Into the Woods
Chevy Chase’s Melanie Choukas-Bradley is teaching people the art of forest bathing
The mid-May forest bathers walk deeper into the woods, concentrating as Choukas-Bradley has asked them to on observing what moves and what is still. When they stop, they sit in a loose circle to talk about what they have observed and experienced.
She asks one of the forest bathers, Sarah DeWitt, 40, of the District, to read a poem that’s one of Choukas-Bradley’s favorites: When I Am Among the Trees, by Mary Oliver.
When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be
filled with light, and to shine.”
Weeks later, the hikers who followed Choukas-Bradley into the woods that day say the experience stayed with them in ways they didn’t expect. It has changed how they experience daily life.
Erik Taylor, 38, who lives in the District’s Woodley Park neighborhood and visits Rock Creek Park often, recalls the makeshift tea ceremony. In Japan, forest bathing often includes drinking tea brewed from aromatic leaves gathered in the woods. Rather than pour tea, Choukas-Bradley served maple water and maple sugar candy—gifts from trees. Strangers around a picnic table spoke; some in words as brief as a haiku expressed deep joys, sorrows, yearnings. Taylor, who has a background in commercial real estate, was reminded that everyone is seeking something, not just him. He found that reassuring.
Since the visit, Taylor rarely passes a sweet gum tree without stopping to smell its fragrant leaves. Often he plucks a single leaf from a mature tree, tears it and holds the fragments to his nose to better relish its lemony freshness.
DeWitt, who read the poem to the group, remembers the rain that day. “It was purifying,” she recalls. DeWitt is an experienced outdoorswoman who has degrees in geology and science documentary filmmaking. She works at NASA as a coach, helping employees plot their path through the agency and life. She regularly hikes Rock Creek Park. A few weeks after she went forest bathing, DeWitt enjoyed a three-day bike expedition with friends.
“They were long days riding, and you could get exhausted if you let yourself,” she recalls. “I would spend a chunk of the time listening only to birds. What do I hear? What birds do I hear? It was astonishing how much I heard with focusing on just that one thing. For another chunk of time I just focused on all the green. It was almost overwhelming. It was shades and textures—so much green that I wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t focused on it. It was almost like taking the forest bathing experience with me. It elevated the experience of being on a bike.”
Claire Ward, 60, who lives in D.C.’s Glover Park neighborhood, says of her first foray into forest bathing: “It was profound. I had a profound gentle spiritual experience with a bunch of people who I’d never met before.” In her youth, Ward was a white-water rafting guide. Now she’s a federal worker who spends weekdays bound to her office, phone and computer. It’s hard to be fully conscious in our daily lives, Ward says. There are so many things we don’t want to be fully conscious of: the rushing, the press of responsibilities or the drumbeat of disturbing news.
Every day now, Ward tries to recapture her experience and see the world in a whole new light. “Now when I’m walking I will look at what’s moving and what’s not,” she says. “I will look at the shape of that leaf and just not rush past. I try to notice those small things. Going out and being fully conscious in nature is what connects us to this planet and to each other. It’s like we were all starving for it.”
Choukas-Bradley has grown accustomed to reactions like this. “People often sound surprised that a walk affected them as deeply as it did,” she says. It affects her, too, every time, she says. To try to explain how profoundly, she quotes the great naturalist John Muir: “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
April Witt (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a former Washington Post writer.