Notes for the Season


In Praise of… the Beech Wood and the ‘Forest Bath’

Written by Andy Bernhardt

20 April 2021

“Why are there trees I never walk under, but large and melodious thoughts descend upon me?

(I think they hang their winter and summer on those trees and always drop fruit as I pass)”

Walt Whitman from Song of the Open Road

Beech – from the early Germanic boko, then later Buche, becoming Buch (book).

A feature of several of the LoHo walks, from central London to Wendover, the sturdy beech is so familiar to many softie southerners, like me, that it comes a surprise to know that it is as ‘nesh’* as they are. For the beech tree, it really is grim up north – the south-east of the UK is its natural northern limit.

(*Northern English dialect for weedy; no responsibility taken for negative regional stereotyping).

Capacious spacing of tall, smooth trunks resembling stone pillars holding up a ceiling of leaf cover, create the typical beech wood ‘green cathedral’. Favoured by walkers for its openness and reflective quiet, the beechwood also possesses subtle ‘stage lighting’.  In spring there can be dappled seas of luminescent bluebells before summer sashays in to green the overstory and create dappled, aquatic light pools. Nature has no trouble in perceiving the beech’s value as a rich natural habitat and food bank for wildlife, while we benefit from the tree’s symbiotic relationship with its elusive chum, the tasty truffle.

Best not go carving stuff onto a living organism I would say but what’s already there is there…

From leaves to foliage to folio: trees and writing are inextricably linked but the beech has a more direct etymological claim, one which echoes from the old German morphing through to modern English: beech, bark, book. Each word confirming that, with its easily engraved bark, the beech has for centuries been a favoured site for ‘arborglyphs’ – carved initials, signs, symbols and runes. Best not go carving stuff onto a living organism I would say but what’s already there is there…

On a ‘secret’ ancient beech on Hampstead Heath the first lines of Keats Ode to Autumn can still be faintly discerned circling the bough, prompting some to imaginatively speculate that the line was carved by the local lad, and beech wood wanderer, himself. Either way there is something about wandering quietly through the cool, aquatic green light of a beech wood which can still engender the slow, silent dropping of Whitman’s thought-fruit.

Those of a more sceptical mindset might say, “Yes, but what’s the point of noodling about in a wood?”

Does there need to be one?  If there must, we could look at the Japanese fondness for forest bathing…

…the idea gently suggests that we stop paying attention to the churn of our thoughts, with its ‘hamster wheel worrying’ and anxiety tinged speculation…

Shinrin-yoku was first introduced as a part of preventative Japan’s preventative health care practice in 1982. There are no rules because the practice is simple: a slow sensory woodland walk with pauses to notice with any, or all, of your senses the silent presence of the enveloping forest.

The inclusion of Shinrin-yoku in health policy resulted from research – echoed elsewhere – that quiet exposure to nature aided recovery from both physical and mental ill health.

For all of us, this intentional immersion is a counterbalance to the close-focus, high intensity eye balling of screens, the clicking and scrolling and scanning that dominate our attention and colonise our minds

“So, it’s just hanging about in the woods then?”

It might begin with a casual wander into woodland, but the idea gently suggests that we stop paying attention to the churn of our thoughts, with its ‘hamster wheel worrying’ and anxiety tinged speculation.

It’s very easy to pass through a wood and forget to touch a tree or pick up a stick or rub the surfaces of a leaf between our fingers. In so doing we don’t need to have epiphanies or revelations, but we will pause to allow ourselves a silent moment of calm attention: that leaf, that bark, the texture of that moss, light on a bough, wait – is that a pub over there? – whatever…

It’s your mind, your moment.

Perhaps a good way to understand the idea of Shinrin-yoku is to do its opposite. I once walked through beautiful springtime woods on the North Downs for over an hour during which my walking companion* blathered and fretted about their office politics without noticing a single, shimmering bluebell.

*OK, it was me, but the point still holds.

Currently there are regular forest bathing events at Kew Gardens and there is even a UK based Forest Bathing Institute.

Before you go, if your busy life permits, take just one minute to see the beauty of the Beech…

With gratitude to the ©Woodland Trust UK