We all know how good being in nature can make us feel. We have known it for millennia. The sounds of the forest, the scent of the trees, the sunlight playing through the leaves, the fresh, clean air – these things give us a sense of comfort. They ease our stress and worry, help us to relax and to think more clearly. Being in nature can restore our mood, give us back our energy and vitality, refresh and rejuvenate us.
We know this deep in our bones. It is like an intuition, or an instinct, a feeling that is sometimes hard to describe. In Japanese, we have a word for those feelings that are too deep for words: yu-gen
gives us a profound sense of the beauty and mystery of the universe. It is about this world but suggests something beyond it. The playwright Zeami Motokiyo describes it as the ‘subtle shadows of bamboo on bamboo’, the feeling you get when you ‘watch the sun sink behind a flower-clad hill’ or ‘when you wander in a huge forest without thought of return’.
I feel this way when I am in nature. I think of my childhood in a small village. I remember the green poplar forests in spring and summer and the yellow leaves in autumn. I recall the games of hide and seek I played in the trees with my friends and the animals we used to find, like rabbits and foxes, Chinese hamsters and squirrels. There was a beautiful apricot forest in my village which flowered pink all through April. I can still remember the taste of the apricots we harvested in the autumn.
But what exactly is this feeling that is so hard to put into words? What lies behind it? How does nature make us feel this way? I am a scientist, not a poet. And I have been investigating the science behind that feeling for many years. I want to know why we feel so much better when we are in nature. What is this secret power of trees that makes us so much healthier and happier? Why is it that we feel less stressed and have more energy just by walking in the forest? Some people study forests. Some people study medicine. I study forest medicine to find out all the ways in which walking in the forest can improve our well-being.
Copyright © 2018 by Dr. Qing Li. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.