Ur­ban Wildlife

There’s no bet­ter cure for the stress of ur­ban life than a sim­ple walk in the woods. Just ask the Ja­pa­nese

Canadian Wildlife - - CONTENTS - By Matthew Church

May the For­est Be with You: There’s no bet­ter cure for the stress of ur­ban life than a sim­ple walk in the woods. Just ask the Ja­pa­nese

Be­cause the vol­canic ar­chi­pel­ago that forms Ja­pan is so moun­tain­ous, three-quar­ters of the land ef­fec­tively is too steep to live on. The coun­try’s cur­rent pop­u­la­tion of 127 mil­lion is squeezed into lit­tle more than 100,000 square kilo­me­tres of val­leys and plains sur­rounded by chal­leng­ing moun­tain­sides and spectacular forests, limned by coast­line. It is by ne­ces­sity then that more than 94 per cent of its pop­u­la­tion lives in cities. It is crowded psy­cho­log­i­cally as well: there’s an ex­pec­ta­tion of strict con­form­ity to ac­com­mo­date such close liv­ing. Its deeply in­grained col­lec­tive ur­ban­ism is demon­stra­ble to­day in the pa­tient ac­cep­tance of jammed sub­way cars (in a cul­ture em­pha­siz­ing pri­vacy and bound­ary, peo­ple are lit­er­ally packed in). Ur­ban life any­where is stress­ful. In Ja­pan, it is in­tensely so.

The state re­li­gion, Shinto, seems to have evolved as a nat­u­ral re­sponse to such in­ten­sity. Prac­tised by roughly 80 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion, it of­fers a rather amor­phous and in­for­mal ex­pe­ri­ence for most ad­her­ents. The prac­tice is largely con­cerned with at­tend­ing lovely and peace­ful shrines in nat­u­ral set­tings and ap­peal­ing to divine en­ti­ties re­ferred to as kami who live there­abouts. These kami are in­ter­est­ing: they are the sa­cred essence man­i­fested in na­ture — they are in rocks, trees, plants and an­i­mals, and of­ten in spe­cific lo­cales. Shinto teaches that na­ture is a bless­ing and that among the deep val­leys, ocean cliffs and moun­tain peaks, any­one can com­mune with the divine — and that get­ting out into na­ture is good for you. It is so fun­da­men­tal, it is part of the sec­u­lar dogma as well: the gov­ern­ment’s forestry agency has es­tab­lished more than 1,000 “recre­ation forests” within na­tional wood­lands across Ja­pan to pro­vide ac­cess to all.

From this value sys­tem in this pop­u­la­tion pres­sure cooker has emerged a most re­mark­able tra­di­tion, a ther­apy for phys­i­cal, men­tal and emo­tional well-be­ing, in­tro­duced by the gov­ern­ment in 1982, called shin­rin-yoku. Of­ten re­ferred to as “for­est bathing” and rooted in a thou­sand years of faith and rit­ual, the ben­e­fits of be­ing in the woods has been val­i­dated by sci­ence. (The name is mis­lead­ing; it has noth­ing to do with tak­ing a bath in the woods.) A quick search on­line re­veals a dozen stud­ies in the last few years alone that sug­gest sim­ply be­ing in or walk­ing around a for­est en­vi­ron­ment in­duces a state of phys­i­o­log­i­cal re­lax­ation in as lit­tle as 15 min­utes. Over and over, stud­ies have demon­strated im­prove­ments in stress hor­mone (cor­ti­sol) lev­els, pulse rate and blood pres­sure. More re­cently, sev­eral stud­ies have been re­leased sug­gest­ing the ef­fects go well be­yond cal­ma­tive to strength­en­ing the im­mune sys­tem, en­hanc­ing neu­ronal health, even pre­vent­ing some can­cers and tu­mours.

There are many the­o­ries why. Among the most widely pop­u­lar to­day is that it is the re­sult of the salu­tary ef­fect of ter­penes, a class of or­ganic com­pounds pro­duced by var­i­ous plants and a ma­jor com­po­nent of what we in­hale while walk­ing in the woods. While there is noth­ing yet that would be called con­clu­sive ev­i­dence, there is a strong like­li­hood that these chem­i­cals, emit­ted from leaves, pine nee­dles, tree bark, shrubs, herbs, mush­rooms, mosses and ferns, are like a chem­i­cal tonic for your sys­tem.

For a thor­ough un­der­stand­ing of the phe­nom­e­non, a book pub­lished this spring ex­plores the topic in great de­tail. En­ti­tled (with the usual over­reach­ing sub­ti­tle) For­est Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Hap­pi­ness, the book ex­plores the sci­ence and his­tory of the prac­tice of for­est bathing. Au­thor Qing Li, a pro­fes­sor and doc­tor at Nip­pon Med­i­cal School and the chair of the Ja­pa­nese So­ci­ety of For­est Medicine, ex­plores the way be­ing in the woods can help re­duce stress, anx­i­ety, de­pres­sion and anger while in­creas­ing en­ergy lev­els, im­prov­ing sleep and boost­ing the im­mune sys­tem. He ex­plores the his­tory of the prac­tice and cites stud­ies from around the world that sup­port his claims. Thank­fully, the au­thor steers away from some of the more spiritual ten­den­cies of the “find your­self by get­ting lost in the woods” crowd. What he tells is a com­pelling story and con­fir­ma­tion of some­thing any hiker will tell you: be­ing in the for­est is good for you. The other good news here is you don’t have to go to a for­est in Ja­pan, nor even a for­est in the coun­try. Tak­ing a so­journ in your lo­cal ur­ban woods — a park, con­ser­va­tion area, ravine, marsh­land, even a wooded ceme­tery — to soak up some ter­penes, breathe in some healthy air and get a lit­tle ex­er­cise will help you live hap­pier and longer.—

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.