Sensing the Landscape
Indoors, we tend to use only two senses, our eyes and our ears. Outside is where we can smell the flowers, taste the fresh air, look at the changing colours of the trees, hear the birds singing and feel the breeze on our skin. And when we open up our senses, we begin to connect to the natural world.
Dr Qing Li, Shinrin-Yoku: The Art and Science of Forest Bathing 2018
As a child I had a picture book about the natural world and how people fitted into it. My favourite part was a double page spread with fabulous illustrations of mushrooms. Among the whites and browns and yellows, my attention was always grasped firmly by the bright red and white spotted toadstool. The Fly Agaric, Amanita Muscaria, is and always will be to me, the stuff of fairytales. Yet I went through my childhood, and my entire adulthood without seeing them in the flesh once.
This changed last autumn, when I found one in the woods on a walk with friends. Or rather I found bits of a partially nibbled one. Regardless, the feeling of accomplishment was incredible, I realised I had always been looking for them, and it made me smile for days that I had finally found one. After that first find, I seemed to come across them every time I was outdoors, I found dozens of them, at every stage of development, in many different places. I took so many pictures I had to start a special folder on my phone.
Every time I came across one, it would be as if a spark lit up my mind, the feeling of joy I felt upon first finding them would return with full force, and I now know that I will never tire of finding them, glistening like opulent jewels between the trees at the start of autumn. I encourage everyone to look for them, and once you’ve found them, drag your friends and family to see them too. The place to look is in woodland, between birch trees, or occasionally pines, the time is late summer to late autumn, especially after rain. The first thing people usually learn about this mushroom is that it is poisonous, so be warned, and do not consume it. Although it cannot harm you if you touch it, it is not a mushroom you’d need to take home, so I always leave them where I find them, and try not to disturb growing specimens.
So what could account for that feeling I get when I see one? I cannot eat it and I do not need to use it for getting rid of flies (which is how it gets its name). Why do I get that soaring feeling of discovery every single time I find them? Having thought about this for some time, I have concluded that the reason may be as simple as it is in my nature. We evolved to be outside, looking for things, and it feels good to do it.
Shinrin-Yoku, or Forest Bathing is a kind of Nature Therapy, is the practice of immersing oneself in nature by mindfully using all five senses, and it has been used as a health promotion method in Japan among other places. Scientific enquiry into the efficacy of Nature Therapy are ongoing, with mounting evidence for psychological and physiological benefits; from improved immune system function to benefits to mental health outcomes, immersing oneself in the natural world is looking more and more like an overlooked but essential component to human wellbeing. Even looking at nature is beneficial, patients in hospital beds by a window overlooking trees or greenery have shorter recovery times on average compared to those in beds next to blank walls.
So go outside, it’s good for you! Smell the autumn in the air, feel that temperature shift as the northern hemisphere of the Earth turns away from the sun and the days draw in. Before long you will see your breath in the mornings, so nibble that blackberry while they are still abundant, and tell Summer that you will see her next year.