17 May Forest Bathing
Last week I led a writing workshop in the wooded surroundings of Brandon Country Park.
The objective was to spend time with trees, to be in their presence, sit amongst them and experience them. Our first exercise introduced the idea of meeting a tree as an individual. Within the open area in front of Brandon Park House there are a number of mature deciduous and coniferous trees such as Cedar, beech, redwood, birch, horse chestnut, Douglas fir and yew. Participants were asked to select a tree to work with. Firstly, using sight, what did the tree look like, how tall, how old, what shape, what sort of leaves?
Sight is our dominant sense and we use it to recognise and name trees. So for the rest of the exercise, we closed our eyes and listened. Can you hear the tree? Is it moving in the wind? Are there birds singing? Put your ear to the tree and listen to it. Can you smell it? Sweet? Bitter? Resin? Flowers? Leaves – the needles of some conifers, such as the Douglas Fir, smell citrusy.
Touch the tree. Lean against its trunk or sit against it. Is it rough or smooth, cold or warm? Finally we tuned into other senses to see if we could detect the tree’s ‘feelings’. How does it feel about Brandon Country Park, about you? Does it have a story to tell?
After about 20 minutes, we made rough notes and ideas for poems and prose stimulated by our tree and then gathered together to share our thoughts. The most surprising aspect of our experience, something shared by almost everyone in the group, was how warm the trunk felt. Somehow we had expected it to be cool. And almost everyone admitted to a sense of peace and relaxation, losing themselves in time. The trees had enabled a sense of meditation.
Maiden of the woods, now grown old,
Skin weathered by wind, leaning,
But still dancing.
From the open spaces of the arboretum we moved into a glade under beech trees. Sitting on logs we spent some time drinking in the green sunlight, writing and sharing poems. How often do we take time to just sit and be still? The Japanese have many words for aspects of being in nature which don’t translate exactly into English. Shinrinyoku, or forest bath, reflects the act of walking through or being in a forest and soaking in the green light. This is how our second session of the day felt and we were reluctant to break the magic.
Easterly winds sent cloud from the North Sea, cool, salt-tasting, hiding the moon. In the forest, trees wait for spring, buds held tight. But their strength shields me and I bathe in their green light, drowsy against the warmth of their bark. Each breath exchanged – I sigh, they whisper back. I feel my tension slip into their rootedness and learn how they stand tall, grounded in earth but flexing in air.
Our final writing session was in a very different area of forest where two Monterey pines stood like dark sentinels on needle-strewn, mounds of their own making, dark against the young leafing beeches. Here we explored ideas of myth and fairy and woods as settings for story.
There is much more one could say about trees and woods and we shared readings of poems such as Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods, Rudyard Kipling’s Way through the Woods and Moyra Caldecott’s Fern-leafed Beech.
Thank you to David Falk, manager of Brandon Country Park, for the invitation to run the workshop. If you would like to experience ‘words from the woods’, we hope to run another day in the autumn when we will explore colour, woodland harvest and what trees teach us about life.
If you want to try forest bathing go and explore Brandon Country Park and stop by the Copper Beech Tearooms to refuel with their lovely coffee and cake.