Lately, I’ve spent many weekend mornings wandering passed towering steel tracks and shuttered auto shops on the way to Highland Park.
Situated on the border of Queens and Brooklyn, Google Maps reveals its a large island of green surrounded by cemeteries of all kinds. Jewish, Christian, non-denominational. It’s not quite an escape from the city — the sounds of the Jackie Robinson expressway and nearby church bells commingle with those of the birds, insects, and wind in the trees — but walking the leaf-strewn paths allows me to ponder and process the current state of things. Wiki tells me that Highland Park is one of the tallest points in Brooklyn (makes sense, given the name), but more importantly, it’s a verdant escape from its humming urban surroundings. For me, it’s the perfect place to practice the art and science of forest bathing.
What is forest bathing?
I first heard about “forest bathing,” or shinrin-yoku in Japanese, from a podcast Hurry Slowly a couple of years ago. The idea is that by disconnecting from modern life — our phones, social media, the urban grind — for a set time in the week can vastly improve one’s mental and physical health. A recent article in Outside magazine reiterated many of the benefits of the increasingly studied field of forest medicine, while the tome, Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness by Dr. Qing Li, a Japanese doctor who helped jump-start the research years ago, confirms a lot of these facts. Basically, being in nature sets off positive biological responses in our bodies, namely a greater sense of calm and peace, which translates to lower blood pressure and heart rate; boosts in our immunity responses; even reduction of stress hormones. TL;DR: Trees are magical and good for us.
How do you forest bathe?
And you don’t necessarily need a full, proper forest to benefit from forest bathing. A quiet park, a beach, a river, will all do — the entire point is to disconnect in nature, even for a little while. Even better? All the studies show you only need two hours spread out over a week to feel the benefits of a forest bathing session.
When we lived in Chicago, I was a big booster for the nature trail that ran near our neighborhood, along the North Branch of the Chicago River. About 3 miles in length, the trail ran north through a few parks and neighborhoods, home to ducklings and goslings in the spring time, Northwestern University rowers in the summer, and the odd heron here or there come fall. It was always my escape on Sundays, when I would walk the trail’s length while Ian was at work — it was a date I gave myself, weekly, permission to get out and breathe and think without the distraction and dread of a to-do list.
These days, I’ve traded the River for a park trail around the former Ridgewood reservoir. Parking myself on a concrete slab overlooking the water, with nothing before me but earth and sky — no headphones, podcasts, or other people’s voices — allows me an opportunity to really breathe. To take stock, to be kind to myself. To wonder.
I haven’t really had a chance to think about being laid off, at least, emotionally. I’m privileged enough to be booked and busy — with travel, with work, with coffee and cocktail meetings — but a full calendar has prevented me from reflecting about who I am without a job and who I want to be going forward.
Setting aside time every week to walk the 30 or so minutes to that concrete slab, where I journal, meditate, and write, is a gift to myself when I am buried under emails and tweets and deadlines. I’m still learning lessons from this city — can a homie ever just, like, chill for a sec? — but whenever I finally embrace my fullest, most anxious self, the city suddenly exhales, as if on my behalf. It decides to let up—like it sent out a some universal bat signal telling everyone to leave me the fuck alone. A quiet miracle, these moments, as the city gives me all the space I need to find my breath again. And then I exhale, too, and wait for the next day.