It could take three hours to go less than a mile, and if the pace is slow, then that is part of the point. Elizabeth Koch is completing her training as a Nature and Forest Therapy Guide in order to help people in the practice of “forest bathing.” She’s leading walks at Columbia Springs.
“It’s very slow, it’s very deliberate, focusing on where you are in your body. It’s more mindful than just taking a walk in the forest,” says Koch. “It’s not a hike, it’s not a meander. It’s a sensory experience. I help you connect through your senses.”
That means experiencing nature and what it has to offer. Koch believes it has a lot to offer. She’s read a lot of studies supporting her training and knowledge. She points out that viewing pictures of nature has an impact, aromatherapy (smelling essential oils derived from plants) has an impact, being in nature has an impact, but the greatest impact is from forest bathing itself.
Koch is training under the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy. Called Shinrin-Yoku (“forest bathing”), the practice was started in 1982 by the Forest Agency of the Japanese government. Organizations such as the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare of Japan have done a number of studies to assess the effects of the practice, as well as attempt to determine the elements in nature that create the positive effects. Koch lists off the benefits of the practice: lowering cortisol, the stress hormone; lowering depression; and increasing cancer- and bacterial-fighting cells in the body. Koch says that, like in yoga or meditation, the practitioner releases the thought process in the pre-frontal lobe. “It’s like allowing the brain to take a nap.” That leads to a person being more on-task, with higher cognitive functioning and improved problem solving.
Part of the science is in the emissions — the phytoncides — the trees release. These substances are emitted by most plants, having an effect on other plants and possibly helping humans to fight disease.
Koch is personally interested in the cancer-fighting aspect of the experience. She is a patient with Stage IV metastatic breast cancer. “Pretty much every day I’m fighting for my life,” Koch says, but she downplays the breast cancer in her motivation for undergoing the training. “It certainly was a very strong reason for going into it, but I had many strong reasons.”
Becoming a guide was a “no brainer” for Koch. “This, to me, was something I could embrace every step of. I couldn’t not do it,” she explains. She learned to love nature growing up in Vermont and from her father, a geologist, who carefully identified and categorized wildflowers. He taught Koch to appreciate nature as it is. He would mow around the wildflowers in his yard. He also used nature — they tapped maple trees for the sap and to sell to the local commercial operations. She happily remembers playing in the stream on their property, climbing trees, tending their vegetable garden and going camping.
Koch says the Association of Nature and Forestry has two goals. One is to deepen the awareness of nature with the hope people will become better stewards, and the other goal is to offset and improve the healthcare system, to offer those suffering physically or mentally something other than pills.
Koch, who lives in Hazel Dell, works for the Vancouver School District and would like to offer her guidance to students and administrators alike. Being in nature is good for people with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, as well as people with stress.
The weather is not a limiting factor. She led one group in a downpour. They were soaked by the end, but a couple of members of the group came to her with gratitude. “They had gained a whole new appreciation of rain,” recalls Koch. It sounds like a joke, but, in fact, rain is another thing to observe, listening to the sound and watching how it moves.
People take different things away from the experience. Some people uncomfortable with nature develop a more comfortable relationship with it. She has seen others break down, allowing themselves the mindfulness and connection perhaps causing them to access suppressed pain.
Koch “invites” people to interact with nature in a variety of ways. “It sounds odd to say, but I invite them to tell the tree something that’s bothering you.” A tree, Koch said, is a non-judgmental place to unload your thoughts. “You can touch the tree and release whatever energy you need to release.”
Koch says it is important to remember, though, “I’m not a therapist. The forest is the therapist. I’m a guide.”
She does not have a plan to offer her services full-time yet, but she would like the opportunity to get referrals from health care professionals and offer something like retreats, helping people connect with nature over a few days and not just for a few hours.
Columbia Springs currently offers her guided walks one day a month. She was offering the walks for free, but it is part of the coursework to guide for a fee. At Columbia Springs it costs $30 per person for a three-hour experience.