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About the Author
Robin Wall Kimmerer is the State University of New York Distinguished Teaching Professor at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse. She is founding director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. Her books include Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses and Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants.
Read an Excerpt
IN THE COMPANY OF TREES
Rustling leaves. Creaking trunks. The green smell of the earth after a light rain. Sunlight falling through the lacework of leaves.
Just reading a description of being in the forest might make you pause, take a deep breath, feel the soft edge of peace that comes from spending time outdoors. You remember the feeling. Perhaps it's been a while, or perhaps just yesterday you gave yourself a few minutes on a mossy rock. Either way, it tugs at you, asks you to return.
Being in the woods doesn't just feel good but is, in fact, good for you. If you've ever spent time in the forest yourself, you probably don't need a scientist to tell you that. Having grown up exploring the woods and climbing the trees of New Hampshire, the idea seems, well, natural to me. My first climbing trees, the crabapple in our front yard and the red maple in our backyard, were like old friends. Depending on my mood, they offered comfort, exhilaration, or peace.
Hand-in-hand with my love for the woods came my love for literature about the natural world. People have been going to nature for solace and healing for a very long time, and they have been putting words to that relationship for maybe just as long. And it's not only the woods they turn to, of course. Some go to the desert, some to the sea, some to a wide sweep of prairie.
Who's to say why our spirits feel at home in a particular place?
This book, however, is for those of us who love the company of trees. You will find writings here from Native American traditions, Japanese haiku masters, the Romantics of 19th-century Europe, American Transcendentalists, voices of the modern environmental movement, and others. You will find the famous American walker, Henry David Thoreau, who "frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech-tree, or a yellow-birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines."
Like many schoolchildren, I read the work of Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walt Whitman when I was about 15. Perhaps unlike most schoolchildren, however, I felt an intense connection with the American Transcendentalists we were learning about. I recognized the urge to run to the woods to escape society or for comfort when I felt low, and I remember feeling rather pleased with myself for hauling my reading as high as I could to a nook in the red maple so I could absorb it in the appropriate context.
Now, as a poet, I find inspiration not only in the beauty of nature but also in the fascinating revelations of science and the mysteries science has yet to (and, in some cases, may never) unravel. This book is a testament to all of this. It also takes as a jumping-off point the concept of "forest bathing," a term that may be new to us, but something I feel like I've been doing in one way or another all my life. It is simply the newest iteration of a long-felt truth with deep roots that extend to many traditions around the world.
The Japanese government coined the term "forest bathing" (shinrin-yoku in Japanese) in the 1980s to describe the practice of spending time in the woods to soak up its health benefits. It does not involve water (unless you feel inclined to dip yourself in a stream or pond, in which case, by all means!), and it does not require strenuous exercise (we don't all have to cover the miles that Thoreau did). Think, rather, of a slow, leisurely stroll, a pace that gives you time to notice small things, like a caterpillar crawling across a leaf or the unique scent of a pine forest — time to open your senses to the world around you.
"Attention is the beginning of devotion," wrote beloved nature poet Mary Oliver — a practice out of which grows reverence, yes, but also healing and connection. And as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "In the woods we return to reason and to faith." You will find in this book myriad variations on these sentiments, from ancient to modern, from religious to scientific.
Only relatively recently in evolutionary history have so many of us humans lived largely indoors — is it any wonder that our bodies, minds, and souls crave the outdoors? May the readings in this book draw you to the woods, remind you of the sensory experiences you encounter there, and encourage you to find your own wholeness and wildness among the trees.
— Hannah Fries
So here you are at last, among the trees.
Whether you are in a city park, town trail system, state forest, national park, or private woodland; whether the acreage you stand on is large or small; whether the trees are towering old giants or young upstarts; whether you can hear traffic nearby or not; whether you are with others or alone; whether it is hot or cold, rainy or sunny or snowing; whether you are in shape or not; whether you know anything about trees and wildlife or not ... you are here.
Before you enter the woods, before you take another step, take a moment to scan your body and mind.
Take a slow, deep breath.
Then, begin with your toes. Wiggle them. Feel the soles of your feet pressing against the ground.
Work your way up your body, letting your attention rest a moment on each part of you, noting where you feel tightness, tension, or stress. When you do, pause to take a few extra breaths. Imagine your muscles relaxing with each exhale.
Unclench your hands.
Bring your shoulders up to your ears, and then let them drop.
Imagine a weight dropping with them, falling down your arms and flowing off your fingertips.
What sort of chatter is running through your head?
Tell yourself you are going to focus on something else now. For a moment, just listen to yourself breathe.
Put your hand on your belly and begin your breath there. Feel your chest expand and contract.
Visualize your lungs inside your ribcage, filling with fresh air. Your lungs are filling with the breath of trees.
As the trees breathe out, you breathe in; as the trees breathe in, you breathe out.
In some mysterious way, woods have never seemed to me to be static things. In physical terms, I move through them; yet in metaphysical ones, they seem to move through me.
— John Fowles
Trees "breathe in" carbon dioxide and release oxygen and water vapor through tiny holes in their leaves called stomata, a word that comes from the Greek word meaning "mouth." On one square millimeter of a leaf, there are 100 to 1,000 of these little mouths, all breathing. One mature tree breathes in 48 pounds of carbon dioxide each year — and the exhalations of two mature trees provide enough oxygen for you to breathe for more than a year.
As you stand beneath the trees and breathe, imagine your own pores softening and opening, making you more permeable to the natural world around you.
All things share the same breath — the beast, the tree, the man ... the air shares its spirit with all the life it supports.
— Chief Seattle
When you first enter the woods, it may seem still and silent, save for the birds or few creatures who startle ahead of you, warning others of your presence. Enter the woods quietly, in a posture of gratitude, and you will be a little less disruptive.
Sit as still as you can in one place for a while —
20 minutes or so — and see how the forest begins to slowly go about its business again all around you.
Why did this spring wood Grow so silent when I came? What was happening?
— Richard Wright
Richard Wright, author of Native Son and Black Boy, wrote more than 4,000 haiku in the final 18 months of his life. With their strict syllable counts and evocative images of nature, these haiku, according to Wright's daughter Julia, were "self-developed antidotes against illness."
At his home in Hawaii, poet W. S. Merwin turned 19 acres of decimated land — formerly a pineapple plantation — into a lush palm forest, one hand-planted seedling at a time. Now, the Merwin Palm Collection has over 2,740 individual palm trees, representing more than 400 species. It is one of the largest palm collections on earth. Where once the wind moved over a wasteland, now it moves through myriad rustling palm fronds. In his poem "Place," Merwin writes:
On the last day of the world I would want to plant a tree.
After sundown the crowns of the tallest palms stand out against the clear glass of the eastern sky they have no shadows and no memory the wind has gone its own way nothing is missing
— W. S. Merwin
Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh teaches "walking meditation," an intentional way of being mindful and present as you walk. Focus on your breath and repeat a phrase in your mind. You can choose your own words or images to focus on as you walk. Perhaps you breathe in and think of being rooted, like a tree; breathe out and think of being light, like a leaf in the wind.
Breathe in and think, I am solid; breathe out and think, I am free.
With each step the earth heals us, and with each step we heal the earth.
— Thich Nhat Hanh
Deer Park Monastery is a mindfulness practice center and monastic training center established by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. Surrounded by oak trees, the monastery is located on a 400-acre preserve in the chaparral mountains of southern California. At right is an excerpt from Tess Gallagher's poem "Walking Meditation with Thich Nhat Hanh."
Fifty of us follow him loosely up the mountain at Deer Park Monastery. We are in the slow motion of a dream lifting off the dreamer's brow. Steps into steps and the body rising out of them like smoke from a fire with many legs. Gradually the flames die down and the earth is finally under us. Inside the mountain a centipede crawls into no-up, no-down.
— Tess Gallagher
turn to the wind
Turn now from your own breath, from the trees' breath, to the breath of the wind — the little puffs and eddies, heaving storms and flowing currents that move in the ocean of our atmosphere.
What does the wind carry with it today?
A change in the weather? A bit of sweetness, or a wet chill? A puff of cottonwood seed, a swirl of dust, laughter from a nearby playground ...?
How have you been shaped by the place where you live?
The trees are tickled and played by the wind, buffeted and broken and uprooted by the wind, even shaped by the wind. In exposed, blustery places such as rocky mountaintops and seashores, you may be able to tell the direction the wind usually blows by looking at the trees, especially conifers. Their branches look like they are streaming in one direction — downwind. This is called "flagging."
the sound of wind in the trees and rustling of leaves
Gerard Manley Hopkins was one of the greatest poets of the Victorian era. Though he was a Jesuit priest, he is known as a nature writer as much as a religious writer. His keen observations of the natural world are brought to life in language so rich and textured that his poems leap into both physical and spiritual ecstasy. Here he is on the intimacy of air.
Wild air, world-mothering air, Nestling me everywhere, That each eyelash or hair Girdles; goes home betwixt The fleeciest, frailest-flixed Snowflake; that's fairly mixed With riddles, and is rife In every least thing's life; This needful, never spent, And nursing element; My more than meat and drink, My meal at every wink; This air, which, by life's law, My lung must draw and draw Now but to breathe its praise ...
— Gerard Manley Hopkins
On mountaintops and subarctic landscapes, trees that endure the cold, fierce winds become gnarled and stunted. These scrubby survivors are called krummholz, a German word meaning "crooked, bent, twisted." And though they are small, they may also be quite ancient.
Such trees — such people, too — have stories to tell.
This musical excerpt is from Krummholz Variations, a musical tone poem for flute, clarinet, two bassoons, two trumpets, and two trombones. Twisted krummholz serve as gateways to the alpine zone and as mountaintop sentinels. I treasure them for their unique deformities. High altitude landscapes are a paradigm for beauty in the face of harshness. When times are tough, I find hope in moments of joy and serenity that blossom amidst extremes. They remind me of the human spirit and our great capacity for resilience, a new possibility in every breath.
— Oliver Caplan, composer
Naturalist, conservationist, and writer John Muir (1838–1914) was an early and passionate voice in the movement to preserve wilderness in the United States. Often called the "Father of the National Parks," Muir co-founded the Sierra Club and petitioned Congress for a bill that resulted in the creation of Yosemite National Park. As a writer, he has deeply influenced the way Americans see their wild lands. He advised, "Keep close to Nature's heart ... and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean."
The winds go to every tree, fingering every leaf and branch and furrowed bole; not one is forgotten; the Mountain Pine towering with outstretched arms on the rugged buttresses of the icy peaks, the lowliest and most retiring tenant of the dells; they seek and find them all, caressing them tenderly, bending them in lusty exercise, stimulating their growth, plucking off a leaf or limb as required, or removing an entire tree or grove, now whispering and cooing through the branches like a sleepy child, now roaring like the ocean.
— John Muir
It was the wind that gave them life. It is the wind that comes out of our mouths now that gives us life. When this ceases to blow we die. In the skin at the tips of our fingers we see the trail of the wind, it shows us the wind blew when our ancestors were created.
— Navajo saying
The wind has been revered as sacred for centuries and across many cultures, from Native Americans to the ancient Greeks.
In Greek, the words breath, wind, and spirit are all the same: pneuma.
And in Hebrew, the word for all three is ruach.
The roots of a tree are a vast network, branching and rebranching, finding their way through the soil and around rocks, taking in nutrients, connecting the tree to the earth, to other trees, and to the various living things that reside in the darkness underground — insects, bacteria, fungi, and burrowing creatures. Aboveground, branches grow toward the light, crisscrossing the sky, bending in the wind.
In ways completely foreign to us, trees sense the world around them, reacting and adapting to changes in their environment, and even communicating with each other.
In these maple and birch and beech the branches reach out year after year, running skyward like the fingers of rivulets when water is poured on dry ground. Water is at the heart of their form; they have the shape of river systems seen from space, or veins of blood, or nerves. Standing there, buds swollen, with a wash of deep red over them, they seem as lambent and as alive and as ready as anything on earth could be.
— Diana Kappel-Smith
Now that you have found your center — your own breath — and let the forest puff its green breath across your skin, it is time to turn further outward, to send out your tendrils and roots and search for connection.
As you walk through the forest, feel your own body react and respond. Invite the forest in through your senses ...
Pretend you have just been granted the gift of sight. Instead of looking at things, look for things.
Play a game of noticing. Seek out small details that might otherwise escape your attention. Take delight in discovering:
The play of light through leaves or on water
The silhouette of a bird against the sky
Patterns in bark
Delicate plants growing close to the ground
The intricate shapes that ice makes
Bursts of lichen on rocks
We step from darkly clustered spruce into birch — pink and white, bark peeled into sunrise like sloughed skin. And though it is raining, it is as if a shattered sun, golden leaves, falls in shards through the gray October sky to glow around us.
— Hannah Fries(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Forest Bathing Retreat"
Copyright © 2018 Hannah Fries.
Excerpted by permission of Storey Publishing.
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