Go hug a tree

Carrie Fenn

By now, most people know I’m a bit of an environmentalist. I love the outdoors—hiking in the Adirondacks, snowboarding and snowshoeing in Vermont’s mountains, ice skating on frozen lakes and ponds in the North Country. I love to paddle my canoe in rivers, camp in places cars don’t go and surf in places where there’s still no internet and no electricity. Pete and I (well, mostly Pete; he lets me hold the hammer occasionally, though) have been building a cabin in Keene Valley, NY, for the last couple of summers. It’s completely off the grid, with no road, no utilities and no running water. It’s deep in the woods and high on a mountain, and to me it’s heaven.

When things get rough for me I crave the outdoors. I grew up in Los Angeles, where nature tended to be a tiny backyard and a whole lot of pavement. I didn’t camp, surf, skate, snowboard, hike or canoe until I was a grown woman with kids of my own. Now, even a few hours in the woods is like a mini-vacation, rejuvenating me and bringing calm to what can sometimes feel like chaos.

As it turns out, my experience with nature isn’t anecdotal. Science is bearing witness to the incredible health benefits that nature, and specifically trees, provides to humans. Forests provide us with everything we need to survive as a species: oxygen, food, building material for shelter. Forests offer medicine and help to manage our water systems. We can build tools and furniture with bounty from forests. But the benefits trees provide to humans go well beyond the air we breathe, the shelter we build, the water we drink. Trees can actually help improve our overall health—boosting immune systems, improving moods, increasing energy, helping with sleep, reducing stress and the things that go along with it. This isn’t wonky New Age science—it’s just chemistry. In Dr. Qing Li’s book Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness, the Japanese scientist and researcher explains how he came to strip away the anecdotal evidence of the benefits of a walk in the woods and quantify it with real science.

In this delightful and intriguing book, Dr. Li offers extensive scientific support for what we all know about trees—that hanging out in them is good for us. Dr. Li explains that forests offer a higher concentration of oxygen as well as phytoncides, chemicals that are part of a tree’s defense system. Phytoncides help to boost anti-cancer proteins in humans, as well decrease levels of stress hormones, increase hours of sleep and decrease anxiety, among a bunch of other health benefits.

Humans are becoming more urbanized. By 2050, an estimated 75 percent of the earth’s 9 billion people will live in a city. While we’re hanging out in those cities, we’re also hanging out in front of computers, phones, iPads, etc. Folks in the U.S. are spending as much as 10 hours a day on their devices. The trend toward spending less time in nature, as it dwindles due to diminishing forests and a change in our own habits, is likely to get worse.

As you find yourself tossing and turning at night because of the latest New York Times headline or the idea that everything is going to hell in a hand basket and there’s nothing you can do about it, pull on your hiking boots and go spend two hours walking on Mt. Philo or hiking up Camel’s Hump. I promise you’ll feel a little bit better.