Let’s go down to the forest … to bathe!

Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness by Qing Li, Viking, 2018

If you go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise… * No, this blog item is nothing to do with a Teddy bears’ picnic (as immortalised in the song of the same name), but Qing Li’s book entitled Forest bathing: How trees can help you find health and happiness [hereafter referred to as Forest Bathing] is everything to do with human health and well-being.

As a botanist I’m well aware of the awesomeness of plants – and have shared some of that wonder and excitement in previous blog items (e.g. here, and here). As a teacher I’m particularly fascinated by plant-and-people interactions, especially those that show plants in a positive light. In that latter regard, this blog has covered work that extols the benefits of working with plants or the effects that forests or greenness have on various aspects of human health and well-being (e.g.here, here, and here). But, none of those have actually focused specifically upon the concept of shinrin-yoku, a Japanese word that means ‘forest bathing’.

Well, here I can redress that imbalance. Although only created in 1982 (by the Director-General of Japan’s Agency of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries), shinrin-yoku embraces a concept that has been recognised and practised in Japan for a long time. Medical doctor Qing Li is arguably the world’s most well-known advocates for the practice and his words of wisdom are distilled into the 300 or so pages of Forest Bathing.

After an Introduction, which does everything that an introduction should do, we have the meat of the book in the subsequent four chapters.

Chap. 1 – From a feeling to a science. Although the benefits of shinrin-yoku are listed on p. 38 in the Introduction (and are: reduced blood pressure; lowered stress; improved cardiovascular and metabolic health; lowered blood-sugar levels; improved concentration and memory; lifting of depression; improved pain thresholds; improved energy; boosted immune system; increased anti-cancer protein production; and help with losing weight), this chapter provides the evidence for those claims. Arguably, this was the most interesting section from a ‘scientific validation of the concept’ point of view and introduced me to lots of virtues of ‘green medicine’. I was particularly intrigued by the encouragement for you to ‘get your hands dirty’ in the soil and thereby receive one’s dose of the ‘anti-depressant bacterium’ Mycobacterium vaccae.

Chap. 2 – How to practise shinrin-yoku. This is a seemingly comprehensive and detailed DIY guide to forest bathing, which tells you probably all you need to know to get out there and forest-bathe. Why might you want to practise this? In the words of Dr Li himself: “There is no medicine you can take that has such a direct influence on your health as a walk in a beautiful forest”.

Chap. 3 – Bringing the forest indoors. If you can’t get outside into the forest, or if you can but want to continue to generate forest-bathing benefits when back inside, then this chapter has loads of advice – and which is often inexpensive – on how to bathe in forest-like conditions all year round. Although, I suspect this can only ever be a short-term ‘fix’; there’s no complete substitute for the real thing of engaging with a genuine forest experience, outdoors.

Chap. 4 – Thinking about the future. Li is essentially optimistic that as more people appreciate the value of forests and trees, then more will be done to promote, preserve, and expand these green oases of calm and healing. One hopeful sign is that the benefits of forest bathing or tree therapy are so well recognised and appreciated that, in more enlightened areas of the world, medical practitioners are providing ‘green prescriptions’ to patients to help them get better, rather than dole out more pills and tablets. That sounds like a recipe for success to me. And the evidence continues to accumulate of the benefits of forests and green spaces more generally (e.g. Kristine Engemann et al., Childhood exposure to green space – A novel risk-decreasing mechanism for schizophrenia?, Schizophrenia Research (2018). DOI: 10.1016/j.schres.2018.03.026). Going ‘green’ is good not just for the planet, but for people too (and profits).

Because the very notion of ‘forest bathing’ may seem odd to those who don’t engage in it, Li takes great care to provide evidence for the claims made in the book. And that is important in establishing the much-needed evidence base if hearts and minds are to be changed and the concept of shinrin-yoku to be more widely accepted, and – hopefully! – practised. But, rather than clutter up the text – and interrupt the book’s narrative flow – with such citations, they are indicated in-text by numbers and listed at the back of the book. However, it’s a little irritating that the references are incomplete. For example they don’t indicate the journal name, volume number or pages of the cited articles. If you’re going to the trouble of providing the evidence base (and that is to be lauded and applauded), please go that extra distance to complete the information needed. After all, if you are trying to convince sceptics, make it easy for them to access the information that may well change their views.

However, although Forest Bathing is very good in providing evidence (though you’ll still have to do a bit of ‘googling’ to unearth it…) to back up the great majority of its claims, some statements aren’t so evidenced. For example I’d like to have been able to follow-up: the information relating to negative ions and their benefits to human well-being; the statement that orchids release oxygen at night; the list of NASA’s ‘top 10 air-purifying plants’, the assertion that more than 32 million acres of forest are lost annually**; the notion that Earth has 3.04 trillion trees; and the revelation that a single tree can absorb 4.5 kg of air pollutants a year. Those lapses of rigour not only risk undermining the otherwise robust, scientifically-evidenced basis of the rest of the book, but also provide ammunition for those who would wish to denigrate the concept. Hopefully, those deficiencies – and inclusion of an Index – will be corrected in a revised, future edition.

Forest Bathing is awash throughout with lovely coloured images that show off a lot of trees and beautiful forest places. In that way, each picture – almost subliminally – reinforces the message that forests are calming and a force for human good. Furthermore, the story of Forest Bathing is simply and straightforwardly told. Yes, technical, medical or scientific terms are used where needed, and appropriate, but otherwise Forest Bathing is an easy read, which is always a bonus.

Summary

If you’ve heard about forest bathing, but weren’t sure what it was, Forest Bathing will tell you all you need to know. If you’ve heard about forest bathing, but dismissed it as some ‘new-age, hippy, faddish, mumbo-jumbo’, this book might help to convince you otherwise. If you’ve not previously heard about forest bathing, having read this far, you do now. But, if you can’t go to the forest to bathe at present, what better substitute than to immerse yourself in Qing Li’s book? [Or to wallow in Michael Kenna’s magical tree pictures]

* … for when you come out the other side you’ll be heal-thier, and wise…[Lyric: P Cuttings…]

** I’ve not been able to source that fact, but I can share with you news that 2017 was the second worst year on record for loss of tropical tree cover with 39 million acres disappearing from the face of the Earth.