Seattle tech leaders discover the power of the forest


We’ve written before about the need to educate the younger generations about forestry, from grade-school kids to college students. But what if the drive to get out to the forest was geared toward adults and not about finding employees for the timber industry but something more primal?

That’s what going on with the new practice of “forest bathing,” in which over-stressed and over-teched professionals head out to the trees for “forest bathing,” a cleansing of the mind in nature. The Washington Post recently covered a group outing to the forests in Duvall, near Seattle.

The group of about a dozen had signed up for the first-ever “Unplug and Recharge in Nature” day organized by the Wilderness Awareness School on 40 acres of forested land just outside the high-tech corridor that is home to Microsoft, and a host of other high-tech companies. They’d come to the woods, many said, because after spending so much of their time in the addictive and information-loaded virtual world, they felt a need to reconnect with the real one.

No wonder “forest bathing” has been around for decades, but it’s really catching on in the U.S. now because it’s needed more than ever.

The practice originated in Japan (in) the early 1980s, where it’s called Shinrin-yoku. And it has been gaining ground in the United States, where recent studies have found that people spend as much as five to seven hours a day in front of screens and check their smartphones several times an hour – some almost incessantly.

A U.S. Shinrin-yoku organization is now based in Santa Rosa, Calif. More nature retreats, like Earthwalk Ways in Fredericksburg, Va., offer “forest therapy.” And as research is beginning to show that “bathing” in the natural world is associated with lower stress levels, a boost to natural killer cells in the immune system, better mood, self-esteem, physical fitness, memory, attention, and creativity, among other benefits, some psychologists are beginning to offer “eco therapy.” Doctors, like Robert Zarr, a pediatrician at Unity Health Care in Washington, D.C., and “physician champion” of DC Parks Rx, are even prescribing time outside rather than pills.

The program goes to show how important it’s always been for humans to spend time in forests but also how far away many urban dwellers have grown from nature.

“It’s kind of funny that we have to have a ‘fad’ to get us to do what humans have always done – go outside,” said Warren Moon, executive director of the Wilderness Awareness school and leader of the day’s forest bathing activities. But, he readily admitted to the group, he’d organized the day because he needed it, too.

The 20-year-old wilderness school caters primarily to children to stave off what some call “nature deficit disorder” as fewer and fewer children have unstructured playtime outdoors. But, Moon said, the school began hearing from parents and adults that they needed time outside. too.

Spending time in a forest is like a rare treasure for many of the participants, an experience they will keep chasing until they can get back to the forest again.

As the group brushed the leaves and pine needles from their clothes, put shoes back on and readied to leave, Moon’s assistant, Kyle Koch, a former software engineer-turned-outreach coordinator for the wilderness school gave them a farewell warning: “Know that you’re going back to the plastic world,” he said. “I encourage you to hold onto this feeling as long as you can, before you hit the power button.”