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Take a walk in the woods

“I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.” - John Burroughs

“Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.” - John Muir

We moved to the suburbs when I was about 5 years old from Philadelphia, and for a short period of time, during a move, we lived in Philadelphia when I was around 10. So, in some ways I refer to myself as a “city” kid.

The two quotes above really connect with me because I grew up with a love of nature thanks to my mother. She worked for the U.S. Forest Service and instilled a love of nature in me. So, while I remember what it was like to be a city kid, I am drawn to nature.

When I am in a bad mood, the best thing I can do for me is to take a walk in the forest. I read once it’s impossible to be in a forest and in a bad mood at the same time. It’s definitely true!

I can get a few feet into the forest and feel a change come over me. This walk does wonders for my mood and stress level.

Spending time in nature has been proven to strengthen immunity, lower blood pressure, increase the ability to focus, and ultimately lower health care costs. Every time I turn around there is a new “catchphrase” for spending time in the great outdoors and the latest is “forest bathing.”

I suppose it has to do with immersing myself in the forest completely and for a specific amount of time. Shouldn’t it just be called spending time in nature?

As I read further about the forest bathing, I discovered there are rules to follow rather than just walk around in the forest. I never really thought about following rules, but to “bathe” in the forest finding out a few tips on how to immerse myself in the experience fully certainly wasn’t a bad thing.

First of all, it’s suggested I should walk quietly and taking in the sounds, scents, colors and overall surroundings. I thought I did that but when I really applied what I learned to what I did, it truly did make a difference.

I was more in tune with my surroundings. I resisted the urge to take my camera and to really focus on nature instead of trying to capture it through my lens. See what I did there?

Although I know physical activity is good for me according to the rules I was not supposed to make this about exercise. The idea was to relax. And to have an experience with nature instead of rushing past it trying to keep my heart rate up.

The idea was for me to wind down and relax in nature as this slow walk was just as beneficial as a cardio workout.

Entering into the forest I found that my breathing was deeper and slower and I was becoming de-stressed. I wasn’t doing it on a conscious level.

Suddenly, I felt more relaxed and that I was breathing better. I could feel myself slowing down and taking in my surroundings.

Taking in the smells in the forest really is something that can have a powerful effect.

There is just something about the smell of the earth beneath my boots and the scent of the hemlock as I brush past that connects me and grounds me. I wanted to know more why the forest has this effect on me.

What I read explained it turns out smells are closely tied to the emotional center in our brain. This is why certain smells and scents can arouse a sense of nostalgia or other emotions relating to our past.

Could all these smells be connecting me to all the positive moments I had spent in the forests since my childhood?

A research team at Kyoto University wanted to compare two very different settings experienced by their test subjects to evaluate their moods and stress levels.

By comparing the days spent in a forest and days when they went about their normal routines, results showed that the forest days were crucial in reducing their chronic stress.

The results showed that pine, fir, cedar and cypress trees contain the phytoncides such as alpha-pinene and beta-pinene which make up the essential oils of many plants and trees.

These were found to decrease levels of the cortisol stress hormone and the results concluded with cortisol production being lowered meant their tests subjects’ stress was lowered, as well.

So, the next time someone says I am wasting my time in the forest, I know better.

Jeannie Carl is a naturalist at the Carbon County Environmental Education Center in Summit Hill. The center rehabilitates injured animals and educates the public on a variety of wildlife found in the area. For information on the Carbon County Environmental Center, visit www.carboneec.org.

You never know what beauty you may find when walking in the woods. Here is a small waterfall in the middle of a creek. JEANNIE CARL/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS