Atlanta urban forest bathing: An easy way to experience tranquility in the heart of the city

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  • Published on September 30, 2022
  • Last Updated March 10, 2023
  • In Guest Writers

‘Forest bathing’ or shinrin-yoku is one way city dwellers relax in nature. Explore forest bathing benefits and its history here.

As an awkward, leggy young girl, I often found solace wandering in the woods behind our house on the former Presidio Army base in San Francisco. Our backyard swooped up a hill—we used to deconstruct cardboard boxes and endlessly tromp up the hill and slide down, whooping for joy—and a few yards beyond the hillcrest was a heavily wooded area I nicknamed The Enchanted Forest.

I always loved to go alone into the woods. Many of my friends wouldn’t go, citing the children’s tales we all knew warned of bad stuff that happens to kids in the forest, but only magical moments met my explorations. A rope tied to an impossibly high limb, knotted at the bottom, was a perfect foothold. Back and forth I’d swing, yodeling and howling, listening for the echoes. My favorite spot was a tree stump where I’d sit and listen.

When you’re quiet and receptive, the forest is very chatty. All the verdant gossip sibilantly whispered in treetops gently dancing in the wind. Closer to the ground, squirrels, chipmunks, frogs and other small animals rustled leaves, cracked twigs, clucked, clicked and croaked. The birds and the insects were like the background singers of a Black girl group. Every bit as talented as the lead, but somehow relegated to singing harmonics and keeping rhythm.

When I found my favorite tree stump and settled still, my breathing calmed. That’s when the magic happened. I’d tilt my face up to the dappled sun, half close my eyes and watch rainbows dance along my eyelashes. I noticed myriad shades of greens, blues, brown and gold foliage. I could hear my heartbeat, adding a bass line to the soul song.

Towering pine, cypress and eucalyptus trees effused their aromatic oils, both calming and clarifying my thoughts. I almost always kicked off my shoes and pressed my bare feet into the dirt—it’s not really playing if your feet didn’t at least get dirty—and imagined I was something planted in those woods, I merged into a part of it all.

“It’s called forest bathing now, but it’s what we’ve been doing forever and ever, as humans,” said Quinnie Cook-Richardson, a certified Life/Nutrition Coach, Herbalist and plant-based chef who owns a holistic medical clinic based in Atlanta, Georgia. Cook-Richardson leads urban forest-bathing and herb-gathering retreats in the city. “Forest bathing is a great way to de-stress your life. It activates your body’s parasympathetic mode where healing takes place and the body’s immune system is at its optimum. It’s great for the cardiovascular system and helps to lower blood pressure.” She explained the spiritual benefits simply.

“Forest bathing connects you with nature and really nourishes the soul,” she said.

The term “forest bathing,” or shinrin-yoku, became popular in the early 1980s as a way for stressed-out Japanese city dwellers to relax in nature. Studies have determined that the practice has important health benefits and the best part about it is that it can be enjoyed nearly everywhere you travel and close to home.

“You can forest bathe in any urban, suburban or state park, a national forest, or any natural environment where there are a lot of trees and greenery,” explained Cook Richardson. “It’s about seeking that quiet space in nature.” She pointed out that forest bathing is not exercising. “Working out in nature is very healthy, but this is different,” she says. “It’s about taking in nature in a mindful way with all your attention and senses. It’s a slow, silent meditative walk. You stop and really look at the tree bark and the shape of the leaves. You’re really just connecting in a way that you don’t when you’re hiking or walking for fitness.”

It’s easy to find forest-bathing spots in Atlanta. Known as “a city in a forest”, Atlanta boasts the largest canopy of any major city in the U.S. Where I live in southwest Atlanta, the neighborhoods boast an array of beautiful trees. Soaring pines, stately maples, cedars, hickories and hollies are widely ornamented with the vibrant seasonal colors of curvaceous redbuds and sturdy dogwoods. In southwest Atlanta, Cook-Richardson favors the Cascade Nature Preserve but she has a number of favorite spots throughout and around the city including Historic Old Fourth Ward Park, Lionel Hampton-Beecher Hill Nature Preserve, and Grant Park.

I miss those long days wandering through the woods with nothing else to do except experience the wonder and peace that always opened joy. These days, I’m more intentional about making sure I get regular “ecotherapy.” I still love to go into the woods and experience enchanted forests.

This story was created by Detour, a journalism brand focused on the best stories in Black travel, in partnership with McClatchy’s The Charlotte Observer and Miami Herald. Detour’s approach to travel and storytelling seeks to tell previously under-reported or ignored narratives by shifting away from the customary routes framed in Eurocentrism. The detour team is made up of an A-list of award-winning journalists, writers, historians, photographers, illustrators and filmmakers.

This story was originally published September 30, 2022 9:00 AM.

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