On a misty Saturday morning, Marianne Rowe of the Monterey Bay Meditation Studio gathers with two women who she’s about to guide through the Rip Van Winkle Open Space in Pacific Grove.
But this is no ordinary stroll in the park.
“Forest bathing is different from hiking because there is no set destination,” Rowe explains. “It’s not us in the forest, but with the forest.”
Rowe, a certified forest therapy guide who took a week-long training course from the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy, warns the small group of four, including this reporter, to look out for poison oak and ticks before beginning their walk.
Forest bathing is a Japanese meditation exercise where one immerses themselves in the forest to spark a sense of peace detached from the demands of everyday life. The term was coined by the Japanese government for a 1982 national health initiative, but the practice is rooted in the enduring belief that being around trees offers health benefits from reducing stress to improving sleep.
The Rip Van Winkle group starts out with a focus on trees. Rowe splits the group into pairs to share stories of significant trees in their life. Lori Skorka of Salinas reflects on a tree she witnessed growing from small to mighty over time; I can’t think of one before Rowe calls us back together.
Then, the walking begins. Rowe encourages the group to engage the senses. She invites us to pause and form a circle, then to close our eyes, stand still and consider the sensory experience happening now.
Birds chirp in rapid rhythms, leaves crinkle underfoot or under paws of dogs and the screeching of an emergency vehicle siren – the only sound distinctive of the society outside this space – wails in the distance until it fades away.
Then Rowe directs us again to the trees. She asks us to imagine the roots and the dirt under our feet and what it would feel like to be attached to such roots. The cool breeze blows gently between the space of my fingers and a droplet of water falling from leaves above lands on my cheek. The exercise comes to a close, we each take deep breaths as if we’ve just surfaced from water, and begin walking through the forest again.
The next invitation is to stroll even slower to note movement of the surrounding environment. Wispy clumps of usnea lichen hang from the branches and wave with the wind, birds glide by.
Up until now forest bathing feels like a soothing walk through nature, but just a walk – not something that transcends that. That’s before we embark on the most inventive activity yet.
Within minutes the group is at the center of the forest. Splitting into new pairs, Rowe instructs us to take turns acting as a photographer and a human-camera. The “photographer” grabs the shoulders of their human-camera, who has their eyes closed, and tilts their head to direct them to a scene they want to capture.
My photographer makes me kneel, gently guides my head to the left and above and when she says it’s time to open my eyes, I’m looking directly at the broken trunk of a tree on its side with a particularly curvy piece of branch inches away from my eyes.
To “capture” the image, I – acting as a camera – must turn to my partner and mimic what I’m seeing through my body, resembling a game charades. I imitate the jagged structure of the branch by lifting my arm up and curving it, and open my mouth wide to convey a look of shock on my face. My “photographer,” Rowe, laughs at my tree trunk impersonation.
Our final invitation is to find a calm spot to sit and meditate while Rowe prepares for the closing tea ceremony.
I sit in a space surrounded by tall trees, slightly paranoid if any ticks lurk in the brown leaves below me. My ears are engaged with the clatter of a dog’s collar nearby.
With the ring of a bell, Rowe pulls us out of our meditation and into the tea ceremony. Finding a seat on each corner of the picnic blanket, the group helps themselves to hummus with celery sticks, strawberries and cheese. Rowe serves warm tea brewed from blackberries, pine needles and lichen she foraged within Rip Van Winkle Open Space. Over sips of tea and bites of hummus, Rowe asks the participants to reflect.
“The forest nurtured and nourished me today,” Skorka says. “I am filled with gratitude.”