By Genevieve Morgan
Photographed by Michael D. Wilson
“Between every two pines,” John Muir once wrote, “is a doorway to a new world.” The forest — which covers, oh, 90 percent of Maine — has long held a place in humans’ collective psyche as a source of wisdom, healing, and regeneration. It’s where the Buddha obtained Enlightenment, where St. Francis of Assisi preached to the birds, and where Luke Skywalker did handstands with Yoda. And it’s where Registered Maine Guide Jeff Brogan leads clients on meditative walks, practicing what’s known as forest bathing.
Only recently hip in Western wellness circles, forest bathing has its roots in the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, a kind of nature therapy that gained traction in Japan in the 1980s. The concept is simple: forest bathers walk slowly and mindfully through the woods, hoping to turn down the chatter in their minds and orient their senses by taking in the forest’s textures, sounds, and scents. Brogan, who’s certified as a forest therapist by the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides, leads walks in southern Maine of anywhere from a quarter-mile to 2 miles that can last up to three hours. Along the way, he calls clients’ attention to surrounding details — how the light filters through the canopy, where bulbs are poking up through leaf debris — and afterwards, he helps facilitate reflection. His clients include a group of cancer patients in treatment at York Hospital, memory-care residents from an assisted-living facility, and the occasional corporate group looking to focus and de-stress.
“Forest bathing is an altogether different thing than the average walk in the woods,” the 43-year-old Brogan explains. “It’s about receiving — having no intention but to accept the medicine of the forest. I’ve seen people find joy they’ve never had or had forgotten about. I’ve seen people tackle problems that have stressed them out for years. Some just unload emotionally — they break down and weep.”
As forest bathing catches on (several Maine land trusts have begun offering sessions), research is suggesting the practice confers measurable health benefits. Trees — especially evergreens — release aromatic natural chemicals known as phytoncides, and researchers have linked their inhalation to reductions in physiological stress and the body’s production of virus- and tumor-fighting cells. Other studies have suggested links between exposure to green space and outcomes as varied as lowered heart rates, blood pressure, and cholesterol; reduced risk of diabetes and heart disease; and boosted immune systems and quality of sleep.
Recently, Brogan was shopping when a stranger told him, “Hey, my wife recognizes you.” Brogan recognized the man’s wife as one of his memory-care clients. “She was able to remember her time with me in the forest,” he says. “Her husband was so shocked and happy, and it just blew me away. It’s moments like that where I feel the real potential of this work.”