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Sunday, January 20 , 2019, 1:07 am | Fair 50º


Dan McCaslin: Forest Bathing, Santa Barbara Style

Nature is good for us, so go out there and immerse yourself in it

Santa Barbara backcountry Click to view larger
A view of the Santa Barbara backcountry from East Camino Cielo. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

Many of us have heard about “forest bathing,” the Korean obsession with outdoor experiences called shinrin roku. I referred to it in a June column while reviewing Florence Williams’ thoughtful The Nature Fix.

The majority of these hiking columns direct you to nature location X or Y, say to the Manzana, the Carizzo Plain or over to Blue Canyon, among many choices. They typically even include driving directions, how long it takes and some pointers about the specific trail that might whet some additional interest.

“Whet” is key: Read some of these columns and head straight out there, taking your children and family, too. But readers must know already that the essential benefit from hiking resides in being outside and moving about like a restless tarantula in November.

Call it roaming, trekking or just walking. You move away from the cityscape, the Internet dominance and the entanglements of this human megalopolis.

There is little doubt that nature — “the forest” — has positive benefits on human cognitive function.

We instinctively realize again and again that the closer we are to raw nature — the more we’re outside the expanding roofs of human settlement — the more relaxed and mentally energized (the fabled juvenescence) we feel. These concepts also lay at the core of shinrin roku, Henry David Thoreau and modern ecological thinking: nature bathing, “forest bathing,” going out there (outside as far as you can) and dragging your children along.

Along the time-space continuum posited by scientific Western humans, nearby and beautiful nature zones comprise the spatial reality, while the vividly intense hiking moment forms the now of temporal reality.

When hiking in the foothills fronting Santa Barbara’s northern slopes, especially if walking alone and during drought, your safety depends on intense study of every impending footstep: Can you detect loose rocks? A hole in the path? A tree across the trail? Low branches? Perhaps a baby rattlesnake, like I noticed on the Rattlesnake Canyon Wilderness Trail in late August?

The macro-universe shrinks down to the immediate next step, like a telescope that when reversed yields a micro-world of infinitely tiny proportions.

Baby rattlesnake
A baby rattlesnake explores the Rattlesnake Canyon Wilderness Trail. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

If this concentration activity weren’t so much fun, I could call it practicing “one-pointed focus.” The Hindus call this experience ekagrata, meaning an intent pursuit of one object, or “close and undisturbed attention” — just take one slow step at a time.

Time and space are then conjoined with the third dimension, which we can call spirit or the ineffable.

Therefore, when someone hikes up the crude fire road to Gaviota Peak and whimsically takes in the astounding vistas and looming sea fog, this workout absolutely involves forest bathing. Every step is measured, yet we frequently look up and out to the horizons.

During a very long day hike down, then into and then up Blue Canyon last weekend, my three colleagues and I encountered zero other humans all morning, even though it was a Sunday. Blue Canyon and Cottam Camps are wonderful places for deep forest-bathing experiences, shady and offering deep solitude and natural beauty. We also noted that Montecito Peak’s steep and burned northeastern slope offered some evidence of regrowth.

Whet your appetite for hikes along trails up Rattlesnake Canyon, Jesusita, Gaviota Peak or Blue Canyon by reading about them and setting up your gear, then mark your personal calendar for an appointment with nature. The physical workout itself repays with immense benefits, and moderate hikes include the warm silence, fragrant chaparral walls and the slow space-time solitude needed for slow-thinking or meditation.

If forest-bathing ideas and notions that outdoor time is best for you and your children are so common, then why is there any need to re-emphasize this point? We read recently that even the supposedly hyper-active Canadians are outside less and less and are failing to enjoy their glorious wilderness regions.

The Canadian data remind us that Americans also are work slaves, couch potatoes, computer nerds, desk jockeys and indoor workers. Americans are staying indoors much more than ever.

Blue serpentine
Blue serpentine hydrous magnesium silicate in Blue Canyon. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

As a 36-year school teacher, I can assure you that it’s obviously hurting our children. Most urbanized Westerners are indoors far more than their ancestors just 40 years ago. There is hard data showing that German and most European children are outside much more often, and for longer periods, than children in the United States (Sara Zaske, Achtung Baby!; see the 4.-1-1 below).

You realize, as any child can tell you, in today’s house (or apartment) there’s readily available food, heat (or air conditioning), shelter, of course, and the security of family. The child has not been taught to forage, so it stays near these essential “needs” because they are simply present.

Since the majority of Americans (and Canadians) stay indoors more and more, they jack up the crucial need to enjoy time outside in nonurban locations. Our Santa Barbara region is ideal since the urban/wildlands interface is often very close to town (this also presents obvious risks, as we learned on Jan. 9).

In studying the alarming rise in American child obesity rates, and heart problems among older Americans, we understand why we have this flabby population we see walking around the United States today. As their waistlines have expanded, the civic awareness and social responsibility have correspondingly shrunk in Americans today.

Hiking is just another name for forest bathing, folks.

Encouraging, cheerleading and presenting informative photos to draw your eye to a place you would naturally want to walk into is my goal. These columns should whet your instinctive desire to head out into that paleo-world that is still very close to us.

I can drive from my Westside to Rattlesnake Canyon at the city’s Skofield Park in 12 minutes and start roaming. (Or I can bicycle there in 65 minutes, but this stretch is urban and very steep.)

Happy hiking!


» Books: Florence Williams, The Nature Fix (2017), and Sara Zaske, Achtung Baby! (2018); both are available at Chaucer’s Bookstore.

— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone Anchors in Antiquity, and has written extensively about the local backcountry. He serves as an archaeological site steward for the U.S. Forest Service in the Los Padres National Forest. He welcomes reader ideas for future Noozhawk columns, and can be reached at [email protected]. Click here to read additional columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

Montecito Peak Click to view larger
The northeast side of Montecito Peak. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

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