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.