Into the Woods
Chevy Chase’s Melanie Choukas-Bradley is teaching people the art of forest bathing
Choukas-Bradley grew up in Saxtons River, Vermont, exploring the woods and mountains. Her father, an avid birder, taught her that the song of the towhee sounds like “drink your tea.” She discovered on her own the mesmerizing beauty of a single snowflake.
“I was 5 years old when I started wandering around the woods by myself,” she says. “I found such joy and serenity just quietly being out in the woods alone. The trees and birds and wildflowers and clouds and streams brought me joy. That early connection to nature is so central to who I am.”
She earned a degree in English at the University of Vermont, knowing that she wanted to be a writer, and met her future husband in a Russian literature class. After graduation in the 1970s, Choukas-Bradley became news director for a radio station and then moved to the District when her husband was admitted to law school at Georgetown University. She got a job as a congressional staffer working on environmental issues.
As always, she was drawn to trees. Many of the species lining the District’s streets and parks were unfamiliar to her and she wondered what they were. When she walked into a bookstore and tried to buy a guide to the trees of Washington, D.C., the clerk told her that no such guide existed, but maybe she should write one.
Improbably, she did. Choukas-Bradley and a college friend, botanist and illustrator Polly Alexander, won a grant from the timber industry, she quit her job on the Hill, and the two spent the next two years researching trees, often with the help of staff experts at the National Arboretum. “It was a hugely ambitious project,” Choukas-Bradley says. “We would collect acorns in egg cartons and press leaves between newspapers. We’d bring in big stacks of leaves and fruit for staff to help us identify.” City of Trees: The Complete Field Guide to the Trees of Washington, D.C. was published when Choukas-Bradley was just 29. In the 37 years since, it has never been out of print.
One day in the late 1970s, Choukas-Bradley went for a country drive with her sister, who was visiting. They happened upon Sugarloaf Mountain in Montgomery County, which reminded them of the terrain of their youth. “It just felt like home,” Choukas-Bradley says. A few years later, she and her husband bought a house in Comus, at the base of Sugarloaf Mountain, where they raised two children. Her husband, Jim Choukas-Bradley, commuted to his law practice in the District for the next 22 years. She wrote two books inspired by her rambles on the mountain. Sugarloaf: The Mountain’s History, Geology, and Natural Lore was published in 2003. An Illustrated Guide to Eastern Woodland Wildflowers & Trees: 350 Plants Observed at Sugarloaf Mountain, Maryland came out the following year.
Eventually her husband wasn’t the only member of the family commuting to the District. Their daughter attended Sidwell Friends, and their son enrolled at Maret. They all wanted to be closer to the city, so the family moved to Chevy Chase in 2003. “My family dragged me kicking and screaming away from the mountain,” Choukas-Bradley says. “I missed the mountain so much. I missed the night sky, the stars, the cycles of the moon. You can see the moon here, but it is a lot easier out in the country.”
Soon, however, she found comfort in Rock Creek Park. “My whole life, whenever I feel troubled, I seek out nature and find solace,” she says. She doesn’t just hike and bike there—she sometimes dances alone there to the light of the rising moon. “I’m sure I’m not the only one,” she says, laughing. A lot of people feel free in the woods, she says.
Walking in the park with her husband one freakishly warm winter day, about four years after she began exploring it, she noticed that a wildflower that wasn’t supposed to be out until March or April was already in full bloom. Alarmed that global warming was changing the refuge she was still coming to know, she began writing a personal memoir about her time in the park. In good weather she sat outside, writing at a picnic table so she could hear birdsong and the laughter of neighborhood children as she worked. A Year in Rock Creek Park: The Wild, Wooded Heart of Washington, DC was published in 2014. It won an Independent Publisher Book Award for excellence.
That same year, Choukas-Bradley was leading a traditional nature walk when one of the hikers handed her a magazine article about forest bathing. She hadn’t heard of the practice, but learned that a group in California—the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy Guides & Programs—trained and certified forest bathing leaders. “I was pretty much on the next plane,” she says. Choukas-Bradley became one of the first people in the D.C. region certified as a forest therapy guide. She’s also visited Japan to observe the formal practice of forest bathing on its native terrain.
Her book was due to be published in late August. In all her years of leading traditional nature walks, she writes in The Joy of Forest Bathing, the moments that meant the most to her “were the times of collective reverence, when everyone grew quiet, surrendering to the beauty and wonder of the moment. On a traditional nature walk, such moments may occur occasionally. On a forest bathing walk, however, quiet surrender to beauty and wonder is the essence of the experience.”
That surrender isn’t just pleasurable, it is good for people’s physical and mental health, according to Choukas-Bradley. Research shows “that forest bathing lowers your blood pressure, pulse rate, and cortisol levels; increases heart rate variability (a good thing); and improves mood,” she writes.
The naturalist says she witnesses many of the benefits of forest bathing in the walks she guides. “People are hungry for it,” she says. “Disconnected from nature, people tend to get into ruminative thought patterns. They turn to-do lists over and over in their heads. Out in nature you feel whole, you feel confident, you feel happy, you feel alive in ways you don’t when you interact with a screen. You feel like you are part of the whole world, living life.”