By Joy Solomon, Vice President, Elder Justice and Spiritual Engagement, RiverSpring Living
Between the northern Yonkers’ border and the Lion’s Gate at Untermyer Gardens, standing proudly above the Old Croton aqueduct path, looking out over the Hudson River and across to the Palisades, there lives a mighty oak. Her trunk is wide and elephantine, she towers majestically, and her numerous arms spread in all directions, like Durga, the fierce Hindu goddess. I call her “Maya.”
The ground at her feet is holy, once occupied by Native Americans of the Algonquin, Mohegan and Manhattes tribes. The Hudson River School of Painters sought to capture the light that extends out from her arms toward the river, beholding the beauty of the American landscape.
To me, Maya is a living symbol of human aspiration and a beacon of the now. Grounded and firm, well rooted. Steady, no matter the weather or the season. Rising and reaching toward sunlight. Noble. A shameless dancer in the wind. Rounded in parts, long in others. Imperfect. Thick and thin without apology. Changing and remaining.
When you follow her shape from root to trunk to branches, she is fierce and energetic. And when you trace her down from branch to trunk to root, she is calm.
She is textured in a way that creates urgency to touch her, to stroke her many lines and grooves, to hug her.
I imagine her roots run so deep and wide and are so intertwined that it’s likely she is connected to every tree for miles, in every direction. I’m sure Maya feeds them all.
In order to meet Maya, I had to step outside and really look.
This simple act of getting outside and paying full attention is on the decline according to a study sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency, whose data shows that the average American spends 93% of his or her time indoors.
The Japanese have a practice, coined by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, as shinrin-yoku which translates roughly as forest bathing. It’s aim is to slow us down so that we become immersed in the natural environment; to notice smell, texture, sights and tastes of nature.
There’s a growing body of evidence that shinrin-yoku can help boost immunity and mood and help reduce stress. “Medical researchers in Japan have studied forest bathing and have demonstrated several benefits to our health,” says Philip Barr, a physician who specializes in integrative medicine at Duke University.
The good news is that even a short time in nature can have a positive and noticeable impact on us.
How do you do it? What should you look for?
First, find a spot anywhere in nature. Even city dwellers without access to a big park can most often find a tree, some birds, the sky. Next – turn your phone to silent and begin by feeling your feet on the ground. The key to unlocking the power of nature is in the five senses. Listen to sounds, take in the scents, look at a tiny detail and then to the largest natural object you see. Notice textures and colors. I once stared at a 2×2 square inch plot of my lawn and was astounded by all the different shades of green in every single blade of grass. Finally – savor the experience by sensing anything positive or pleasant and really feeling into it; simply be.
When it comes to finding calm and relaxation, there is no one-size-fits-all solution – it differs from person to person. It is important to find a place that suits you.
I was not always a tree talker. Too busy, too immersed to notice, eyes often gazing down toward my phone, or my running feet. But in these last few years, I have started to look up and slow down; to pay attention to the wonder and majesty of trees. Graceful in their stillness and in their motion. Being with trees awakens joy within me.
Photos – Laurie Pastore. May not be copied without permission from the artist.
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Vice President, Elder Justice and Spiritual Engagement