The healing power of forests
Mt. Pandadagsaan, Davao de Oro—After two days of trekking up steep, narrow trails—serendipitously spotting a rafflesia along the way—the moss offered us a green carpet welcome en route to the summit where our team of mountaineers, Department of Environment and Natural Resources field officers, local government staff, and local guides is now encamped. Literally meaning “the gathering place” due to its abundance of wildlife, this mountain is nicknamed “White Peak” by mountaineers, owing to its light-colored rocky summit that stands 2,670 meters above sea level.
Mt. Candalaga rises prominently to the south, and farther to the southwest, Mt. Apo’s summit peeks above the clouds, flanked by Mt. Talomo. Seeing all these mountains, which I have also climbed in the past, adds to the joy of being here.
People always ask me what I get out of these climbs. And I have always struggled to give a full answer, only saying that since I was a kid, I’ve always yearned for the mountains, and that they have taught me so much about the world, the country, other people, and my own self.
I have a more recent realization, though: that all these years, the mountains have been sustaining my physical and mental health. For reasons I cannot fully articulate, being outdoors—especially in the deep forests—gives me a sense of life that reinvigorates me and inspires me to keep going.
We can dismiss this claim as a fanciful anecdote, but it is actually supported by research—from experimental psychology to evolutionary biology—finding that being with nature reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, improves sleep, fosters physical activity, boosts the immune system, and enhances creativity, among other benefits. Studies conducted during the pandemic (e.g., Labib, et al., 2022) have further confirmed these findings.
Remarkably, the scholarship suggests that even just a short time with nature—20 minutes per week—can improve health outcomes, and that even some kind of greenery—like walking on tree-lined streets—has some salutary effects. All of these findings have spurred interest in nature immersion, particularly shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing,” which has gained global adherents since being introduced in Japan in the 1980s.
Despite the healing power of the forests, fewer and fewer people are in contact with nature today, in what the conservationist Robert Pyle once called “extinction of experience.” Our lifestyles, our cities, and, oftentimes, our policies have made it difficult for us to be with green spaces—and all too often, access to nature is a matter of privilege.
Amid the lingering effects of the pandemic, and in response to an ever-growing mental health crisis, how can we militate against this trend and tap into the healing power of the forests?
First and foremost, we need to protect them in the first place—or else, there will be nowhere to go. Our forests remain under threat on different fronts, and their defenders—activists, forest guards, and indigenous communities—are just as endangered. The fact that Chad Booc was killed in the very sitio in Brgy. Andap, New Bataan, where we started our hike, speaks of how people’s struggles and the forests’ predicaments are inseparable.
Second, we need to bring forests to the people. The stressfulness of cities like Metro Manila is partly rooted in the fact that they don’t have enough trees; conversely, some of the world’s “happiest cities”—like Helsinki and Wellington—are characterized by greenery. We need more urban parks (e.g., Manila’s Arroceros), green spaces (e.g., Iloilo’s Esplanade), and trails (e.g., Baguio’s Yellow Trail), and we need to make these accessible to the public even amid (and especially during) a pandemic when people can’t travel far.
Third, we need to bring people to the forests. If the ability to be with nature is a matter of equity and inclusivity, then we should make our forests more accessible and affordable to people regardless of age, gender, ability, or income. Let there be free and family-friendly green spaces in every city and town!
All of the above will require multisectoral collaboration, with the Department of Health and the medical community prescribing access to nature as both prevention and treatment; the Department of Education enabling children to have outdoor experiences; the Department of Science and Technology supporting local researches to validate scientific findings elsewhere. The tourism officer of New Bataan, Marlon Esperanza, is with us in the summit, and our conversations remind me that local government units, too, can take leadership in this aspiration.
At a personal level, of course, we can literally bring people—our family and friends—to the forests, and help them plan and prepare for their trips.
Ultimately, however, achieving interconnectedness with the environment involves rethinking our very notion of development, from nature as “resource” to nature as “home”: a revolutionary process that may well be facilitated by the forests themselves. As the novelist Glenn Diaz recently wrote, “the absorption, incubation, and enactment of anticapitalist thought is the tropical forest’s most vital agency.”
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