I’ve always felt peaceful while out in nature. As a teen, I remember sprawling in the grass, looking at clouds drift by overhead. When I was dating my husband, some of our best dates included hiking in the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania. Now we enjoy family hikes in the forest and especially love cabin camping. There’s something freeing about leaving 95% of your possessions behind and adopting a simpler, spartan way of life for a few days. Being out in nature seems to slow the world down a bit, creating a soothing balm for a busy family. Something amazing happens when we get out there into the woods, unfettered by the cares and clutter of daily life. The sway of trees, the sound of a creek rushing by – these things elicit an inexplicable serenity. The kids seem to be more cooperative and get along better. It’s a sort of magic elixir.
HAPPY LITTLE TREES
Apparently, there’s scientific basis to it after all. I had read earlier this year about something called “Forest Bathing”, also called “Forest Therapy”. Seems Bob Ross, of “The Joy of Painting” fame, was onto something when he coined the phrase “Happy Little Trees”. There is a Japanese principle called Shinrin-yoku that asserts that time in a forest setting promotes physical and mental well-being. I did some further research and found a page devoted to the idea at http://www.shinrin-yoku.org/shinrin-yoku.html, which explains the history of the idea of “forest bathing”. The website provides this helpful overview:
“Shinrin-yoku is a term that means ‘taking in the forest atmosphere’ or ‘forest bathing’. It was developed in Japan during the 1980s and has become a cornerstone of preventive health care and healing in Japanese medicine. Researchers primarily in Japan and South Korea have established a robust body of scientific literature on the health benefits of spending time under the canopy of a living forest. Now their research is helping to establish shinrin-yoku and forest therapy throughout the world.“ (www.shirin-yoku.org)
At first read, it all sounds a bit kooky and improbable, maybe even too easy and good to be true. However, there is scientific evidence that does seem to point to the positive impact of time spent in a forest setting. A few of these benefits include lowering blood pressure, boosting immunity and reducing anxiety. It makes sense, given the sense of calm and relaxation I experience with my family when we camp or do a day hike. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation even has an article entitled “Immerse Yourself in a Forest for Better Health” on its website. It’s actually quite compelling to see the list of health benefits in this article, as well as links to additional resources on the topic. I encourage you to give it a read.
HOW TO GET YOUR TREE FIX
A couple of years ago, our family discovered the Pennsylvania State Parks. We live in New Jersey, just minutes from the Pennsylvania border. This means we can enjoy, with fairly limited traverse, some time away from the bustle of our suburban lives. To simplify and make the trips less work, we opt to stay in rustic cabins or camping cottages that have electricity for cooking. The prospect of being trapped in a tent on a rainy day with kids doesn’t appeal to us, so we like to have a haven in bad weather by choosing cabins. They are equipped with covered porches in the event of rain. Compared to a stay in a hotel, they are also very affordable, at under $50 a night.
We have stayed in Worlds End State Park (west of Scranton, PA) a couple of times. It is situated on the Loyalsock Creek and is truly a world away from our life in NJ. Rugged hiking, mature forests, a rushing creek and a fantastic visitors’ center complete with family activities and resources make it a gem of a place to get away. We were even able to take part in an ecumenical worship service in the forest chapel inside the park. It was a special time as a family that we will always remember.
The trip we made two summers ago sparked in us a desire to visit other state parks in PA to see which ones we liked. Hiking and camping help our family in continuing to develop a love for nature. We have become a family that would much rather experience nature than rides and amusements in a pricey theme park. The parks provide a fun and economical way to help us explore the wonder of the natural world. When we only had one child, it was easier to travel further to National Parks (which I highly recommend) by air, but cost prohibits that kind of travel these days.
In addition to World’s End, we have visited Hickory Run State Park in White Haven, PA and Lackawanna State Park in North Abington Township, PA. Each have unique features. There is a boulder field in Hickory Run, created by ancient glacial movement across the landscape. My son was like a mountain goat out there, hopping around from rock to rock on a sea of boulders. Lackawanna has a 198-acre lake that serves as a serene centerpiece to the park. Boat rentals were available so we took the kids canoeing there in June. The comedy of trying to teach them to paddle was priceless.
Cooking simple meals and chatting at the wooden picnic table, we soak in the enjoyment of connecting as a family. Nighttime stargazing and campfires cap off each day of exploring, preparing us for sound sleep amid the songs of crickets and tree frogs. It’s hard to adequately articulate the sense of peace that being out in the woods brings. Packing up to leave for home makes me wistful each time.
DITCH THE FRENZIED VACATION
In a technology-driven world moving at a breakneck pace, it is refreshing to think that the answer to reducing the stress of life could be as simple as a stroll in the woods. That an inexpensive activity like cabin camping (about $38-50 a night, less for tenting) or hiking for the day can have such health benefits is remarkable. Often, when folks plan their vacations, they are packed with hectic travel schedules and a blaring sensory-overload of lights, rides, etc. What if the answer to a truly relaxing getaway was to detach from the bustle of crowded resorts and airports? While you may not live in the Mid-Atlantic area, hopefully you have access to some natural resources. Even a local park would do. There are also several county parks where I live, all less than 25 minutes from my house. I am also blessed to live in a small town with two playground parks that are shaded by trees.
A time of family bonding centered around a calmer, quieter destination has really benefited our family. We are always eager for the next trip. Freckled faces sticky with toasted marshmallows and the sound of excited chatter upon arriving at a waterfall affirm to me that a little time “out in the sticks” is a good choice. I encourage you to explore some natural space, even for an afternoon. It’s good medicine. Turns out those Happy Little Trees can actually make you happy.