The sun burns orange through the smoky haze of wildfire season. I step out of the truck and breathe in the morning air. For the first time in days the air smells fresh. I gaze beyond the river’s gentle ripples and spot the mountains’ outline. I look at the dashboard of our Chevy Silverado. The temperature reads 58 degrees at 7 a.m. It’s going to be a hot one. It’s August in Montana. Bowhunting season for deer and elk is almost here, and I’m scouting with my husband and 1-year-old daughter.
We enter the forest. The landscape goes from flat to calf-burner immediately. “Sheep,” my husband says. My heart jumps. For a second, I think bighorn sheep, but I quickly spot domestic sheep feeding under a tree a few feet away. My daughter squeals with delight. “What does a sheep say?” I ask. “Woof,” she responds as I laugh.
Legs burning, we work our way up through trees and brush. Just before the summit, an eagle’s scream pierces the air. We look skyward and spot the raptor hunting overhead. One, two, three more screams as we reach the top. Behind us, the river weaves through ranchlands below. We watch as a guideboat floats a fly-fisherman through a river bend. What a beautiful morning to be on the river or in the mountains.
We drop into a drainage and follow a game trail, disturbing dusty deer tracks and fresh droppings. We reach a hill overlooking a lush river bottom. It’s a beautiful spot to glass for white-tailed deer. We sit down for lunch and let our toddler test her new walking abilities. She runs through the woods between bites of a peanut butter sandwich, throwing rocks, picking grass and pointing at trees.
Later, as we walk an old game trail, the wind hits us just right. The smell of elk surrounds us. Hunting season isn’t yet open, but that familiar scent stirs memories. Suddenly, tan flashes between the trees. “Deer,” my husband whispers. Three white-tailed does, tails in the air, bolt through the trees and disappear beyond the ridge.
Just before finishing the day we spot a fox bounding down the mountain. “Look, it’s foxy,” I say to my daughter. I glance over at her. She skipped her morning nap because there was too much to see, but now her head rests against the backpack, completely relaxed. In her peaceful sleep, she’s smiling.
Do our experiences feel familiar? The joy, peace and unique sensations you get from time spent outdoors seem universal. Science reveals reasons we feel good after a day in the woods. If you regularly spend time outside you’re not surprised to learn that studies show nature benefits our health and happiness. In fact, a practice called “forest bathing” is growing in popularity because it promotes the health benefits of being outside.
What’s forest bathing? It’s not dunking your hair in the river or wiping down with baby wipes during a backcountry hunting trip. Forest bathing is the healing practice of immersing yourself in nature. The name comes from the Japanese practice of “Shinrin-yoku.” “Shinrin,” meaning forest in Japanese, and “yoku” meaning bath.
The Japanese began forest bathing for preventative health and healing in the 1980s. Research shows it has calming, rejuvenating and restorative benefits. And now forest bathing is catching on worldwide. Dr. Qing Li is the author of “Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness.” In a Time magazine article about forest bathing, Li wrote: “It is simply being in nature, connecting with it through our senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. Shinrin-yoku is like a bridge. By opening our senses, it bridges the gap between us and the natural world.”
People need nature for an important reason, which probably involves where you are right now. Are you reading this article on your smartphone at home on your couch, or on your desktop computer at work? (If you’re reading this in the forest, put down your phone!) According to a study sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency, the average American spends 93 percent of their time indoors. The percentage of time people get stuck inside explains why we must get out and enjoy quiet time in the woods, Li wrote.
Anyone can reap forest bathing’s benefits. It doesn’t require intense mountain climbs or hours in the woods. Li recommends leaving technology behind and heading into the forest for an hour or two.
“Let your body be your guide,” Li wrote. “Listen to where it wants to take you. Follow your nose. And take your time. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get anywhere. You are not going anywhere. You are savoring the sounds, smells and sights of nature and letting the forest in.”
To bowhunters, forest bathing sounds like just another day of hunting: Enjoying the sounds of playful squirrels; breathing in mountain air; glassing landscapes for your quarry; brushing away branches as you climb to the treestand; and tasting the crispness of autumn air.
Whether bowhunting, forest bathing or taking a walk in the woods – whatever you call it – pause the next time you’re outside enjoying nature. Take it all in, and consider what nature means to you.