“I don’t want this,” I remember thinking to myself in the fall of 2020.
I didn’t want to be living through a pandemic. I didn’t want to be separated from friends and family. And I didn’t want to accept that I had just unexpectedly lost my second parent in four years.
Yet, there I was.
All of those things I didn’t want were happening to me. And while I was surrounded by people who loved and cared about me, their kind words and thoughtful gestures were falling on deaf ears. I was angry. I was lost. And I knew I had to leave. To get away. To be somewhere that wasn’t about sickness and separation.
Now, if hindsight is 20/20 and I am being honest, my need to leave didn’t have as much to do with leaving my physical surroundings as it did with leaving what was going on inside me, but at the moment, travel seemed like one small step toward reclaiming a year that I thought had been unfairly taken from me.
It was this need that had me scouring VRBO for a safe, socially-distanced cabin outside of Asheville, N.C., and booking nature activities like forest bathing.
If you’re unfamiliar with it, forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, is a Japanese practice that focuses on connecting with nature through sight, touch, sound, etc. It’s not a hike or strenuous physical exercise. It is a mental exercise. One that can prove to be particularly difficult in a world filled with distractions. It can be done anywhere — your backyard, the park or a trail with or without a guide. Ideally, it isn’t a one-time experience but something that becomes part of your routine.
Since this was my first time forest bathing, I chose a guided tour led by a wonderful guide named Dr. Mattie. In addition to being a mindfulness teacher, a Zen practitioner and a retired professor of education certified in wilderness medicine and first aid, Dr. Mattie is also an oblate — a layperson affiliated with an order of Episcopal nuns, the Sisters of the Transfiguration, and lives in a retreat house on the property we were about to walk. In 2015, the Order placed the 410-acre property under conservation easement conveying ownership of most of that land to Conserving Carolina.
As I walked along listening to Dr. Mattie share stories about the land and her background, I started really taking in my surroundings. Until then, I had been preoccupied with what was about to happen, what I was going to miss being away from my phone for three hours and what we were eating for lunch when it was over, so it’s fair to say that even though I had searched out the activity of forest bathing, I wasn’t really going into it with the most open mind.
But as I walked, I started to come out of my fog and began concentrating on deep breathing, soaking in the vastness of the world around me and immersing myself in the colors, sounds and smells.
After we had walked for approximately 10 minutes, Dr. Mattie stopped the group with an invitation regarding direction. One of the key tenets of forest bathing, an invitation is an activity designed to encourage you to engage with the environment around you. During the first invitation, she invited each of us to walk in whatever direction we wanted as far or as close to our starting point as we wanted until we landed on a spot that felt right. The spot I found was facing northeast.
On a mission for purpose and reason, I asked Dr. Mattie what my selection of northeast meant, hoping there was some deep spiritual reason I gravitated towards that direction. Needless to say, there wasn’t, or if there was, it wasn’t something I found out that day. So onward I moved.
The next invitation came much quicker than the first and was focused on sight: to explore and examine the leaves, trees, rocks and earth around us, and not only look at something, but actually see it and think about it.
The night before had been full of rain and wind, so everything in the forest was wet, and there was still dampness in the air, as if it could start raining again at any moment.
As I walked along, one tree, in particular, stood out to me. It was covered in raindrops that were weighing on its branches. And when I looked closely, I could see the water droplets dangling precariously as if they were about to fall, but they never did, which fascinated me. This tree wasn’t particularly tall or big; in fact, compared to the others around it, it was really quite small, yet its limbs weren’t breaking or bending from the weight of these water droplets.
At that moment, I felt something inside me click, and all of a sudden, I realized I wasn’t on this journey in nature to learn new things. I was on this journey to remember what I already knew: Much like the water droplets, I, too, have been precariously close to falling but have always managed to hang on, and that would continue no matter how tough life was in a particular season. And onward we moved.
We continued to walk through the property, and at this point, we were so deep in the forest, it was hard to remember there was an outside world, much less care about what was going on in it. After a while, we came upon a raging river angry from the previous night’s rain and storms. As we walked gingerly along the rocks on the river’s edge, our next invitation from Dr. Mattie was to focus on touch. To find something we could pick up and feel. After we found our items and brought them into the group, we shared why that particular item spoke to us, passing the items around so others could experience the feeling, too. We ended the invitation by placing them all back in the place where we found them. And onward we moved.
We continued on for the next hour with similar invitations — touching trees, smelling the fragrant aroma and learning from Dr. Mattie about the medicinal uses for many of the plants, trees and flowers we were exploring, until finally, we reached our last invitation, which was to sit and ground ourselves.
Two and a half hours into our journey, we knew the drill, so we wandered along until we each found a place that felt right, and once we found it, we sat down putting as much of our body as possible in contact with the earth.
The place I chose was on a large rock along a creek that branched off of the raging river from before. And while the water was probably too cold, I couldn’t help but take my shoes and socks off to dip my feet in, spending the next 30 minutes just sitting there. No phone, no conversation, no social media, no anything but my thoughts and the peaceful sound of the water.
Our final invitation of the day was to sit as a group with Dr. Mattie for a tea ceremony. As we talked about our experience, a thermos of hot tea was passed around. Tea made of hot water and pine needles from an Eastern White Pine Tree — a tree that despite not being particularly tall or big never broke or bent from the weight of the water droplets it held. We poured a cup for ourselves. We poured a cup for the land. And onward we moved.