You don’t bark up the wrong tree, connecting with nature

Have you ever hugged a tree? I have. It was a very old oak tree in the woods near Barnett Demen in Belfast. I didn’t just walk up and hug him. It would look a little presumptuous, like hugging a stranger on the street.

instead, I spent some time sitting at the foot of the tree, watching the tiny spiders weave their webs in the cracks in the bark.

After all, it wasn’t so much a hug as a gentle laying on of hands—mine, I mean, but it seemed to be the other way around.

Something has changed, the sun has come out, and the world is better, happier than just a moment ago.

Everyone agrees that having more trees around is a good thing, especially in Northern Ireland, where they are surprisingly few: our native forests make up only 0.04% of the land cover.

The first phase of a new natural forest opened in the Belfast Hills above Newtownabbie this week.

Alder, hazel, drooping birch, downy birch, Scots pine, oak and cherry have been planted in Glas na Bradan Forest, on land purchased a year ago by the Woodland Trust.

Some 45,000 seedlings have already been planted, each planted by a volunteer from the community.

Gregor Fulton of the Woodland Trust said the scale of the response was incredible.

“Whenever we sent a request, we were absolutely surprised by the number of people who wanted to take part,” he added.

It is clear that there is a hidden desire of people to find ways to reconnect with nature.

Meanwhile, an ambitious plan is under way to plant a million native trees in Belfast by 2035.

The project, which is a collaboration between partners from the public, private and voluntary sectors, is positioned as an attempt to reduce carbon emissions, improve air quality, and maintain and increase biodiversity.

All very worthy goals, of course. But I wish there was a lot more focus on how we feel among the trees: it’s almost always better. More calm, more connected, less stressed. The Japanese call it shinrin-yoku: bathing in the forest.

That doesn’t include mountain biking through the woods, drinking energy drinks, or jogging on forest trails for exercise while keeping one eye on your Fitbit at all times.

You don’t have to follow a prescribed route. You just have to be there, taking it all in. When you go out, an hour or two or six or 12 later, you feel wonderfully restored.

This is not quasi-mystical nonsense. This is a scientific fact.

There is ample evidence that shinrin yoku lowers blood pressure, improves the cardiovascular system and metabolism, improves concentration and memory, and relieves depression.

It also strengthens the immune system by causing an increase in natural killer (NK) cells in the body. People with higher NK activity have a lower incidence of diseases such as cancer.

One scientific study in which volunteers spent three days and two nights in the Iiyama forest in Japan showed that NK cell activity increased by more than 50% just from being among the trees.

One of my favorite authors, philosopher and auto mechanic Matthew Crawford, says that we are currently experiencing an “attention crisis.”

We are constantly bombarded with information. Many of them are trivial, useless, or designed to make us buy things we don’t need. The problem is that we cannot avoid it.

It’s not just an annoyance or a distraction. Crawford says these inevitable intrusions into our personal world are damaging the way we see ourselves and other people.

Information is no longer power, not when we’re hit over the head with it so often that we can’t think clearly. In fact, the opposite is true. When our attention is scattered everywhere, we do not feel strong. We feel passive and helpless.

In the midst of chatter, we lose the ability to figure out what is really worth paying attention to and what is not. We lose touch with our own direct experience.

That is why it is so important to get into the forest. This is a chance to turn off that incessant noise and make life easier again.

The trees planted in the forest of Glas na Bradan are now tiny, less than a meter tall. Small tiddlers compared to the ancient oak I encountered at Barnett Demesne. But the Woodland Trust says they will be shoulder-length in five years.

People will be able to walk among the trees as the forest grows around them.

Five years is not five seconds, but as long as our scattered concentration of attention usually allows. But the wait is worth it.