“Do you see that?”
Elizabeth Koch jumped up from her perch on a downed trunk in Jorgenson Woods Neighborhood Park, walked about 20 yards away and examined a sunlit spiderweb waving in the breeze.
“I come here three or four times a day,” she said. “You discover something different every time.”
Koch, 61, sees herself as living proof of the healing power of nature. While she can’t cite a definite cause-and-effect connection between the great outdoors and her own survival years beyond a grave breast cancer prognosis, Koch has faith in what scientific research keeps finding: People who delve into nature enjoy quantifiable cancer-fighting and health-bolstering benefits.
“Look up,” she said, pointing out that this trees’s kaleidoscopic canopy of leaves looks a bit Van Gogh, while that one is more Picasso.
“It’s good to be in awe,” said Koch, who has lived a few steps away from Jorgenson Woods with her husband since 1997. “When you have a diagnosis, it’s the only thing to do. That is the thing.”
Breast Cancer Awareness Month
According to a growing pile of studies you can review at sites such as Portland State University’s treesandhealth.org and the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs’ natureandforesttherapy.org, wandering around in the woods accomplishes a lot more than awe. Forest air is literally teeming with stress-reducing, immunity-boosting and even disease-fighting compounds released by trees and vegetation. While those compounds appear intended for the plants’ own self-preservation, they have been demonstrated to accomplish similarly good things for forest visitors, too:
Immunity energy. Forest environments energize anti-cancer proteins and other natural killer cells in the human body that fight a range of threats and invaders, from bacteria and viruses to cancer.
Airborne healing. Plants and trees emit their own natural germ- and disease-fighters, called phytoncides, which trigger the same kinds of effects in people. Forest air is packed with phytoncides.
“You can just smell that pure scent of phytoncides in the air,” Koch said after deeply inhaling what Jorgenson Woods park is putting out. “It’s intoxicating.”
Stress reduction. Chronic stress is a driver of many health problems, from depression to hypertension to much worse. Walking in the forest has been proven to reduce cortisol, the stress hormone, in test subjects. Pulse rate and blood pressure are dramatically lower after people visit the woods.
Focus and creativity. Brainpower and memory are enhanced by walking in the woods. Students do better on tests. So do people challenged to come up with creative solutions to problems.
Feeling better longer. It’s subjective but consistent: Test subjects report better moods — more relaxation and contentment, less depression and hostility — after visiting the forest. This can last days or even weeks after one outing.
Looking to nature for answers is fitting for Koch, who said she grew up “always barefoot and running around” on rural acreage in Vermont.
She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004. In January 2016, her prognosis was months to live.
“That’s when I ran a marathon,” she said. “You’ve got to keep friggin’ going. There’s no sense in just stopping and sinking into it.”
Meanwhile, Koch’s husband read a Columbian story about the growing Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, which translates as “forest bathing,” and thought it seemed perfect for her. Koch thought so too, and eventually she traveled to California to study and earn her own certification from the Japanese-inspired Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs.
“Japan has centers for forest therapy,” she said. “You can get your blood pressure checked before and after you walk.”
Koch doesn’t offer anything quite so quantifiable when leading her own forest therapy walks for small groups at Columbia Springs Environmental Education Center in east Vancouver; she just encourages people to slow all the way down and absorb nature in a uniquely deep and personal way.
The right way to do forest therapy is with a trained guide for at least two hours, Koch said. But the coronavirus pandemic has stopped all group outings at Columbia Springs, and Koch said she misses sharing the experience with eager and skeptical newbies alike. (She has yet to work with anyone who finds no value in the experience. Even people who say they hate getting wet and chilly surprise themselves by discovering beauty and joy in our local, signature Pacific Northwest rain, she said.)
Since you can’t attend a Koch-led outing now, here’s her advice for a self-guided forest therapy experience.
1. Walk slowly and open your senses. “In my experience, the hardest thing of all is for people to just slow down,” Koch said. “But this is more about letting things happen than making them happen. Try walking as if your feet are kissing the ground with every step.”
2. Stand still, close your eyes and listen. “Let the sound wash over you,” Koch said. “Listening with your eyes closed can help you focus.”
3. Take a seat and examine what’s right around you with new eyes. Koch demonstrated by scooping up one pine cone out of thousands on the Jorgenson Woods forest floor. “It’s like every pine cone you’ve ever seen — but no, it’s not,” she said. “This one is unique. You want to really see it.”
4. Lie down. Koch loves resting on the forest floor and gazing up at all those artistic leaves. “It’s like looking at stained glass,” she said. Getting horizontal on the ground is probably the best way to change your perspective and generate new appreciation, she said.
5. Make personal meaning out of the experience. “I take messages” from tree friends, Koch likes to say.
“Trees have messages of resilience and perseverance,” she said. “That is incredibly profound to me because of what I’ve gone through.”