PORT TOWNSEND — When she first heard of forest bathing, Ellen Falconer wondered.
Is that like some nudist thing?
Turns out you take this bath in your clothes — unless you’re lucky enough to have a forest in your private backyard.
Falconer, a massage therapist and meditation teacher who’s lived in Port Townsend 31 years, is now savoring her discovery of forest bathing. It has a name in Japan: shinrin-yoku, literally soaking in the forest atmosphere.
soaking in the forest atmosphere.
Surrounded as she is by the woods of the North Olympic Peninsula, Falconer hopes to share this whole idea. She’ll lead forest-bathing walks in Fort Worden State Park this Sunday and on July 1 and July 8, starting from the front doorway of Madrona MindBody Institute at Fort Worden State Park, 200 Battery Way. These walks, from 3:45 p.m. to 5 p.m., are free to the public.
Sundays are usually the quieter days in the park, she said, so we can hear the breeze and the birdsong. Sound is a keynote of the forest bath, along with sun rays filtering through boughs, scents of cedar and pine, the feel of Douglas fir bark, the taste of salmonberry.
This practice is available to anybody of any fitness level, Falconer notes, adding that she’s there as just a guide, helping bathers notice the effects of green foliage, brown earth and blue sky.
Before you figure she’s leading you down some New Age garden path, Falconer cites the science under all of this. Dr. Qing Li, a professor at the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo and vice president of the International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine, explores it in his 2018 book, “Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness.”
Trees give off phytoncides — essential oils — that have been found to stimulate immune function, specifically the natural killer cells that destroy tumors and virus-infected cells. In one study, the effect lasted for more than 30 days after a camping-and-forest-bathing trip.
Evergreen trees are especially rich in phytoncides, Li notes, and warm weather heightens their release.
The wooded paths at Fort Worden, then, are ideal. So are the Living Forest and Peabody Creek trails that start from the Olympic National Park Visitor Center at 3002 Mount Angeles Road in Port Angeles. Looking across the North Olympic Peninsula, one finds numerous tree canopies, all with no admission charge: Railroad Bridge Park in Sequim, the trail to Second Beach in La Push, Chetzemoka Park in Port Townsend to name three.
Li writes too about how forest bathing smooths our stress hormones. The sensations we have while walking send private messages to our parasympathetic nervous system — messages reminding us that in this moment, all is well. Pain and worry are replaced by a feeling of peace.
“Now you have connected with nature,” Li writes.
“You have crossed the bridge to happiness.”
Li delves too into biophilia, the human affinity for the natural world. Time to commune with the trees, the sea, the river is a basic need; Li quotes what biologist E.O. Wilson wrote about nature: “Our spirit is woven from it. Hope rises on its currents.”
For Falconer, this wasn’t a surprise, since the forest has always been her place to go and relax. She had a personal guide: Duke, her standard poodle.
“My dog and I would forest-bathe together,” she said. “He taught me to slow down.”
The Sunday walks, Falconer said, are selfish, in a way.
“For me, It’s more fun to meditate with other people. There’s a quality to it: together action,” a Zen term.
“People are so stressed out. It’s spiking right now. This is a way to be together,” without getting too deep in our heads. Forest bathing is more about contemplation than conversation; Falconer will lead a short, silent meditation toward the end of the walk.
This, she added, is a way to heal “techno-stress,” the computer- and cellphone-generated mental fatigue familiar to so many. And yes, bathers are invited to shed their cameras and cellphones before setting out.
Falconer, 63, recently completed a 400-hour meditation teaching program through Mindfulness Northwest in Bellingham. She’s added this to her life as a licensed massage practitioner. Her In Balance Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork studio is in downtown Port Townsend, while she has been known to make house calls to elderly clients.
She went to the Port Townsend School of Massage at age 50, and before that was a sailmaker here for 17 years. Teaching meditation is a natural progression; it’s something she wants to offer her community. In addition to the forest outings, she’s starting the summer with two sets of classes. First are introductions to mindfulness meditation, at the Madrona MindBody Institute at Fort Worden, from 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. each Sunday through July 8, right before the forest bathing walks. A $15 donation is suggested. Information about it all awaits on Falconer’s Olympic Peninsula Mindfulness page on Facebook.
During the week, Falconer teaches hourlong classes at the Port Townsend Recreation Center, 620 Tyler St., at 9 a.m. Tuesday, June 26, July 3 and July 10. The cost is $5 per session and everyone is welcome to any or all three.
Meditation has a variety of effects on the brain, all of which fascinate Falconer.
“I should have been a neuroscientist. Maybe I’ll do that next,” she said with a smile.
Meantime, she’ll bathe whenever possible. With clothes on, among the trees.
Diane Urbani de la Paz, a former features editor for the Peninsula Daily News, is a freelance writer living in Port Townsend.