by Martha Slavin
Though I love trees, I was somewhat skeptical when at a writers’ retreat recently, we were invited to go forest bathing. I’d first heard of the expression from one of our nieces, who lives in a large city and wanted to go tree bathing to reconnect with the natural world. Forest bathing or Shinrin-yoku became a Japanese practice in the 1980s when Japan included the practice in a public health program. We all know how soothing being in nature can be, but somehow in our busy, concrete-laden world, we sometimes forget to walk on the grass and take a deep breath.
I’m intrigued by the idea that trees talk to each other. I am not someone who has sought mystical or spiritual relationship with trees, but I am thrilled by the science behind how trees communicate with each other. Research by Suzanne Simard at Yale shows that trees interact with fungi in the ground and network with other trees in the neighborhood by exchanging nutrients and information about the family of trees around them. There are even trees called Mother trees, the oldest tree of a species with the knowledge of the community of trees within its area.
I didn’t expect much as we group of writers stood together at the top of a hill ready to forest bathe and to write about it. We stepped on the well-worn path leading into a small wooded area. I find it hard to be mindful when I am not alone and conscious of others around me; but eventually I settled down and noticed the forest. I saw a tunnel formed by trees’ branches bent low over the path to create a shelter. My eyes caught minute strands of spider webs connecting one tree to another. I only saw them because a slight breeze brought them to my attention as they floated in the air. I followed the fine lines from one tree to the next. Tiny spiders scurried along the lines to wrap up even smaller insects trapped in the webs. Birds, disturbed by our presence, chirped and flew from one perch to another. They wrested pine nuts from the cones attached to the branches and trunks of Bishop pines along the path. Flies or native bees swirled around me as I walked near them. Agitated, they darted from one tree to the next, and buzzed around my head.
When I returned to the path’s beginning, the ground spongy beneath my shoes, I spotted a circle of young pines and sat inside the circle with my back against one pine. I pulled out my journal and wrote the word “Connections” while a breeze moved through the tops of the trees. I felt the tree shudder from the top all the way down to the roots of the tree, the vibrations thrumming through my back. I have never felt a tree move this way. I have never been so close to the heart of a tree.
Martha Slavin is an artist and writer. Her blog, Postcards in the Air, can be found each Friday at www.marthaslavin.blogspot.com She also writes poetry, memoir pieces, and essays. She creates handmade books, works in mixed media, watercolor, and does letterpress. She lives with her husband and two cats in California.