By Emily Stringfellow, American Forests
After discovering how forests provide an escape from the daily pressures that life brings, they have become a sanctuary for me. Birds chirping, squirrels scrambling and deer tiptoeing all captivate my attention. Walking through a forest calms my mind and leaves me feeling refreshed. I have found that exploring forests has provided me with more peace of mind and stress relief than any other kind of exercise.
My hobby of walking through forests for mental benefits actually has a specific name: forest bathing. The term can be a little misleading when interpreted directly, as it does not involve taking a bath in the woods, but rather immersing yourself in a forest. Evidence from a study done by the Japanese government in the 1980s shows how forest bathing has many health benefits. Spending time in a forest reduces stress levels, lowers blood pressure, reduces risk of disease and stimulates creativity. Another study conducted in Japan found that forest bathing reduces depression. The health benefits from forest bathing are easy to obtain, as all it takes is a walk among the trees around you.
Because of how forests have positively impacted my mental health and can improve others’ mental health, American Forests quickly gained my interest. For these health benefits to remain easily obtainable, forests need to be preserved.
When I was younger, my family was fortunate enough to have a forest run along the side of our yard. I was always steps away from a completely different world full of a variety of plants and wildlife. The forest behind my house was a place to explore, imagine and escape after a day of sitting in a classroom. The neighborhood kids and I enjoyed playing in streams and hiding among the trees. I was heartbroken when we were informed that a neighborhood was being developed directly behind my family’s home and that our beloved forest would be lost to us. For years, I was accustomed to the excitement of seeing deer roaming close to our yard and the ability to escape from reality for a few hours. The trees slowly came down and houses were erected in their place. I had lost my sanctuary. This loss highlighted just how quickly a forest can disappear and gave me a greater appreciation for the next forest I found to escape to.
A few years later, I found a new sanctuary: Umstead State Park. Even though I am older and walk instead of play in these woods, they still have the same effect on my mental state. It is a place for me to relax and enjoy nature. My dog, Lily, usually joins me. She is the perfect hiking companion since she does not complain about the length of the hike or the weather, like my sisters do. As soon as I grab her leash, she runs around our kitchen in excitement. After a short drive, we turn onto a small road and are immediately surrounded by a forest. While hiking in this place, you would never know that there are multiple shopping centers less than a mile away. When it is time to leave, my dog always resists getting in the car. She wants to continue our journey through the forest.
Based on the peace of mind they afford and the joy they bring to me and my dog, I have come to the conclusion that protecting forests is a worthwhile cause of which I would like to be a part. Losing Umstead State Park would cause me to lose a place where I can receive the multitude of benefits that forests provide. American Forests presents the perfect avenue to advocate for forests and prevent my sanctuary — and those like it around the country — from being taken away again.