Sally Barber: It may be time for a forest bath

Sally Barber

The weight of the city lifted mile by mile as I drove from Chicago last week home to the north country. Trees, lakes and meadows, like open arms, wrapped me in a peaceful welcome. Knowing we are moving closer to the summer tourism season, I thought of the thousands of souls who will soon be among us to feed on nature’s gifts.

Nature welcomes one and all. But not all return such kindness. There are those who arrive to play and explore without regard for the wilds’ vulnerabilities. A good forest bath might be the right prescription for the unaware, for those in need of recharging and for woodland health.

The Japanese developed Shinrin-yoku Forest Therapy, or forest bathing, in the 1980s. Now mainstreamed as part of Japanese medicine, the guided contemplative walks provide stressed and “over-civilized” people forest immersion to reduce stress and anxiety. Bathers learn to open every sense to gain greater connection to the natural world.

The California-based Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs offers guide training coast to coast and in countries around the world. The association cites dozens of scientific studies documenting nature’s healing power. Most intriguing, they report evergreens have a special secret power. “…natural chemicals secreted by evergreen trees, collectively known as phytoncide, have also been associated with improvements in the activity of our frontline immune defenders.”

Basically, the association confirms that a mindful stroll through the woods does untold wonders for body and spirit — and who couldn’t benefit from a good soul scrub from nature’s seen and unseen majesty?

So many woodland trails and so little time for a soak in the green? While a favorite trail may be comforting and lend itself to a meditative bath, experiencing a different neck of the woods might be what the doctor ordered to get inspiration flowing. Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy’s hidden hideaway, the Seven Bridges Natural Area in Kalkaska County, hugs the Rapid River for more than a mile and features a series of rustic bridges.

Hike Rugg Pond where iconic author Ernest Hemingway once found inspiration. The park sits northwest of the Village of Kalkaska off Valley Road. A trail encircles the serene pond protected by towering pines and hardwoods.

For a wetland immersion visit Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy’s brand-spanking-new $1.2 million universally accessible boardwalk through Arcadia Marsh. Located just south of Arcadia off M-22, it winds through one of Lake Michigan’s last remaining coastal marshes.

Wherever you bathe within Michigan’s more than 20 million acres of woodland, the forest is a therapist who is always on call and always ready to share its healing power, wisdom and joy.

Sally Barber is a newspaper reporter and travel writer who has written for more than 25 of the state’s visitor bureaus and chamber of commerce organizations. She is author of “The Michigan Eco-Traveler: A Guide to Sustainable Adventures in the Great Lakes State” available through University of Michigan Press.