Walking Amongst the Tall Trees

In the last warm days of autumn, I set off into the Tararua Forest Park in New Zealand’s beautiful Wairarapa, with my partner Andrew. We looked the part; packs strapped to our backs, loaded with cooking pots and food in Andrew’s case, chocolate, toiletries and other bare essentials in mine.

We have always done this together, Andrew and I, since those sweet early days in Scotland. He is at ease in the bush — long legged and athletic, he bounds over roots and climbs up slopes with grace, his hunter-gatherer vision noting the minute movements of animals through the trees. I’m far less coordinated, and my pear-shaped body doesn’t feel designed for climbing in an upward direction for a sustained amount of time; however I find that I’m always keen for this punishment.

On this occasion, we stayed the night in a tramping hut high on a slope, overlooking the tree tops. To arrive at a destination such as this, to spend an evening quietly watching the light of day recede into indigo sky, is pure bliss. But there’s another reason for my unlikely love of hiking — and it was written on an enamel mug brought along by one of our fellow hut-mates. This beautiful piece of drinkware was forest green with a tree design printed in white, along with the words:

“I am most alive among the tall trees”.

It was love at first sight. I coveted this mug. I think of it to this day — and now, joy of joys, I have tracked it down online (kathmandu.co.nz — you’re welcome).

This joyful, confident mug captured my philosophy exactly — I feel so happy and alive walking amongst the green light and clean, fresh air of the native New Zealand bush, or indeed any forest. It is a meditation for me, it is my weekly devotional practice.

While our longer hikes are occasional, every weekend I walk in the hills near our house in Wellington. I quietly track up the gentle slopes, letting my thoughts and stresses untangle, making decisions, watching the seasons slowly change, taking time at the top to admire my city and bask in the quietness of higher ground.

And I’m far from alone in my quiet ritual. Wellington’s hills are alive with mountain bikers, runners, dog walkers, and casual trekkers like me. They come in all shapes and sizes; large lycra-clad groups, families with young kids and exhausted parents, quietly murmuring couples and solo adventurers. I expect that their reasons for taking to the hills vary — perhaps for exercise, getting outdoors, weight loss, mental health or adrenaline — but all of us, I’m sure of it, are here to commune with nature.

In Japan there is a wellbeing practice called ‘forest bathing’ or Shinrin-yoku, developed in the 1980’s. Shinrin-yoku involves simply visiting forests for relaxation and to breathe in the rejuvenating forest air, laden with the organic antimicrobial compounds emitted from trees. This practice is considered to be very beneficial for both mental and physical health, and a robust body of scientific literature — primarily undertaken in Japan and South Korea — now supports these purported benefits. Studies of regular forest bathers have shown that participants enjoy improvements in immune function, reduced blood pressure, reduced stress, improved mood and focus, accelerated recovery from surgery and illness, improved sleep and increased energy levels.

John Muir was a Scottish-American naturalist, author and philosopher who was an early advocate of wilderness preservation in the United States — and whose work has remained influential to this day. Among his fervent writings on the human connection to nature, he wrote that “wilderness is a necessity”. And in the hustle of modern day life, I couldn’t agree more.

Tomorrow morning I will wake up early to walk in the hills, my beloved weekend ritual. I’m looking forward to it; following the familiar path through the bush, seeing what has changed, walking through the stretch of skeletal trees I have named ‘the valley of lost souls’, and reaching my place of contemplation up on the crest.

But equally, I’m looking forward to my shiny new enamel mug turning up by courier. Oh how sweet my tea will taste.