Diana Beresford-Kroeger is a scientist and author. Her most recent book is To Speak for the Trees: My Life’s Journey from Ancient Celtic Wisdom to a Healing Vision of the Forest, from which this is adapted.
We find ourselves living in a special time. On the one hand, the climate crisis poses the most significant threat to our future that humanity has ever faced. On the other, we are better equipped than ever before to take on that challenge. To do so, though, we need to understand and respect the natural world as people once did. We need to see all that the sacred cathedral of the forest offers us, and understand that among those many offerings is a way to save the world.
The forest is far more than a source of lumber. It is our lungs. It cleans the atmosphere. It recycles water. It is our collective medicine cabinet. It is the regulatory system for our climate and feeds our oceans. It is the cooling mantle of the planet. It is the health and well-being of our children and grandchildren. It is our salvation.
Trees offer us the solution to nearly every problem facing humanity today, from halting global temperature rise to defending against drug-resistant bacteria. And trees affect our lives, our cultures and spirit in many other ways. The tapestry of life, worldwide, depends on trees.
Over the past decade, science and medicine have been revealing all the ways that trees and forests are good for your health, especially mental health. Forest bathing, an ancient technique used by many cultures, especially the Japanese, isn’t some wellness fad. It actually fine-tunes the health of the entire body: As you walk through the trees, you immerse yourself in an air bath of natural forest biochemicals released as a fine aerosol mist. Even a 20-minute walk can have benefits as long as you slow down, take your time and breathe deeply so that the volatile organic compounds carried by those aerosols reach into the lower regions of the lungs where the deep tissue will absorb nature’s medicines. For the full medicinal effect, take your walk in a mature forest, the older the better. Ancient forests are the best, of course.
Enter this strong atmospheric bath with as much of your hair and skin uncovered as possible. Some of these tree medicines are fat soluble and others are water soluble, and entry sites in the skin will receive them both. In general, the fats will travel to the brain, the waters to the major organs. The body will extract what it needs.
Walk in the daytime, too, because sunlight works on the glandular tissue of the leaves, increasing the amount of volatile organic compounds and mobilizing them to ride the airways looking for a landing site. Both timing and temperature are important to effective forest bathing. In northern climates in the winter, early spring and very late fall, trees can’t deliver their full health benefits because they are shutting down, entering dormancy. Based on tree physiology, the ideal temperatures range for a forest bathing walk is from 15 degrees to around 30 degrees. And participants should walk when the day is humid, because the water vapour helps to drive the movement of the aerosols.
Tree aerosols act as anti-cancer shields, improve circulation and decrease high blood pressure. They have antibiotic, antifungal and anti-rheumatic effects. One species of tree whose habitat is the edge of the forest produces a target vasodilator, a unique biochemical that opens the left ascending coronary artery of the beating heart, a medicine already used in surgery. Some tree aerosols suppress the flow of a hormone called hydrocortisone, or cortisol, which also tied in with immune protection. All this is known, yet science has barely scratched the surface of the immense gifts trees bring us.
With the Amazon burning, and the global temperature rising, stopping climate change in its tracks can seem an impossibility. But my life and work have taught me that nothing is ever as dire or insurmountable as it seems, and that the natural world’s powers of regeneration stretch far beyond our understanding. Every one of us can fight for and save the global forest, our planet and ourselves. It’s not complicated. My bioplan is as simple as protecting the trees we have and planting one native tree each per year for six years.
There is a deity in nature that I believe we all understand. When you walk into a forest, great or small, you enter it in one state and emerge from it calmer. You come out of the woods knowing something big has happened to you. Science has now explained a part of that sacred experience. We now know that the aerosols produced by the forest actually do uplift your mood and affect your brain through your immune system.
Simply walking into a forest is a holiday for your mind and soul, allowing your imagination and creativity to bloom. It is a miracle, and there are so many other miracles of the natural world left for us to discover.
We all feel the joy of those miracles. We will save the forests and our planet. The trees are telling us how to do just that – all we have to do is listen.
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