers observing such watchwords as “intentional, integrated, intensive, interactive,” when they have been militarized.
It has become an international craze, and except that this is not an agricultural forum, I would fill pages – tree slices – with my enthusiasms. For I have never much enjoyed the prospect of endless vapid monoculture, which replaces efficiency with economics (i.e. cheapness). God, or His agents, after all contrived to make soils and microclimates vary every few steps.
While I am not, personally, supplied with any Orangutan friends, I consider myself a friend of the Orangutans, who are practically my favorite primates – even more than chimpanzees, who can be as unpredictably violent as transit riders in the big city. The population of Orangutans, in places like Borneo, is sparse however. But they, like me, seem to enjoy a good forest, and may be found gratuitously nesting in it.
Humans lack their tree-climbing skills, and have in other ways lost their adaptations to the forested environments, if we ever had them. I consider all of the evolutionary (“just so”) stories that I’ve been told to be the product of cranks, if sometimes perversely entertaining. I can walk right through a forest observing any number of God’s creatures without being distracted by sullen evolutionary theories. (A hobby, if you will, to improve mental health.)
Similarly, one can be free of the compulsion to encourage longevity or tourism in one’s hikes about the country. My own have been as purposeless as I could make them, beyond sometimes accepting the guidance of prayer.
For in my theological opinion, God made the world to be seen by its inhabitants, and enjoyed by participation, as an end in itself. This, to my mind, is what unites us with the animal observers, in all of their conditions and with their many different points-of-view: the pleasure that consists of being alive.
My own practice has been much abridged by city life, medical restrictions, and the Canadian snowfall. Rather than a forest, I must substitute a park where there are some trees growing, and the footpaths tend to be paved. When house-bound, or rather flat-bound, I can nevertheless see some trees out my window, about eleven unshaded stories down; and if I wish to get lost in nature, I have many old-fashioned books in which to be enfolded. They are, as I suggest, a product of (alas, usually monocultural) forestry.
The idea of nature therapy in its various forms, some of them extending to art therapy, or some other conceivably worthy social cause, is known to historians from very ancient times. Granted, the ancients were not in need of professional instruction and regulation, but if you consult the Wicked Paedia you will find mention of the gardening of Cyrus the Great.
Given radically smaller cities and the absence of cars and airplanes, the need for nature therapy may not have occurred to the ancients, any more than it needs to bother us moderns. A short amble would take them right out of town; and as we know from Bible reading, people were in the habit of stepping out when having private conversations. Their media did not even include newspapers, and their theaters did not include the movies, so their minds might stay wonderfully attuned to what was happening around them. They could thus benefit from natural therapeutics, as it were.
One thinks of Max Frisch, and his line, “Technology is a way of organizing the world so that man does not have to experience it.”
An old friend reminded me of this recently. She had it trapped in a notebook for years, and brought it out for a brief spin. She was worried that it might count as a non-sequitur, but I wasn’t even slightly troubled by that, for it is also self-evident. Many of the best non-sequiturs are.
Indeed, I was amazed how a single, disembodied sentence could bring our entire mechanical civilization to heel. It explains how every one of our technical accomplishments involves a loss of something, not possible to replace.
This is not to say that technology is evil; and there are perhaps worse evils than an easy life.
But the freedom that technology is alleged to confer is a false freedom. Granted, it may save us from such inconveniences as illness and hunger, to which we, like the animals, were heir. But this is the experience from which our characters were forged.
Our technological conception of “progress” contrives only to avoid.
*Image: Landscape by Asher B. Durand, 1867 [Brooklyn Museum, New York]
You may also enjoy:
+James V. Schall, S.J.’s “The Masterpiece of the Natural World”
Michael Pakaluk’s The World and Its Lockdowns