Shinrin-yoku and Psithurism

Last week, I went tent camping for the first time in four years, on the shores of beautiful Lake Wenatchee. The campsite was nestled among towering Douglas fir and Ponderosa pine trees. Due to the dry conditions on the east side of the Cascade Range, there were no campfires around. This meant that people went to bed early, with no crackling fires, and none of that lovely campfire smell. We were able to fully experience the forest with all senses: the smell of the pine trees, the sound of ravens and ground squirrels, the feel of the sun on our skin, the clear blue of the sky during the day and the bright moonlight at night, and the taste of bacon (I can’t go camping without frying up some bacon in a cast iron skillet on a propane stove).

I recently learned a great word that describes the act of immersing oneself in the woods and soaking up the atmosphere: Shinrin-yoku, which roughly translates as “forest bathing.” Shinrin-yoku takes a very different approach from the more goal-oriented hiking and climbing that I grew up with in the Pacific Northwest. The focus is on leisurely walks, and simply “being” in the forest. Dr. Qing Li has written an excellent book on the subject,”Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health And Happiness.” I’d highly recommend seeking this out at your local bookstore, but you don’t need a guide for this process (which is good, as I misplaced this book in a backpack for this last trip). Just head to the woods, walk around, and let yourself experience the woods with all senses.

The visual, tactile and olfactory aspects of the woods were greatly appreciated during my forest bathing experience (I didn’t taste any trees). But on this trip, nothing compared to the sound of the woods. There was a fair amount of wind blowing off of the lake, and it created the most immersive spatial audio experience of my life. We’d hear the wind starting to pick up from a distance, and then blow over and around us. Radically different washes of noise could be heard at different angles and distances. The tent blocked NONE of the sound of the wind in the trees. There was none of the typical campground noise – no music, no cracking fires, nothing. Just the wind blowing though pine needles.

It turns out that there’s a great word to describe the sound of wind in the trees and rustling of leaves: Psithurism. This word comes from the Greek psithuros, meaning “whispering, slanderous.” Each tree will have its own distinctive voice. There was a beautiful poplar in our neighborhood that would catch even the slightest breeze and turn it into a melodic rustling. The pines and Douglas firs at our campsite created less granular sounds, and more of a wash that would vary in pitch and direction. John Muir wrote about how “…the pines seem to me the best interpreters of winds. They are mighty waving goldenrods, ever in tune, singing and writing wind-music all their long century lives.” (A Windstorm In The Forests, 1894)

I love going for long hikes, getting my pulse rate up, climbing ridges and seeing huge expansive views. But there is a lot to be said for just sitting down in the forest, and soaking it all in. When I was in the woods, I wasn’t thinking about the news or allpass delays or changes to Apple OSes or anything like that. For the first time in a long while, I was just able to sit and observe and be. I came back from our camping trip recharged, with a clearer mind than I have had in a long, long time.

Comments (7)

  • I had a similar experience recently too. I the high Tatras in Slovakia. I related it to my ‘way’ when songwriting. To be in the moment and to accept the moment, and what art comes of it.

    BTW, you’ve a typo. ‘Observe’ not ‘obverse’.

    Reply
  • James H.

    This sounds like an amazing trip! Thank you for sharing!

    Growing up in the woods in Massachusetts, there where these huge old pine trees that towered over our house. In the wind, they would rub against each other way up in the branches and the creaking was deep, slow, and very organic. Between that creaking, the spring peepers at night, and the coolness of the breeze, it was quite an experience.

    I miss the sounds of the forest

    Reply
  • Petrichor goes very well with Shinrin-yoku, especially with the weather we’re getting here.

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  • wendfeldt.gregory

    Shinrin-yoku can also be translated as “bathing on the forest floor” which gives me more of a feeling of looking up–and being humbled. Anyway, I know how difficult it can be to take that first step to get out of the house… But once you’re on your way… When you’re older, it’s one of the few things you’ll wish you would have done more of. So, do go for it! And when you get back, you’ll be listening for the sound of the wind in the trees in your plugins. I’m sure it’ll help your tweaking!

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  • “Forest Bathing” in the PNW is the best! I have some great spots that are pretty close to Seattle that make for fantastic afternoon rejuvenation sessions.

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  • SR_Leviathan

    Shirin-yoku – that is just so apt

    immersed in the velvety not so slient silence.

    I record and use a lot of field recordings of the local “bush” here in Western Australia. For making music but increasingly just because it is magic and i want to captue a small fragment of it.

    Its really interesting to compare what elements you notice in situ and what comes out when listening to the same enviroment as a recording.

    Valhalla are my go to as there is a lot of subtly and control . Would be really interested to hear your thoughts / see any posts on processing for field recording – especially how to maintain the open sound stage and stereo field but enhance aspects and/or inject some wierd into the environment.

    Reply
    • Sean Costello

      I always recommend ValhallaDelay for everything nowadays, but it has a lot of things that make it appropriate for field recording. The main thing is that most of the delay styles (Single and Dual in particular) preserve the stereo image of the input signal. Turn up the feedback and diffusion amount to turn any delay into a reverb. Use the Pitch/RevPitch/Ghost modes to inject weird.

      There are different ways of handling the stereo field, and the various Valhalla plugins take different approaches. Something like VintageVerb has stereo inputs, but the outputs won’t necessarily retain the same stereo image as the input, as the “vintage” type algorithms tended to create equal energy in both output channels for a signal sent into one input channel. A real room doesn’t necessarily retain the stereo image, either, so you’d want to work with an algorithm that can preserve this image, whether or not it sounds “real.” Room, UberMod, and Delay all have the ability to have this “dual mono” type sound.

      Of course, you can get cool sounds without preserving the stereo image, or without sounding particularly natural. Early Pink Floyd albums often processed nature recordings (lots of birds) through plate or chamber reverbs, and they sounded fantastic. Just not particularly like what you would hear in nature. You’ve RECORDED what you hear in nature, so adding effects can be a purely creative process!

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