Sarah Dawson explores our ancient connection with woodland and how trees really can enhance your wellbeing.
Stepping into woodland is a feeling like no other. That sense of history, the deep connection with nature and the power of being surrounded by living things that help keep us alive – walking among trees is both grounding and therapeutic. Calming, mystical, majestic and nourishing, trees speak to the human soul – and there has never been a moment in living memory where that desire to immerse ourselves in nature has been stronger.
The history of our bond with trees goes back centuries, where traditionally, livelihood, nourishment, safety and shelter have all been provided by our native forests. No other natural habitat has offered so much to humans, but we’ve not always treated it with the respect it deserves. Throughout history, England’s ancient forests have been depleted to provide building material (most notably for naval ships) and fuel for our growing population. By 1905, England’s forests and woods had shrunk to a land coverage of just 5.2 per cent, but thankfully, in 1919, the Forestry Commission was set up to help rebuild our forests and introduce sustainable woodland management plans.
Today, the UK’s forest cover is up to 13 per cent, but charity Friends of the Earth is calling for that to be doubled by 2045. If you’re wondering where all these new trees might be planted, the answer lies in our diets. If we all ate less meat, farmland (which currently uses 70 per cent of the land in the UK) would be freed up for the planting of woodland.
The natural wonders of forest therapy
Why are trees so important? Not only do they filter pollutants in the air and water via their leaves and bark, but they also absorb the high levels of CO2 currently being produced by human activity. This heat-trapping gas is one of the main culprits in global warming and has also been shown to be a major factor in the growing acidification of the seas – something that is impacting coral reefs and marine life.
Our wooded friends also hold soil in place to prevent the ground being washed away and provide homes to countless species of birds, insects and animals. Every single one of the 3.1 trillion trees on earth plays a vital role in our ecosystem. Without them, quite simply, our planet’s time would be up.
A deep rooted connection
Our forests have long been sources of mystery and legend so perhaps it’s unsurprising to learn that trees can talk to each other. Ecologist Suzanne Simard discovered that they communicate via a network of underground fungi, sending out information about their needs and providing nutrients to each other. Next time you take a walk in the woods, consider what is happening right under your feet!
As we step into autumn, our forests and woodlands mark the change of the season in the most mesmerising way. As leaves turn a kaleidoscope of colours, from light yellow to rich oranges and the most vibrant of red, there really is no better time to get outside and experience the beauty of our woodland for yourself.
We all know a walk in the woods can do wonders for the soul, but what can we do to harness the power of nature at a deeper level?
One way to benefit from immersing yourself in autumnal woodland, is by meditative walking. Divya Kohli, mindfulness meditation and yoga teacher, and author of Finding Peace in Difficult Times (Watkins), explains: “Humans are biologically programmed to find trees, plants, water and the elements interesting, which means when we are out in nature, we are more likely to be ‘present’. Being in the natural world offers respite for over-active thinking and refreshes our perspective. There’s lots of research into how being in nature can change human physiology, reducing the production of stress hormones in the body, muscle tension, blood pressure and heart rate. Walking as a form of meditation is a concept as old as we are, and anyone can benefit from the deeper dimension of meditative walking.”
How to take a meditative walk
So, what makes it different from ‘just taking a walk’? “For a walk to be a meditation, you notice what you experience as you move, you bring mindful attention to the sensations in the body, to the ground as your feet connect to it, to your breathing, sounds and whatever else might arise,” shares Divya. “Being with each step with intentional presence, transforms the walk from mere movement into an act of meditative awareness.”
If it’s something you’d like to try yourself, Divya has this advice: “First of all, if you’re walking alone please do so in daylight hours and be mindful of your safety. Before you begin to walk, notice how you feel, the earth beneath you and pay attention to the sight of the trees, what you can see and hear around you. As you walk, notice how your body feels and notice your breathing. When you get lost in a thought or emotion, or your mind simply wanders, just bring your focus back to the sights, sounds and experience around you – allow your senses to take in what they see, pause and appreciate the trees around you, then when you come to the end of your meditative walk, stand still and notice and reflect on how you feel in your body. Finally, send gratitude to the trees and all that they give us over time, and what they have given to you during your walk.”
The ancient art of forest bathing
Another way to connect with trees this autumn is forest bathing, the Japanese practise of Shinrin-Yoku, which translates as ‘bathing your senses in the atmosphere of the forest.”
Sonya Dibbin, an accredited Forest Therapy Guide, and mindfulness and meditation teacher in-training (adoreyouroutdoors.co.uk), is a huge advocate of the practise: “Forest bathing is an evidence-based, therapeutic practise that connects people to their natural surroundings, using gentle, sensory-based ‘invitations’ – or relaxation exercises.” Similar to a meditative walk, forest bathing focuses on turning off that inner chatter and bringing attention to the present moment.
“My job as guide is to help you activate your senses,” explains Sonya. “As you slow down and relax, you’ll move into a state of ‘least excitation’. It’s then that you reconnect with the natural world in a new way, enabling you to let down your guard and process emotions. Your problems might seem easier to handle with this clarity of mind.
Forest bathing is usually enjoyed in a small group, where you can reflect together with a community of like-minded people – and, as Sonya explains, the benefits are vast. “We all know time spent in nature – woodland in particular – is good for us, but connecting to nature takes it one step further. Proven positive results include a stronger immune system, lowered hypertension, reduced anxiety and improvements in sleep, concentration and memory. One of the key ethics of forest therapy is reciprocity.
As you develop and deepen your connection to nature, you begin to notice more and you develop a sense of awe and wonder, and gratitude. You feel a sense of belonging to something bigger.”
Now, more than ever, we need to connect with and care for our natural world. If the past six months have taught us anything, it’s that nature is a sanctuary that must be cherished. Seek out your local woodland this autumn, immerse yourself in it and reap the benefits.
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