The closing of summer, the onset of autumn, the looming winter - how often this cycle appears year after year, as if new or a forgotten event. Somehow in our collective memory we forget the turning times and the plummeting temperatures; it’s something about the months of being swooned by summer’s heat. Yet deep down, our bodies know the natural rhythms - know how they flow, know their inevitability.
Over the last three decades, the climate change Conference of Parties (COP) has become a cyclical ritual on our seasonal calendars during this transitional time. As it looms, many people also tend to forget the coldness of its failures – swooned by the swirling hot air voiced by our so-called ‘leaders’ – as they cling onto some faint illusion of hope that it could this time be different. Yet as COP26 approached last year, deep down many knew of its inevitable disappointment.
As Autumn arrived along with COP26, we – the world’s people – descended into the streets of Glasgow in our tens of thousands; like the leaves of a hundred trees long communicating across the winds. We found ourselves dancing in the wind and settling together; a dazzling variety of colours, shapes, and sizes; sharing our experiences and decomposing together, as we prepared for what we knew would be a long cold winter of discontent ahead.
In spite of this, many of us found ourselves being energised by this collective decomposition; creating nutrients and nourishment to return to the earth and its peoples, through our global network of interconnecting rhizomes and roots.
Those in power attempted to disrupt this exchange, to clear us from the streets; imposing their manicured and manufactured political landscapes, by blowing out fossil-fuelled hot air through ‘techno-fixes’ – like a leaf blower attempting to clear suburban lawns and concrete jungles of the irrepressible signs of winter’s coming decay and radical grassroots seasonal change.
So now here we are in winter, facing the stone-cold concrete reality of COP26’s failure, asking: where do we go from here?
Winter has long been seen by many traditions as a time for withdrawal, for introspection, as we return to the earth to begin a new cycle of life. It’s a time to return to the woods – those living pockets of resistance where the cycles of life remain relatively unobstructed. Returning to the forest floor, we can relearn and regrow in its ways; to sense, accept, and move with the seasonal flows, and re-bridge the perceived separation between us and nature’s rhythms.
Yet for many people this seems like an alien idea. A dominant, unspoken narrative troubles our so-called ‘Modern’ society: the insidious ideology of separation. This myth – that humans are separate from nature (and each other) – is the illusion at the root of many of our environmental and social crises. It’s what allows the ongoing colonial and capitalist exploitation of the earth, and many of the peoples and beings perceived as inferior – as ‘less-than-human’ – by the pervasive patriarchal and racist systems.
It is often our political and corporate ‘leaders’ who epitomise and act on this disconnection and oppression. Any transformative movement or liberational activism must therefore grapple with this to attain justice. So how do we avoid replicating this disconnection and oppression in our action? How do we uproot this ideology from our experience and perception of the world? And how do we turn our interconnection within nature from an abstract idea into a tangible reality?
As the radical educational visionary, Paulo Freire, once said:
“without practice there’s no knowledge; at least it’s difficult to know without practice.”
So, how do we come to know – and end – the false division between human and nature? What are the anti-separation practices?
Over the last two years, the global pandemic has painfully revealed the repercussions of our separation. It is no surprise that so many of us sought out refuge and connection in our nearest green spaces to remedy this. It was in the woods that I found belonging in this time of loneliness and longing, and it was during this time that I was lucky enough to find the seed and practice of forest bathing planted within me.
Forest bathing – or Shinrin-Yoku as it’s known from its roots in Japan – is defined by Dr Qing Li as “bathing in the forest atmosphere, or taking in the forest through our senses”. It’s an immersive experience, whereby we can tune deeper and deeper into a sensory exploration of woodland through simple guided practices. Dr Li, a Japanese pioneer in the practice, explains:
“We are part of the natural world. Our rhythms are the rhythms of nature… Shinrin-yoku is like a bridge. By opening our senses, it bridges the gap between us and the natural world.”
Through mindful, intentional practices – such as smelling the earth in our hands or crunching the leaves under our feet – we can learn to observe and feel the changes within our environment.
This is a living example of Freire’s statement about the need for practice within knowledge. It’s not enough to try and understand the ideology, impacts, or illusion of the separation myth on an intellectual or abstract level. We need tangible, embodied, anti-separation practices – real grounded sense-based experiences – to powerfully root us in this knowledge and bridge the imagined gap. Forest bathing provides a playful and profound way of exploring this, from which knowledge of our natural rhythms can begin to emerge and grow.
Often the climate crisis and the cyclical COP calamities can feel like a dark lonely winter’s night with no escape. Yet whilst appearing dead in its depths, right now winter is pregnant with a flourishing explosion of life that will burst forth in spring. Through practices, such as forest bathing, we can learn to observe the journey of impermanence that our natural world takes – how the leaves fall, the ice hardens, how the frosts turn to dew, and the early bluebell springs summer into bloom. We can notice the emergence of the ever-surprising early buds, growing in resistance to their harsh environment. We can understand how all life has seasonal flow, and how the constant flux of our existence also rings true for our resistance. Collective flourishing will spring up, bursting full of creative life and energy.
Learning to observe all this with patience and practice, we can see our experience reflected around and within us. And with this, we can too hold that pregnant and inevitable hope of possibility and light, deep into the darkest winter’s night.