“One day when the sun had come back over the Forest, bringing with it the scent of May, and all the streams of the Forest were tinkling happily to find themselves their own pretty shape again, and the little pools lay dreaming of the life they had seen and the big things they had done, and in the warmth and quiet of the Forest the cuckoo was trying over his voice carefully and listening to see if he liked it, and wood-pigeons were complaining gently to themselves in their lazy comfortable way that it was the other fellow's fault, but it didn't matter very much.”
Christopher Robin in A. A. Milne's Winnie-The-Pooh
One of the things we most enjoy about permaculture gardening is the feeling we get when we sit comfortably on our back porch under a giant arbor of wild grapes. It is many things – peaceful, quiet, private, cool… a perfect harbor safe from the tossing storms of everyday life. We try as much as possible to make the rest of our garden exhibit many of these same qualities, and to a certain degree, we pride ourselves on being fairly successful.
Nothing, however, comes as close to being in nature as you can get from actually being in nature. And it turns out, the health benefits of doing so are not merely limited to the peace-of-mind one can find from thoughtfulness, mindfulness, and ecological oneness-with-it-all. Being in nature is quantifiably healthier than being in an office cubicle.
News stories since the 1970s have made note of a variety of health complaints related to being inside an office building – Sick Building Syndrome made its way into the vernacular after a 1984 World Health Organization reported that up to 30% of new and remodeled buildings worldwide were subject to complaints related to poor indoor air quality, volatile organic compounds (VOC), mold, exhaust from office machinery, chemical exposure, design flaws (including some systemically unavoidable contamination issues) with HVAC systems, psychological problems related to changes in brainwave signatures due to fluorescent lighting, and who knows what all else.
Numerous solutions to these problems have been propounded over the years, and we welcome many of them as obvious and proper (non-VOC paint, for example, has become the norm rather than the exception), but one of the most telling is the suggestion to include toxin-absorbing plants in office spaces. Some of the more common are sansevieria (also known as “Devil’s Tongue”) and various palms, canes and bamboo species, all of which are routinely provided by interiorscaping companies, which since the 1980s have raked in money hand-over-fist by making office spaces greener not just in terms of pollutants, but quite literally greener.
Improving the buildings in which we live and work, though, is only scratching the surface of improvements we can make in our everyday lives which will help us stem the tide of self-inflicted maladies.
We should listen to the evidence screaming so loudly at us from the giant planters tucked into every corner of every lobby in every building in the industrialized world – plants make things better. Not just because they are prettier than concrete, but because theymake things physically better.
There is a concept in Japan and Korea which, when Americans hear about it (if they ever hear about it at all), our desensitized Western ears translate as “just so much mystical hokum” – maybe relaxing in the same way as a hot bath or massage, but not really important. And, as is so often the case, our jaded Western sensibilities are pretty much completely wrong.
Forest bathing, called Shinrin-yoku (森林浴) in Japanese and Sanlimyok (산림욕) in Korean, is a brief stroll through the woods. The original motivation behind the formalizing of this ritual was simple relaxation and stress relief – in fact, in 1982, the Forest Agency of Japan proposed making forest bathing trips a part of everyday Japanese life. Since that time, Japan has accredited 44 Shinrin-Yoku forests, and numerous studies have been done showing that subjects who regularly walk these paths have clinically significant reductions in stress, anger, anxiety, depression and insomnia.
There is more to the story, though, than the simple fact that those who walk through the forest are enjoying themselves. Exposure to the natural world does have some psychosomatic benefits, as changes to the nervous system are known to result from numerous other relaxation techniques. However, in addition to the healthful meditative qualities of Shinrin-yoku, there are measurable biochemical changes, as well.
When adiponectin levels are low, humans are susceptible to obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and metabolic disorder…. Precisely those conditions, in fact, which have been afflicting Americans in alarming numbers since the 1970s… and as it turns out, the reason for improved adiponectin levels in forest bathers is that the woods themselves are helping out. Practicing breathing in the presence of a multitude of trees means breathing in everything that the trees are emitting. We tend to think of trees as static entities, not really doing much… but they are actually quite active. And one of the things they are doing is emitting volatile substances known as phytoncides (wood essential oils) which are antimicrobial compounds the trees use to protect themselves from bacteria and mold.
Some of these compounds are particularly beneficial to humans, such as the aforementioned adiponectin, or the oh-so-useful α-Pinene, which at low exposure levels such as might be found in a forest, is a bronchodilator, with high bioavailability when taken through the lungs. It is also anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, and is even an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor, meaning it aids in memory. And as much as you might like the pothos ivy on the corner of your desk… it is not as good at putting out beneficial chemicals as, say, a stand of oak or pine trees.
Russian biochemist Dr. Boris Tokin coined the word “phytoncide” in 1928 while studying the compounds emitted by plants as a defense against rotting or being eaten by various insects or other animals. Trees are the most powerful emitters, as might be expected given that they are the largest category of phytoncidal plants, but spices, onions, and garlic all use many of the same compounds as defense mechanisms.
The kings of emissions, though, are the tea tree, oaks, cedar, locust, and pine. Russian, Ukrainian, Chinese and Japanese medicine utilize these naturally occurring pharmaceutical factories aka tree oils, but the Japanese and Koreans have gone one better, and suggested that people go out into nature and take advantage at the source. The fact that it makes for a very nice exercise in mindful meditation is just one more benefit.
So, the next time someone calls you a tree-hugger, remember. Hugging trees is not just a metaphor for having a proper respect for nature and our place in it, it is also a prescription for happiness.