Shinrin-yoku and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights

Even in November, the trees practice their healing powers.

Even in November, the trees practice their healing powers.

A skiff of snow fell this morning, the flakes as fine as icing sugar. They sifted down from the sky, barely discernible in the morning light, not enough, you would think, to paint the landscape. And it wasn’t. But now a rim of white outlines the black pool cover, collecting more  thickly along the corners. This falling released the sun from its prison of heavy cloud and it shines in defiance of the bone chilling cold that has settled on the land.

November: month of scarlet sunrises and lowering skies, of darkening days and deceptive ice on rushing waters in the rivers that run though our town. Everything is brown and black, the evergreens already losing their green and whatever vegetation is left having given up all colours but drab. I look for beauty but my eye is not attuned to these dreary shades.

Today is Remembrance Day, a day of tears. Blood red poppies stain the ground where they have fallen from the breasts of those who pledge to remember. Across town on the banks of the Red River, a glass and stone tower has arisen, pledged to keep alive the atrocities that we have visited upon one another in the past. The Canadian Museum for Human rights will open next September 20.

Aspen forest

An aspen forest.

I have been appealing to those who have the power and influence in Winnipeg to plant a forest of forgiving trees across the way from the Museum. Today there is nothing but an ugly, stone covered parking lot. Most seem to appreciate the plan. They understand how difficult it will be to recall our humanity faced with a prospect of such ugliness after visiting a sordid and sorrow-filled part of our past. The healing aura of trees where the parking lot now stands would provide us with a place to recover from these stark reminders of our baser nature.

A forest has considerable powers of rejuvenation. Being among trees brings out our best, reviving mental energy and the ability to concentrate.  The Japanese call being among trees shinrin-yoku, meaning forest bathing.

In 1982, the director of the Japanese Forestry Agency, Tomohide Akiyama,  coined the phrase to encourage people to take advantage of the therapeutic value of being in the forest. The National Land Afforestation Promotion Organization in Japan backed up this contention by conducting field experiments in 24 forests across the land. Their studies revealed that a walk in the forest reduced blood pressure and the heart rate and improved the immune system. Experiments also found that even viewing a forest scene for 20 minutes reduced the stress hormone, cortisol, by 13 per cent and that that shinrin-yoku reduced anxiety, depression, anger, fatigue and “emotional confusion”.

Starting in 2004, the Japanese government set aside $4 million for shinrin-yoku research which even involved rangers measuring the blood pressure of visitors as part of the studies.

It has since been suggested that phytoncides (meaning “exterminated by the plant”), chemicals emitted by the trees and including natural preservatives, antimicrobial compounds, fungicides, and volatile organic compounds of the kind found in aromatherapy are the responsible agents.

Not that it matters. What is important is that being in a forest is restorative, even on dull November days when the sun graces us for very brief periods and the sky threatens darker things. Just  thinking about trees and writing about them is enough to lighten the mood.

It worked for me. I hope it worked for you.

Canadian Museum for Human Rights Winnipeg

The museum as it appeared from the river in the summer of 2012. The other side is an ugly parking lot.

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2 thoughts on “Shinrin-yoku and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights

  1. Gary Lund says:

    Forest beside the museum: great idea. The aspen forest picture is beautiful. For me, even just the sound of aspen leaves trembling in the breeze is calming.

  2. Thank you for this – you never cease to inspire me.

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