Cape Forest Bathing
The leaves of a tree indigenous to Southern African forests, Ilex mitis, become soapish in water. Its Zulu name refers to their foaminess. In Venda its common name translates as the milk-pail washer. Elsewhere its leaves have been used for bathing in.
Less literally, every time we stroll in forests we bathe in the myriad benefits of trees. The Japanese who go to relax in the plenitude of their archipelago’s woodlands, in recognising the activity as a form of therapy, call it Shinrin Yoku.
The practice ritualizes a humanly universal enjoyment of places with trees. As a kid in Cape Town I’d bring our dogs to the mountain and take in the vibes of the afternoon forest light. Encouraged by canine enthusiasm I probably rushed over the slopes of Cecelia plantation more energetically than shinrin yoku is optimally practiced.
Stress induced by a physically demanding hike diminishes the calmness brought on by contemplating the swishing of branches and the play of the sunlight dapplings. Less vigorous walks achieve a more allround positive outcome, according to research. Levels of the stress hormone cortisol drop amidst a cascade of other physiological and mental benefits triggered by certain forest colours, the fractal angles that light is split, as well as phytoncides which are chemicals given off by plants - the stuff of aromatherapists’ remedies.
And it's not only limited to woods. One recent study in a German city reveals that throughout a range of income demographics, more antidepressants are prescribed to residents of less leafy suburbs. This at the same time as the Swedes are planning to fill up city street-side parking spaces with rest benches and greenery. Perhaps they’ll plant trees good at drawing carbon out of the air, like a local equivalent of spekboom.
Endorsed by Japan’s health system, Shinrin Yoku sessions are prescribed as treatment for stress related illnesses from the common cold to cancer. Its efficacy is being backed up by research on the microbial and chemical abundance of forests, and its effect on humans.
Forest bathing has become popular beyond Japan. You can train to be a forest therapy guide now. Courses are on offer all over the place. Despite the steep price, I’ve considered doing one - were it not for the befuddlement generally expressed by Japanese outdoor enthusiasts to whom I have mentioned doing such a course. They think it’s a far simpler activity than one that needs guidance in.
However, they would have been shown how to quietly take in the forest by their elders, through bare feet, slowed breath and the bark, yes, by literally hugging it; while our elders often brought charcoal to the local wildland forests to light a braai on. Yes, using the burned wood of chopped-down trees to cook on. Sometimes there were marauding baboons to stand up to. Not therapy, it was cooked flesh and confrontation.
Location is key. Fresh air and a diverse range of plant biomass is more beneficial than being in monoculture plantations. Locally, Cape Town’s afrotemperate forests would be a suitable place to start.
Yet lack of confrontation can’t be guaranteed. The threat of crime on the lower slopes of the city's mountain isn't conducive to immersing oneself fully into meditative practice there.
But there are other places.