The Germans have a special word for the joy of spending time within them.
The Japanese have been running a dedicated public health programme around them since 1982.
And research investigating their benefits has discovered a wealth of measurable, positive gains from striding about them.
Call it ‘waldeinsamkeit’, call it ‘shin-rin yoko’, whatever you label it, there are very strong arguments for being out amongst them.
And yet, there are those for whom these delightful natural temples of health and life somehow manage to strike fear into the heart. For trees en masse – woods and forests to be precise – can leave grown adults quaking in their walking boots.
A friend of mine physically shuddered when I enthused about my regular traipses through woods and uttered ‘oh no’ at the thought of doing it herself, as if it were the equivalent of putting her hand into a liquidiser and turning it on.
I get almost giddy with the anticipation of the coming treat as I walk towards the edge of my local woodlands. The layers of colour and texture, the shafts of dusty sunlight, the glistening dewiness… for me it is all adventure and fun. What you see shifts with the seasons, the weather, even the time of day. Which birds will I see and hear? How many rabbits will I spot bobbing into the undergrowth? It’s a treasured opportunity to suspend the demands of the day and focus on just being. But for my friend it’s a horror film set waiting to burst into Living Dead life.
To some extent, I can see why woods instil nervousness. About a third of what you can see is hidden from view because, well, there are trees in the way. The word ‘panic’ comes from the god, Pan, to whom all woodland noises were once attributed. Those woodland noises being mostly blackbirds crashing about in the undergrowth, or those scampering rabbits.
Imagination is a wonderful thing, but those myths and fairy stories are just that and we all know fiction and reality are two different things. Don’t we? Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White… they all feature woods and forests and, of course, hundreds of years ago served to warn children about the perils of wandering off into the woods alone. Today our chances of being eaten by wolves are pretty slim.
That feeling we get in our stomach when we enter the woods is primal. It’s our senses switching on to alert, because so much is hidden from view. You can identify that feeling as ‘fear’ if you want, or you can choose to see it as ‘excitement’. They feel exactly the same in the body. It’s your choice as to how you’ll interpret them mentally.
For me, it’s definitely ‘excitement’. I can’t think of anywhere better for a mindfulness walk, as the visual cornucopia of colour and texture unfurls you stop thinking about the 101 things that must be done and start being present in its delightful setting for ‘nowness’.
The Germans certainly get it and most of those stranger-danger fairy tales are theirs. Waldeinsamkeit, which roughly translates as ‘the feeling of being alone in the woods’, in a contemplative, relaxed kind of way, not a ‘The Hills have Eyes/Friday the 13th/The Evil Dead’ kind of way. The artist Ludwig Richter’s painting gives you the gist of it. See, all chilled serenity. No ‘where’s the demon gone now?’ flapping.
In Japan, forest batheing, shin-rin yoko, has been popular for decades. Research projects have discovered there is good reason for attributing health benefits to the practice, including blood pressure and cortisol levels dropping after walks in woods and staying lower for some time. As well as improving our stress responses, their natural killer cells (the ones killing off infections and cells going rogue and potentially cancerous) are higher. This is because trees breathe out phytoncide, an antimicrobial compound that protects trees from germs and insects. When we breathe walk about trees and breathe in phytoncide it boosts our immune system.
Apparently the tech company bright young things of San Francisco see the sense in getting into the woods when they can, even if its only for a lunch time walk, so perhaps it will catch on in Britain.
I’d be interest in hearing about attitudes to forests and woods in other cultures, though. Where else is walking in the woods a health past time to relish?