The flute song of the wood thrush—ee-oh-lay, ee-oh-lay—echoes through Rock Creek Park. It is a morning in mid-May: high spring. The forest canopy is rain-soaked, which seems to magnify every sound.
Melanie Choukas-Bradley, author and naturalist, invites the nine women and one man who have followed her into the woods to close their eyes, listen and breathe deeply.
“Really take the air in and let your belly rise,” Choukas-Bradley, 66, says softly. “Keep your eyes closed. Listen to the creek. Listen to the birds. Just feel how wonderful it is to be sitting here together for a few silent moments.
“Now,” she says, “open your eyes and pretend that you are seeing the world for the very first time.”
One of the people gathered is surprised to find that when she opens her eyes they are wet with tears.
Choukas-Bradley, who lives in Chevy Chase, has authored books on the flora and fauna of Rock Creek Park, the District’s tree-lined streets and Sugarloaf Mountain. Organizations such as the Audubon Naturalist Society and the Smithsonian hire her to lead group walks designed to help participants connect with the natural world and identify local plants and animals.
On this day, however, Choukas-Bradley is leading a different kind of walk in the woods. She’s guiding a diverse group of strangers through the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, which happens to be the subject of her latest book, The Joy of Forest Bathing: Reconnect with Wild Places & Rejuvenate Your Life. Forest bathing, essentially, is trying to make an encounter with the natural world a consciously meditative experience. Since the practice is still relatively unknown in the United States, several participants on this walk said they had no idea what to expect—although they knew enough to show up wearing hiking clothes and rain gear, not bathing suits.
“I may identify a few things as we go, but today it is more about being than ID’ing,” Choukas-Bradley tells the group as she hands each participant a folding camping stool to carry on their journey. “This is all about getting out of your head and just really soaking up the beauty with all your senses. That’s really what forest bathing is. It is opening up your heart and all your senses and taking in all the beauty and wonder of nature. It is incredibly therapeutic.”
For the next 2½ hours, Choukas-Bradley and her band of seekers turn off their cellphones, walk slowly—mostly together and in silence—and stop often to sit and share their experiences. She invites them to go on treasure hunts and seek out rocks and individual trees that somehow “call” to them. They ponder the beauty of the fallen blossoms of tulip trees, the kind of natural detritus that on an ordinary day in their own yards these hikers might rake into the trash. When rain falls, they turn up their faces to relish its refreshment rather than racing to their cars to avoid getting wet.
“Melanie was saying pay attention to sounds and sights and smells, but to me, the message was taking care of yourself,” forest bather Pam Stuckey, 63, of Kensington, says later. Stuckey trained as a nurse, but now spends her time as an activist for progressive causes. “Take the time to really experience your surroundings; use your body,” Stuckey says. “I am becoming more and more aware that all the technology that we’re hooked up to daily is taking us away from certain rewards—pure pleasures—that our bodies were designed to appreciate. We are forgetting that we are actually animals. The forest bathing reminded me that humans are animals.”
Choukas-Bradley now guides several forest bathing walks nationally each spring, summer and fall, typically limited to 25 participants. The one in mid-May was sponsored by the Rock Creek Conservancy. For Choukas-Bradley, guiding people through quiet revelations in the woods seems like life coming full circle.