There’s a lot being said about the positive healing effect of trees. Of being in “God’s great outdoors.” Whether you call it “God’s” or not, the beneficial effect is well-known and widely-known. In Japan, it’s called shrinrin-yoku, which translates to “forest-bathing.” In Norway and Sweden, it’s called friluftsilv. Elsewhere in the world it may not have a poetic name, but the cleansing and restorative effects are noted and praised…even prescribed by one’s doctor, as in Scotland.
In a Toronto case involving two studies (controlled for demographic and socioeconomic factors), the results are startling: those ten trees per block “could improve how healthy a person feels as if they made an additional $10,000 a year or if they were seven years younger” [my emphasis]. Citizens living there also had decreased hypertension, obesity, and diabetes, etc. Remember, this is Canada, with universal health care. The difference is trees, not money. Several European studies show that children who grow up deprived of ready access to “green space” are more likely to have mental disorders later in life.
Why the boost? Less pollution? That’s possible. More beauty—and better moods and reduced stress? That is also possible. Less clutter and clatter and fewer distractions? Probably. Free aromatherapy? And maybe there’s more….Test your own recollections. Do you recall times when you stretched out on the grass in a park? Swung in a hammock swung between a pair of shady trees? Sat on your porch and enjoyed the rain, or birds chattering on a feeder? Led yourself to a place beside still waters?
How mellow did you get? How was your blood pressure? Even without a nap, did you feel restored? A question for those who meditate—are these experiences similar? Science tells us being outdoors boosts energy and is good for your vision. It mitigates pain and boosts your immune system and gives you your daily Vitamin D. It enhances creativity. It certainly alleviates SAD—Seasonal Affective Disorder—even better than the lamps whose artificial light is said to do the same thing.
I suspect the phenomenon is closely allied to that faith called “pantheism” which finds a higher power in nature and in the forces of nature. Properly understood, it goes beyond a simple seeing of gods in thunder and lightning and rain, etc. and strives for a close identification with nature, seeing oneself as part of the natural world.
I suspect this accounts for a recent finding which says that those who live in areas of natural beauty are less likely to be “religious” in the usual institutional sense. In some way, Beautiful Nature can accomplish a soothing of the spirit, a lessening of anxiety, a centering of the mind, and easing of the body. “Be still…” the psalmist tells us, and somewhere in the stillness—beside those waters or on a mountaintop—we are given a measure of peace.
Wendell Berry said much the same in his great poem “The Peace of Wild Things”: “For a time/I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.” Perhaps Dr. Benjamin Rush was right more than 200 years ago: “It would seem…that man is naturally a wild animal, and that when taken from the woods, he is never happy in his natural state, ‘till he returns to them again.”