The Forest and the Beauty Instinct

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Giant redcedars in Lighthouse Park old growth forest, West Vancouver, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The Forest

When I walk into a forest—not one damaged or impacted by human development or one harvested into scrub but a fully functional and preferably old-growth forest—I feel a deep and abiding sense of “home”; like I belong. It’s hard to describe: it’s both familiar and awe-inspiring. I feel a reverence that enthralls me from head to toe with a frisson of heightened energy. I touch rough-barked trees and brush my hand against lush fern. The forest ecosystem breathes with multi-layers of complex life, all tangled in a kind of stable chaos of inter-dependent interaction. It pulses with life, much of it unseen but certainly felt.

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Old growth forest (photo by Nina Munteanu)

And it is so beautiful.

Michelle Brenner, Nature Forest Therapy Guide in Australia, explains that I am engaging the rhythm of regulations. “With opportunities for reflection, we discover not only the Nature around us, but also our social rhythm of respecting each voice. Our slow silence of witnessing welcomes us to our home base, to life connection.”

But why do so many people not feel comfortable in a forest and refuse to connect with and appreciate a forest ecosystem? Why do so many not experience what I just described?

Brenner suggests that for many it is difficult to tap into the awareness of what Nature has to offer because we have lost the sensitivity to appreciate non-human life in the same way we make the effort to appreciate human life; we lack context and meaning. And we’ve forgotten our ancestral connections.

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Nina Munteanu leans against a giant Douglas fir, Lighthouse Park, West Vancouver, BC (photo by Margaret Ross)

The Beauty Instinct

Clinical psychologist Deb Dana explains that we constantly balance the need to survive with the need to experience beauty in our lives. “Safety lies at our very core and in many cases inhibits connection and prevents engagement with beauty. Trauma, abandonment and cravings all impact on our rhythm of regulation.”

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Maneuvering roots in old growth forest (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Someone who has never been in a forest before may feel unsafe: it’s dark, with uneven ground, scurrying animals and strange sounds; it’s full of weird shapes and patterns that don’t fit with the order of what humanity has built. Using the archetype of Goldilocks, Dana explains that initially our surveillance system will tune itself out of connection and into “safety” mode; but with adjustments to conditioning, we can find the “just right” connection again. This requires co-regulation of perceptions: a way to read the signals and address them as not dangerous. Brenner gives the example of responding to someone smiling at you with genuine pleasure to see you; this promotes safety and allows you to co-regulate accordingly. The key is knowledge and sensibility. It’s all in correctly reading the signals. We know what a genuine smile means; we may not know what a sound in the forest means.

“Survival, what to move close to and include and what to move away from and dispel, is … not the full story,” writes Michelle Brenner in the Jan/Feb 2019 issue of Resurgence & Ecologist. Research by Biologist Richard Prum revealed that competition as the most instinctive characteristic of life is incorrect and incomplete. According to Prum all creatures possess an aesthetic instinct—an instinct and a need for beauty. What is required is co-regulation.

“The taste for the beautiful is as distinctive [and meaningful] as the need to survive,” writes Brenner. “One of the attributes of the beauty instinct is an inbuilt sense of respect for others.” Encouraging yourself to recognize and appreciate beauty in Nature may be one of the most important aspects of your well-being.

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Friend Margaret stands next to a giant redcedar in Lighthouse Park, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Forest Bathing & Wellness

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author forest bathing, BC (photo by M. Ross)

Forest bathing (Shinrin-yoku) provides an excellent opportunity to co-regulate and feed the beauty instinct. In the satoyama (a Japanese term referring to the borderland where the urban world meets untamed Nature), our neurons pick up on the safety of life and we bring that into the forest that invites us to bathe in beauty and a different kind of connectedness: the connection to “the other” in us. Forest bathing (Shinrin-yoku) originated in Japan in 1982 as a therapeutic response to karoshi, which means ‘death due to overwork’. Forest bathing is essentially a meditative walk through a forest. The meditative practice includes opening up your senses to the forest: breathing in its healing aerosols, listening to its curative infrasounds and other frequencies, and quieting your mind to embrace and become Nature.

Nature Forest Therapy Guides offer guided walks in Nature that can help people embrace their calmness through Nature. Anyone can forest bathe; you don’t need a guide. What you do need is patience, curiosity and slowing yourself to reach out with all your senses. It’s less about walking or hiking and more about sitting, bending down and being still. The benefits are numerous: from heightened calmness, creativity and problem solving, greater immunity to a greater sense of general wellbeing and overall happiness. When you spend time in the forest, you inhale beneficial bacteria, plant-based essential oils, and negatively charged ions.

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Haida Bolton, Forest Therapy Guide in British Columbia, connects with a western redcedar

One of the benefits of paying close attention to your surroundings is you see new things that can inspire other areas of your life, says Haida Bolton, Forest Therapy Guide on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia. “Whether you’re an architect or a painter or a writer, so much creative inspiration comes from slowing down in the forest and noticing the details with all our senses.” For example, noticing an insect you’ve never seen before could inspire a new idea: “There’s the awe effect, this great joy and wonder and curiosity and excitement.”

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fruiting moss in old growth forest of British Columbia (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Ecology & Story

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Part 1 of my guidebook provides a compelling summary on ecology and the often strange relationships in Nature

Gaining knowledge in ecology and forest ecosystems can also help provide the same benefits. Understanding and respecting the forest can bring you closer to a relaxed state of calmness to engage and embrace all that the forest can offer. Find a naturalist or ecologist to walk with. Buy or borrow guidebooks on the forest, on flowers and wildlife. Go on a forest ecology guided walk. Learn about the forest and how it functions. This will not only educate you with knowledge; it will also train you in how to slow down and use all your senses to find things. We often forget to look up or down near our feet, where gems often hide. Learn about the lifecycle of the moss or when a particular bird mates or where squirrels build nests or when a tree goes into seed. Learn the names of things.

Community ecologist and arborist David Tracey tells us that “the first step in knowing someone is to learn his or her name. It’s the same with trees.” He explains: “when we learn the name of a tree, we recognize it as distinct. In one sense, we may now see it for the first time. Knowing how to distinguish a tree by name lets you see trees as our ancestors once did. These are fellow beings sharing our space. Some may be key to our survival, others so noble they instill reverence.”

Why venerate something so common as a tree? The reasons are many; Tracey provides three:

  • Trees have been the Earth’s stewards far longer than us—some go back millions of years, even before the dinosaurs—and trees may well be here after we’re gone.
  • Trees are the kings and queens of the plant world, living energy factories that eat sunshine and emit oxygen
  • Trees filter polluted air, cool hot cities, reduce stormwater runoff and provide food, beauty and grace that soften the hard edges of urban development.

I grew up in the Eastern Townships, a gently rolling agricultural region in Quebec, Canada. I followed my older brother and sister to the nearby maple-beech forest and local stream. The forest was our playground and gateway to our imaginative play. We stirred soil, flower petals and other interesting things with water to fuel “magic potions” that we inflicted on some poor insect. Yes, I was a bit destructive as a child—and I took a lot for granted.

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author with son hiking in BC

Much later in life, when I gave birth to my son, Kevin in Vancouver, BC, I felt a miracle pass through me. Kevin became my doorway back to wonder. His curiosity was boundless and lured me into a special world of transformation. Kevin and I often explored the little woodland near our house. We made “magic potions” out of nightshade flowers, fir needles, loam and moss; we fueled our concoctions with the elixir of water from a stagnant pool. This time the little insects weren’t molested.

I’m so heartened to say that my adult son still carries that sense of wonder for the natural world. He lives in British Columbia where he skis the mountains and frequently hikes the mountain foothills and old-growth forests of that beautiful province. He’s soul-bathing.

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author’s son hiking the mountains of British Columbia

You can read more about ecology and story in the 3rd book of my Alien Guidebook how to write series, “The Ecology of Story: World as Character” (Pixl Press, 2019).

 

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Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.

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