“…enter this wild wood and view the haunts of Nature.”
[William Cullen Bryant]
Mr. Bryant’s “Inscription for the Entrance to a Wood” extolls the beauty, benefits, comfort and restorative power of nature. In short, Shinrin-yoku** – some two hundred years before the concept was “pioneered” in Japan. The poem advises its readers that to be happy, they ought to go to the woods to soothe their hearts and minds and receive unconditional love.
Thou wilt find nothing here of all that pained thee in the haunts of men,*
Are you feeling the post-Yuletide blues? In many ways, the Christmas season is a divergent interruption to our normal rhythms. It disrupts our pace, our eating habits, our recreational activities, our leisure and perhaps even our sleep patterns. When the New Year celebrations have come and gone and routines have resumed – the kiddos are back in class, the adults have returned to work – and the long, cold, dark winter stretches before us, it is quite natural to feel a little depleted.
The solution: A good long walk in the woods!
Doctors and clinicians unanimously agree: Time in nature reduces stress and improves our physical, mental and social well-being. Nature, including woodlands, river/creek banks, marshes, parks and lakes all provide proven benefits to personal and community health.
Even the trees, Partake the deep contentment*
So, hiking at this time of year, you might ask, dubiously… Woodlands in wintertime are vastly different, ‘though no less glorious, than in summer. The leaves have fallen which allows the sunlight to reach the ground – reflecting and sparkling on the snow. The snow creates a hush that is unlike the quiet of the summer months. Enjoyment at this time of year is in no way diminished by the cold temperature; we only need to dress appropriately, enjoy our walk and allow the tranquility and euphoria of nature to embrace us. And it will!
the thick roof of, stirring branches is alive and musical with birds,*
A winter hike always reveals myriad creatures, experiences and new scenes: Cardinals and Blue Jays frolicking in the branches of the bare trees (so much easier to spot them and watch their antics); squirrels frantically dashing about trying to suss out the forgotten hiding spots where they’d previously stashed their acorns; last summer’s bird and wasp nests which, when built were nicely concealed, are now revealed for closer examination and admiration; a fox on the hunt for a nice bird or bunny for his evening meal, cautiously but bravely passing by; deer munching on cedar boughs; moss, still thriving despite the cold and snow; and so, so much more.
We N’umberlanders are blessed with a plethora of woodland trails – all conveniently located on our doorsteps: Ferris and Presqu’ile Provincial Parks, Sylvan Glen and Carr’s Marsh conservation areas Alderville Black Oak Savanna and the Brighton Provincial Wildlife Area plus two massive forests – the Ganaraska and the Northumberland
The rivulet sends forth glad sounds, and seems, with continuous laughter, to rejoice*
The benefits to winter hiking or Shinrin-yoku** are numerous. Outdoors, we seem to need very little to be perfectly content; nature seems to automatically teach us that love of rusticism. In an unspoiled environment, surrounded by diverse ecosystems and animal habitats, our senses become heightened and our experience is unmatched by anything that happens on our screens and televisions or in our schools, offices, homes, or gardens. The tranquility and euphoria we experience are spontaneous and involuntary.
The calm shade shall bring a kindred calm,*
Merely taking a break from our daily routines is therapeutic. Add to that the beauty and serenity of a forest setting and those benefits are multiplied. One of the biggest perks of forest bathing is air quality. This includes the scents, especially the essential oils of plants and trees, and the reduced level of air pollution: Science tells us that by walking a mere 200 metres into the woods, the level of vehicle emissions is already four times lower.
The cool wind, That stirs the stream in play, shall come to thee.
Like one that loves thee nor will let thee pass Ungreeted,*
Personally, I feel how restorative and exhilarating time in nature is for me every time I’m outdoors. Whether I’m on a photo shoot, cycling, having a picnic, paddling or on a hike – the benefits to me are immediately apparent. I never fail to feel that child-like exuberance and joy.
the old and ponderous trunks of prostrate trees, breathe fixed tranquility.*
Don’t be afraid to go off on your own – I did. My path towards improved health and happiness began with watching and studying nature and all its riches and resources. It was a practice I undertook by myself and I soon learned that, for me, solitude did not – in any way – equate to loneliness, isolation, seclusion or withdrawal. Rather, time alone in the woods created a personal, quiet space in which I have always been able to find composure, contentment and serene happiness.
the sweet breeze, shall waft a balm to thy sick heart.*
If post-Christmas doldrums have invaded – yourself or your home – gather up some woolies, a snack, your canteen, binoculars, and a camera and, either alone or with your family and friends, head out for a woodland hike. Perhaps even visit our beautiful trails here in Northumberland County (links above). Take a healthy dose of expectation and hope, allow the trees, birds, animals and scenery to tug on your heartstrings and in no time at all, you’ll experience an all-natural panacea. Promise!
Thou wilt find nothing here of all that pained thee in the haunts of men,*
‘Til next time, y’all…
*William Cullen Bryant, from his “Inscription for the Entrance to a Wood”. Mr. Bryant (1794-1878) is a well-known Romantic poet. His work – as an author, journalist, editor and poet was strongly influenced by the bible and his tendencies towards romanticism rather than realism. A recurring theme in his writing is nature and its restorative powers.
**Shinrin-yoku, a Japanese concept for improving one’s health. Translation: “Forest bathing”.
‘Though the poet was obviously writing about summertime, his poem speaks to the numinous qualities of woods and forests. To me, his words are both timeless and relevant at any time of year. (Um… All the words except, maybe, “marge”.)
Here is the full poem:
Inscription for the Entrance to a Wood
Stranger, if thou hast learned a truth which needs
No school of long experience, that the world
Is full of guilt and misery, and hast seen
Enough of all its sorrows, crimes, and cares,
To tire thee of it, enter this wild wood
And view the haunts of Nature. The calm shade
Shall bring a kindred calm, and the sweet breeze
That makes the green leaves dance, shall waft a balm
To thy sick heart. Thou wilt find nothing here
Of all that pained thee in the haunts of men,
And made thee loathe thy life. The primal curse
Fell, it is true, upon the unsinning earth,
But not in vengeance. God hath yoked to guilt
Her pale tormentor, misery. Hence, these shades
Are still the abodes of gladness; the thick roof
Of green and stirring branches is alive
And musical with birds, that sing and sport
In wantonness of spirit; while below
The squirrel, with raised paws and form erect,
Chirps merrily. Throngs of insects in the shade
Try their thin wings and dance in the warm beam
That waked them into life. Even the green trees
Partake the deep contentment; as they bend
To the soft winds, the sun from the blue sky
Looks in and sheds a blessing on the scene.
Scarce less the cleft-born wild-flower seems to enjoy
Existence, than the wingèd plunderer
That sucks its sweets. The mossy rocks themselves,
And the old and ponderous trunks of prostrate trees
That lead from knoll to knoll a causey rude
Or bridge the sunken brook, and their dark roots,
With all their earth upon them, twisting high,
Breathe fixed tranquillity. The rivulet
Sends forth glad sounds, and tripping o’er its bed
Of pebbly sands, or leaping down the rocks,
Seems, with continuous laughter, to rejoice
In its own being. Softly tread the marge,
Lest from her midway perch thou scare the wren
That dips her bill in water. The cool wind,
That stirs the stream in play, shall come to thee.
Like one that loves thee nor will let thee pass
Ungreeted, and shall give its light embrace.