Oregon is home to scenic coastline, high desert, triumphant mountains, lush forests, joyful waterfalls, and more shades of green than one previously thought possible. The state itself is almost half forest (48 percent, according to oregon.gov). While many Oregonians enjoy the state’s beauty year round with snowshoeing, skiing, tubing, and other activities, I wait with baited breath for that first good stretch of spring. Then it’s time to get outside.
There is something restorative about stepping into a forest that it in the process of waking from its winter sleep. The smells and sights of regrowth are uplifting and renewing. This isn’t a novel concept. Study after study has found that our connection to nature plays a role in our mental wellbeing. A study from the University of British Columbia points to more positive engagement with the larger human community with immersion in the natural world. This resonates with me personally- the more I can replenish my stores by taking in a hike, the more I find myself grounded and present for the ones I love.
We (including myself) are especially spoiled here in Portland. Forest Park, located just a few steps from civilization, is one of the largest urban forest reserves in the country. It includes over 80 miles of trails and over 5200 acres. It has something for everyone, including connections to the Arboretum, the Pittock Mansion, and a spooky witch’s house. If so desired, the Wildwood trail winds 30 miles, all the way around the Portland area. With Forest Park being so close, it is my go-to for self-care.
Let’s not forget the importance of self-care- life is stressful. A lot of stress involves being internally preoccupied: Did I pay the daycare yesterday? Should I have spoke up in that meeting? Do we need milk? When we’re in our homes, workplaces, cars it can be hard to shift our attention away from these matters. Being in nature moves our attention outward and creates a wonderful opportunity for mindfulness.
Mindfulness is an exercise rooted in Buddhist practices. As one example, Sylvia Boorstein states, ““Mindfulness is the aware, balanced acceptance of the present experience. It isn’t more complicated than that. It is opening to or receiving the present moment, pleasant or unpleasant, just as it is, without either clinging to it or rejecting it.”
It does sound complicated, but can be practiced using external experiences. Walking through a forest, for example. To begin, I suggest pausing after you get out of your car (or off your mode of transportation). Observe any lingering stress of the commute, stretch your legs, notice what comes to mind, then take a moment to breathe into that space and prepare your senses for the experience.
Bringing in your senses is an excellent mindfulness and grounding tool. Senses create strong memories and can elicit strong emotions. As you begin your excursion, take a moment to remember that it’s more than sight as you see the beautiful trees, the trillium blooming, and the moss lazily hanging off the branches. How many smells can you detect? Can you catch the scent of the rich soil, hidden beneath the smell of the trees? Take a moment to touch the rough bark. Feel your feet as you walk the path, appreciating the connection to the earth. The sounds of the forest may be numerous or they may be absent. Listen. Appreciate the silence and the space between bird calls. Remember to stay hydrated, and notice taking a drink.
It can be nice to try a “snapshot”. I find there’s always one spot in my hike that feels perfect- serendipitous, perfectly green and still, a trickle of water somewhere, with just with the right amount of fog. Using your above mindfulness skills, take a “snapshot”. This “snapshot” can become your own personal mindfulness meditation to be used when you’re not able to get away into the woods. You could be typing a blog post, then pause to “return” to that beautiful spot you enjoyed so much.
So, go forth, get outside, and practice mindfulness. And please, remember that greenspaces are for everyone. Leave nature as you found it