Virtual Forest Bathing at Walden Pond

Henry David Thoreau in a daguerreotype taken in 1856 by Benjamin D. Maxham. Credit Benjamin D. Maxham/Thoreau Society and the Walden Woods Project

I am taking a short break from writing about my Spain adventures to share a wonderful exhibit being shown at my local art museum, The Hecksher Museum in Huntington, LI. The exhibit features “24 Tree Studies for Henry David Thoreau.” The 24 photograms are Thaddeus Holownia’s tribute to the bicentennial commemoration of Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts where Henry David Thoreau lived for more than two years and whose notes on his experience became the basis of his seminal work, Walden Pond. I love the exhibit so much I visited twice and will probably return once more.

A recent article in the New York Times Book Review (7/23/2017) about a newly published memoir of Thoreau, Henry David Thoreau/A Life by Laura Dassow Walls, provided me with enough information to understand how he became an icon of conservation and the model for all nature writers who followed him.

“Asked once why he was so eternally curious about things, Thoreau responded, ‘What else is there in life?'” (NY Times Book Review)

A nature enthusiast all my life, I ask how can one not fall in love with a man so in love with nature? On the brink of his 28th birthday, this Harvard educated wunderkind moved into a one-room structure he had built for himself on Walden Pond and spent two years, two months and two days living there, observing and recording his observations about nature. Walden Pond sold only 2000 copies in his lifetime but has become the work by which all those which follow him are compared.

After reading about Thoreau I felt compelled to see the photo exhibit mounted as a tribute to him. When I entered the room at the Hecksher Museum where the large-format photos of 24 trees are exhibited, I felt as though I were entering a temple of nature, not unlike how I felt when I first stepped into Anton Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain for the first time two months ago. The tree photograms are mounted in groups of six, four and three on the walls of the exhibit room. Each tree is unique and still alive at Walden Pond. The photos are so vividly detailed, in black and white, that I began to feel as though I was in the actual presence of the trees. Looking carefully at the features of each tree made them come alive: the bark patterns, the hollows and shadows, the wounds (in some cases), and the play of light on the trees within the forest became almost lifelike.

At that point I decided to sit down on a bench and just let myself bask in the glow of the images before me.

I have now learned that I was actually “forest bathing” without realizing it. An article in the New York Times (7/24/2017) features a new form of therapy, borrowed from the Japanese shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing,” which is about taking a walk in a forest and using all one’s senses to experience the forest and benefit from its calming effects. Granted, at the museum I was sitting in a “virtual forest,” but I have spent enough time in forests to know that my experience was very similar to what I have felt sitting in a grove of ancient redwoods.

There is an overall silvery tone to the exhibit which emmanates a very calming and peaceful effect. I could have spent an hour just sitting on the bench amongst the trees surrounding me. I do believe that forests, and any form of immersion in nature, does have calming effects which is why we humans are drawn to them.

With all the chaos going on in our government, people across the nation are experiencing unprecedented anxiety about their lives, their health and our collective future. Children are not immune to these anxieties. I recommend that teachers take their students on a nature walk, if possible, or to sit outside, weather permitting, on a regular basis. Your students may not have opportunities to do this at home or at school, but immersion in a film about nature, or studying a poem with nature as its subject, or even looking at soothing nature photos can be very calming for many students, much like my experience of virtual “tree bathing” at my local museum. If you are lucky enough to live near a wooded area or park, make it part of your own routine to treat yourself to a regular dose of nature; it’s the best spa treatment available and it’s free!

According to the author of Henry David Thoreau’s recent memoir, he died a peaceful death at age 44. His final words are purported to be, “This is such a beautiful world, but soon I shall see one that is fairer. I have so loved nature.” (New York Times Book Review)

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9 thoughts on “Virtual Forest Bathing at Walden Pond”

  1. Reading this, my first thought was how to bring this experience to kids. Living in a moderate climate outdoors is always possible. That, plus poetry and drawing would be amazing. I wonder, could one wallpaper a side of a room with those glorious images. Thank you for sharing this.

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  2. It is funny all that your post brought to mind. I lived (for 6 years) in the town next to Concord. My first swimming lessons were in Walden Pond and I HATED it (the squishy bottom freaked me out), but anytime I hear Walden Pond mentioned I flash that memory and then quickly counter it with an appreciation for how beautiful the area was. Your writing and the accompanying pictures sure brought the beauty to the forefront. I live in a super hot climate and while in the US this summer one thing I appreciated was how nice it was to be outside- just being! Thanks for this slice!

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  3. I was reading about “forest bathing” just this morning. There was an article on PBS.org. It all made me think about how important it is to get kids outside without a plan. My school has a lovely meadow and small bit of forest behind it. We live in Northern Ontario, so there is a lot of forest around us. But we are in the city and my students are largely apartment and townhouse dwellers. It’s always amazing to me to see them react to being out in the Wild World!

    Thanks for sharing those pictures. They are lovely!

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  4. I, too, left my travelogue this week to venture elsewhere. I was not familiar with the term “forest bathing”. I can see why you returned to the exhibit and will most likely go again. I can just imagine the sense of awe this would inspire. Thanks for sharing the pictures and your thoughts.

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  5. I wrote about nature today too, a blessing to us if we only take care to “be” in it. I’ve spent time at Walden Pond with students and it is a treasured memory. Thanks for sharing about this exhibit. I love being with you as you share your thoughts about it. It truly sounds beautiful. Thanks also about the new memoir!

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  6. Hi Barbara. What a wonderful exhibit! I was hoping it might be traveling, but it doesn’t appear to be when I looked at the artist’s website. Lucky you to have seen it! That said, I am blessed to live just down the road from Walden Pond and Thoreau’s Concord. Our area is abuzz with Thoreau-related events in honor of his 200th birthday two weeks ago. The Dassow Walls’ book is great. I just began reading it after seeing her speak locally this winter. I haven’t officially tried “forest bathing,” but we hike in the woods often, so I guess I’ve done it unofficially. You might enjoy Richard Higgins’ Thoreau and the Language of Trees, which was just published. Gorgeous photos along with snippets of Thoreau’s writing and brief essays written by Higgins. https://www.amazon.com/Thoreau-Language-Trees-Richard-Higgins/dp/0520294041

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  7. Like so many, Thoreau is a kindred spirit. Imagine my enthusiasm when I found a stack of supplemental readers shoved in the back of the closet when I moved into my fourth grade classroom and it was a children’s version about Thoreau’s Walden pond. I shared those books yearly thereafter, and then introduced writing outdoors. It became the students’ favorite place…and it’s still my favorite place to write, where my most creative writing comes out. Thanks for sharing this exhibit, as I will watch to see if it comes to a nearby museum.

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  8. one of the first things that I did when I moved to New England is visit Walden and take the trek up to where allegedly his cabin stood. The site is within view of the pond and encased to this day with bright forest and calm. It has cairns of rocks built all around the site. Truly it feels sacred.

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    1. Thank you for sharing your impressions of Walden Pond with us. It’s wonderful to hear that people are still making pilgrimages, and that the site still exudes calm. Cairns are built whenever people feel connected to a place in nature as a testimony to the spiritual nature of the site. So it makes absolute sense that there would be cairns all around the site.

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