I am not a morning person. It's not that I don't like mornings, I love them, once I'm up and out that is. There is a sense of peace that comes with the air before 8 am, much like when a wave pulls back from the shoreline. But despite my heart's desire my body-clock is made of stodgier stuff and only rises when really pushed. Recently I have been pushing it though, because last year I discovered I only lived 10 minutes walk from ancient woodland, right here in zone 2 and now I can't get enough of it. A few weeks back, after a particularly grueling night of insomnia and a busy day ahead I even decided I'd rather head to the woods with an instant coffee and a peanut butter sandwich than face a luke-warm shower and some instagramable oatmeal. By 6.55 I was sitting under apple blossom eating my breakfast while blackbirds and Great Tits busied themselves with worms and nesting materials. Context is everything. I felt clean and alert and all I did was sit there eating, looking, listening.
If you scale Sydenham Hill in the heat of a sunny spring day the acrid taste of car fumes will hang heavy on your tongue, as the hill steepens and the heat rises. It is what lies beneath the brow of this hill, however, that makes that tang worth the trip. Hot and out of breath you begin your descent, down into Crescent Wood Road and into the cool green air of Sydenham Hill Woods. Turn left down steps speckled with primroses and you see the woodland from its canopy, standing atop a tunnel, where cool air spins out from a disused railway line, soothing the bats who roost beneath your feet. Turn right and Hornbeams guide you along the path like Rodin's Hand of a Pianist, the air is thick with garlic until it is pricked by the dusty pine needles of a veteran Cedar of Lebanon, planted by Victorian, abandoned by 20th Century landowners and saved by today's woodland manager.
I choose left and stand above the tunnel looking out towards a sea of green. I take a deep breath. As I hold it there, motionless, I realise the sound of cars has disappeared. I am not more than 500 feet from the main road and yet a sea of green has drowned out the din of engines entirely. A woodpecker begins tapping. I breath out and watch the leaves ripple.
'Shinrin-yoku' or 'forest bathing' was a technique which first gained prominence when the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries looked to promote 'non-extractive' ways of utilising their vast woodland resources (67% of Japan's landmass is made up of forest). Dedicated nature-trails were developed, in which all five senses could be exercised, encouraging people to "make contact with and take in the atmosphere of the forest."
The act of taking a mindful walk through nature of course has been practiced for centuries, transcending continents and cultures. More recently, however, an increasing body of scientific evidence is showing us why humans routinely need this 'contact'. Consistent small-scale studies have shown that time spent in woodland (as compared with time spent in built-up environments) lowers heart-rates, cortisol levels, and insulin-resistance. And this isn't simply because we might perceive these environments as 'peaceful', or because trees help remove toxic levels of C02 from the atmosphere, helping us to breath more easily, but because plants and even the earth itself excrete compounds, which are labelled "aromatic volatile substances" e.g. scent. The pinene and limonene "phytoncides", given off by pine and citrus trees, for instance, have a long been recognised for their 'anti-microbial' properties, indeed most of us, who are thrifty enough, know the power of a good lemon and some elbow grease. Even Otzi, the 5,300 year old ice-man, found in the Alps in the early 1990s, knew to treat his wounds with highly absorbent and mildly antiseptic moss. Research is now starting to indicate that phytoncides can have long-term benefits on our immune systems, increasing our production of a specific white blood cell known as, (bare with me, this is actual Science, however, fantastical the name...) "natural killer immune cells."
So there's plenty of reason for us to be heading into the woods, but when the majority of us live in urban environments, this can seem a near impossibility. Moreover going on about all the health benefits can do more harm than good, causing feelings of guilt and frustration for not being able to get out there. This is where the London Wildlife Trust and I come in. This year for the Mayor of London's Tree Week (27th May- 4th June) I will be hosting 3 FREE 'forest immersion' sessions in Sydenham Hill and Dulwich Woods. These sessions will be guided by the taste, scent, sight, sound and texture of the woods, helping map a path through our urban thickets to the ancient woodland beneath. Each session will be at a different time on a different day, creating a naturally different feel every time.
The great news is, further to this, we've also developed sessions for the equally beautiful but far more accessible Centre for Wildlife Gardening which is only a 5 minute walk from East Dulwich Station and 10 minutes from Peckham Rye. More on that to follow!
Historian by trade. Gardener by passion.