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The Naturalist's Corner: Social distancing

One hears a lot, in these trying times about “social distancing,” “… a term that epidemiologists are using to refer to a conscious effort to reduce close contact between people and hopefully stymie community transmission of the [COVID-19] virus …” according to The Atlantic. 

This has such a negative vibe to it., I would posit a more positive action, one that would serve the same purpose, but with added benefits — “personal immersion.” I’m not setting out to avoid society, I’m setting out to embrace nature.

Remember it’s spring. And with spring comes the migration of millions of neotropical migrants, while the brown-gray forest floor erupts in a kaleidoscope of colorful spring ephemerals. Need an excuse to get in the woods and enjoy this spectacle, well, now ya got one. Activities like birding, botanizing, paddling, hiking and more are great avenues for personal immersion in the wonderful and healing arms of nature. Activities that can be enjoyed solo or with a close friend or with — gasp! — family.

The health benefits (physical and mental) of nature are widely recognized. Some of those benefits listed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation include boosting the immune system, lowering blood pressure, reducing stress, improving mood, increasing the ability to focus (even with children diagnosed with ADHD), accelerating recovery from illness or surgery, increasing energy levels and improving sleep. And it doesn’t take a 10-mile forced march through the woods to achieve these benefits. Simply sitting in a forest or in a park or on a greenway can reduce blood pressure and/or relieve stress. And these benefits are known round the world, making personal immersion especially applicable in the face of a pandemic.

The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries coined a term — Shinrin-yoku — in 1982. The term basically translates as “forest bathing.” According to the Grow Wild blog, “Researchers, primarily in Japan and South Korea, have conducted studies on the health benefits of spending time amongst the trees, demonstrating that forest bathing positively creates calming neuro-psychological effects through changes in the nervous system, reducing the stress hormone cortisol and boosting the immune system.”  

And, as mentioned above, physical exertion does not have to be part of the equation. Here are Shinrin-yoku instructions from one Japanese author: “First, find a spot. Make sure you have left your phone and camera behind. You are going to be walking aimlessly and slowly. You don’t need any devices. Let your body be your guide. Listen to where it wants to take you. Follow your nose. And take your time. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get anywhere. You are not going anywhere. You are savoring the sounds, smells and sights of nature and letting the forest in.”

These are trying times. One of the best ways to blunt the herd mentality is to reduce your own stress and anxiety. If you’re calm it has a calming effect on people. So get outside and practice some personal immersion; oh, and leave a loaf of bread and a roll of toilet paper for your neighbor. You’ll feel better, I promise.

 (Don Hendershot is a writer and naturalist. His book, A Year From the Naturalist’s Corner, Vol. 1, is available at regional bookstores or by contacting Don at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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