Thursday, May 4, 2017

Missing the forest for the trees

We could all use a little forest bathing 

(Published on April 22, 2017 in Business Standard)

The world’s public relations act conceals tragedy and sordidness—diseased bodies under sharp clothes, loneliness and bigotry behind bright smiles, terrified children cowering beneath adult self-possession, unhappiness underlying the perfect life, inequality behind shiny GDP figures. Our lives are plastered with messages suggesting that if only we would shop more, things would get better. We’d forget the Syrian kids with foam drying on their lips whose short lives were quite literally a game of Russian roulette. We’d forget the idiots who immediately ask why you’re only concerned about Syria when kids are dying in India. 

Sometimes the public relations act is desperation. The Tamil farmers who have been protesting in Delhi for almost 40 days are trying increasingly dramatic measures to get the Centre’s attention. They have sat in protest in 43ºC; they have festooned their protest with skulls; they have shaved their hair; they have symbolically placed grass and live mice and dead snakes in their mouths; they have stripped naked at South Block and rolled on the ground; they have had a man in a Modi mask and jacket whip them; next up, they’re planning to stagger around in torn clothes to make the point that they’re losing their minds in this difficult, seemingly impossible struggle to get the attention of the man who never forgets a birthday.

Sometimes the public relations act has the ominous feel of a disastrous finale. US President Donald Trump is eyeball to eyeball with North Korean President Kim Jong Un—a sight that would be riveting for the hairdos alone, but has the added attraction of China strapping on its armour, and the possibility of a nuclear confrontation at the end of which everyone dies, leaving the earth empty and silent except for the sound of pro-Sonu Nigam and anti-Sonu Nigam twitter feeds relentlessly trolling each other until the end of eternity.

It can all seem irretrievably dysfunctional. And when the world is going to hell, the only thing left to do is forest bathing. 

Forest bathing comes from the idea that spending some time amongst trees, immersing yourself in their presence as you might immerse yourself in a warm bath (or a cool one depending on what relief you need), does the soul a world of good. It’s a poetic thought, and, happily, it is one of the few poetic thoughts that doesn’t disappoint when translated into reality. 

I’ve been lucky enough to forest bathe three times in the last few weeks. The forests were all very different, from the sprawling tiger territory of Corbett National Park to the lush ‘sholas' that stand like islands in the Nilgiri Mountains; but all of them, without a doubt, had a calming effect. According to Wikipedia it all has to do with breathing in phytoncides, or wood essential oils, but according to me, looking at the insanely complex beauty of trees, and soaking in their greenness, is enough to lower your blood pressure. (One theory is our subconscious biology reads the colour green as an indication that there’s enough water and warmth for things to grow, and therefore to eat, and therefore one can relax.)

Of course forests can be scary, metaphors for mysterious, confusing, frightening situations. Children’s books are filled with the foreboding of dark and twisty forests inhabited by witches and spirits, and the fear of wandering lost forever, or getting eaten by wolves. That’s the forest of fearful paranormal imaginings.

But there’s the other, more real, more benignly magical forest—the woods that wash you in quiet, whose beauty and patterns and sounds are atavistically familiar and soothing. Sheltering canopies, the scent of resin, the rustle of the wind, dappled sunlight on the forest floor, the busy, focussed activity of little creatures going about their lives—and above all the trees, those silent standing watcher-citizens. It’s hard not to anthropomorphise trees, as Peter Wohlleben does in The Hidden Life of Trees, in which he posits that trees have friends; scream when in pain; have roles and personalities; talk to each other through what he calls the ‘woodwide web’ made of roots and electrical signals; and learn through their lives.

To be fair, the most committed forest bather might want to go home when darkness falls, because the dark brings out fearful imaginings. But we were designed to live in the natural world, in comforting herds. Returning to the city is a shocking measure of how far we have pushed that world. Perhaps that explains why we are so horrible to one another.

No wonder that we benefit from forest bathing, and sometimes crave it. If you haven’t tried it, do—while there are still forests left.

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