Take Time for a Walk in the Woods
I recently spent two and a half hours tromping about in the woods on my property. My walk in the woods was, at first, motivated by money. Twenty minutes in, my walk in the woods was about pleasure, peacefulness, and learning. In other words, it became an activity of self-care. Here’s what happened, and why I encourage you to make all haste to a forest and spend some time amongst the trees.
Managed Forest Tax Incentive Program
I live in the province of Ontario. Under the Managed Forest Tax Incentive Program (MFTIP), I am able to reduce my property tax bill by 75% on that portion of my land that is forested. Since I have just under 33 acres of property, of which almost 29 acres is forest, and since property tax bills are climbing at an alarming rate, I am keen to save money wherever I can.
To qualify for the program, I need to file a 10 year plan detailing how I will manage my forest responsibly. Filing that plan requires hiring a Managed Forest Plan Approver. In my case, that’s Derick, a retired forester.
My Walk in the Woods with Derick
While the snow has gone, hopefully for good, we’ve had a lot of rain and freezing rain in the last couple of weeks. The frost isn’t out of the ground yet, so the rain and ice sit in the top inch of soil. It is a sodden, squelchy mess. I wasn’t really looking forward to a walk in the woods, but I put on my jeans, boots, and the “Big Trees Rule” t-shirt that I bought in California, and went out to the driveway to greet Derick.
After the initial pleasantries, Derick asked if I knew my tree species. Uh, no. I babbled something about loving the words ‘coniferous’ and ‘deciduous’. Then I fessed up that, while I’ve lived here for twenty years, I used to travel a lot and was busy, far too busy, to know the names of my trees.
…I could smell everything in those woods, and you know what an old fine smell that is, like something which has been mostly left alone and is not much troubled.Stephen King
Derick said that he would teach me, and then he would quiz me at the end. Great.
I needn’t have worried. We had a wonderful walk.
Learning About Trees
I had identified my priorities for my forest as recreation (I have some trails and want more), wildlife preservation, and forest conservation. So Derick taught me how to read the health of a forest by the age and quality of the undergrowth; how to spot the trails left by wildlife (they have a little superhighway by the edges of streams on my property), and how to identify various species of trees.
I already knew red oak, sugar maple, cedar and, of course, white birch. I didn’t know that I also have yellow birch. Honestly, I thought yellow birch were just old and grubby white birch trees. I think Derick found me amusing.
The diamond pattern in bark is indicative of an ash tree. The bark of the black cherry looks like burnt cornflakes. It was all news to me.
To qualify for MFTIP, I needed at least nine acres of forest with a minimum of 400 trees per acre. The number of required trees per acre varied based on the diameter of the trees–the larger the tree, the fewer required. I used calipers to measure the diameter of four trees in each area and give Derick the average. Derick used his prism magnifier to calculate the number of trees in each section or ‘compartment’ of land. He also counted the tree species he could see and then compared everything he found to several different online resources that foresters use.
A couple of days after our walk, Derick emailed me the 15 page draft plan for my approval. It includes: topographical maps of my forest; calculations of how many trees of which species are in each compartment, and a list of the actions I’ve agreed to take to manage my forest for the next ten years. Those actions include things like building nesting boxes for songbirds, and regularly inspecting the trees for insect damage.
I Wake Up to My Woods
I’ve always had a thing for trees and water. This property has both–thousands of trees, streams encircling all 33 acres, and a good-sized pond. It’s the home of my dreams and an awesome place to be.
The day I took possession, I went for a walk in the woods. Each trillium that I spotted (Ontario’s provincial flower), each thrilling bit of moss on the ground (I love moss), I’d think “Mine! That’s mine!”
I can forgive myself my short-lived acquisitiveness (I’d come from suburbia). However, I’m embarrassed to admit that I have always thought of my property in terms of what it does for me. That changed when I read the part of the plan where Derick explains the significance of my forest to the surrounding landscape. He wrote, in part,
This property forms an important corridor for wildlife. The tallest trees in the forest are used on a regular basis by Hawks. The older trees in the forest are used frequently by Songbirds and Pileated Woodpeckers. White tailed deer and wild turkeys are occasionally seen and use the property year round. The surrounding area are used for agriculture. As a result, this woodlot is valuable for wildlife habitat. Other wildlife using the property as a linkage are deer, black bear, coyote, raccoon, fox, pine martin, rabbit, groundhog, skunk, and porcupines.
A few days later, in one of those serendipitous moments, I read Donna’s post about humane communities. Donna and her husband had attended a talk at their local SPCA. The speaker challenged them to answer two questions: What kind of world do you want to live in? And, how are you going to make this happen?
Between Derick’s eye-opening report, and Donna’s thought-provoking post, I feel a new responsibility to take care of my forest. And a strong desire to spend lots of time walking in the woods.
5 Ways You Benefit from a Walk in the Woods
Have you heard of Shinrin-yoku? It’s Japanese for “forest bathing” which simply means taking a walk in the woods while you absorb the sights, sounds and smells of nature. Shrinrin-yoku was first proposed in the 1980’s as a response to the chronic stress engendered by Japan’s overcrowded cities. Forest bathing has five major benefits no matter where you live.
- Give your mind a rest. While you walk, your mind wanders aimlessly until your attention is gently drawn to something in the forest. This is a change from the attention you are forced to give your environment when navigating busy city streets.
- Reduce stress. Trees, particularly evergreens, include compounds called phytonsides that have been shown to reduce cortisol levels.
- Lower blood pressure. This finding is based on a study of 16 healthy middle-aged men.
- Reduce depression. Scientists in London, England compared tree densities with the number of antidepressant prescriptions. They found that the areas with the greatest density of trees also had the lowest rates of antidepressant prescriptions.
- Lose weight. This is a potential benefit depending on how long you spend walking, how quickly you walk, and the variations in forest terrain.
Your Self-Care Prescription
As scientists have concluded, the more forest-like your walking environment, the better. However, if you live in a busy city and can’t get out to the woods, head for a tree-lined park. If that isn’t possible, find a single tree in a quiet area and spend time gazing at it.
And into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.John Muir
Researchers don’t know if the maximum benefits come from solitary walks, or if it’s okay to have a companion. They don’t know how long you have to walk to experience benefits, or how many days in a row.
What researchers do know is that a beneficial walk in the woods is the result of a focus on senses rather than thoughts. Your local forest or park is the perfect cellphone-free zone. It’s no wonder that there’s a program in the United States called Parks Rx, where physicians and other healthcare providers suggest that the best way to treat the ills of our overstressed, technology-driven world is with a long, leisurely walk in the woods.
Do you have the opportunity where you live to spend time amongst the trees? Do you take advantage of that opportunity? Let us know in the comments below.