We’re lucky enough here in Austin to have mild winters. That means if the hustle and bustle of the holiday season has you feeling worn thin, a bit of time outside might be all the therapy you – and your family – need. Sarah Ivens, author of Forest Therapy: Seasonal Ways to Embrace Nature for a Happier You, spoke with us recently about how a simple walk in the woods can improve your life.
AFM: Tell us about your family.
Ivens: My husband Russell and I are both from London, and we have two children: William and Matilda. We moved to America from England 12 years ago. We started out in New York, then we moved to Louisville, Kentucky. And then we went to Los Angeles for two years and lived on the beach. We’ve been in Austin for two years. We love Austin. It has a great mix of the friendliness and the warmth and the comfort of Louisville with the outdoorsy, healthy nature vibe of L.A.
AFM: What is forest bathing?
Ivens: It first came about in Japan in 1982, when the government realized that even though Japan was financially doing well, there was a major, national health crisis going on. Depression rates were soaring. Suicide rates were going up. People were getting more diseases, feeling ill, feeling stressed. The government plowed millions into investigating what was going wrong, and they found there was a real lack of connection with nature and with each other. This new lifestyle of being in offices, working hard, making money, was not doing anyone any favors. So, they set up a program of 50 nature walks, and they labeled this idea shinrin-yoku. It means literally to bathe your senses in nature.
AFM: How did you get into forest therapy?
Ivens: In 2009, the whole forest bathing thing had been going on for 25 years, and I went to Japan because my husband had just lost his dad to cancer. We had been trying to get pregnant for two years and hadn’t been able. So, we were both at a low point in our lives and realized we needed to change scenery, relax, think about life in a different way. I had read about forest bathing. So, we went to some of the trails, and I could see that it made sense. And when I came back to America after that trip, I did have my son shortly afterward. The advice I give in the book is to treat forest therapy as a health practice, like you might go to a yoga class once a week or decide to eat healthily or join a book club because they know it will help your brain. If we could introduce a prescription for a better life, it would be just spending an hour without your phone, in a park.
AFM: What benefits did the Japanese government find?
Ivens: They found so many. They worked out that trees emit chemicals called phytoncides. They’re naturally anti-fungal, anti-bacterial chemicals. By ingesting these phytoncides, we’re boosting our immunity, lowering cortisol levels, increasing melatonin. There’s evidence that cases of cancer go down for people who walk in the woods or live near a forest. Spending time in nature increases your ability to think creatively. Following the track of a stream lets your mind wander. You can daydream. They’ve even done studies that show forest therapy makes you a nicer person. There are studies that show eyesight improves because you’re looking at a rock, and then you’re looking out in the distance. Also, you’re not spending time looking at screens.
I heard that Americans spend more time in cars per day than outside. And American children spend less time outdoors than chickens and prisoners. I appreciate that in Austin there’s so much: the Austin Parks Foundation, the Children and Nature Network and the Get Outside: Austin movement. I feel like schools are getting more aware. My son’s school fought hard to have two recesses for their kinder and first graders. When children are outside, the kids travel twice the distance and use twice the amount of energy as when they’re inside.
AFM: What are some of your favorite places in Austin for forest therapy?
Ivens: My favorite place is the Lady Bird Lake hike and bike trail, just for the families of turtles. You just sit on that bank and see these multi-generational interactions. The granddad with the kid on his back. The brave teenagers jumping off. I love it. This weekend, we went to Sweet Berry Farm in Marble Falls. It was breathtaking, with the wildflower fields. And Mount Bonnell. We have a lot of friends come and visit from England, and the first thing we do is see the sunset. It really sets the scene of how beautiful Austin is. McKinney Falls is fun. My son’s into fossils and geodes, so he loves it there.
We’re very lucky that our house backs onto a park. My children are in there every day, rain, shine, injured knees, climbing trees, using sticks as wands or swords. We find the wildlife exciting. This week we found four baby raccoons in our back garden. My son’s bedroom window overlooks the park, and he often sees families of deer walking along. And fireflies. We don’t have them in England, so I’m still like a child whenever I see a firefly. It’s wonderful, isn’t it?
AFM: Any tips for forest therapy with children?
Ivens: You will meet some resistance, because children are increasingly addicted to screens. Most children crave time with their parents. So, don’t just think, “I’m taking the kids out and they can run around while I’m going through my phone.” You should all go out and all look for new flowers or all watch how the clouds are changing and if you’re seeing faces in them. All of you connect as a family.
And then secondly, bribe them. Take a little picnic, make it fun. Take toys outside. Legos are fun in a bedroom, but imagine when it’s outside in the roots of trees. You can make a whole forest land. My daughter takes her cuddly toys, and we have a teddy bear’s picnic outside. Don’t worry about being neat and tidy. All of you can be mucky. Other bribes I’ve bought my children are magnifying glasses and binoculars, so they can get a close look at the worms. They can spot a mother bird and her babies. And I’m like the Pied Piper. “Does anyone else want to come? We’ll all do this together.”
Sherida Mock is the editor of Austin Family Magazine.