Last week, I took my dogs to the Hidden Hollow Nature Area in Sugar House to conduct a little experiment. I wanted to try shinrin-yoku, a Japanese practice that translates as “forest bathing.”
Shinrin-yoku is total immersion with nature. It’s not trail running with your iPod or mountain biking down a steep gravel path—think slow and mindful, like tai chi. Think spiritual and fully present, like meditating on the smell of incense or the sound of gongs in a monastery.
Hidden Hollow, a slice of Parley’s Creek just below Sugar House Park and behind the Sugar House strip mall, may seem an unlikely place to take a breather from the stresses of the city. Experience, however, told me that it was the ideal place to make a quick exit and get a little nature medicine.
Jogging through the strip-mall parking lot, I slowed to a walk as I rounded the corner at Petco. It took only one step to realize that my experiment might be destined to fail: The sound of backhoes and jackhammers jarred my ears. Not 15 feet away from the southern entrance to the hollow, heavy equipment was cranking and scraping out a new foundation.
I entered the shaded riverwalk anyway, hoping that the small buffer of willows and chokecherry bushes would block the sound. It did not, so I steered off the path, down into the creek channel. Only when I sat near the water’s edge did the noise of construction fade, replaced by the gush of flowing water.
Since the early 1980s, Japan’s government has been promoting shinrin-yoku and researching its effects on the body. Leaving the crowded, bustling cities, the people of Japan come to designated “forest therapy” trails, where they experience nature through all five senses, even tasting the forest when they drink a tea prepared from native plants. Scientists measuring the physiological response to this kind of natural experience have consistently recorded healthy decreases in heart rate and blood pressure, and lower amounts of the stress hormone cortisol.
Sight, I decided while sitting by the water under the trees, would be my first meditation. The sunlight filtered in through a lens of green of varying shades and transparencies. I noticed the heart-shaped native cottonwood leaves, and the narrow spears of the peachleaf willow leaves. The thickest canopy came from the flat lobes of box elder and bigtooth maple. And then my meditation broke, distracted by a flash of orange (a fat goldfish dumped into the wild from some sad little aquarium) and a stripe of yellow (a burrito wrapper washed up onto a rock in the middle of the stream).
The faintly acrid smell of urine brushed my nostrils as I watched wild goldfish feed on red algae. I pushed myself back up to my feet. Out of the gully and back on the trail, I could hear the wind in the trees. The construction workers were on break.
Reaching out for a fluff of cottonwood seed hung over a columbine flower, I counted off the senses that I had left to experience: sight, smell, sound. I rubbed the cotton between my fingers. It felt as silky as goose down. Touch. I had only one left: taste. Looking around, I glanced back at the dogs, still panting in the creek, chomping at the water. I guess I will leave taste to them, I thought.
Satisfied, I called the dogs and turned toward home. Stepping back out onto the street, I noticed how slow my breath felt. The traffic didn’t bother me, and as we finished crossing the street, I didn’t really care to jog back home. Instead, I reached out for a low-hanging pine, then picked a spear of lavender, crushing it between my fingers to release the scent. Despite the craziness around me, I felt really good.