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No Need for a Bathing Suit: Forest Bathing in WNC with Science Journalist Florence Williams

science journalist and author Florence Williams
Science writer Florence Williams on a trail at the NC Arboretum in Asheville

For science journalist and authorFlorence Williams, connecting with nature isn’t just about recreation.

“It's good for our mental health, it's good for our physical health. Science even suggests that it's an antidote to things like loneliness, “ she said.

Williams has spent years researching the physical and mental impact of spending time outside. She visited the NC Arboretum in Asheville in early April to discuss her latest book The Nature Fix and to lead guided nature experiences known as forest bathing. The practice was developed in Japan in the 1980s as a response to the country's high-stress working culture. It has become popular here U.S. as a way of harnessing the health benefits of being outdoors.

As she led a group slowly down a trail, Williams was quick to point out that the practice does not involve taking a bath, but is a simple but powerful way to marinate in nature and slow down the mind. It is also very low impact and doesn't require intense runs or tough trail hikes.

“It's really a way of moving through the woods in such a way that we are opening all of our senses. And so the practices, the exercises are very much about slowing down, taking our time and noticing this bird song and other sounds, noticing the breeze against our skin."

As the forest bathers paused mid-trail, Williams encouraged the group to choose a tree and befriend it. “Get up close and personal with it. Touch its bark, feel its texture, notice its shape and the way it moves in the wind."

Science writer Florence Williams guides a forest bathing experience at the NC Arboretum in Asheville
Blue Ridge Public Radio
Science writer Florence Williams guides a forest bathing experience at the NC Arboretum in Asheville

The results she says, can be immediate.

"I was just looking at the Eastern Hemlock and crumbling it in my hands and the smell, well it just changes your mindset kind of instantly. “

Williams, who first came across the practice while on assignment in Japan more than a decade ago, said slow and deliberate attention to the world can help reset thoughts and create lasting effects.

“You know, we don't have to think about what's on the to-do list for a few moments. We don't have to think about that conversation maybe we had with our boss. It's just about you and these plants and these sounds and these smells,"

Most guided forest bathing experiences last a couple of hours, but Williams says - even just a few moments can really help reset people in a powerful way for the rest of the day. And she notes, you don't have to be deep in the woods to reap nature's benefits.

“A lot of it just involves sitting still and paying attention. It can be in your backyard. It could be a city street that has trees on it. It can be from inside your house looking out at a bush with a bird on it, for example, or it can even be a house plant," she said.

"There are a lot of ways you can just take a few moments and slow down and pay attention. That's really all it is. It's very simple practice and it's very powerful.”

Take a relaxing moment

Helen Chickering is a host and reporter on Blue Ridge Public Radio. She joined the station in November 2014.