There you go again, out to the woods, whistling with every step. You’ve got your bow, a full quiver and your wits about you.
Despite anything that might have gone wrong as you worked up to this moment, you’re in a pretty good mood. It might rain. You might not see any deer. But it doesn’t change anything. You’re where you want to be.
Those who don’t hunt or spend much time in the woods might look doubtful when you say any day spent in a tree stand is a success. Shows what they know. Leading researchers agree with you. In fact, Japanese scientists have a name for your nature-born euphoria: shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing.”
You just call it hunting. Science says you’re just scratching the surface.
In January 2010, a study published in Environmental Health and Preventative Medicine detailed a Japanese experiment in which participants were sent one of two places. Some went to the woods while others visited an urban environment. They walked around, communing with their surroundings for 20 minutes. The study revealed that participants immersed in the woods had fewer stress hormones than those stuck in the city.
Anyone who sits in a tree stand for hours can relate to these findings. More than a decade ago I switched from gun-hunting to bowhunting. The main reason was simple: more time in the woods. I’ve learned that what draws me to nature might be more than just the adrenaline rush of “buck fever.” I’ve also learned this discussion went on a long time without me. Science might help explain why I get so excited by hunting, setting up stands, hanging cameras, and even shooting field or 3-D archery all summer.
Jeremy Bruskotter, an associate professor at The Ohio State University’s School of Environment and Natural Resources, tells Bowhunting 360 that this research was a long time coming. He cites the pioneering work of Steven Kellert and EO Wilson, who wrote The Biophilia Hypothesis (1995), which combined research and opinion to refine the idea of biophilia, a concept originated by Wilson, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning author, in his 1986 book Biophilia.
Bruskotter says biophilia is the idea that people need nature. “And if we need it and we’re spending less time in it, it could really have negative consequences for society,” Bruskotter said. He warns, though, that despite the study’s interesting findings, such research is in its infancy.
Even so, Kristi Lekies, an associate professor and colleague of Bruskotter’s at OSU, said the research is getting more refined over time. “The research is increasing and it’s becoming more consistent in the findings of what we’re learning about time outdoors,” she said. “As there’s more research being done, there’s improvements made to the studies as we go along.” The findings are credible, but she thinks more studies should be done.
The “forest bathing” idea has been catching on worldwide, and earned a more clinical name in the United States: ecotherapy. Sure, when hunters tell their spouse they’re going to their blind for some positive mental stimulation, their loved one might consider it hogwash. But hunters have science in their corner.
Research finds mounting evidence that woodlands contain airborne substances (phytoncides) that relax humans, boost immunity, lower blood pressure and help fight cancer. Scientists are also finding compounds in the soil that improve mood and reduce anxiety and depression. Mind, a United Kingdom mental-health charity, compiled a long list of ecotherapies and published a study that found nature walks reduced depression symptoms in 71 percent of its participants. Mind also found that three in five people with mental-health problems felt more positive about their lives when leaving an ecotherapy project.
As if the natural and physical-healing properties of Mother Earth aren’t enough, research is also linking our time in nature with creativity boosts, positivity bouts and greater acceptance of people’s differences. In the paper Rewilding Music; Improvisation, Wilderness, and the Global Musician, researchers in Helsinki, Finland, followed six improvisational artists into the wilderness for three nights, and then to a group performance. The study’s participants were asked to reflect on their experience. They often said the qualities of listening, acceptance and authenticity were enhanced by their time in the outdoors. One participant said: “Personally, I am happiest when I am in the wilderness. I would stay there if I could, and I spend a lot of weekends just away from the city, in the peace of quiet of the forest, walking. I feel that when I’m there, I calm down.”
So, will your doctor or therapist prescribe hunting or shooting at foam targets when you’re feeling down, mentally or physically? Will eco-therapy become a viable medical market?
It already has. Japan added shinrin-yoku to its national public-health program in 1982, and currently has nearly 50 certified forest-bathing trails. Meanwhile, certified forest therapy guides are surfacing all over the world. A national “Park Prescription” program recently debuted in the United States, and seeks to draw more attention to the connection between mental health and the outdoors. Shape Magazine even published a list of places with forest wellness programs. That means eco-therapy isn’t just good for you; it’s a fast-growing medical marketing and tourism vehicle. Forest-bathing has even drawn the attention of ecologically minded people, uniting those who spend spare time among the trees to sing the praises of woodlands and habitat conservation.
That all sounds too good for bowhunters, right? We now have research explaining and justifying our passions. But Dr. Lekies, who studies the experiences of children in outdoor environments, warns that we must work to ensure youths find the outdoors equally inviting.
She refers to the 2005 book The Last Child in the Woods, in which author Richard Louv coined the phrase “nature deficit disorder.” Louv notes that the divide between kids and nature keeps growing in our electronics-focused lifestyles. He believes direct exposure to the outdoors is essential for developing children, physically and mentally.
“A lot of people don’t have a lot of experience in outdoor environments, and may be very fearful,” Lekies said. “It’s important that children get out at an early age, starting when they’re infants and toddlers, to help them feel comfortable in outdoor settings, to learn some outdoor skills.”
She said studying birds, trees and animal tracks are fun activities that can increase those skills and tune them in to nature. “Anything to increase comfort levels and familiarity with outdoor environments,” she said.
She encourages parents with busy lives to seek programs at parks and nature centers that get kids outside. Such programs get kids familiar and comfortable with their surroundings, and start them on what could become an outdoors habit that improves their well-being.
So, let’s consider this in practical terms: The scientific community, environmental organizations, tourism companies and health professionals worldwide all agree that frequent trips to the woods are good, strong medicine for our health.
Do you think the boss will buy it?