Forest bathing on Wausau’s Isle of Ferns is great experience
During times like these, everyone can use a good bath.
There’s a term for this: forest bathing. I took my bath in the closest thing to a forest in downtown Wausau. In February, that meant an island encrusted primarily by slushy snow and a lovely coat of dirty-ish ice.
While it may not sound like the best place to deal with psychological stress, it was actually perfect: the Isle of Ferns in downtown Wausau, which one can reach via footbridge from Oak Island Park.
Both parks are just south of downtown proper, two of a series of five named parks near each other on either side of, or on, the Wisconsin River. The Isle of Ferns, in particular, is a fine place that is more traditionally a warmer-weather destination, but I was as pleased as could be with my initial visit to this outpost of tranquility in the heart of a busy city.
No fake peacefulness here
Depending on which side of sanity that folks fall on, they will either believe or not believe recent reports of the “post-election stress disorder” phenomenon. Some say it’s just fake news, but psychologists are reporting alarming levels of stress across the country.
Fortunately, there may be a quick and easy fix. According to advocates of shinrin yoku – or forest bathing, as translated from Japanese – there’s nothing that heals us like a short jaunt in the woods.
As little as 15 minutes can have substantial health benefits, whether physical, mental or emotional. The “bathing” portion of it is almost more literal than figurative; practitioners of shinrin yoku open all their senses to the experiences of the forest, allowing themselves to be immersed in sights, sounds, smells and other sensations of nature.
Does it work? Call me crazy, but it sure did for me.
I was actually well into my walk before I remembered reading about shinrin yoku, and I immediately began breaking its rules to think about it more.
There’s an organization (the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy) and a website (shinrin-yoku.org) with copious information on the practice, and one of the first things both recommend is leaving behind things like cameras and cellphones.
I, of course, was snapping photos and then, remembering the article I’d read, watching my small-screen video app to learn about it.
I can’t say that any of the concepts were new to me. It is easy when we’re outdoors, though, to stay focused inside our heads and forget to allow basic perceptions to take over our physical being. The video reminded me to do so.
Factory or olfactory, it’s all here
Having recently been plagued by a cold, I was at an olfactory disadvantage. I’m not sure I could have smelled algae-resistant roofing granules if they had been belched straight up my nose by the stacks of the 3M factory on west side of the river.
Yes, there is such a thing as 3M’s algae-resistant roofing granules, although I suspect they don’t really smell like much anyway. Not that I’d know that with a cold.
The factory and other human-made noises, such as rumbling from the dam spillway at the Bull Falls area north of the isle, also competed for my ears’ attention. I realized I might get the most out of my bath if I simply considered humans to be a lower form of animal.
That would make people – maybe even me – equally deserving of places along the river, as well as their brief consideration in my exploration of sensation.
Human history is, after all, a big part of what happens in nature. Bull Falls, furthermore, is where George Stevens, our own hometown’s namesake, built the mill that brought the industrial age tumbling down the big river in central Wisconsin.
Accepting the human impact made it easier for me to shift my auditory focus to various bird calls around me, including that of a woodpecker – I think it was a red-bellied, but I’m no birder – that was scooting up a tree trunk just next to my spot on the trail.
Filtering out industrial noise allowed me to hear the soft plunking and clinking of thin ice sheets on the water. One sheet was particularly noisy as it tried unsuccessfully to head downriver, unable to because it had frozen itself around a thin overhanging branch.
Among the most pleasing of wintery noises – assuming one is safely away from deep, freezing water – is the crunching of ice beneath shoes, whether it’s the muted tones of decaying ice or the sharp crack of the harder, more brittle stuff.
That giving way underneath our weight also varies, with the perception of touch seeming to match the sound of each kind of ice – slow and soft, or quick and sharp as the case may be.
I took off my gloves and felt the surprisingly papery texture of rough brown elm bark. I rubbed granular chunks of dying snow on my fingers and found they didn’t melt as quickly as I expected.
There was, of course, plenty to look at: textures of bark ranging from smooth to ragged, the mottled and lichen-covered stone surfaces of footbridges on the isle, the muted gradations of brown, gray, green and blue on the icy surface of much of the park’s trails.
I decided to save tasting for another time; perhaps a return trip will occur this summer. The Bull Falls Brewery is little more than three-quarters of a mile east of the isle, with many fine eating places nearby.
After another bath like this one, a good meal and a drink would certainly be in order.