Out of the Woods and Into the Forest
An Unexpected Setback
The expression out of the woods is often used to describe a person’s improving condition after experiencing a health crisis. The origins of this idiom date back to Roman times, alluding to having been lost in a forest where unknown dangers could be lurking.
My 2022 attempt to thru hike Vermont’s Long Trail was cut short when I was struck by a car at a trail crossing. Following the accident, recovery had been slow but steady for several weeks. Fractures were healing, pain became tolerable without medication, and scars were fading. I regained some mobility, and the surgeon was pleased with how I was recovering. It was time to ramp up physical therapy. The worst was over. I was on the mend and in good spirits. I thought I was “out of the woods”.
But then an unexpected setback occurred. I developed an infection that threatened both the surgical repair of my shoulder and my overall health.
It was quickly back to the hospital for a second surgical procedure, followed by a two-month course of self-administered IV medication at home. Physical therapy came to a screeching halt.
An Emotional Toll
Sometimes shit happens for no good reason. In my case it certainly did. Twice. Unexpected health challenges are often more than physical. They can lead to self-doubt or depression. Publicly, I hadn’t really announced how severe my injuries were, not wanting to alarm anyone. That would also mean admitting my limitations to myself, and I wasn’t mentally prepared for that.
Prior to the setback, it was easy to maintain a positive attitude and look forward to full recovery. Despite significant injuries, I assumed I’d be back at it in no time. The docs and physical therapists all suggested the same, noting my overall fitness from the extensive backpacking I had done prior to the accident. None of us anticipated the post-surgical complication that put my healing on hold.
This setback forced me to come to grips with starting my recovery from square one. It was a reality check. Weeks of forced inactivity resulted in significant muscle atrophy and unwanted weight gain. Many simple daily tasks were now challenging, if not impossible. Similar to dealing with sudden challenges that can occur during a hike, I was forced to reassess my current situation and adapt.
Time to Walk
I felt a bit “lost” and there was no navigation app or guidebook on how to find my bearings. It was time to do something, anything, to regain some control of my physical and mental health. It was time to walk.
But walking was easier said than done. My right arm was immobilized in a sling, and the left had an IV port that needed to be carefully protected. I couldn’t drive yet to get to local trailheads. With fractures in my right leg and hip, balance was an issue. Navigating uneven terrain was out of the question for now. So, I was limited to a two-mile loop on the streets of my neighborhood.
My doctors assured me that walking wouldn’t cause further damage, but it really hurt. The expression no pain, no gain took on a new meaning for me. I kept pushing through the pain and concentrated on my gait and pace. It was strictly about exercise and assessing my limitations. My hope was to walk a few miles at a time to maintain a little fitness and build a base for stepping on a trail for the first time in months.
Over the course of a few weeks, I noticed some progress. It wasn’t great, but it was a start. It hurt a little less each time, my gait improved, and I no longer leaned heavily on the trekking pole for balance and security. I felt like I was beginning to regain some control of my situation.
The Healing Power of the Forest
In Norway, the term friluftsliv is used to describe a philosophy of outdoor life in harmony with nature. It’s a lifestyle that promotes good mental and physical health, happiness, and work-life balance through outdoor activities like skiing, skating, and walking.
Most hikers intuitively understand the emotional/mental benefits of being outdoors and engaging in the simplest of human acts – walking. Studies suggest that within just minutes of being outside, we typically experience a better mood. Outdoor activity reduces stress and helps us maintain our focus. Some long-distance hikers embark on their treks as a form of therapy, hoping to heal from emotional or mental trauma.
In 1921, Benton MacKaye touted the health benefits of the outdoors in his proposal to establish the Appalachian Trail, “Many of these sufferers could be cured. But not merely by ‘treatment.’ They need acres not medicine.”
And there may be additional physical benefits to spending time outdoors beyond the fitness gained through exercise.
Japanese forest bathing is another concept of outdoor therapy. The term shinrin-yoku was coined by the Japanese government in 1982 as part of a campaign to protect forests and promote the health benefits of spending time in nature.
Shinrin-yoku is more passive or meditative than friluftsliv. It’s about being present in the forest and activating all your senses. Since 2004, an ever-expanding body of research into forest medicine has shown a direct correlation between shinrin-yoku and improved health. Qing Li, one of the world’s foremost researchers on forest medicine states, “There is no medicine you can take that has such a direct influence on your health as a walk in a beautiful forest.”
Research has shown that forest bathing can lower stress, reduce blood pressure, improve cardiovascular and metabolic health, lower blood sugar, improve pain thresholds, boost our immune systems, and increase anti-cancer proteins and natural killer cells. Many of these benefits are attributed to exposure to phytoncides, which are essential oils released by trees and plants as a defense against bacteria, insects and fungi. High oxygen concentrations in the forest air and mycobacterium in soil may also play a role in improved health.
I had been aware of the concept of forest bathing for a while but hadn’t really given it much thought. Being homebound for weeks due to my injuries, I had more time on my hands to do some reading on the subject. In one article I came across the idea of “accelerated recovery from illness or trauma”.
It echoed a concept that was implied in several articles on forest bathing. In the book Forest Bathing, Qing Li states “Forests have always helped us to heal our wounds and to cure our diseases.”
Into the Forest
Could forest bathing accelerate my own physical recovery? I really wanted to embrace this idea, but I’m a bit of a skeptic. Looking through the scientific literature on forest medicine I found volumes of information on specific health benefits, but no direct evidence to support improved or accelerated recovery from injuries like mine. Undeterred, I wanted to get back on a trail and find out for myself. Here are my observations after several months of forest therapy.
Three months after the accident I was finally permitted to drive. The autumn air felt crisp, and the leaves were changing. I really wanted to hike but was faced with several challenges. Carrying a pack with two compromised shoulders? Nope, not yet. So, I bought a lumbar pack designed for short day hikes. Tying my shoes? Almost impossible. My solution? I re-laced my trail runners with elastic quick laces that I could tighten with one hand.
Armed with the lumbar pack, quick laces, and a single trekking pole, I was finally ready to test my legs on an easy trail. The first hike at a local park was mostly about time and distance. I wanted to assess my physical ability and judge how much fitness was lost during months of inactivity. I did okay but quickly realized that was the wrong approach. On the next few hikes, I slowed down. I listened to my body and sometimes cut the hikes shorter than planned. Not only was it more comfortable, but I was able to embrace nature with renewed appreciation.
Being in the forest and fields again was a revelation! I’m convinced I could feel the beneficial energy of the forest on every hike. The positive spirit that got me through the initial aftermath of the accident quickly returned after being back in the fields and forest. I realized just how fortunate I was to have survived the accident. As I started to heal, I was able to stack small victories in my recovery. Simple tasks: putting on a tee shirt, using a knife and fork, opening a jar, tying my shoes. Progress. Finally.
The middle of winter marked six months since the accident. The trees were bare, but there was still green (and phytoncides) in the rhododendrons and pines. My forest walks became more frequent. Sometimes I walked with pace and purpose, sometimes moving slow to observe and photograph micro landscapes of fungi, flora, and fauna. I swapped the lumbar pack for a light backpack – another milestone.
It felt great to graduate from local parks to day hikes on nearby sections of the AT, Conestoga, Horseshoe, and Mason Dixon Trails. Sometimes I went off trail, exploring small streams in search of wild brook trout. Holding these little gems for just a moment before releasing them back into icy water has always been soothing to my soul. It became part of my therapy.
There is also something especially peaceful and quiet about a snow-covered forest in winter. I wanted to experience that as I healed, but we didn’t get much snow in Pennsylvania this year. The trails remained mostly clear and dry, which made it easy to hike without worrying about slippery terrain or the need for traction devices.
But I really missed hiking in snow. A road trip to New Hampshire in late winter enabled me to experience friluftsliv and shinrin-yoku using snowshoes and x-country skis through freshly fallen snow. It was my first real outdoor adventure since the accident, and it did wonders for my spirit.
It truly felt like “forest bathing” while being showered with large snowflakes drifting through tree branches or when the wind gently knocked accumulated snow from the boughs of evergreens. It’s a feeling of calm that’s hard to describe.
By this point, my doctors were pleased by how recovery was going and encouraged me to continue hiking as much as I wanted. But my physical therapist thought I should spend more time in the gym working on specific exercises. Given a choice, I opted outside over the gym almost every time. I was drawn to the forest. Sorry Lori!
Spring is often seen as a rebirth, and I was looking forward to that. But the transition between late winter and early spring seemed to drag on this year. Seasonal changes are less obvious when you’re out in nature most every day.
First some wildflowers appeared on the forest floor, followed by a carpet of unfurling ferns, and then the early greening of the overhead canopy as deciduous trees began to bud.
As I continued to embrace the healing properties of the forest, I found myself looking at my surroundings differently. I started seeing the forest as a whole, rather than individual trees, rocks, plants, and fungi. I imagined myself a part of the forest community rather than just a hiker passing through. That change in perspective was a logical progression, but it was also influenced by more reading.
In the popular book The Hidden Life of Trees, forester Peter Wohlleben promotes the idea of forest as community, “forests are superorganisms with interconnections much like ant colonies.” He acknowledges the beneficial effect of phytoncides but suggests that the positive feeling we get while visiting a forest may be due to “subconscious eavesdropping” on airborne or mycorrhizal messages between trees. He believes the older and healthier the forest, the more positive and nurturing the communication may be, and that we pick up that energy with our noses and brains.
I found myself seeking out stands of old growth forest to see if forest bathing felt different there. I made it a point to touch the bark of the largest and oldest trees trying to feel their energy. There was definitely a positive vibe to these old forests, but it may have had more to do with the awe-inspiring scenery. Trying to capture the essence of the forest in my photography became a routine part of every hike. Whenever that seemed like an elusive goal, I would try to just observe and be present.
Some forest scientists are skeptical of the more romantic suggestions of mother trees, the “wood wide web” and superorganisms as suggested by Wohlleben, Simard, and others. Science hasn’t confirmed many of these concepts. But the positive energy humans experience in the forest is accepted as real, if not fully understood. Somehow it feels right to me that the power of the forest still remains a bit of a scientific mystery.
By all accounts, my recovery to this point has been remarkable. I still have some minor pain and limitations that may take a while to resolve, but I’ve graduated from physical therapy, and my surgeon has removed all restrictions. Hiking is beginning to feel almost normal, although I’m still a bit clumsy navigating trail obstacles and stream crossings. The next step is to start carrying a fully loaded backpack to improve my balance and get ready for longer hikes.
Hiking and Healing.
Following the accident, hiking has been an immersion in the therapeutic benefits of both friluftsliv and shinrin-yoku. It’s impossible to know just how big a role forest therapy played in my recovery. But this former skeptic is now a believer.
Although much of this has been a solo journey, I haven’t been entirely alone. I’m truly, truly thankful for everyone who’s walked a part of it with me.
As I look back, the milestones in my recovery seemed to coincide with the change of seasons. With summer approaching, another milestone may be on the horizon. I hope to soon be back in the forest to complete the Long Trail, and with it, my journey of healing.
A big hike can be a metaphor for recovery. It sounds cliché, but each journey starts with the first step. It requires a commitment to putting one foot in front of the other, every step a small increment that adds up to long distance.
I’m ready to take that next step. My forest mantra: Slow down. Be present. Breathe. Observe. Embrace healing.
I’m out of the woods. I’m back in the forest.
Hiking. Healing. Hope.
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