Trees, Forests, and Our Health

It was the Japanese who first expressed in 21st-century language the essential relationship between trees, forests, and human wellbeing.

Director of the Japanese Forest Agency, Tomohide Akiyama, used the term “shinrin yoku” or “forest bathing” to describe how people can improve their health by visiting forests. Initially, it was a branding slogan for the Japanese ecotourism sector, but forest bathing has since evolved into a generic term for approaches to healthier living that are in harmony with natural systems.

Like many popularized health movements, forest bathing has some crystal-waving advocates who are more enthusiastic than they are scientific. But there is hard science at the core of the movement. Dr. Qing Li, an Associate Professor at Tokyo’s Nippon Medical School, is the researcher behind the popular 2018 book, Forest Bathing, published by Viking Press.

Dr. Qing Li’s book details how humans evolved in forests. We have an intrinsic, inseverable relationship with them in spite of the general truth that most people are unaware of the link. The act of forest bathing is a way to re-establish that relationship. What do we gain? We get emotional and physical benefits by re-engaging with forests. The benefits are so profound that they sound hyperbolic, but they are not. Forest bathing lowers blood pressure, reduces stress, improves sleep, lifts depression, boost the immune system, offers anti-cancer protection, and helps us lose weight . . .


Dr. Qing Li links the presence of phytoncides in forests to the benefits we gain from them. Phytoncides are the natural oils in plants that protect them from bacteria, insects, and fungi. Terpines are their main components. The major terpines are recognizable to most of us because of their smell. D-Limonene is, as you’d expect, lemony smelling. Alpha-Pinene smells like pine (Pinesol is known to many of us as a cleaning and disinfecting agent). Beta-Pinene smells like basil or dill. And Camphene smells like turpentine.

The health effects of those chemicals explain why the act of forest bathing is becoming so popular. But visiting forests for their rejuvenating effects isn’t just a 21st century phenomenon. The ethos of the United States was shaped by its early connection with forests. Think of America’s great 19th/20th century parks movement; the Sierra Club; Ansel Adams; Teddy Roosevelt; and many, many more American examples of a deep appreciation of the great outdoors.

It is not surprising then that it is an American researcher, Paul Stamets, who is exploring how forest by-products like mycelia and mushrooms offer an almost infinite array of solutions to some of humankind’s greatest problems, Covid-19 among them. Just one example is Stamets’ investigations into the use of psilocybin as a way to reduce the endemic cases of depression affecting Western culture. His research is inspired by the evolutionary connection between forests and humans. Take the time to view the documentary, Fantastic Fungi, to learn more about Stamets’ paradigm-shifting work.

Mushrooms in a British Columbia rain forest.

Nature’s importance to our well-being is re-surfacing in our collective consciousness. It reminds us that we are at a tipping point in western science: knowledge and technology offer paths to the future that can be either creative or destructive. Maybe it will be the often overlooked but essential trees and forests that will inspire us to make smarter choices for the future.


Trees, Forests, and Cities Cont’d

As the barked portfolio of images grew my awareness of the similarities between ancient forests and intelligent, 21st century cities grew with it. For example, there is remarkable, new research that explains how forests are dynamic, intelligent systems. Their naturally sustainable ecosystems are models that future cities can learn from and emulate (if we want to survive at projected global population levels that is).

Let me explain. Canadian researcher Suzanne Simard proved trees communicate and support one another. Her work reveals that rather than being passive, independent objects, trees are dynamic members of complex communities. Trees talk to one another. The similarities to human communities are striking to someone with urban design experience. Forester Peter Wohlleben is also studying the barely visible complexity of trees. His book, The Hidden Life of Trees, is an exposition on the ways trees and forests have human-like characteristics. Trees create supportive social networks just like we do. They protect one-another. They respect their elders too. Wohlleben’s book is a compelling way to learn about the subject through a natural history lens.

The amount of new research on the topic is overwhelming, but one of the most surprising themes emerging from the human-forest relationship is that pre-Columbus North American communities had an operational knowledge of sustainable forest systems that surpasses ours. In his book, 1491, Charles C. Mann outlines how the inhabitants of America had developed sustainable ways to shape forests and landscapes for their benefit. In effect, the landscape Europeans took as natural when they landed in the Americas was anything but. 1491 is an important book for designers because it delineates how people can terraform a sustainable natural world.

The barked project’s mission is to protect and learn from the oldest, biggest, and most majestic trees that remain across the globe. If we can raise awareness about the importance of trees by making them visible as unique individuals rather than commodities then our work will be a success. We invite you to join us in the effort.


Trees, Forests, and Cities

How can we improve our world by thinking about trees, forests, and cities as innately connected? In “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth.” Buckminster Fuller laid out a conceptual map for understanding the complex, often irrational forces that shape our world. He proposed that creating a sustainable world of the future would require people who could think across information silos to design comprehensive, proactive solutions for a constantly-changing material landscape.

That generalist’s map inspired my path as an artist, architect, and urban theorist. But in truth the route is not clearly marked. In a massively changing world, to quote my colleague Bruce Mau, sometimes the goal posts one moves towards have to shift in response to new, unanticipated conditions on the playing field. The barked project grew out of that shift. It is an ongoing experiment in making the invisible connections that shape our world, visible.

Architects are embracing wood as a building material that is both beautiful and sustainable. The world needs their efforts in order to house seven billion people in a way that brings value to their lives. But wood is more than a design commodity that can help us be more sustainable. It is part of a living system that’s essence is baked into our human DNA. It is primordial. We cannot live without its symbiotic support just as fish cannot live without water. There is so much we don’t understand about the relationship. But more on that later.

The barked images were born from a metaphorical collision between some powerful imaging technologies that I’d used for my work, and ideas from a lecture at the University of Toronto by Mitchell Joachim of Columbia University. Joachim experimented with the idea that building systems can be grown organically rather than manufactured in traditional, carbon intensive ways. About the same time I also led the zerofootprint “zeroprize” competition founded by Dr. Ron Dembo. That initiative sought to promote the world’s most energy-efficient building re-skinning retrofits.

Those influences put me on a mission to look at some of the world’s oldest, most majestic trees with the idea that their bark could offer biomimetic insights into better ways to design and construct efficient buildings. While that more instrumental legacy continues, revealing the beauty of these trees as aesthetic, poetic objects grew in importance. Their complexity and individuality is captured in photographs that have a quiet stillness. The constructed barked images remind me of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s minimal work but crossed with an emergent kind of abstract expressionism. They are a new visual hybrid.