Finding Health in the Forest
The key to kicking stress may be as easy as a walk in the woods
By Michael Roberts
Photos courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism
For many of us, the day starts off with a blaring alarm clock—followed by a cacophony of ringing phones and car horns as we navigate through teeming streets to work or school. The immediate concerns of the day’s to-do list jostle for prominence in our heads alongside personal issues like debts, relationships or whichever worrisome news story last came blasting at us from any of the shouting heads that populate the 24-hour cable news channels. Add to that an email inbox full of urgent messages, numerous social media accounts (each with a running tally of notifications that demand attention) and dozens of interactions with others we meet as we go about the day, and it’s easy to see why Americans are reporting stress- and anxiety-related problems in greater numbers than ever. Luckily, the answer to it all may involve a heaping, healthy dose of something we have in abundance here in Arkansas: nature, particularly wooded areas. Welcome to the world of “forest bathing.”
Of course, taking walks out in the woods is something people have been doing since well before recorded history, but in our modern (and increasingly urban) world, it’s very easy to become disconnected with the wilderness. The idea that bridging this gap could bring about an increase in health and well-being was first explored in Japan, a nation famous for its high-pressure corporate environment and hectic, crowded cities. In 1982, the Forest Agency of Japan began advocating Shinrin-yoku (literally translated as “taking in the forest atmosphere”) as a potential remedy for burned-out workers, and today it is recognized by Japanese society as a beneficial and effective stress-management activity. Today, Americans are beginning to emulate the Japanese practice in increasing numbers.
Arkansas is blessed with more than 18 million acres of forestland, including three national forests, an ever-growing number of multi-use trails and some of the best state parks in the country—all things that make forest bathing a health trend that is tailor-made for the state. The Natural State’s tourism industry hasn’t let that fact go unnoticed, with the Arkansas State Parks touting itself as one of the prime facilitators of forest bathing in the state in a promotional campaign this year. Private entities have also begun promoting the trend.
“Simply immersing yourself in nature can bring about both psychological and physiological changes for one’s positive well-being,” says Carmen Caldwell, co-owner (with husband Robert) of the Tall Pines Inn in Eureka Springs. For the Caldwells, touting the myriad of forest bathing opportunities is a no-brainer. “Eureka Springs is surrounded by lots of woods and water, and when we have guests who show an interest in outdoor activities, I’m always excited to point them in the right direction,” says Carmen. She’s particularly partial to nearby Lake Leatherwood Park, citing the park’s opportunities for hiking, walking, mountain biking—and, of course, forest bathing.
Forest bathing is also cropping up on the state’s river valley region. Beverly Dunaway, who serves as board vice-president at nonprofit retreat and rural learning center Meadowcreek (near Fox), says the remote wilderness that surrounds the center’s facilities make it uniquely suited to forest bathing. “People are often taken in by the surroundings [here at Meadowcreek],” she says. “Often, when we show people who are interested in being part of our agricultural entrepreneurship efforts, they remark on the wonderful atmosphere—people just feel good when they work and stay here. There’s a reason for that, and we’ve known about the benefits of being outside on our grounds. For many years, we just didn’t have a name for it.”
No matter what it’s called, the feel-good effects of getting out into the woods have been a part of Arkansas’ appeal for many years. Whether the current buzzword will last as a description is unknown—but the age-tested joy of getting back to nature is sure to live on.