I have always be an avid hiker, a habit that I gained from my father, who would take me on long hikes after church on Sunday afternoon in the Hockley Valley north of Toronto. We would go to Mass, have lunch and then drive the 80 or so minutes from our home in King City to hills and vales of Mono Township where the Hockley Valley lies in all its splendour.
I always looked forward to it, because the drive itself yields many dramatic views as the terrain was quite hilly. In the fall, there were two or three crossroads which, after a long drive up the hill, yielded a spectacular tapestry of warm autumn reds, ochres, yellows and brown beneath us. After the drive came my favourite part, the hike. We would walk, fairly quickly usually, and with long woodsman’s strides, landing on the balls of our feet to minimize the noise we were making. Sometimes we walked for hours in silence, other times we had conversations about philosophy, religion, mathematics and language. My father would also share his extensive, almost encyclopaedic knowledge of flora and fauna with me. He would point out plants as they sprouted, leaves of unusual or invasive species, and spots where the deer had rested, leaving an indentation in leaves or ferns. He taught me to identify animal tracks, which led me to imagine a world of animal societies interacting and conducting their business along these forest highways. Sometimes he would pause and we would listen to the music of the wind rustling through a stand of trees. He loves that sound, and always remarks that it is the most beautiful melody he has ever heard. I grew to love it too, in fact, I remember it as the song of my childhood.
About a year ago, one of my friends suggested that I read an article about the Japanese practice of “forest bathing” or shinrin-yoku in Japanese. In a nutshell, the idea is that we gain great health benefits from spending time wandering in the forest, breathing in the air tinged with the scent of trees and ferns and the other wonderful things that grow in the forest. Indeed, I was skeptical at first, but there has been some fairly extensive scientific research into the matter, sponsored by the Japanese government, which suggests that forest bathing is an effective way of calming one’s mind and improving one’s well-being.
At the time, I was in a particularly stressful moment, with much to do professionally and a lot of travel, which I find exhausting. I started to notice that my walks along the forest trail behind my house did seem to be a salve for my anxious and sometimes racing mind. I looked forward to my walks and even started to schedule meeting with my graduate students or social occasions with friends as walking rendezvous on the trail. I find this a congenial and engaging way of interacting, better than awkwardly sitting in front of one another across a desk or table in an office, café or the campus pub. These walks made me feel better, helping me focus my mind and loosen my body.
When I bought a fitness watch, a Garmin Fenix 5 model, I was astonished to see empirical evidence that these walks were having a remarkable effect on my well-being. Each hike improved my anaerobic and aerobic fitness, burned about 600 calories and dropped my stress level for the rest of the day. As an aside, I have grown to love my Garmin watch and wear it constantly, displacing the other watches in my collection, but that will be the subject of another post.
Indeed, the ability to walk five minutes to the Bruce Trail that was one of the greatest selling points of the new house I bought three years ago. Since moving in, I have walked or run the trail hundreds of times through all four seasons, watching nature change around me, the seasons start and finish, animals emerge and then recede to hibernate. It has been beautiful.
I have shared pictures and snippets of video from my walks on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. My friends have reacted very positively to these posts, encouraging me to continue sharing them, telling me that such and such an image calmed them or that the sounds of the babbling brook brought them joy as they navigated the crowded platform at Bloor and Yonge. As well, I have noticed that pictures I take document serve as a sort of documentary of the cycle of life on along the forest trail.
This year, I have decided to document my trail hikes and runs through a weekly blog post. I will try to share some of the thoughts and feelings that I have had as I amble, trudge, slip, slide and sprint my way around the loops of the Bruce Trail behind my house in Ancaster, Ontario.
I hope you enjoy them and they bring you a little peace, as they do for me. I also hope that they encourage you to get out on a trail near your home and start to experience the joys of forest and field, as well as the benefits they provide to your mind and body.