The multisensory immersive experience of forest bathing is a place-based activity. It is also a global phenomenon. In my home state of Minnesota, the trend is taking root. Minnesota Public Radio published Forest Bathers: A slow hike can help your health by Euan Kerr in November, 2019, building on a previous piece, Forest Bathing: A retreat to nature can boost immunity and mood, by Allison Aubrey, from July 2017.
Intentional engagement with the forest atmosphere connects a person to their surroundings — the emphatic physical environment — and builds awareness of social relations involving the more-than-human world. These worlds are not just the worlds of meaning structured by human language but experiential worlds of relation to life beyond the human animal.
Forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, was developed in Japan in the 1980s as an antidote to a range of issues including respiratory illness, autoimmune disfunction, hypertension, malaise, and depression (shinrin-yoku.org). As more Western doctors are prescribing nature therapies to complement pharmacological and physical therapies, shinrin-yoku or “taking in the forest atmosphere” has become hot health advice.
Taking in the forest atmosphere can facilitate a transcentdental sense of self-in-place. Taking a slow walk in the woods may sound easy but just go ahead and try. Slow your pace and perk your ears through continuous active listening. Keep listening. Take each step with purpose and touch nearby bark, leaves, and soil. Breath in, breath out. Keep listening. Do this for a minute, or a mile. The obstacle is the path…
Ways of understanding nature therapy practice is informed by lived experience and biophysical evidence yet constructed through everyday communication. Communication is both pragmatic and constitutive, a powerful influence on the co-shaping of social-ecological perceptions. Communication is pragmatic in that it does something — conveys ideas, instructions, locations, intentions, etc. — as well as constitutive in that it builds meaning around experiences and through interactions with self and others.
For some, forest bathing is an act of balancing the plugged-in and increasingly screen-centric life with soft fascinations of an unplugged and four-dimensional forest sublime. These intentional practices offer counterweight to the information-rich demands of highly regimented, often over-caffienated urban life.
If listening is the better half of communication, people seek out “nature” to hear what it has to say — to be with/in nature. An intuitive deciphering or fuzzy logic (ala Berkes) allows the ecological imaginary to flourish: the songs of trees, whispers of wind, dampness of air, and scents of life’s eternal recycling. This conversation, within which one offers the self as active listener, takes place not for us to respond, control, interject, but to absorb through an ultimately unknowable matrix of exchange. One’s experience creates a sense of humanature. We do our best to interpret the experience in meaningful ways. This is an ecocultural orientation to communicative action.
Compound words like ecoculture and humanature are intentional in that they disrupt typical assumptions about human/nature or nature/culture binaries. Environmental communication scholar Aaron Phillips writes that an ecocultural perspective supports interrogating “the persistent cleft between that which is ‘nature’ and that which is ‘culture,’” and offers a “…critical reappraisal of the Western mind/body split.”
To suggest a perspective or identity is ecocultural is not normative, however. It is not a claim to suggest what should be but rather a way of seeing all human lives as having ecological components — uses of resources and productions of waste — whether those cycles of use and disposal are acknowledged or not. Ecoculture scholars Tema Milstein, Mariko Thomas, and Jeff Hoffmann have interrogated “dams” and “flows” of language in Western meaning systems to help identify potentials for deeper ecocultural reflexivity.
Donal Carbaugh, a UMass Amherst professor and Distinguished Scholar of the National Communication Association, advocates for “…hearing not only our own words about our worlds and others’ words about our worlds, but also hearing in the other direction as our worlds express themselves to us in their own ways.” In his Foreword to the Routledge collection Environmental Communication Pedagogy and Practice, Carbaugh advocates for attending to this range of perspectives, including what the ecological realm has to offer, to cultivate discursive diversity. “Just as an ecosystem benefits from and requires diversity,” Carbaugh writes, “so too does our understanding of some places benefit from diverse cultural as well as physical geographies. Multiple discourses — of trees, birds, chemicals, spirituality — lend distinct insights into our places, all requiring consideration as the sites of which we are inevitably only a part.”
Communication processes are central to our emerging understandings of complex social-ecological interactions. Communication helps construct, perpetuate, challenge, and shift our understandings of the many-faceted world — the pluriverse. We read about topics such as shinrin yoku, talk about it, write books or articles about it, photograph it or make videos, all in an effort to create distinctions and challenge perspectives on what such phenomena are and, often, what they are not.
Books such as Your Guide to Forest Bathing by M. Amos Clifford; Forest Bathing Retreat: Find Wholeness in the Company of Trees by Hannah Fries; Forest Bathing by Qing Li; and Shinrin Yoku: The Japanese Art of Forest Bathing by Yoshifumi Miyazaki contribute emerging narrative and visual frames of reference and signify growing popular interest. Likewise, writers like Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix, have written articles for popular magazines and given TED Talks on related topics. National Public Radio has featured forest bathing at least three times since 2017. Such work is often based on personal experience and draws on empirical research about physical and psychological health issues such as stress, hypertension, anxiety, depression, kindness, and subjective wellbeing. Popular and empirical work is useful even though — and this is important — more research is needed to reduce bias and refine measures and methodologies.
Ongoing efforts at qualifying and quantifying essential effects of nature therapies such as forest bathing contribute to the social construction of meaning and add to the emerging discourse on what it means to live well in the 21st century. This emerging discourse, in the parlance of environmental communication scholarship, is an antagonism to the often unreflected-upon assumptions of positivist/reductionist Western science, industrialism, and an approach to capitalism that sees natural resources as a mute set of commodities useful primarily for “development” or “progress” based on extractive exploitation. Not human development, per se, but for a much narrower range of valuation: corpo-industrial economic development.
An ecocultural orientation towards communication, emergent in the lexicon of forest bathing and other nature therapies, acknowledges the pragmatic and constitutive roles communication serves in building meaning and exchanging resources between actors in the planetary lifeworld.
Communication reflects relationships to the actually-existing physical environment supporting and interweaving all life. An ecocultural approach to communication facilitates change, growth, critique, and questioning of culturally infused assumptions and assertions in a dynamic and emergent manner.
Human animals express themselves primarily through words and visual symbols. This helps build meaning about the physical and metaphysical structures created through ecological relationships over time. This is not a new way of understanding communication. What challenges typical Western assumptions is the revelation that humans can also receive useful information from their surroundings through a multisensory linguistic. David George Haskell has written eloquently about such relationships in books like The Songs of Trees and The Forest Unseen.
A reflective language of reciprocity and regeneration supports value pluralism beyond the narrow lens of financial monetization, inspired by intentional interactions with simultaneously fragile and resilient, inclusive yet divergent, networks of networks. Pluralistic valuation highlighting relational values (not just held values, but values in relation to some thing), antagonizes Business As Usual thinking by offering a different orientation to linguistic exchange, a challenge to the limits of societal assumptions about progress, development, value, and living well.
For further reading:
Berkes, F. (2018). Sacred Ecology (4th ed.). London and New York: Routledge.
Carbaugh, D. (2017). Foreword. Environmental Communication Pedagogy and Practice. Tema Milstein, Mairi Pileggi, and Eric Morgan (Eds.) London and New York: Routledge.
Haskell, David George (2017). The Songs of Trees: Stories from nature’s great connectors. New York: Viking.
Himes, A. & Muraca, B. (2018). Relational values: The key to pluralistic valuation of ecosystem services. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 35: 1–7.
Milstein, T., Thomas, M., Hoffmann, J. (2018). Dams and Flows: Immersing in Western Meaning Systems in Search of Ecocultural Reflexivity. Environmental Communication A Journal of Nature and Culture, 13(2):1–14.
Phillips, Aaron T. (2017). “Deep Impressions”: The promise and possibilities of ecocultural experiential learning. Environmental Communication Pedagogy and Practice. Tema Milstein, Mairi Pileggi, and Eric Morgan (Eds.). London and New York: Routledge.
Pezzullo, P. & Cox, R., (2018). Environmental Communication and the Public Sphere (5th ed.). Thousand Oaks, California: Sage.