On my desk there is a small wooden bowl filled with dried crushed needles of balsam fir. Whether dead or alive, this tree is intensely aromatic, and when I was young and wandering around in the woods I often found it mildly intoxicating. Many years later it evokes the same response.
Sometimes when people stop by I share the scent with them. But mostly I just stir a finger through the dry needles and take in a therapeutic breath or two. I have smelled these volatile oils enough times that my nose-brain can now reproduce them. All I have to do is be quiet, breathe in slowly, and imagine the tree. Like a song in the head, I can conjure up balsam fir in the nose, even in the absence of its needles and bark.
Balsam fir is a conifer, an evergreen. Like cedars and pines and spruces, it is brimming with phytoncides, the essential oils of trees. They do smell good. And they also seem to affect us in significant ways.
Just in the last generation or two, a great shift has taken place. Americans are no longer outdoor people. On average, we now spend 93 percent of our lives indoors, and much of the remaining time is spent in cars. This is new territory for us. In all of our long human history, we have never before lived in such continuous climate-control while focusing the lion's share of our attention on two-dimensional screens. It is the first time we have ever been so personally removed from nature, which is actually where all of our deepest roots still exist even if we rarely acknowledge it.
In response to this pervasive indoor confinement that has so completely crept in upon us, the radical and subversive act of forest bathing was invented. This is a new-age term that sounds a little goofy. When I came across it, I thought of all the swims I've taken in the woods, in the ponds and lakes and swamps and rivers and streams.
But forest bathing is different. It has nothing particular to do with water at all. Basically it means to immerse yourself in nature, to take it all in -- the smells and sounds and textures and sights. The goal is to simply be out in the trees and slow down. It is not about accomplishing anything or hiking or exercising. Things like phones and cameras and step counters aren't allowed.
In Japan, forest bathing is actually considered a legitimate medical treatment and covered by insurance. And in parts of the U.S., it is so newly popular there are long waiting lists of people wanting to get out in the woods on a guided experience with a forest therapist. Hard to believe, but true.
Why all the fuss? Here the known benefits of being out in nature, some of which have been directly linked to breathing in the sweet-smelling oils of trees like balsam fir: improved moods, feeling more alive, better memory, deeper relaxation, less stress and worry, more clear thinking, increased activity of certain blood cells which fight rogue cancers, lower blood pressure, less adrenalin, less cortisol, less hostility, and less negative thinking about self.
Getting outside can do a body lots of good, especially when the sidewalks and parking lots are left behind.