The International Forest Therapy Day (IFTD) are returning this summer, with an interesting new theme. I am not original and copied the theme in the title.
Forest bathing – or shinrin yoku is a term coined by the Japanese in the 1980s. This practice emerged in a period when the Japanese government noticed an increase in stress-related diseases, as a consequence of more people living in cities and indoors. By promoting forest bathing, they designed a new sort of medical consumerism which would help citizens to cope with the negative effects of a fast-paced urban society but also to get more appreciation of the nature. Forest bathing is not only praised and has scientific evidence for its health benefits, but more often people see forest bathing contributing to a ‘quiet revolution’ to restore the often broken relationship between people and the more-than-human world. In the past, I have written blogs where I describe guiding forest baths as a political, an ecofeminst act (e.g. The Snow White Effect: when forest therapy becomes an ecofeminist act)
A social practice or an activity?
Many newcomers and participants of guided forest baths might consider it as an event they do only once. In different surveys in guided forest baths, done in Belgium, curiosity was a reason why people participated (for the first time). Others start to see it as a practice, like yoga, for mindfullness, nature connection or other benefits.
Some years ago, I tried to investigate Forest bathing through a social practice lens. I never finished this investigation, but I helped to make a conference poster for a conference some years ago. The title is longer than the conference poster itself :): A social practice perspective to forest bathing in Flanders -restoring the relationship between people and the more-than-human world.
Relation between forest bathing and other practices and behaviour
Some years ago, I did a small game in my Instagram stories where I asked my followers about their activities with yes-no questions. I asked them if they engaged in tree planting, pro-environmental behavior, activities that can be seen as proxy of slowing down lifestylea … Assuming that most followers were forest bath guides, participants and people interested in similar practices, I was expecting to see high percentages that would indeed indicate that there are links between forest bathing and other practices and behaviour. My expectations were met.
However, it is not the most scientific method. For example, I have no theoretical behavioural model behind this little game I did. Also, I should have done the same test on my Instagram profile on ‘War Against Trees’ to check if anti-forest bathing people would do not so environmental behaviour, but I do not have such instagram account.
When am I forest bathing?
Already during my training of forest bathing guide, it became less clear when I am forest bathing. It is not that I do only forest bathing during an ‘official (guided) event’, or any period which is marked with a start and end ritual. A beginning ritual could be asking permission to a forest, a land you enter, and an end ritual could be a ritual of gratitude towards the land. However, I express gratitude in a restaurant. Especially when I lived in Japan, I would say itadakimas(u) before I start eating, which is an expression of gratitude toward the land that brought me this food. I stop at information boards when I enter a forest to learn more about its history, which is also some sort of ritual of acknowledgement. Life is full of rituals and intentions. The training was full of personal learning and reflections, full of click moments, and it had an influence on my intentions, not always on my impact.
Forest bathing-as-a-way of life means listening and noticing
Many posthumanist scholars like Anna Tsing and Donna Harraway might be forest bathing. They write a lot about actively noticing and observing. I might struggle more with eco-anxiety, shame, guilt… because how more you listen, how more of the ugly and violent becomes very visible. These women also write about living with the trouble. You have to accept there is some ugliness, violence, unjustice… because otherwise the dark feelings can take you over. In my own (paid) work I am often confronted with people and organisations with other values, which are not mine. I feel how the anger takes over my body, often followed by a light touch of depression on my breastbone.
Then there are also moments where I become aware of how drinking vanilla tea might lead to child soldiers in Madagascar. Then guilt is putting his hands around my throat. In the sustainability field, you have to unlearn so much and handle disappointments. For example, some weeks ago I learned about menstruation absorbing underwear that I have been using for some years might be toxic. The company might have not been clean about the whole environmental declaration. I felt bad for some hours, also guilty, as I had recommended another friend weeks earlier to buy this. And then I dug into work of Sophie Strand to remind myself there is no such thing as purity and that we have to live with all the troubles, from microplastics in our breasts to PFAS in my soil. Otherwise I just become insane.
Forest bathing as a way of life is mud walking in dark forests
I have reflected about victimhood. Some weeks ago, a family member -who was very important to my parents- died of an aggressive ovary cancer. Her mother, who is still alive, had ulcer cancer. My father is doing this week more tests after a not so positive colorectal cancer detection test. When I was ten years old, I lost a grandfather, also cancer. My mother who did so much work and hobbies with her hands -given her mental limitations since childhood- cannot use her hands anymore: she has the Dupuytren disease (and her manual labor for 30 years did not help), had to do operations on both hands, but her hands do not cure. In the past months, I listened to many stories about loss. What I filtered as message is that it does not help to act like victims. It is how it is.
Some actions that maybe looked sustainable, were apparently not sustainable in other aspects that you overlooked. Some hidden truths become visible… and you have to cope with that. I do not cope always in a gracious way. Sometimes I switch on Netflix, or scroll on social media and lose myself there. I cocoon sometimes, and do not want to talk with anyone, even if friends are sending messages or calling me. In more gracious moments, I channel it into ecofiction writing, and some anger is the driver behind my (paid) work in the field of circular economy.
Some say forest bathing is a lot about connecting with the surroundings, but it is often too much for me. It is not that I can filter only happy stories. If you open your antenna for gossips of the forest, you get it all. Selective deafness does not exist in forest bathing as a way of life. Therefore, I have to go inward.
Forest bathing as a way of life is not only about experiencing as many positive benefits as you can. It is also coping with toxicity, darkness, and not in a gracious way. I hear once in a while -of people who know me for a long time – that I smile less than in my early twenties. That is also result or part of forest bathing as a lifestyle. But I do not see myself as a victim of the dark side of forest bathing.
It is how it is.
Writing(with)Vanilla about Sweet violence
Which reminds me…
Want to discuss about forest bathing as a way of life?
During the next IFTDays, the organisers invite to explore forest bathing beyond acute stress reduction intervention, nature connection practice, and a group forest-based activity. They are looking to you for questions and answers as they try to understand what it would mean if we lived A FOREST-BATHING WAY OF LIFE.
IFT days are open for submissions of offerings during the online part of the IFTD (6-7June). Please visit their website for more information: https://www.foresttherapydays.com/iftdays-2023-more/