- Luke Eastman
Last week, I sat in my car flipping through my phone. I checked my two email accounts, my Instagram, and a few stray news alerts and texts as I prepared to leave my shiny little brick in the glove compartment for two hours. I was about to go forest bathing, and phones aren't allowed.
The Japanese practice of Shinrin-Yoku, translated as "forest bathing," involves meandering through a natural area to relax — no loofahs or disrobing required. The emphasis is on tuning in to your senses while you stroll, paying attention to how things look, sound, smell and feel.
My guide was to be Duncan Murdoch of Nature Connection Guide, a South Burlington company that leads two-hour forest-bathing excursions; today's group walk cost $20 per person. Murdoch, 38, founded Nature Connection Guide in 2017 and has led numerous walks since then, in all seasons, at locales such as Burlington's Intervale and Rock Point Trail and the Charlotte Park and Wildlife Refuge.
"I grew up with this appreciation of nature," the South Burlington resident said. "It occurred to me at one point that I wanted to arrange my whole life around nature and that it needed to be my profession."
After spending 14 busy years in New York City's entertainment industry, Shelburne-born Murdoch moved back to Vermont to dive further into the pursuit he loved.
Murdoch received his certification from the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy Guides & Programs, which offers similar guided walks around its home base of Santa Rosa, Calif. So far, the organization has trained and certified 360 instructors in the practice, said founder Amos Clifford. Forest bathing has popped up across the country and been featured on National Public Radio as well as in TIME magazine, the Boston Globe and numerous other publications.
Still, waiting in my car at our meeting place, All Souls Interfaith Gathering in Shelburne, I wondered if I was ready for this. I texted a friend my concern that the walk might have a "spiritual angle."
I had to remind myself I'd signed up eagerly for this assignment, having heard all about forest bathing and its purported benefits. Advocates claim the mindful walks can lower blood pressure, calm attention deficit disorder and even boost cancer-fighting cells. Given that my grandfather just learned he has a brain tumor, I consider bacon an entrée, and I was diagnosed with ADD at age 12, I figured I might as well give it a shot.
An August 2017 review of the scientific literature published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health concludes that there are "a plethora of positive health benefits ... associated with the practice of Shinrin-Yoku." According to the forest therapy association, "Forest bathing catalyzes increased parasympathetic nervous system activity, which prompts rest, conserves energy, and slows down the heart rate while increasing intestinal and gland activity." All of that jargon boils down to less stress, and hence fewer stress-induced ailments.
I didn't expect two hours of tree time to focus my wandering mind or to prevent future malignant tumors, but I was open to being tempted by the woods. Maybe the jaunt would prompt me to spend more time outdoors, away from my computer and phone.
So I sent my farewell texts, bundled into my denim jacket and walked into the facility to meet Murdoch, a slight man with tousled blond hair and an expression that was both eager and slightly hesitant. He spoke in a measured voice that would likely have been relaxing to a person less anxious than myself.
Our group consisted of an older mother-daughter duo, a pair of young female friends, a husband and wife, and two other women. The gender disparity was notable; apart from Murdoch, the husband was the only other male present.
Participants in the walks run the age gamut from mid-twenties to eighties, Murdoch told me later, with an average of about eight people per group and a cap of 15.
Before embarking on the trail, Murdoch gathered us into a circle and explained the format of the walk: We would stroll slowly through the woods in several stages. He would kick off each segment by offering an "invitation" to observe our surroundings with a different sense.
When we'd soaked in that aspect of the forest, he would perform a crow call — which he demonstrated — to prompt us to reform our circle. We would then pass around a smooth black lake stone — a "talking stone" — and share what we had observed.
Feeling the absence of my phone keenly before we even started, I thought back to a text I had sent an hour earlier: "If I have to share my feelings or experiences in a group I'm going to be so mad."
But I couldn't back out now. With the intros down, we set off over a small bridge and into the woods to observe "what is in motion." I noted how one woman pulled her sheer cardigan closer to her body, then reminded myself to focus on the natural environment.
So I watched the leaves. They trembled from the vibrations of our steps or from the wind. The branches swayed. Shadows cast by moving bodies advanced across the ground; sticks and stones shifted in the dirt as our feet passed. I noted where the soil had piled in a small culvert, the effect of running water. I observed a stone shaped like the curl of a breaking wave. How long had it sat there? Had it once been in motion itself? Where had it come from?
After about 10 minutes of strolling and observation, with the lowering sun leaving a chill in the air, we gathered at the sound of Murdoch's hoarse crow call. I wasn't sure whether to appreciate his attempt to blend in with the natural environment or to take offense at the loud eruption. It felt like he was plagiarizing the crows.
We formed a circle, and the sharing commenced ... uncomfortably. Wishing I could do this by myself, I offered my observations on the funky-shaped stone. My co-walkers smiled appreciatively.
The next prompt invited us to listen to the forest. What could we hear? Where could we hear it? Could we focus on distinct sounds or only on the orchestra as a whole?
The exercise was relaxing, as were subsequent invitations to touch and smell. I found myself slipping into a trancelike state. True, I was never quite able to distance myself from the distraction of the group — you try focusing when everyone around you is touching trees or crunching fistfuls of dead leaves, faces molded into contemplative expressions. The plodding pace of the sharing circles and the mild comedy of the talking stone didn't help. But I felt less anxious, less distracted and more appreciative of the sweet spring air with each inhalation.
We had been warned to bring warm layers, but the slow pace, combined with the lengthening shadows, setting sun and breeze, made chills set in. Murdoch's closing ceremony — he served small jars of hot tea made from spicebush twigs — helped ease the discomfort, as did the brilliance of the sunset. We sipped the gingery concoction under an apple tree, looking over Lake Champlain toward the Adirondacks, ingesting a portion of the landscape we had observed so closely for the past two hours.
As Murdoch offered his thanks to us for participating, he shared his hope that we would incorporate what we had learned into our everyday lives — perhaps even start a forest bathing practice of our own. To help us do that, Nature Connection Guide has an online store with a selection of inspiring books such as Peter Wohlleben's The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate.
And, of course, Vermont is full of wooded areas, which is partly why Murdoch wants to grow his business here.
"I'm excited to integrate this practice into the wellness lexicon we have here," he said. "Vermont is a really unique place that's always valued nature."
Much as I disliked the "sharing" aspect, the walk was a useful introduction to the multiple senses I can use to appreciate my surroundings. And the two hours away from my phone reminded me of being a summer camp counselor in Fairlee, where zero cellphone service and strict no-technology rules made for better interaction with the natural world and the people in it.
While my experiment in guided group forest bathing is over, I'll use some of Murdoch's invitations during my summer walks on the public trails in the Intervale or in the woods by my parents' house. As long as there's a green canopy, I can get along just fine.