PORTLAND, Maine — Last weekend, when many in the city were abuzz about loosened restrictions for restaurants and gatherings, a group of Mainers got together for a different pandemic recovery plan: forest bathing.
Gathering among the pines and hemlocks of Portland’s Baxter Woods, a 29-acre open space forest, last Sunday’s bathers shed their phones and other technology. They opened with a check-in to get the social energy flowing, then found a comfortable spot in the woods, where they stayed for at least three hours.
Forest bathers can do a number of things, from walking, deep breathing, yoga, eating snacks, pottery or guided meditations. (The “bathing” is more of a spiritual thing — people generally keep their clothes on.)
The overwhelming simplicity of forest bathing can obscure the fact that its impacts are real and scientifically documented. Spending time in nature has well-documented health benefits. Walking around in the woods is one of mankind’s oldest pastimes, but forest therapy as a formal practice is relatively new. In Japan — where forest baths are called “shinrin-yoku” — it emerged as a way to counteract the negative mental and physical effects of office life.
But it’s taken on new meaning after pandemic-induced isolation, which stunted the social ties of many Mainers and shook up their work habits and daily routines.
“In general, being outside with other people is an antidote to what we find ourselves in, pandemic or not,” said Susan Bickford, an artist and certified forest therapy guide who led Sunday’s event. “This contemporary society — it’s a lot.”
At the invitation of Caitlin Cameron, the city’s urban designer, Bickford started thinking about how to build forest immersion programs as a post-pandemic option for Mainers months ago. They first conceived of designing guided meditations through a mobile app to observe pandemic guidelines, but as vaccinations rolled out, they collaborated to host Sunday’s forest bath for the public.
All the better, Bickford says, because forest bathing is ideally a group experience, where participants can share their experiences before and after.
After a winter of lockdowns, that’s no small task.
“For many of us, Sunday’s forest bath was the first thing we’ve done in a group of strangers [since the pandemic began],” Bickford said. Most participants were vaccinated so wearing masks outside wasn’t much of a concern, and the Center for Disease Control no longer recommends wearing masks in typical outdoor settings.
Drawing 14 people, the event was a prototype for a self-guided forest bathing program that will be ready by this summer in Baxter Woods, Cameron said, with the hope that it could expand toward a series of custom forest bathing trails for different city parks.
The process is “meant to be beneficial through the connections and interactions we have with other people as well as the natural setting,” said Cameron. The urban designer’s been into the idea for awhile: she pitched a city program where colleagues among city staff, many of whom work long office hours, could participate in a forest immersion program with Through the Trees, a Freeport-based nonprofit organization.
Bickford has been instrumental in bringing the practice to Maine. A professor at the University of Maine in Augusta and a longtime artist who works in relational and social practice, she became certified at the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs. These days, she’s poured some of that education into a summer project called The Stillness Kitchen, an enhanced forest immersion and foraging weekend styled as a weekend getaway at her home on the Sheepscot River, which she operates with the artist Rachel Alexandrou.
“It’s basically mindfulness in nature,” Bickford says about forest bathing. “It’s always a shock to me because it seems so simple, and then people’s response affirms that it’s really healing and unique.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the Japanese term for “forest bathing.”