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Forest Therapy––Stopping Nature Deficit Disorder

New evidence suggests an indoor lifestyle is bad for your health



Raisfeld and her companions walk along the Bedford Riding Lanes path near Sunnyfield Farm.

Photos by Jennifer Mullowney

Growing up in the Long Island suburb of West Hempstead, I had two favorite things. One was sneaking through peoples’ backyards from one end of our block to the other. It thrilled me. The stealth, the physicality of climbing over fences or under hedgerows, the absolute terror of being caught. My other favorite thing was to visit a patch of scrubby woods behind the Carvel. It was small but dense with trees; a stream ran through it, and I could pretend there were no houses visible around the edges. There was the requisite suburban junk strewn about—a broken lawn chair, some dented STP cans, a bicycle tire—but to me it was wild and magical. To this day, when driving around suburban Westchester, if I see a little piece of woodland between two houses, I still go right back in my mind to that little cathedral of green behind the ice cream store.

Living in Bedford where green space is so plentiful, I still find myself drawn to the woods and still find magic there. The renowned biologist E.O. Wilson coined the term biophilia, the innate tendency of humans to seek connections with nature and other forms of life, and I suspect that trait runs deep in me. I didn’t realize when we first moved here in November 1996 that there were 150 pristine wooded acres behind our house, just a shortcut across our neighbor’s drive. Our own three acres gave us so much to explore that autumn, and winter that year had such epic snowfall, that we spent much of our outdoors time trudging up and sledding down the hill at the Bedford Golf and Tennis Club. But once I discovered the Bedford Riding Lanes practically in my backyard, barely a day has passed that I don’t dip into the woods, in any season, in any weather. Knee-deep in snow, ankle-deep in mud, wading through leaves, or feeding off the energy of new growth, I find the ever-changing woods never less than staggeringly beautiful. 

Around 1920, an increase in paved roads and car traffic in Bedford inspired a group of local fox hunters to create a trail system called the PRL—Private Riding Lanes—that allowed equestrians to ride safely to and from foxhunts. The organization grew, acquiring the rights to access more and more land, eventually being re-christened the Bedford Riding Lanes, which now maintains about 100 miles of trail and helps to protect Bedford’s rural quality. Maybe you’ve noticed their discreet yellow and black signs. Those signs mark the riding lanes, which wind along dirt roads and across private and public property. Currently, of about 500 supporting members, half are non-riders, like me, who use the trails for walking, running, or hiking. The woods are my spiritual refuge, my emotional tonic, my stress reliever, my gym.

Like most of us, I spend too much of my waking hours staring at screens big and small, which is what makes getting into the woods even more critical to well-being than ever before. The Japanese government started using the term shinrin-yoku in 1982, based on ancient Shinto and Buddhist practices, believing that “forest-therapy” has a profound effect on health. Increasing alienation from nature has serious ramifications for all of us, children and adults: measurably higher levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, higher blood pressure and blood sugar, more physical pain, and worse depression. A new concept, Nature Deficit Disorder, appears to be an apt description for the results of an indoor life where most sensory input comes from electronic devices.

One scientist, Dr. Marc Berman, believes that a walk in the woods gives voluntary attention (the kind that gets attracted to email notifications and pop-up ads) a break, since the mind has a chance

to wander aimlessly and be engaged, involuntarily but gently, by natural surroundings. Going outdoors into the natural world—something as simple as looking at the trees, the sky, listening to birdsong, feeling a breeze against your face, smelling damp soil—improves immunity, lowers hostility, increases vitality, concentration, and creativity. 

If you’re thinking I gotta get me some of that, join the BRLA. Look for those little yellow and black signs and get thee into the woods. John Muir, the renowned American naturalist and environmental philosopher said, “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.” I promise you, and you’ll find it out for yourself, he was so right.

 

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