What Forest Bathing Taught Me About Slowing Down

Colorado prairie
The Colorado prairie might seem like an unusual place for “forest bathing.” Photo © Ann Cantelow | Dreamstime.com

Last summer I spent an afternoon at the Rocky Mountain Land Library’s Buffalo Peaks Ranch location to try out forest bathing with a small group of strangers. I had heard of forest bathing, but didn’t really arrive with a specific idea of how this would unfold, other than a curiosity about how this might work without an actual forest in sight.

People who have never visited Colorado might imagine the whole state is covered in mountains and forests of tall evergreen trees, but there is actually a whole lot of flat and treeless landscape with its own beauty. Still, I had a hazy notion of listening to the wind whistle through trees so tall they could block out a bit of blue sky. But this former sheep and cattle ranch about a 90-minute drive southwest from Denver was just windswept with trees visible in the distance.

We walked a short distance from the ranch house and stood in a circle under the bright morning sun and were asked to stand with eyes closed and listen. I felt so uncomfortable. I wanted to laugh and chat. Being still was awkward and new and I did not know if I was doing it right, though our guide assured us there was no right or wrong. After five minutes, we were invited to share what we noticed.

What I noticed was that sounds would peel away; at first, I heard cars on the road, then wind, then birdsong carried on the wind. And I felt a little bit calmer. I started out straining to hear specific sounds, and then relaxed.

Skipping ahead to our present time, I find myself applying some of what I learned that day about forest bathing—without a forest—when I go out for walks in Denver, or hikes in the foothills west of the city.

Now that we are living through a global pandemic with stay-at-home orders and restrictions on travel, simply taking a walk in the neighborhood or a hike nearby has become a very special outing. As other sensory experiences—such as going to see and hear live music or try a new restaurant menu—in our lives have evaporated for the time being, nature is quietly putting on a show this spring.

In my experience, forest bathing is not about stopping to smell the roses, but about slowing down and being part of nature. It takes time to be still at first, then specific sounds and smells and even sights become apparent. How many different birds do you hear? Is the snow thicker or thinner in one place than another? Are there buds on some trees and not others? Where is your shadow? Does the water sound different if you walk ten feet farther on?

When it is unlikely that you have to be someplace else, slowing down and “bathing” in your natural environment becomes more possible and makes a simple walk quite amazing.

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