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The Calming Power of Forest Bathing

Jul. 26, 2019 at 5:23PM

If you’re not acquainted with forest bathing, allow me to enlighten you: forest bathing is a practice where you find your way to a natural area with trees and plants and perhaps some type of water and you mindfully exist in that space. It’s a meditative practice where you put down your phone, you don’t spend time speaking to anybody who may be with you, and you allow yourself to take in the stimuli from your surroundings. You let it wash over you and replace the noise in your head with the sounds of birds and bugs and critters you can’t see moving through the underbrush. 

This is a practice that’s been incredibly beneficial for me and I imagine might be for anybody else who is overstimulated or generally gets really caught up in city life to a detriment. It’s a practice that gives you space from the hustle and bustle of modern living and helps you reconnect with that which is more primal—our relationship to the earth. 

It can be hard to pursue forest bathing as a practice when you live within city limits; while parks are plentiful in Milwaukee, cars, bright lights, the symphony of jackhammers and the cacophony of groups of people are in excess. That’s city living, whether you love it or hate it. If you’re me, you like living in a city for the restaurants, events, and the easy access to resources, but I’m also relatively introverted and have a deep need and respect for peace and quiet. 

Fortunately, there are a few fantastic spots where you can escape the city while you’re within city limits and find some much-needed peace and quiet, even if it’s just for half an hour. Just getting a half an hour of relative peace and quiet helps to reset my day and calm my mind. If you’re looking for the same, check the following spots out:

Shorewood Nature Preserve

Okay, so technically this is in Shorewood, not Milwaukee, but it’s super close and I’m making an exception because it’s delightful. This spot is located right off Lake Drive wedged between two mansions. You can’t bring dogs and it’s open dawn to dusk. There’s plenty of street parking around, so worry not about where to store your car while you take in some nature. 

Once you find the path, marked by a large wooden sign (you really can’t miss it if you’re looking), you will walk down a steep hill towards the lake. There a few pathways that weave around the area and lots of lakefront views. 

I went on a weekday and the weather was pleasant and cool. As I walked down the pathway, I noticed a swath of ferns to the right. As I walked down the hill, I noticed the air became cooler, which is consistent with the presence of ferns. I could hear the slap of waves on the shore, somewhere nearby. 

Near the bottom of the hill, I chose to head right first. Along the wooded pathway, I noticed how lush the plants had gotten in the past few months; I came down this pathway a couple of times this winter so I could sit by the lake and it was obviously a study in brown at that time. That day, I noticed no less than ten different plants with flowers blooming. I don’t know their scientific names or if they are weeds, but at that moment they were beautiful to me. One particular patch had gauzy large leaves and tiny white flowers peeking out from the top of the plant. The sunlight was dancing across them, making them almost seem like they were glowing. It was magical. 

I wandered along the pathway, listening to the sounds of birds and the buzzing of bugs. I could hear some construction workers in the distance, but I felt the distance and it was reassuring. There’s something about knowing that even though there’s a city mere feet away, I was in a different place. I was in a place that embodies quiet and calm. 

Nearing the lake, I watched a few seagulls maneuver the wind currents, floating above the crashing waves. I could smell the lake—it’s a damp, earthy smell that I always enjoy. I stopped on top of an embankment and watched the waves roll into the shore. I took in their gentle rhythm as they licked the shore. There’s something soothing about the musical repetition of waves. 

I kept meandering along the lake until the path cut back into the forest. I heard a creature scurrying around underneath the canopy of weeds, but I couldn’t see what it was. It was likely a chipmunk, but not knowing was okay for me. I enjoyed hearing the signs of life all around me after a long winter.

I noticed the moss on fallen tree trunks and felt it’s softness underneath my fingers. I saw evidence of humans in strategically arranged rock piles and a lean-to made of branches, but I did not see anybody else until I was about to head back up the hill; there was a young woman jogging down the path. Seeing her almost snapped me out of my dreamlike state and I remember thinking as I headed up the hill, “Oh yeah. I live in a city” and that’s a wonderful thing to have forgotten, even for a few minutes.

Lake Park: Lighthouse Ravine Trail(s)

Whenever I drive on Lincoln Memorial, I always see wooden signs along the western side of the road indicating a couple of trails. I’d never explored these trails because they seem to be in the middle of a large expanse of trees with nothing nearby and I never see anybody entering the trailhead. I’ve always been curious. 

For this article, I decided to check the trails out and see if they were worth my curiosity. 

I parked up in Lake Park by the intersection of Lake Drive and Lincoln Memorial. Just off the parking lot is a pathway that goes down the side of the hill and spits you out on the sidewalk that runs alongside Lincoln Memorial. 

I walked along the sidewalk until I came the North Lighthouse Ravine Trail—it’s past the backside of Lake Park Bistro and across from the end of Bradley Beach. 

I started hiking up the path, lined with large stones. It was another beautiful, sunny but cool day. We had just gotten rain the night before and the path was muddy, but I enjoyed hearing the squish underneath my shoes. Once I was a few feet into the path, I really couldn’t hear much from the road and was focused on how good it felt to traipse through the muddy pathway, like I was eight years old again. 

It was quiet and I was struck by how much I could immerse myself in things that weren’t as overtly complicated as living life in the city—I wasn’t concerned with bills and noisy neighbors and avoiding festival traffic; I was concerned with where I was placing my feet and what type of bushes were lining the pathway up ahead. 

The pathway weaves up the hill toward the lighthouse and gives you a wonderful view of the underside of one of the bridges. There’s a lot of stonework along the path and it finishes with some old wooden steps up to the street. The path ends by the north side of the lighthouse. I’ve walked by there so many times and had no idea there was a pathway there. 

I walked south past the lighthouse to walk down the South Lighthouse Ravine Trail. This pathway was similar but shorter and it felt less contained to me; I preferred the north trail. I preferred it so much that as soon as I was done with the south trail, I did the north trail for a second time. 

Coming out of the trail for the second time, I felt refreshed. It was such a treat to explore this trail I’d wondered about for well over a year. I wandered through Lake Park and walked back down towards the lake by Lake Park Bistro. As I walked down the steps, I noticed a fog had rolled in. The sunny, pleasant day was suddenly blanketed with fog and I could barely see out to the lake. 

I walked back up Lincoln Memorial toward my car and as I walked, a monarch butterfly flickered in front of my face. I watched it fly around the trees above my head for a few minutes with the juxtaposition of cars speeding by behind me to remind me nature is never far away and neither is the city. 

After I walked to my car and started driving south on Lincoln Memorial, I passed by the Colectivo and the fog cleared like it was never there to begin with. It’s fascinating to me how much contrast can exist within a city. 

Riverside Park

We met at Riverside Park on a day in June that hardly broke 50 degrees. My friend and I acknowledged though the weather was discouraging and whispered to us both to stay indoors and binge on countless hours of Netflix, it was worth leaving the house once we were outside and on the path. 

Riverside Park contains a series of pathways that weave in and out of the forest by the eastern side of the Milwaukee River. It’s like a choose your own adventure within city limits. You can access the pathways from various points in the city, but my friend and I chose to meet at Hubbard Park. Just off the parking lot, there’s a metal tunnel and if you travel through it sometime soon, you will see a stunning lilac bush in bloom down the steps to your left. If you walk past the lilac bush be sure to stop and take a deep breath in of its heady floral aroma. It’s the perfect way to start your walk. 

Past the lilac bush and over an expanse of grass there’s a small wooden building. I don’t know what it’s purpose is, but if you follow the pathway to the right of it you will soon find yourself weaving in and out of the forest, the river not far away. 

We’ve had so much rain and the path was muddy. My friend and I had to be mindful of where we stepped and how quickly lest we find ourselves with muddied backsides. A little mud is worth it to hike on this pathway. 

We didn’t see many people, just a few bikers and hikers and a couple of people with dogs out for a walk. Mostly, we saw the trees, the rushing river, and the increasingly lush quality of the forest what with all the rain we’ve had.

We stayed near the river, wading through thick underbrush and losing the pathway a few times. We stopped at the river bank to have a conversation and during a lull, we both took in the pleasant quality of the day. I stood looking across the deep chestnut waters and saw a fish jump, silver belly exposed to the air. The leaves in the trees on the back across from us rustled in the wind and I could feel the cool breeze on my skin. 

The weather wasn’t as bad as I initially thought before I started moving and I thought about how I would have given anything to have a day like this back in February when we were in the thick of winter. 

Like the other paths I took earlier this month, there are signs of human life. There’s graffiti on old drainage tunnels and there’s a small hut created from branches near the underside of North Avenue. There’s a box for some subpar beer laying empty inside and wet couch cushions for somebody to sit on some other time, but not today. 

Underneath the North Avenue bridge, there was a flock of seagulls I took pictures of for a while. They floated in unison above a set of rapids, swooping down one at a time to attempt to catch a small snack of fish. A few, unsuccessful, would peel out downstream before turning around for another approach. Their perseverance and elegance was something to behold and I don’t usually think of seagulls as elegant when they squawk loudly above my head in the city. 

We headed back towards the cars at that point, down the path from where we came and as we neared our destination I realized we had been walking nearly two hours—I completely lost my sense of time as I took in all the stimuli. I hadn’t had my cell phone out at all during the walk and was focused on absorbing the forest around me to ground myself after a hectic week. 

It did ground me and I realized I was feeling more at ease when I used the trunk of a tree to slide down a particularly steep hill—the forest was working with me, not against me.

Final Thoughts 

Living in a city can be draining. The constant noise and stimuli can leave me feeling wired and exhausted and there are times where the only solution is to reconnect with nature and slow myself down.

Since reading about forest bathing some time ago, my habit of taking walks in nature has taken on new meaning. I try to approach these brief periods of time with mindfulness and be aware of if I’m reaching for my phone and how long I allow myself to stop and take in what’s around me. I focus not on my worries, but on the noises around me, the smells of the lake or the sensation of soft earth underneath my feet. I notice the movement of the groundcover, gently swaying in the breeze. I listen for the rustling of leaves and take note of whether it’s a small creature going about its business or the wind testing the endurance of the trees. 

It is through this attention paid to the earth I experience a sense of calm, even when living in the city. 

About the author

Caitlin Knudsen

Propagator of succulents, hobbyist baker, healthcare by day, pug wrangler always.