I’ve recently returned from a holiday in Madeira. One of the most unexpected discoveries of the trip was the Laurisilva Forest, an ancient forest of laurel trees. I’d read about this area in the guidebook but the dry sentences about ‘primary forest’ and ‘ecological niches’ did little to prepare me for the reality.
The trees are extraordinarily tall with slender trunks. The canopies start very high up. The trees are covered with pale green lichen which hangs from branches like beards. Needles have fallen onto the forest floor deadening sound. It was raining when we visited the first time and all I could hear was the drip of water. This was forest from a fairy tale; wonderous, magical and trapped in time.
Being around trees does my soul good. I’ve always known that but it was only last year that I discovered the concept of forest bathing. I was reading Beth Kempton’s book ‘Wabi Sabi’ which describes a wonderful afternoon spent in a forest in Japan taking part in Shinrin-Yoku (which is the Japanese name for forest bathing). It sounded so good I had to give it a go for myself. On a trip to the Lake District last spring, I went forest bathing in Whinlatter Forest with Jen Grange from Lakeland Wellbeing. It was the first of May, Beltane and I’d been up at dawn to see the sun rise at Castlerigg stone circle. That had been very special (if very cold – I really didn’t take into account pre-dawn temperatures when I wrote the scene at the Nine Maidens in ‘Beltane’) and the rest of the day more than lived up to that amazing start.
Jen guided us through different ways to interact with and experience the forest. We picked up forest treasure, ate wood sorrel and lay down to watch the canopy overhead. My favourite part was when we were invited to select a tree and spend time with it. I sat for a while under a beautiful old tree and then I gave it a hug. As I pressed my cheek against its bark, I felt a calm that had eluded me for a very long time. We finished the session around a campfire, drinking forest tea and talking about what we’d experienced. I definitely wasn’t alone in feeling less stressed after the time spent in the forest.
Since then, I’ve moved to a part of the Yorkshire Wolds which has a lot of trees. It’s a shortish walk from our back door to a path that runs through beautiful woodland. I love the silence within the trees, the sense of timelessness, the patterns shed by sunlight through the leaves. It’s been an absolute privilege to get to know these trees throughout the year, to witness the glorious canopy of summer, the copper splendour of autumn and the sleeping months through the winter. Today I saw buds emerging; tiny and tender at the end of bare branches. Another sign that winter is fading, the light is returning and spring is taking hold.
I’m very excited that this month I’ll be back in the Lake District running a workshop called ‘Wisdom of Trees – Wellbeing and Words from the Woods’. This will be a day of forest bathing and writing which I’m co-leading with Jen Grange. It’s on 30th April, Beltane Eve, at Wordsworth Grasmere. We’ll start the day with forest bathing in beautiful woodland and then return to Dove Cottage for lunch. In the afternoon we’ll use writing to discover the messages and blessings which the trees have gifted us.
If you’re interested in joining us then please go to Lakeland Wellbeing and click on ‘Wisdom of Trees’. The cost of the day is £70 including lunch, tea and Shinrin-Yoku tea ceremony.
You can find out more about the Laurisilva Forest of Madeira on the UNESCO website.
You can find out more about the health benefits of forest bathing on Lakeland Wellbeing’s website.