“...the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations....” Revelation 22:2b

Why do you spend time outdoors? How often are you able to go up on Mount Helena, or to a park, or further to a forest? How do you feel when you’ve had some nature-time?

Montanans know the value of spending time in nature; that’s one of the reasons we live here. We treasure our access to mountains and rivers, forests and wildflowers. In western Montana we are particularly blessed. Whether it’s hiking in the back country or simply sitting in your backyard in the shade of the ponderosa pine, we relish our time outdoors.

It seems the rest of the world is catching on... and they may have something to teach us.

A growing body of research shows that spending time outdoors, in a forest in particular, leads people to feeling happier, less anxious, and more optimistic. The immune system is strengthened. Blood pressure goes down and creativity goes up. Who doesn’t want all that?!

Unfortunately, our lives are dominated by screens, which sap our energy. Electronics are essential to our lives, whether you simply have a camera or TV, or do everything on your phone. My iPad will tell me how many hours of screen-time I’ve put in this week, but I’d really rather not know. I want to deny the addictive nature of games and social media and tell myself that it’s all good and important. I wonder what the percentage actually is for valuable time spent versus time wasted? Maybe I could Google that... oh wait. There I go again.

In Japan the concept of “Shinrin-Yoku”, literally, “forest bathing”, is catching on in a big way. More and more people in this highly productive nation are becoming aware of the value of gentle exposure to the essence of trees. Nearly one-fourth of the sizable population walk, stroll, or sit in the woods regularly to reduce their stress. The pace is important; running through a park with earbuds in place is better than sitting in front of a computer screen, but not nearly as beneficial as slowing down, breathing deeply, watching and listening attentively. The trees may actually react to human presence, and calmness can help them too.

You can read about the fascinating science of it all by reading “The Nature Fix” by Florence Williams, or visit www.natureandforesttherapy.org. There’s no shortage of resources on this subject, but those are the two I like best.

Here, right here where we live, we have the blessing of plentiful trees and nearby forests. We just have to get out there! It doesn’t require fancy equipment, or a financial outlay. It doesn’t take much time to get there. The resources are available and plentiful.

I’ve only recently learned about forest bathing, but I’ve always known that my spirit and soul are fed when I can spend extended time in the woods. Maybe that’s why time at church camp has been so important to me throughout my life. A week at Camp restores my energy and opens my mind and heart. I encounter extraordinary people there, too. So much good happens! I return home refreshed.

Many of the world’s religions praise the blessing of nature, for example: “Even in a single leaf of a tree, or a tender blade of grass, the awe-inspiring Deity manifests itself.” (Shinto) “Earth, my Mother! Set me securely with bliss in full accord with Heaven. Wise One, uphold me in grace and in splendor.” (Hindu) “Blessing of green plants, blessing of forests: Cedar, Douglas fir, swordfern, salal bush...” (Native American: Chinook) The passage from Revelation in the Christian Bible, quoted above, indicates ancient knowledge of “Shinrin-Yoku.”

The world needs public lands and wilderness retreats and places for slow walks. The well-being of the human race depends on it!

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Cathy Barker is a retired minister who leads Circle of Trust experiences: Geography of Grace and The Soul of Aging. She is among the founders of Singing Waters Montana.


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