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Michael Hanf and Kara Crowell takes a walk through the forest near Trout Point Lodge in Nova Scotia. (Paul Darrow for the Globe and Mail)
Michael Hanf and Kara Crowell takes a walk through the forest near Trout Point Lodge in Nova Scotia. (Paul Darrow for the Globe and Mail)

Forest bathing: Not just a walk in the woods Add to ...

The day I arrived at Trout Point Lodge was ideal. A few sharp showers in the morning cleaned and cleared the air, then the sun broke through, bringing with it the fresh smells of damp earth and oxygen-flush air, and a light that was yellowy green as it filtered through the late-summer foliage high above.

I left my notebook and recorder at the lodge, and took a trail that meandered erratically to the northeast. The already muted sounds of the lodge faded within a few minutes - there are no mechanical noises anyway, there being no need for air "conditioning" in a place where the air is conditioned to a fare-thee-well by natural forces far older than man's technology. A hundred paces farther, I came across a young woman stretched out with a book, leaning against a balsam fir, but she was snoozing and didn't see me pass.

For another hour, I ambled on, saw no one else, heard no sign of humans and saw no sign of a "civilized" world. I saw chipmunks and red squirrels, bear scat but no bears, heard the me-me-me of finches and the cheeky calling of chickadees, saw a little nuthatch upside down on the bark of a spruce. Just that morning I had read that more than 200 bird species inhabit these forests, but I put it out of my mind, because I remembered something else I had been told, by a forest steward elsewhere in Nova Scotia. Just going out for a calming walk is good, he said, but with practice it can be better. As he put it, "You must try to move beyond listening and looking, into hearing and seeing; if you spend enough time in the woods you become outer-directed, and that's when the ills of stress begin to seep away." That little nuthatch is not just one more creature to be counted and ticked off on a life list … it just is. So are the trees, and the air, and the light, and the calm.

The Japanese, who have been at this sort of thing a lot longer, call the experience of stress reduction in natural surroundings "forest bathing," or shinrin-yoku. I read in a news report that "Japanese scientists have discovered that the scent of trees, the sound of brooks and the feel of sunshine … can have a calming effect …" It takes funded research to discover the glaringly obvious? True, there is further evidence that essential wood oils called phytoncides, which are natural preservatives and fungicides emitted by many plants, can actually increase natural killer cells in humans, thus enhancing the immune system. I don't know whether this is in any sense true, but it doesn't really matter, and if they want to call it "forest bathing" why should we quibble? It may be not so much that forests are healthy, but that cities are not.

You can "forest-bathe" pretty well anywhere there are trees, even in urban parks. But if you want to try the real thing, this may be the place. Trout Point Lodge's property abuts the thousand square kilometres of the Tobeatic wilderness area, which itself abuts the national park called Kejimkujik, the first and largest "dark zone" in Atlantic Canada and one of the least populated, least spoiled woodlands in eastern North America.

This is pristine Acadian forest; thousands of hectares of red spruce mixed with sugar maple and yellow birch, beech with their silky bark, red oak, pine and spruce, and hemlock on the lower stretches, some of them 30 metres or more tall. No roads, no houses, no industry … just nature. No all-terrain vehicles, no trucks. Not a golf course anywhere, not even a croquet pitch.

It's true that on the first morning, every now and then I imagined seeing the impish face of David Suzuki peeping around the bole of a forest giant and whispering "biophilia!" but, of course, that was only because I hadn't properly decompressed yet.

The lodge itself dozes on the banks of the Tusket River, a lazy thing whose water is the perfect bronze of infused tea, coloured by natural tannins from its wandering through the wetlands and bogs of the interior. This greatly delights visitors from Europe, who are used to immersing themselves in mineral-rich waters, and tend to shuck their clothes without much provocation.

When the lodge was built 10 years ago, even its owners - Charles Leary, Vaughn Perret and their partners - thought of it as being "in the middle of nowhere." But they've slowly learned that they were wrong. Nowhere is somewhere after all - this is a destination, not a refuge. They've built a luxury lodge up to Relais & Chateaux standards, yes, but also a nature sanctuary, a centre for forest bathing, an exemplar of ecotourism, and the "nowhere" has been transformed into a place that really does detoxify the many ills of urban living - the sour city air with its smells of old dust and burned carbon, the absence of living things except the ant-like bustling of too many other humans, the stress hormones that take residence in city dwellers and never let them go. At Trout Point, you can "bathe" in the woods and read a good book and eat exquisite locally grown food (cooked for you by the owners) and your cellphone won't work no matter how hard you punch its buttons.

At first, Trout Point's owners struggled against the darkness that surrounded them at night - they worried that their guests would feel anxious, and so they bathed the compound in light. But they soon discovered that the darkness was part of the experience. "Now, we plan a stargazing platform," Perret says. "We forget, when our view of the sky is polluted by light, how the sky sometimes seems to melt stars. … That's part of the totality of the experience. The term forest bathing is just a way to encapsulate the concept."

There is, the owners believe, a truth at the heart of the notion. The forest does somehow beguile very high-stress people to submit and then relax, and as a consequence, more and more of those individuals are knocking on the lodge's doors. A typical stay used to be one or two nights; now, it's four. Driving up from the United States for 12 hours for a two-day stay and then driving back again may drop stress levels for a nanosecond, but longer is definitely better. The benefits of longer are, after all, … longer.

I made my way back to the lodge building along a different path, one that skirted the river and a shallow bog to the north. I heard nothing, saw no one. No bodies snoozed under the trees. Nothing moved, not even a squirrel. Once, in the distance, I heard the raucous call of a blue jay. Otherwise, stillness, and silence. For a brief second of folly, I wanted to call everyone I knew, and tell them what I had found. But, of course, my phone couldn't connect.

Special to The Globe and Mail

For more on Trout Point Lodge call 1-902-761-2142. Rates start at $185.

 

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