Forest Bathing

Today, I did something that for me was once unremarkable but nowadays isn’t: walking in the forest of southern Sweden. For most, it was a stay indoors kind of day—chilly, thickly overcast, windy, and intermittently drizzly. I dressed appropriately: Gortex pants and jacket, rubber boots, stylish ankle ones that resemble the jodhpur boots one wears for horseback riding. I bought them in Montmartre for strolling the streets of Paris, and unlike some items, they function equally well in a foreign environment.

Most of the roads around here are asphalt, gravel, or just a path through the woods wide enough for a vehicle—those are used mainly by SwedSkog, the consortium that hauls from the forest logs and the resultant logging refuse (used for municipal energy). Sometimes you can tell lumber roads by their thick tread imprints. It can be helpful to know that if the grass has grown taller than the undercarriage of a car or if uncrushed branches or twigs lay across the road, chances are you’ll find no human habitation thataway.

The local granite is pink, and thick slabs of it with irregular edges function as the front step to many cottages in this region. The gravel roads are pink, too. Aside from nature sounds—animal husbandry has all but vanished from this once depopulating corner of Sweden—I heard only the sound of my own footsteps. And the wind in the trees.

The scenery changed periodically. Some spots were rocky, mossy, and covered with ripe blueberries and ripening ligonberries. I rarely eat in the morning but couldn’t resist the bright blue and red enticements; the sweetness of the blueberries balancing the tartness of the ligonberries, which are normally eaten in their (preferable) jam form. Wildflowers, grass, and many varieties of mushrooms popped up here and there in this southern Swedish forest, which included a typical and pleasing variety of coniferous and deciduous trees that generate a biodiverse milieu.

I’ve noticed a certain symbiosis between certain plants. For instance, where young oak trees emerge, blueberries thrive. And blueberries and ligonberries often grow together, blueberries arriving first—for about a month from mid-July to early August—and by the time their leaves signal fall by changing from green to fire engine red, the red ligonberries are ready to pick. Falling yellow birch leaves function as ‘false friends’, luring one to spots in anticipation of discovering a cache of chanterelles, only to disappoint as one roots around in the grass, ever hopeful.

I stumbled upon the village open-air museum, a collection of a half-dozen log buildings with a small, red log cottage (a torp) clad with alternating wide flat boards whose seams are covered by thicker, narrower strips in the Scandinavian tradition. Starched, white openwork cotton curtains hung in the small windows. The buildings included a barn with stalls and a pig sty, a laundry with a huge washing vat, a schoolroom with desks and benches, a linen drying shed (I figured this out because bunches of flax hung from the rafters) with a rectangular oven dug into the dirt and covered by a semicircular vault of stone and concrete. There was even an apparently-ready-to-use outhouse with a poster of regional bird species of the sort one often finds in Swedish outhouses, along with a small table holding a water pitcher and bowl, beside which stood the bin of ash one spreads over what one has left in the chasm, after sitting on the wooden support over the round tushie-sized hole. On one part of the property lay a Viking grave mound, one of many in this neck of the woods.

The strong wind (Hurricane Hans, as I later discovered) created a symphony as it caused branches to bow and sway and leaves to flutter and whirl. Different trees made different sounds – leaves clinging to sturdy oaks tend to rustle, while those on weeping birches make a higher pitch whispering sound. I like watching them dance against the sky while lying in a hammock on sunny summer days.

Before returning, I found a spot clear except for an expanse of erect fir trees and occasional boulders, residue of ice sheets that receded 10,000 years ago. I removed my boots and socks and took what Swedes call a ‘forest bath’ (skogsbad) and what we call earthing or grounding. I walked barefoot on cushy green moss to my chosen spot; it was like walking on down pillows. Although a consequence of acid rain, it makes walks in the forest a nearly magical experience. I sat there for fifteen minutes, like a Tesla at its charging station, plugged into the vast energy network embedded in the earth, and inhaling deeply that moist, earthy scent of the forest – things growing and things decaying. They say forest bathing improves the immune and nervous system. Of course, walking barefoot on the earth and inhaling the pure air of nature was a normal state of affairs in earlier times, and now, it’s something that has acquired a special name and significance that suggests it’s something atypical when, in fact, for most of history it’s been a banal, everyday activity. All I know is, I don’t want to leave the forest when I’m in it, and when I leave, I feel energized by it in a way with which caffeine cannot compete!

By michellefacos

I am a multi-lingual art historian, consultant (art, travel, writing), editor, entrepreneur, lecturer, and writer who has lived along the shores of the Baltic, the Mediterranean, and Lake Erie, in New York and in Paris, and in the forests of Quebec and Sweden. While I’ve lived a semi-nomadic existence for the past few decades, I’m inching toward a life anchored in Europe.

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