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Featured Article | Spring 2020: Forests

The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative

By: Florence Williams

The goal of the current National Forest Plan is “to realize a green welfare state, where the entire nation enjoys well-being.” As Shin pointed out, happiness is now part of the national index.

When I pictured shinrin yoku, “forest bathing,” I conjured Sleeping Beauty in her corpse phase, surrounded by primordial trees, twittering birds, and shafts of sunlight.  You just knew she was somehow taking it all in, and she’d awake refreshed, enlightened, and ready for her hot prince. But this was wrong on so many levels. First off, Japan doesn’t have a lot of primeval forests left, and second, you have to work at this, although corpselike movements are not discouraged. In Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park, a ninety-minute train ride from Tokyo, I was supposed to be concentrating on the cicadas and the sound of a flowing creek when a loud Mitsubishi van rumbled by.  It was disgorging more campers to a nearby tent village where kids were running around with their fishing poles and pink bed pillows. This was nature, Japan-style.

The dozen others with me on our shinrin yoku hike didn’t seem to mind the distractions.  The Japanese go crazy for this practice, which is standard preventative medicine here.  It involves cultivating your senses to open them to the woods.  It’s not about wilderness; it’s about the nature/civilization hybrid the Japanese have cultivated for thousands of years.  You can stroll a little, write a haiku, crack open a spicebush twig and inhale its woodsy, sassy scent.  The whole notion is predicated on an ancient bond that can be unearthed with a few sensory tricks.

“People come from the city and literally shower in the greenery,” our guide, Kunio, explained to me. “This way, they are able to become relaxed.” To help us along, Kunio – a volunteer ranger – had us standing still on a hillside, facing a creek, with our arms at our sides. I glanced around. We looked like earthlings transfixed by the light of the mother ship. Weathered and jolly, Kunio told us to breathe in for a count of seven seconds, hold for five, release. “Concentrate on your belly,” he said.

We needed this. Most of us were urban desk jockeys. We looked like weak, shelled soybeans, tired and pale. Standing next to me was Ito Tatsuya, a forty-one-year-old Tokyo businessman. Like many day-hikers in this country, he carried an inordinate amount of gear, much of it dangling from his belt: a cell phone, a camera, a water bottle, and a set of keys.  The Japanese would make great boy scouts, which is probably why they make such great office workers, working longer hours than anyone else in the developed world.  It’s gotten to the point where they’ve coined a term, karoshi – death from overwork. The phenomenon was identified during the 1980s bubble economy when workers in their prime started dropping dead, and the concept reverberated into the future and throughout the developing world: civilization can kill us.  Ito and I breathed in the pines and then dove into our bento boxes full of octopus and pickled root vegetables.  Kunio was moving around, showing people the astonishingly twiggy walking-stick insect.  Ito’s shoulders seemed to be unclenching by the minute.  “When I’m out here, I don’t think about things,” he said, deftly scooping up shards of radish while I splattered mine onto the leaf litter.

“What’s the Japanese word for ‘stress’?” I asked . “‘Stress,’” he said.

With the largest concentration of giant trees in Japan, this park is an ideal place to put into practice the newest principle of Japanese wellness science.  In a grove of rod-straight sugi pine, Kunio pulled a thermos from his massive day pack and served us some mountain-grown, wasabi-root and bark-flavored tea. The idea with shinrin yoku, a term coined by the government in 1982 but based on ancient Shinto and Buddhist practices, is to let nature into your body through all five senses, so this was the taste part. I stretched out across the top of a cool, mossy boulder. A duck quacked. This may not have been the remote and craggy wilderness preferred by John Muir, but it didn’t need to be. I was feeling pretty mellow, and scientific tests would soon vindicate this: at the end of the hike, my blood pressure had dropped a couple points since the start of the hike. Ito’s had dropped even more.

We knew this because we were on one of Japan’s forty-eight official “Forestry Therapy” trails designated for shinrin yoku by Japan’s Forestry Agency. In an effort to benefit the Japanese and find non-extractive ways to use forests, which cover 68 percent of the country’s landmass, the agency had funded about $4 million in forest-bathing research since 2003. It intends to designate 100 Forest Therapy sites within ten years. Visitors here are routinely hauled off to a cabin to stick their arms in blood pressure machines, part of an effort to provide ever more data for the project. In addition to its government-funded studies and dozens of special trails, a small number of physicians in Japan have been certified in forest medicine. It’s hard to overstate how unusual this is.

“The Japanese work is essential in my mind, a Rosetta Stone,” Alan Logan, a Harvard lecturer, naturopath and member of the scientific community of the International Society of Natural and Forestry Medicine (which, naturally, is based in Japan), had told me. “We have to validate the ideas scientifically through stress physiology or we’re still at Walden Pond.”

The Japanese have good reason to study how to unwind: in addition to those long workdays, pressure and competition for schools and jobs help drive the third-highest suicide rate in the world (after South Korea and Hungary). One-fifth of Japan’s residents live in greater Tokyo, and 8 .7 million people have to ride the metro every day. Rush hour is so crowded that white-gloved workers help shove people onto the trains, leading to another unique term, tsukin jigoku – commuting hell…

Moving on, I tried to grasp the destress crowd’s favorite darling, meditation. The science is very convincing that it changes your brain in ways that make you smarter and kinder and generally less ruffled by life. The problem is, as with antidepressants, meditation doesn’t work for many of us. Only 30 percent of aspirants are “fully adherent” after a standard eight-week course, according to Joshua Smyth, a biobehavioral psychologist at Pennsylvania State University. It has a high threshold to enlightenment.

A Bamboo Forest Kyoto, Japan

But pretty much any sloughing screen fiend can spend time in a pocket of trees somewhere. If there was one man who can demonstrate how forest therapy works, it’s Yoshifumi Miyazaki. A physical anthropologist and vice director of the Center for the Environment, Health and Field Sciences at Chiba University on the outskirts of Tokyo, he believes that because humans evolved in nature, its where we feel most comfortable, even if we don’t always know it.

To prove that our physiology responds to different habitats, Miyazaki’s taken hundreds of research subjects into the woods since 2004. He and his colleague Juyoung Lee, then also of Chiba University, found that leisurely forest walks, compared to urban walks, deliver a 12 percent decrease in cortisol levels. But that wasn’t all; they recorded a 7 percent decrease in sympathetic nerve activity, a 1 .4 percent decrease in blood pressure, and a 6 percent decrease in heart rate. On psychology questionnaires, they also reported better moods and lowered anxiety.

As Miyazaki concluded in a 2011 paper, “this shows that stressful states can be relieved by shinrin therapy.” And the Japanese eat it up, with nearly a quarter of the population partaking in some shinrin action. Hundreds of thousands of visitors walk the Forest Therapy trail each year.

Forest Healing in South Korea

To understand just how committed Korea is to better-health- through-forests, I paid a visit to the headquarters of the Korean Forestry Agency in the new industrial city of Deajun. There I was pleased to find my old shinrin yoku contact Juyoung Lee, who’d been hired away from his post in Japan to conduct research for South Korea. Lee now works for the agency’s human welfare division. It’s remarkable that any forest agency even has a “human welfare” division. It wasn’t so long ago that the main job of forest agencies all over the world was simply to facilitate cutting down trees. When I first met Lee two years earlier, he was swatting mosquitoes and suctioning sensors off my forehead on a Japanese mountainside. Now he wore a stylish suit in a modern high-rise.

Lee escorted me through a maze of pink to the spacious outer office of Dr. Shin, who is the minister of the

Korean Forestry Agency. Shin greeted me with a handshake and a delicate cup of tea. He is boyish and buoyant, as if he can’t quite believe his good fortune to land the corner offic . He did not rise to the top of the agency through the usual route of timber management, but rather because of his psychology research on topics such as “the influence of interaction with the forest on cognitive function” and “the influence of forest experience on self-actualization.” For that paper, which he published while based at the University of Toronto, he studied how participants changed after a five-week wilderness course sponsored by the National Outdoor Leadership School and found the results inspiring. He’d been influenced by Stephen and Rachel Kaplan’s work at the University of Michigan. Shin became a professor of “social forestry” at Chungbuk National University, which offers the world’s only degree program in forest healing.  In the early days of research, “we discussed a lot of the issues for how we can objectively measure the benefits and what are the best bio-markers,” he said.

Apparently, the effort paid off. Shin’s ascendency and the country’s new programs reflect just how seriously South Korea takes the emerging evidence on nature and health. The goal of the current National Forest Plan is “to realize a green welfare state, where the entire nation enjoys well-being.” As Shin pointed out, happiness is now part of the national index.  And the results of this campaign are evident: visits to the country’s forests increased from 9 .4 million in 2010 to 12 .7 million in 2013, or one-sixth of the country’s population (around the same time, visits to national forests in the U.S. dropped 25 percent). The agency now offers everything from prenatal classes in the woods to forest kindergarten to forest burial options. There is even a “Happy Train” that delivers school bullies to a national forest for two days so they can learn to be nicer. To unwind in the United States, men in groups might hunt and drink Jack Daniels. Here they do downward dog and make floral collages. Earlier in the week at a forest named Saneum, I’d come upon a forest-healing program for firefighters with PTSD, where the men were practicing partner yoga in the woods and massaging lavender oil into each other’s forearms.

The data on the healing power of forests kept rolling in. Among the things the Korean researchers were finding: immune-boosting killer T cells in women with breast cancer increased after a two- more interested? “And how can that forest benefit be applied in the medical field and in the insurance field?” The agency estimates that forest healing reduces medical costs, creates new jobs, and benefits local economies.

Singapore Botanical Garden

In addition to designating dozens of official healing forests and constructing facilities there, the Forest Agency is building an ambitious $100 million forest healing complex adjacent to the country’s iconic Sobaeksan National Park, complete with aquatic center, addiction treatment center, “barefoot garden,” herb garden, open-air decks, suspension bridge and 50 kilometers of trails. It’s hard not to think of this as Disney meets summer camp. Because make no mistake: as much as Koreans may yearn for meaning, they are pragmatists. The nature renaissance here is largely about consumerism, albeit medical consumerism. The forest developments are private-public partnerships, where real estate and resort investments will generate profits, and where shops sell phytoceuticals (hinoki bath oil, anyone?) and where people will be able to return to their schools and offices more productive than when they left.

Garden Cities of Singapore

I thought a good place to start diving into the country’s ethic might be the world-class, 155-year-old Singapore Botanical Garden, which is large, open nineteen hours a day, and free. A new UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s also the headquarters for the country’s powerful national parks agency. I ducked out of a downpour and into the administrative building, where I was met by bespectacled Yeo Meng Tong, the affable director of the parks department. In most nations, the parks departments are small, underfunded and scrappy. But this country spends 200 million Singapore dollars per year “to develop scenery,” as Yeo put it. That equals .6 percent of the national budget, five times the share the National Park Service gets from the U.S. federal budget. No wonder he was smiling.

Yeo told me he was born in 1963, two years before the former British colony cleaved from Malaysia. Under fifty-year leadership of one ruling party – and mostly one man, the last Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew– Singapore grew into the third-most- successful economy in the world, ranked higher than the United States on GDP per capita, educational attainment, standard of living, and life expectancy. Its accomplishments are all the more impressive given that the place had virtually no explorable natural resources, little room to expand, and a surging population made up of a potentially volatile mix of ethnicities.

Lee Kuan Yew – or LKY, as he’s fondly known – planted a public tree in a traffic circle soon after he took office, setting off what would become a personal obsession. Singapore was soon importing thousands of trees and hiring small armies of arborists and horticulturalists. He launched a “garden city” plan that later morphed into a more ambitious “city in a garden” vision. In his memoir, he writes:

“After independence, I searched for some dramatic way to distinguish ourselves from other Third World Countries. I settled for a clean and green Singapore. One arm of my strategy was to make Singapore an oasis in Southeast China…”

As Yeo proudly told me, if you add up the forest preserves, the pocket parks, undeveloped land and the manicured street trees, half of Singapore’s 276 square miles is under some sort of green cover. “We try to create more green in every inch of space we can find,” he said. The city day-lighted and landscaped its once-utilitarian canals, adding paths, so it now offers 300 kilometers of green corridors that connect the many parks. When a new development goes in, the builders must figure out how to more than replace the nature it displaced, by making green roofs, integrated gardens, parks over parking lots, and so on. The government will help fund the extra costs.  I visited several mesmerizing structures, including the “world’s tallest vertical garden,” a twenty-four-story condo tower whose entire west face was covered by 23,000 Thunbergia grandiflora vines. The effect was a little bit Body Snatchers: the wall was alive! The builders calculate a 15 to 30 percent savings in energy use from better insulation and reduced air-conditioning. This is a big deal on a tropical island on a warming planet.

Because of these policies, the country’s percentage of green space is actually increasing. Even while the population grew by some 2 million between 1986 and 2007, the percentage of green space expanded from 36 to 47 percent. By contrast, my city, Washington, D.C., has experienced the opposite, along with most places on the planet: only 36 percent of the overall tree canopy remains, a decrease from 50 percent in 1950. Singapore is a remarkable model of what’s possible when green gets coded into a city’s DNA. Furthermore, “we try to achieve a goal that 80 percent of people live within 400 meters of green space,” Yeo said. “We’re pretty close. Now we’re at 70 percent.”

Shiratani Unsuikyo Natural Forest

Yeo bounded outside, where the rain had ceased, to show me the garden’s heritage trees. One, a sprawling, 150-year-old native Tembusu tree, is so beloved that it graces the five-dollar bill. A long, horizontal branch as thick as a barrel thrusts out from the trunk not far above the ground. “This is a sentimental tree for many Singaporeans because children grow up climbing it on the family outings,” he said. “And then they hang out here with their friends, and it becomes a dating tree, then a proposal tree, and then people take their wedding pictures here!”

“Was your wedding picture here?” I asked. “Yes!”

Singapore Part Two

Recovering from the egg rolls, I settled into the finely clipped lawn below, surrounded by couples and small children running around on a family outing. The sky grew dark, and the first notes of an electronic symphony began.  Suddenly, the trees erupted in colorful neon bursts that kept perfect time with the symphony. The Led Zeppelin stoner laser show has nothing on this. I felt an emotion not dissimilar to what I had experienced in the canyons of Bluff, Utah. I felt the stirrings of awe.

This was nature in the Future City, a mix of metaphor, technology and evolutionary impulse. It embodies what the writer and digital pioneer Sue Thomas calls “technobiophilia .” Who’s to say what real nature is anymore anyway? The human hand underlies all of the world’s ecosystems now. Singapore just represents the extreme end of constructed nature. It still pushes many of our neurological buttons for grass, green, blue, safety, beauty, play, visual interest, wonder. Could I find it truly satisfying? Could any of us who have spent time in wilderness? In a word, no. It wasn’t unpredictable and therefore couldn’t be interesting for long; it didn’t stay novel and fulfill the Kaplans’ quotient for being mysterious or escapist enough. But I looked at these young children, and their young parents, and I realized that most of them had probably never seen a much wilder nature, and they didn’t miss what they didn’t know. If this isn’t an argument for conserving wilderness and making sure people experience it, I don’t know what is.

Heading out of the park, a fragile sliver of a hazy moon hung in the southern sky.

I hadn’t noticed it at all.

I took away two big lessons from Singapore. For greenery to truly seep into all neighborhoods, there needs to be a strong governing vision. Second, urban nature will serve us best when it’s allowed to be a little bit wild, at least in spots.  I couldn’t help but wonder if cities had something better to offer in the awe department. Real nature, the kind we evolved in, incorporates entropy, blood, high winds, a beating, pulsing geophony. In Singapore, nature more or less looks like nature, but it doesn’t sound like nature. It didn’t act like nature. Where was the possibility of all that Darwinian tooth and claw?

Celebrating living trees instead of fake trees seemed like a logical first step. In fact, trees might be our single best tool for urban salvation. City dwellers get most excited about two natural features: water and trees. Now fans can even write emails to trees in Melbourne (“As I was leaving St. Mary’s College today I was struck, not by a branch, but by your radiant beauty. You must get these messages all the time. You’re such an attractive tree.” The trees, which are tagged with individual identification numbers in St. Mary’s Park, sometimes write back via the park crew.)

My man Olmstead understood this devotion . In his principles for park design, he thought no features should stand out as too distracting or spectacular . There should be no flamboyant flower beds and only a minimal amount of overt architecture . The magic formula: generous meadows loosely defined by trees . Winding pathways leading to mystery, flirtatiously defined trees . Trees, trees, trees . They were so important to the Olmstead schema that he ordered no fewer than 300,000 of them for Central Park’s 800 acres, effectively freaking out his budgetary overlords . There were so many trees and shrubs that Calvert Vaux had to recruit a small team of family and friends to fill in the master drawing with tiny green spots . There was pixilation, circa 1858 .

Urban trees provide not just aesthetic pleasure but concrete health benefits . Although certain species of trees can worsen asthma through pollen and other compounds, taken as a whole they generally improve people’s physiology in several important ways . Public officials perhaps didn’t fully appreciate this until a rather astounding study was published in 2013 . Geoffrey Donavan, an urban forester with the U .S . Forest Service, spotted an intriguing natural experiment: a pesky scourge called the emerald ash borer, a “phloem feeder,” landed on our shores in about 2002, whereupon it decimated 100 million ash trees throughout the Midwest and Northeast . Gone, poof . Donavan decided to see if there was any relationship between the treepocalypse and the incidence of cardiovascular disease in humans .

Donavan was already aware of some seminal European studies looking at human stress, illnesses and loosely defined “green space” in cities. And there were other studies, including Richard Mitchell’s work in Scotland, showing lower mortality rates near urban parks. While Mitchell’s research revealed a big health boost to poor people, Donavan’s work showed that the sudden tree blight had a bigger impact on wealthier neighborhoods, probably because those had the most trees to lose. Overall, the counties that were hit by the borer suffered 15,000 additional deaths from cardiovascular disease and 6,000 more from respiratory disease. Those figures represent a sizable 10 percent increase in expected mortality. It’s hard to say whether the deaths were caused by worsened air quality or changes in stress brought on by not having the tall, green, comforting trees to look at, or both. If trees can move us so powerfully in their metaphoric research, as the veterans on the Salmon felt, then perhaps looking at sick or dead trees is in itself stressful.

Toronto takes its 10 million trees very seriously, valuing its urban forest at $7 billion. A recent study showed the higher a neighborhood’s tree density, the lower the incidence of heart and metabolic disease. Putting it into raw economic perspective, the health boost in those living on blocks with about 11 more trees than average was the equivalent to a $20,000 gain in median income. Luckily residents were rich in trees.

Every tree helps. As the founding nature/brain researcher Rachel Kaplan told me, “nature doesn’t have to be pervasive. One tree is an awful lot better than no tree.” But more trees are best. The city of Washington, D.C., and partner nonprofits have been trying to plant at least 8,600 trees a year in effort to increase the street canopy to 40 percent in the next two decades. New York City recently completed a wildly ambitious campaign to plant a million trees, and Los Angeles, Shanghai, Denver, and Dubai are in the middle of similar ones.

Trees are considered a critical part of the global carbon storage solution, the heat-island solution and the urban air-quality solution.

It’s a tall order, but they stand at the ready.


FLORENCE WILLIAMS is an award-winning journalist and author, as well as a contributing editor for Outdoor Magazine and host of their podcast Double-X Factor . These excerpts from her recent book The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative (New York: W.W . Norton & Company, 2016) were reprinted with permission from W.W . Norton & Company . Copyright ©2016 by Florence Williams .


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