Haiku and the Art of Forest Bathing
“The old pines are full of poems.” —Ryōkan Taigu
First published in a shorter version in Modern Haiku 51:1, Winter-Spring 2020, pages 27–41 (including the “Rebirth” haibun mentioned at the end). More example poems are quoted here, and a few prose segments appear here that were not included in Modern Haiku. Originally written from May to August 2016, and in August and November 2017, developing prior notes from September 2013 and January and March 2015. This essay was previously presented in shorter versions on 13 August 2016 at a national meeting of the Haiku Society of America in Portland, Oregon, and on 15 September 2017 at the Haiku North America conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for which I also developed a PowerPoint presentation with photographs. I’ve presented this essay at numerous other events online. This essay was also featured on the Modern Haiku website. In November of 2022, this essay also appeared on the New Zealand Poetry Society website. At the end, please see the new postscripts, a writing exercise, and links to additional tree/forest poems. See also “Notepad Walking” and “Going Nowhere: Learning Haiku from Pico Iyer.” + + + + + + + +
into the woods
the silence between us
Bob Lucky, White Lotus 9, Fall/Winter 2009, p. 19
entering the woods
a hiking stick selects me
to carry it
Cor van den Heuvel, Modern Haiku 44:1, Winter–Spring 2013, p. 118
alone in the woods
i meet me
in a fallen leaf
Andrea Grillo, Bottle Rockets 7:1 (#13), 2005, p. 32
The haiku poet, or so it seems, is an inveterate forest bather—that is, someone who delights in taking long and luxuriant soaks in woods and forests. Such dwelling in nature, of going to the pine to learn of the pine, as Bashō advised, is surely the source of much haiku. And as Buson said, quoted in Tom Lowenstein’s book Classic Haiku (London: Duncan Baird Publishers, 2007, 33), it is good to “Walk in the forest and the mountains. This way you will acquire [haiku] naturally.” Nor is this just a Japanese perspective—as Robert Louis Stevenson once said, “It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air, that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.” The woods can be a salvation. In her poem “When I Am Among the Trees,” Mary Oliver says “they give off such hints of gladness. / I would almost say that they save me, and daily.”
“You mean, out-doors
under a tree, me?”
Paul Reps, Juicing, Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1978, p. 49
buckthorn in bloom
I am a stranger here
in these woods
Charles Trumbull, Wisteria 8, January 2008, p. 21
walking around the forest
with every step of mine
the forest walks
Toshio Kimura, Chrysanthemum 7, April 2010
Thoreau said, “Every walk is a sort of crusade” (“Walking,” The Atlantic Monthly IX:LVI, June 1862, 657–674). The renewal offered by forests is not given just to haiku poets, of course, but to everyone. More than thirty-five years ago the Japanese government even thought it should be mandated—or strongly encouraged. So it instituted a program that it called “shinrin-yoku” (森林浴) which has been translated as “forest bathing.” According to an article by Eva Selhub and Alan Logan in Mother Earth News on 8 January 2013, “Your Brain on Nature: Forest Bathing and Reduced Stress” (which is where I found the preceding Stevenson quotation), this program was designed to reconnect the Japanese people with the forestlands around them:
In 1982, the Forest Agency of the Japanese government premiered its shinrin-yoku plan. In Japanese shinrin means forest, and yoku, although it has several meanings, refers here to a “bathing, showering or basking in.” More broadly, it is defined as “taking in, in all of our senses, the forest atmosphere.” The program was established to encourage the populace to get out into nature, to literally bathe the mind and body in greenspace, and take advantage of public owned forest networks as a means of promoting health. Some 64 percent of Japan is occupied by forest, so there is ample opportunity to escape the megacities that dot its landscape.
into the woods
Zoanne Schnell, Earthsigns, Sammamish, Washington: Press Here, 2017, p. 78
Jack Galmitz, Yards & Lots, West Union, West Virginia: Middle Island Press, 2012, p. 63
the way finds me—
Penny Harter, Jumble Box, Sammamish, Washington: Press Here, 2017, p. 122
Forest bathing is not just a mystical renewal, either, but a source of various other benefits, not to mention the poetic inspiration that haiku poets receive. We may think of forest bathing as giving us healthy doses of Vitamin N. N for nature. It’s a kind of spiritual therapy. But forest bathing provides more than that. In Alive, the online journal for natural health and wellness, Will Ricther wrote in a 29 September 2011 essay, “Forest Bathing: Good for the Spirit—and Body,” that forest walking imparts physical health benefits as well as spiritual ones. Indeed, Richter explains why it’s valuable to take a leisurely walk in the woods:
The result? A host of health benefits, including a boosted immune system, an increase in cancer-battling proteins, and improved blood pressure, among others. Studies have also found psychological benefits, with forest bathers seeing significant increases in positive feelings and decreases in negative feelings.
Of course, haiku poets hardly need convincing that it’s a wonderful world out there, but here’s a passage from Chapter 14 of David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars (New York: Vintage, 1995, 203–204) that provides a sense of forest bathing in exquisite detail:
Hatsue found herself walking in the woods later that afternoon. It was getting on toward the end of February, a time of only bleak light. In spring great shafts of sun would split the canopy of trees and the litter fall of the forest would come floating down—twigs, seeds, needles, dust bark, all suspended in the hazy air—but now, in February, the woods felt black and the trees looked sodden and smelled pungently of rot. Hatsue went inland to where the cedars gave way to firs hung with lichens and moss. Everything was familiar and known to her here—the dead and dying cedars full of punky heartwood, the fallen, defeated trees as high as a house, the upturned root wads hung with vine maple, the toadstools, the ivy, the salal, the vanilla leaf, the low wet places full of devil’s club. These were the woods through which she had wandered on her way home from Mrs. Shigemura’s lessons, the woods where she had cultivated the kind of tranquility Mrs. Shigemura had demanded. She’d sat among sword ferns six feet tall or on a shelf above a vale of trilliums and opened her eyes to the place. As far back as she could recall the content of her days there had always been this silent forest which retained for her its mystery.
There were straight rows of trees—colonnades—growing out of the seedbed of trees that had fallen two hundred years before and sunk and become the earth itself. The forest floor was a map of fallen trees that had lived half a thousand years before collapsing—a rise here, a dip there, a mound or moldering hillock somewhere—the woods held the bones of trees so old no one living had ever seen them. Hatsue had counted the rings of fallen trees more than six hundred years old. She had seen the deer mouse, the creeping vole, the green-hued antlers of the white-tailed deer decaying underneath a cedar. She knew where lady fern grew and phantom orchids and warted giant puffballs.
Deep among the trees she lay on a fallen log and gazed far up branchless trunks. A late winter wind blew the tops around, inducing in her a momentary vertigo. She admired a Douglas fir’s complicated bark, followed its groove to the canopy of branches two hundred feet above. The world was incomprehensibly intricate, and yet this forest made a simple sense in her heart that she felt nowhere else.
Later in the novel, Guterson describes another character as being “so moved by the beauty of the world he could not keep himself from utterance” (402). Surely it is this very transcendence that moves us to write haiku. We cannot help it—even if it comes after a period of speechlessness. What a wonderful world.
I wander deeper
into the forest
Larry Gates, The Heron’s Nest 16:1, March 2014
a sapling with one leaf
paul m., The Heron’s Nest 8:4, December 2006
on purpose . . .
Christopher Patchel, Presence 47, September 2012, p. 21
In A Bamboo Broom, Harold G. Henderson describes Bashō’s famous sound-of-water frog poem by saying that “there must have been external quiet for the sound to have been heard and internal quiet for it to have been noticed” (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1934, 34, emphasis added). It is this internal stillness that forest bathing can give us. For some people, haiku is a way of finding inner peace, but it can also be a way of finding outer peace. In his book Wandering: Notes and Sketches, Hermann Hesse said, “When we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy” (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1972, translated by James Wright, found in “Hermann Hesse on What Trees Teach Us About Belonging and Life” by Maria Popova). He also said, “Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth.” Speaking of joy, in a New York Times essay, “The Joy of Quiet” (The New York Times, December 29, 2011), Pico Iyer refers to the “urgency of slowing down,” and how he seeks to “lose [himself] in the stillness.” He quotes Marshall McLuhan as saying, “When things come at you very fast [as they do in our wired society], naturally you lose touch with yourself.” Iyer says that “The only way to do justice to our onscreen lives is by summoning exactly the emotional and moral clarity that can’t be found on any screen.” He also reports on a series of tests with results that will come as no surprise to haiku poets, that “after spending time in quiet rural settings, subjects ‘exhibit greater attentiveness, stronger memory and generally improved cognition’” and that “Their brains become both calmer and sharper.”
You can lose yourself in the woods—and in a good way. If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? Well, with forest bathing, you can be a “no one” in the woods and finally find out. And perhaps forest bathing is also a way of going nowhere. In his book The Art of Stillness (New York: TED Books / Simon & Schuster, 2014, 6, 21, 63, 66, and 37, respectively), Iyer says that “Going nowhere . . . is not about austerity so much as about coming closer to one’s senses,” and the job of writers (thus, of course, haiku poets) “is to turn, through stillness, a life of movement into art.” He adds that “The point of gathering stillness is not to enrich the sanctuary or mountaintop but to bring that calm into the motion, the commotion of the world.” Ultimately, he says that “In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention,” and what is haiku but the art of paying attention? Iyer quotes Thomas Merton as saying, “I had decided to marry the silence of the forest. The sweet dark warmth of the whole world will have to be my wife.”
We marry the forest, of course, by walking. In an essay, “Country Life,” published in The Atlantic in November of 1904 (based on a lecture given in March of 1858), Ralph Waldo Emerson said that “Walking has the best value as gymnastics for the mind,” and that “beside their sanitary and gymnastic benefit, mountains are silent poets, and a view from a cliff over a wide country undoes a good deal of prose.” Yet he notes that “Few men know how to take a walk. The qualifications . . . are endurance, plain clothes, old shoes, an eye for nature, good humor, vast curiosity, good speech, good silence, and nothing too much.”
Paul Reps, Juicing, Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1978, p. 65
I catch the cobwebs
that miss my son
Michael Dylan Welch, Earthsigns, Sammamish, Washington: Press Here, 2017, p. 57
falls in the forest
happy to hear it
Marsh Muirhead, Modern Haiku 41:1, Winter–Spring 2010, p. 72
One sage of the wild who knew well how to walk in the woods was naturalist John Muir. He said, “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness” (John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1979, 313) and that “In every walk with Nature one receives far more than he seeks” (Steep Trails, Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1918). He reminds us that “Few are altogether deaf to the preaching of pine trees. Their sermons on the mountains go to our hearts; and if people in general could be got into the woods, even for once, to hear the trees speak for themselves, all difficulties in the way of forest preservation would vanish” (“The National Parks and Forest Reservations,” in a speech on 23 November 1895, Proceedings of the Meeting of the Sierra Club, published Sierra Club Bulletin 1:7, January 1896, 282–83). In “Chapter X (1900–1914)” of John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir (Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1938, 1979, 427), the naturalist also noted the spiritual rewards of nature when he wrote that “I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
The idea of forest bathing may seem pure and idealized, and we would do well to keep it that way for ourselves and those around us, but it also risks being overly packaged. In fact, forest bathing is already being commercialized, which may strike some people as unfortunate. In a story in the Seattle Times on 14 September 2016 (“Forest ‘bathing’: A mindful walk in the woods, no getting wet”), Associated Press travel editor Beth J. Harpaz reports that “interest in the concept is growing, with spas, resorts, retreat centers, gardens and parks offering guided ‘forest bathing’ experiences,” such as $160 for a “50-minute guided forest bathing experience” at Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, New York, or $199 for an “all-day experience at Osmosis Day Spa [in Freestone, California], which includes a massage, lunch, and footbath using forest products like cedar.” While I’m sure these are wonderful experiences, paying so much for what is freely available outdoors, near almost everyone, seems antithetical to the nature of forest bathing. We can all go haiku hiking without needing to pay for it, or at least not paying more than a tankful of gas.
A similar concept to forest bathing is the Norwegian notion of friluftsliv (pronounced free-loofts-liv). This has been translated as “free air life,” but it is much more than that. According to Starre Vartan’s 30 December 2014 blog post (“7 cultural concepts we don't have in the U.S.”) on the website for Mother Nature Network (MNN), which also mentions forest-bathing, friluftsliv captures the following spirit:
Coined relatively recently, in 1859 [appearing in a poem by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen], it is the concept that being outside is good for human beings’ mind and spirit. “It is a term in Norway that is used often to describe a way of life that is spent exploring and appreciating nature,” Anna Stoltenberg, culture coordinator for Sons of Norway, a U.S.-based Norwegian heritage group, told MNN. Other than that, it’s not a strict definition: it can include sleeping outside, hiking, taking photographs or meditating, playing or dancing outside, for adults or kids. It doesn’t require any special equipment, includes all four seasons, and needn’t cost much money. Practicing friluftsliv could be as simple as making a commitment to walking in a natural area five days a week, or doing a day-long hike once a month.
Or perhaps it could entail going out into the woods and writing haiku every day. Or once a week. In a 27 June 2014 blog posting on the MNN website (“How 'friluftsliv' can help you reconnect with nature”), Russell McLendon writes that “Friluftsliv is a mouthful . . . so it may not invade English as easily [as other Scandinavian words]. And it doesn’t really need to. While words are important in shaping how we think, it’s still the idea behind them that counts.” Or, as Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer once wrote, “The wild does not have words” (in his poem titled “From March ’79,” translated by John F. Deane, Selected Poems, 1954–1986, Hopewell, New Jersey: Ecco Press, 1987, 159; this was the only poem included by Monica Tranströmer on behalf of her husband for his Nobel Prize acceptance speech on 10 December 2011). McLendon adds that “there’s a dire need for the philosophy of friluftsliv—by any name—in American schools.” And, I would add, in all the world’s homes and offices, too. There’s an inspiring eleven-minute documentary video about friluftsliv on Vimeo at http://vimeo.com/64425721. There’s even a website for forest bathing at http://www.shinrin-yoku.org/, with additional videos at http://www.shinrin-yoku.org/video.html [these latter two links no longer work]. See also https://www.shinrinyoku-united.org/.
We can turn our “free-air lives” and forest bathing into poetry. As poet Lorine Niedecker said in a 1967 letter to Gail Roub (quoted in Solitary Plover by Phyllis Walsh, La Crosse, Wisconsin: Juniper Press, 1992, 26–27), “I am what is around me—these woods have made me.” And they made her poems. Also in 1967, poet A. R. Ammons wrote that “Poetry Is a Walk” (Epoch 18, Fall 1968, 114–19; first delivered as a presentation to the International Poetry Forum in Pittsburgh in April 1967). His essay compares walks and poetry and concludes by saying that “Poetry is a verbal means to a nonverbal source. It is a motion to no-motion, to the still point of contemplation and deep realization.” In this way, hiking in the woods can take us to the same nonverbal source, to still points of interpenetration. Indeed, a walk is poetry. Ammons says that both walks and poems are “useless,” but clarifies that “Only uselessness is empty enough for the presence of so many uses,” and that “Only uselessness can allow the walk to be totally itself.” As Lorine Neidecker said, in this way, we become the woods.
on tangled trees
alone with my thoughts
Susan B. Auld, Chrysanthemum Dusk, Winchester, Virginia: Red Moon Press, 2016. p. 40
Along the way
an old oak branch
becomes a walking stick
Garry Gay, Woodnotes #22, autumn 1994, p. 22
these blue hills
the deeper i go
the deeper i am
Nick Avis, Haiku Canada Newsletter
Remember, too, Thoreau’s essay on “Walking” (The Atlantic Monthly IX:LVI, June 1962, 657–674), in which he advises his readers to saunter, a word that he says may derive from the French term sans terre, or “without land or a home.” He takes this to mean being “equally at home everywhere”—a stance that is “the secret of successful sauntering.” And when we walk—Thoreau calls it the “art of walking”—we are fully present, living “the gospel according to this moment.” Indeed, Thoreau says, “What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?” While bathing in what he calls nature’s “subtle magnetism,” we can be infused by “something in the mountain-air that feeds the spirit and inspires.” We need these infusions regularly. As environmentalist author Edward Abbey has said (in Desert Solitaire, New York: Touchstone, 1968, 169), “Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread.”
Here I think of another French term, flâneur—a stroller, loafer, or saunterer. The term was originally associated with Paris in the nineteenth century, suggesting an idle man of leisure, someone interested in exploring, yet not with too much purpose—or, as Victor Hugo put it, “To err is human. To loaf is Parisian.” Such people were eager sponges for the sights and sounds around them in an urban setting, and the same curious attitude might also apply to saunterers in the woods—and to the art of forest bathing. In an interview for the Katonah Poetry Series, available in Andrew Kuhn’s book How a Poem Can Happen (Katonah, New York: Red Spruce Press, 2017), Billy Collins notes that a flâneur is “a stroller, a dawdler, head in the clouds” and that “He is by nature a day-dreamer whose favorite toys are his thoughts. Not content to leave the natural world alone, he uses its scenes as launching pads for imaginative flights.” Perhaps even haiku.
deep in the woods
flowers only I know
Stephanie Davis, Kokako 17, September 2012, p. 5
the pine doesn’t care
after farting in the forest
Michael Ketchek, Bottle Rockets 11:1 (#21), 2009, p. 22
listening to my steps . . .
the forest passes
Marko Hudnik, Shamrock 16, December 2010
Even if we can’t make it to the woods as often as we like, we can still practice the art of forest bathing in whatever few trees we might have near us in cities, taking in everything even in urban environments—to engage in flânerie wherever we might be. I recently read The Book of Idle Pleasures, edited by Dan Kieran and Tom Hodgkinson (Kansas City, Missouri: Andrews McMeel, 2010). In his introduction, Hodgkinson says that “When we take a stroll at a deliberately slow pace through the city, and merely observe the currents of life without submitting to the urge to shop, we are making an enjoyable protest against the work-and-consume society. Idle pleasure can also reconnect us with nature” (vi). As Thich Nhat Hanh has said, “Smile, breathe and go slowly.” Likewise, haiku poets might try being content just to observe, or just to experience, and not necessarily be driven to write anything. If sound comes out of silence, and words out of wordlessness, it seems that the forest can provide both silence and stillness if we choose to seek it out. If we are prompted to respond in poetry, our words are a cherry on top of experience.
At the very least, as Paul O. Williams has put it, haiku poets go about “loafing alertly” (“Loafing Alertly,” Frogpond IV:4, Winter 1981). Indeed, perhaps communion with nature is more than enough—an intimate exchange. And so we might agree with Jane Siberry who sings in “Bound by the Beauty,” a song from 1989 (Duke Street Records/Reprise Records), “I’m going to find a forest / And stand there in the trees / And kiss the fragrant forest floor / And lie down in the leaves / And listen to the birds sing / The sweetest sound you’ll hear.” She adds that “I’m coming back in 500 years / and the first thing I’m gonna do / When I get back here / Is to see these things I love / And they’d better be here, better be here, better be here.”
he turns to kiss me
through a snowflake
Dejah Léger, Standing Still, Press Here, 2011, p. 16
slant of light
through autumn woods—
whitethroat’s minor whistle
Ruth Yarrow, The Heron’s Nest 8:3, September 2006
owl moon . . .
in the deep forest,
my true self
CarrieAnn Thunell, Simply Haiku 4:2, Summer 2006
I also recently read Rambles Through My Library by Raymond M. Smullyan (West Chester, Pennsylvania: Praxis International, 2009, 141–142). The author talks of reading Essays in Nature and Culture by Hamilton Wright Mabie (Dodd, Mead & Co., 1901), from which he quotes the following passage found in an essay titled “Solitude and Silence.” It seems particularly relevant to the concept of forest-bathing:
The sense of freedom which comes when one goes into the deep woods is something more than the satisfaction of a physical need; it is the satisfaction of a spiritual need—the need of isolation, detachment, solitude. To the mind fatigued by constant and rapid adjustments to different subjects and to diverse tasks, the quiet and seclusion of the woods are like a healing balm. The pleasure they bring with them is so keen and so real that it is almost sensuous. One feels as if he had found himself after a touch of delirium. The silence is sedative and the solitude a tonic; relaxation and reinvigoration are both at hand.
I think too of the following Goethe poem, quoted from Poems That Make Grown Men Cry, edited by Anthony and Ben Holden (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014, 14):
Wandrers Nachtlied II Wayfarer’s Night Song II
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe Translation by Hyde Flippo
Über allen Gipfeln Over all the hilltops
Ist Ruh, is calm.
In allen Wipfeln In all the treetops
Spürest du you feel
Kaum einen Hauch; hardly a breath of air.
Die Vögelein schweigen in Walde. The little birds fall silent in the woods.
Warte nur, balde Just wait . . . soon
Ruhest du auch. you’ll also be at rest.
This is the way the woods can affect us—giving us rest, both physically and mentally, in body and soul. But not just that. The woods can slow us down, and slowing down deepens the connection. As Jeremy Siligson put it in Hummingbird (16:1, September 2005, 27), “The woods last longer when you walk slowly.” You can walk at whatever pace you like, as long as you’re present, truly seeing, paying attention—remember Mary Oliver’s “Instructions for living a life: / Pay attention. / Be astonished. / Tell about it” (from “Sometimes,” in Devotions: Selected Poems, New York: Penguin, 2017, 105). Nor do you have to be in the thick of a forest to do this, or in any place that’s particularly wild. Just getting out to walk anywhere can provide benefit, more than just being exercise. Here’s how memoirist and journalist Vivian Gormick discussed the subject in a 2015 interview with her by Jessica Gross (“A Woman on the Margins,” Longreads, May 2015):
I’ve never strolled. I never set out to encounter, I set out to walk. I set out to dispel daily depression. Every afternoon I get low-spirited, and one day I discovered the walk. I had some place to go on the Upper East Side, and I lived downtown on 12th Street. I decided to walk on impulse and it was three miles and it took an hour and I thought, “Oh, this is great, I feel so much better.” Lots of people know this, but I never knew it until I just stumbled on it. And then I began to make deliberate use of it. So I am always walking somewhere. I set myself a destination, and then things happen in the street.
These rewards lie at the heart of taking a ginkō, or haiku walk—even if each walk we take doesn’t result in a single haiku. The benefit to haiku poets, naturally (yes, a pun), is to reconnect with the world around us—and the words around us. This reconnection, this communion, gets us physically moving in our environment, without looking for Pokémon—especially if we choose natural environments that can recharge us. Such movement brings us new experiences, even if subtle. We can breathe fresh air, and perhaps think about our feelings, our relationships, our values. Or not think at all. Sometimes we can forget about such things, and put all our stresses behind us while we focus on the trees and sky, the flowers and the pathway, one foot in front of the other, swimming in all our senses as we absorb every delicate detail we can. If a haiku comes, then that’s gravy—and often it will. On a walk in the woods, we may well inhale nature and exhale haiku. But if a poem does not come, perhaps we’ll find seeds for haiku, and these seeds may germinate later. We can still receive multiple rewards from bathing in whatever forests we can find, whether we take the forests of our lives to be literal or figurative.
deeper and deeper
Karma Tenzing Wangchuk, Bottle Rockets 24, 2011, p. 10
gone from the woods
the bird I knew
by song alone
Paul O. Williams, Frogpond 12:2, May 1989, p. 27
all my regrets
left in the forest
Margaret Chula, Frogpond 35:2, Spring–Summer 2012, p. 33
My haibun, “Rebirth,” adds a personal context to the preceding essay. Now it’s time to add your haiku to the conversation. Find a forest and dive in.
“Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.” —Gary Snyder
“No writing on the solitary, meditative dimensions of life can say anything that has not already been said better by the wind in the pine trees.”
“I tried to discover, in the rumor of forests and waves, words that other men could not hear, and I pricked up my ears to the revelation of their harmony.” —Gustave Flaubert
“People say to me so often, ‘Jane, how can you be so peaceful when everywhere around you people want books signed, people are asking these question yet you seem so peaceful,’ and I always answer that it is the peace of the forest that I carry inside.” —Jane Goodall
In his book, What Am I Doing Here? (New York: Penguin, 1989), English travel writer Bruce Chatwin referred to “the sacramental aspect of walking,” and said that “walking is not simply therapeutic for oneself but is a poetic activity that can cure the world of its ills” (132).
into the forest
David G. Lanoue, 101 Haiku, Norderstedt, Germany: Books on Demand, 2018, p. 67
that is, among
Robert Epstein, Contemplating Nature: Pictures, Passages & Haiku, West Union, West Virginia: Middle Island Press, 2021, p. 169
another world premiere
in the forest
Jörgen Johansson, Heads or Tails, Winchester, Virginia: Red Moon Press, 2018
entering the forest enters you
Ruth Holzer, Frogpond 41: 3, Fall 2018
Losing my self
within a dark wood I find
a place of rest
Sylvia Forges-Ryan, Side by Side, Allahabad, India: Cyberwit, 2019, p. 32
what is this hush
coming over me?
Robert Epstein, Contemplating Nature: Pictures, Passages & Haiku, West Union, West Virginia: Middle Island Press, 2021, p. 207
the sound of me
Brendon Kent, in Temple: The British Haiku Society Members’ Anthology 2021, Barking, United Kingdom: British Haiku Society, 2021, edited by Iliyana Stoyanova, p. 153
these are the woods you love,
where the secret name
of every death is life again
Mary Oliver, excerpted from “Skunk Cabbage,” in New and Selected Poems, Boston: Beacon Press, 1992, p. 160; separately, in “Black Oaks,” from Devotions: Selected Poems (New York: Penguin, 2017), she says “you can’t keep me from the woods” (p. 253)
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society where none intrudes
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but Nature more.
Lord Byron, from “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”
It seems relevant to add mention of the term biophilia. This is “a love of life and the living world; the affinity of human beings for other life forms” (from https://www.dictionary.com/browse/biophilia). Another fascinating term is Waldeinsamkeit, regarding Germany’s cherished forest tradition, more specifically, the feeling one has while being alone in the woods, usually a sublime or spiritual feeling (see https://www.dictionary.com/e/translations/waldeinsamkeit/). I also recommend the book Walking: One Step at a Time by Erling Kagge (New York: Pantheon, 2019, translated from the Norwegian by Becky L. Crook). See photos of my “Haiku in the Woods” workshop and walk for Sammamish Walks on 14 April 2014. And when you’re done with all this reading, hey, go get out in the woods!
—26 May 2022
In her chapter on forest bathing in A Little Book of Japanese Contentments (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2018), Erin Niimi Longhurst writes the following (p. 99):
There is a phrase in Japan—another one of those seemingly untranslatable aphorisms: kachō fūgetsu [花鳥風月]. Separately, the characters are flower, bird, wind, and moon, but together they are greater than the sum of their parts, describing something far more powerful and emotive. Kachō fūgetsu most commonly translates as learning about yourself through experiencing the beauty of nature. I think there is something very charming—almost restorative—in that sentiment: knowing your place in the world and going back to basics.
Appreciating the beauties of nature is central to the art of forest bathing. She also adds that shinrin-yoku “isn’t about getting from A to B, but savoring the moments and the stillness along the way.” +
Related to kachō fūgetsu is a jisei (death poem) by Tanko, who died in 1884. This was his final poem, translated by Yoel Hoffmann (from Japanese Death Poems, Rutland, Vermont: Tuttle, 1986, p. 322):
for fifty-eight years tsuki hana ni
I’ve had my fun gojūhachi-nen
with moon and flowers asobikeri
It's not about forest bathing but also not just literally about the moon and flowers. Rather, this reference speaks metaphorically of the way of poetry, as a way of solace. Kachō means to enjoy watching nature, and fūgetsu means to compose poetry about nature, such as the moon and flowers—or forests.
—3, 22 June 2022
Group Writing Exercise
Think of the last walk you took in nature by yourself (or with someone else if not by yourself), or recall a memorable walk or hike you’ve taken.
Tell the person next to you about the walk, such as where it was, how long it was, and what the weather or temperature was like. Also share something that you smelled, heard, tasted, or touched on that walk.
Take a few minutes to write a haiku, or perhaps a haibun, about at least one of those sensory memories, then share what you write with the person next to you.
Other Tree/Forest Poems
“Birches” — Robert Frost
“Choices” — Tess Gallagher
“Trees” — Joyce Kilmer
“The Trees” — Philip Larkin
“When I Am Among the Trees” — Mary Oliver
“How I Go to the Woods” — Mary Oliver
“The Use of Trees” — Naomi Beth Wakan
I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree;
Indeed unless the billboards fall,
I’ll never see a tree at all.