WITH autumn on its way, the idea of going ‘Forest Bathing’ might not appeal to many.
The phrase conjures up images of hardy types running around naked amongst trees, stripping off to dip into pools, goosebumps, chilling winds, wet hair...
But there’s none of that in this Japanese form of meditation. ‘Forest Bathing’ is actually a walk in a forest, not a swim.
The idea is that you achieve a mindset similar to bathing, by cutting yourself off from the outside world as you walk and immersing yourself in this natural world of beauty and stillness.
Trees have few sounds. At least not until you give them a chance to whisper, rustle, waver, crunch.
Under a canopy of trees, you get a chance to relax and think about nothing except what you are doing at that moment. Mindfulness in slow motion.
Known as Shinrin-yoku in Japan, where the idea came from in the 1980s, given a chance, this form of relaxation can boost the immune system, relieve anxiety, stress and enhance the mood. And we have no shortage of suitable forestry in the region too.
One of the Cork proponents of ‘Forest Bathing’ is the dynamic Avril Allshire-Howe who, 23 years ago, with her husband Willie, established their organic pig farm on eight hectares at Caherbeg, near Rosscarbery.
They now process their own organic pigmeat as Caherbeg Pork, as well as non-organic meat from other local farmers, for their Rosscarbery Recipe label.
The couple feels fortunate that their two sons, William and Maurice, have come into the business and have freed up at least some portion of Avril’s time to develop her farm tourism enterprise, which later may include building pods for short-term rentals.
Her ‘Forest Bathing’ walks have involved working with naturally contoured pathways through the existing forest and planting a further 20 hectares of trees.
It’s a long term investment, which will see little return in Avril and Willie’s lifetime, but as organic farmers, it fits their selfless ethos and environment awareness.
Avril admits: “I started this Forest Bathing for selfish reasons, I was getting burnt out, worrying about all aspects of the business and I was on a treadmill.
“I found that if I took time out to walk in the forest, I would feel my blood pressure reducing.
“Once I realised how good it was for me, I made sure I got out of the office, or delivery van, or off the production floor for a few hours.
“All the stress-related tension in me dissipated and I was definitely the better for it.”
Discovering there was a slightly more formal way of doing a forest walk was a lightbulb moment.
“I found there were guided walks in other parts of the country that encouraged people to go to forests and get them to stop, listen, look and smell — not everyone does that when they are close to nature.”
Avril realised that she could give people an opportunity to enjoy what they had on the farm.
They bought additional land, which included a mature forest, and have since planted 20 hectares of ecologically-friendly mixed trees —Sitka Spruce, Ash, Sycamore, Eucalyptus, Scots Pine, Rowan, fruit and nut trees. They built stone bridges, and Avril took a course in Forest Bathing guiding.
“There are people who are trained psychologists who offer another, more extensive service, but I am happy to guide the walks,” she says. “I trained to make sure people got the best out of their few hours of downtime.”
I went on one of the walks, and it ideally involves leaving the mobile phone in the car . We are asked not to talk, walking in single file — especially during Covid.
We stop at different points, breathing deeply, and listening for sounds — they may come from the stream, the trees, the birds, wind or your feet sinking into the soft ground.
We are asked to smell — there is an earthy, dense mushroomy scent at one spot, perfume from flowers at another.
We move on and the six of us talk in a circle about what we have heard or how we feel (if we want to — there is no pressure to communicate).
We are then sent off to explore and come back to a designated spot with an interesting leaf, dead insect or anything we have found.
Then we do an exercise in very slow walking, looking down to become aware of what we are doing. It can involve balancing on one leg, as you may find the slowness so interesting it becomes an optional challenge to slow up further — my legs ached slightly afterwards.
Later, we go our separate ways to talk to a tree; or sit under it and go to sleep; or make a wish; or tell it your trouble; or run our hands along the multi-textured bark.
There are plenty of downy pads of lichens and moss for comfort. You look up to the sky, and follow the length of the tall trees to apparent infinity. If sleep takes you, just go with it.
We eventually stand up and walk to look at the rows of tree plantings and wonder at the hard work involved. This is investment in the future, not just for the family, but for the country.
We come to a clearing and Avril unfolds a picnic basket of glasses — untouched by human hand since washing — and we are served locally produced chocolate tea from Exploding Tree in Clonakilty and a piece of Mella’s fudge from Clonakilty (other treats come on other days).
Our bodies have slowed, and also cooled down, and we are strangely tired as well as relaxed.
This is a welcome pick me up. We realise that two hours have gone in a slow wave that seemed like 20 minutes.
Driving home afterwads, I was relaxed, and it was just as well that Google maps knew where home was. I didn’t care.
See https://www.westcorkfarmtours.com/product/forest-bathing/ foir more information.