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Morton Arboretum
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Morton Arboretum is offering guided ‘forest therapy’ walks for stress relief

The two- to three-hour sessions, led by a certified guide, are meant to help participants unwind in the quiet of nature.

Emma Krupp
Written by
Emma Krupp

Have you taken up a walking habit in the wake of quarantine? If the confines of your neighborhood are beginning to grow tired—or even if you’re just caught up in the intense anxieties of this year—it may be time to try a little dose of natural healing. At the Morton Arboretum, you'll find remedies in the form of near-monthly forest therapy walks, a practice designed to help people reduce stress by taking contemplative strolls through nature.

The concept, which was brought to the U.S. by the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs, is based on the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, which roughly translates to “forest bathing” or “taking in the atmosphere of forest.” As certified forest therapy guide Laura Kamedulski explains it, the idea was initially developed by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in the early 1980s as a way to encourage people to get out into nature and improve their health through stress reduction.

"The main idea behind it is to present and to slow down and notice what's in nature together," says Kameduski, who leads guests on two- to three-hour walks through the Arboretum's forested grounds.

During the Arboretum's forest therapy walk, guides offer participants “invitations” to commune with nature and notice new details, whether that means gazing at a brook, getting up close to inspect the whirling bark of a tree with a magnifying glass or exploring the textures of moss underfoot. They wander slowly, deliberately. At the end of the walk, participants engage in a 10-20 minute seated reflection before foraging plants—like wild bee balm, which makes for a strong-tasting brew—for a calming tea ceremony.

"It's kind of a sequence that gets you almost in a liminal state, where you hopefully drop some of the cares and worries and are just really focused in on what you're seeing and doing in a way that you might not normally experience," Kamedulski explains.

There’s reason to believe this method of stress relief works. In a 2018 study, a Northwestern University professor discovered “significant mental health benefits” to walking in nature (specifically Harms Woods Forest Preserve in Cook County), including reduced anxiety and stress levels. The same study also found modest reductions in blood glucose levels in pre-diabetic patients after three 50-minute walks; a separate study out of Japan reported cardiovascular health benefits like a “significantly reduced pulse rate.” 

Even if a guided forest therapy walk doesn’t immediately even out your blood panels, it may help you feel more connected to the natural world around you. Speaking anecdotally, Kamedulski (whose main job is creating programming for the Arboretum's Children's Garden) noted how the practice has helped her focus on plant and animal life populating the Arboretum, even the trees in her own neighborhood. That bodes well for helping folks connect with the Arboretum's tree-focused mission, and for ecological preservation in general.

"The larger goal, besides prescribing this for human health and wellbeing, is that we deepen people's connection to nature,” Kamedulski says. 

You can try out forest therapy for yourself at one of the Arboretum's upcoming guided walks, which will be held at least through December of this year (they're normally a year-round event, but COVID concerns may place later sessions on hold). And if you can't make it out to Lisle, take a self-guided stroll through your favorite Chicago park for DIY forest therapy—you never know what new details you might stumble across.

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