Forest bathing and how nature has kept me sane

Bruce Trail near Dundas Ontario

How have you been holding it together? For me, it’s being outdoors. Often. Back in June, I wrote about walking around the nabe in a love letter to my neighbours. But it’s not only out in my yard or on city streets. Toronto and the Golden Horseshoe, that wide band sweeping around Lake Ontario’s western tip, both offer many other ways to get outside.

Added benefit? If we take our time, surround ourselves with trees, and use all our senses to connect with nature, we are forest bathing. As a pile of scientific research confirms, that’s not only good for our bodies. It’s good for our mental health as well.

Hiking Trails

This fall, before the most recent lockdown, a friend and I headed to Dundas, Ontario, for a walk on a short stretch of the Bruce Trail on the Niagara Escarpment. The day was perfect.

We navigated using the free AllTrails app, and while we did manage to us mildly lost, the app’s GPS function also helped steer us back on track. Even the detour was fun. And the views from the top of the trail were amazing.

Fallen tree with decaying leaves and fungi
Nature’s art materials along the Bruce Trail
Toronto’s Parks and Ravines

The city’s 1,500+ parks and ravines offer forest bathing spots closer to home, too. Even with the latest COVID-19 lockdown, we’re encouraged to use them, as long as we follow health guidelines.

This year, the City is even leaving some of its public restrooms open during the winter. Search toronto.ca for “winterized washrooms” for details. Wish it included Rosetta McClain Gardens, a favourite of mine.

This oak tree stretches over Monarch Park in the east end, a short walk from the subway line.
Virtual Challenges

Especially when weather is less than ideal, it helps to have a buddy system. Since 2003, our walking group has logged thousands of kilometres together, all over the city. Training for events keeps us motivated to lace up and get out. In 2020, our group gathered in smaller batches, we walked further apart, and all the “events” have been virtual, where distance matters more than speed.

Right now, for example, I’m walking on water – near the top of Lake Michigan, to be precise – trying to travel the lengths of all five Great Lakes. That’s a total 2087 km (1297 miles). Just four more lakes to go! I don’t have a treadmill, so it’s out the door for me.

Walkers in a park surrounded by trees
Zipping through the trails in Taylor Creek Park.

Our group walks too quickly for it to count as forest bathing. That doesn’t stop us from taking breaks to appreciate the wildlife and scenes that we pass. Every season has its beauties. It doesn’t matter how crappy I feel when I set out, each time I come home from a walk, I feel calmer and easier to live with.

Trees reflected in a pond
A hidden pond, blocks from Danforth Avenue and Victoria Park.
A heron flies over Taylor Creek
Admiring the reflected flight of a heron
Toronto Botanical Garden

I probably couldn’t survive any year without regular visits to the TBG at Lawrence and Leslie. This year, it has been an extra-special destination. Because I’m a member, parking is free – and membership as well as paid parking are a big revenue sources for the garden, which is only minimally funded by the City. Just enough to keep the lights on!

Photography and Art

Year-round, the TBG has something cool to capture in pictures. My cloud includes thousands. Taking them, anywhere, has helped me see nature more deeply, whether looking more closely at pollinators on flowers or taking in the contours and colours of the landscape. I’m grateful someone invented what I call the “camera phone” (rather than “phone camera” – you can see my priorities), because it means I have a camera with me everywhere. Then I get to look at nature again, indoors on my computer.

Another reason I’m happy to be a TBG member is discounts on classes. Before the first lockdown, I enrolled in a nature drawing class. Each class was three hours of intense concentration, shutting out all other worries. Pure liberation. I recommend it.

The Waterfront

I never want to take for granted that I live close to the edge of this vast freshwater sea we call Lake Ontario. Yes, there are highrises clustered along the water. But we still have access along most of Toronto’s waterfront.

That strip of light marks the lake at Ashbridge’s Bay.

This leads me to another of my favourites, The Spit also known as Tommy Thompson Park. To me, this is a country lane in the city, with the lake on either side, and intermittent, glorious views of the city skyline. I try to walk here in every season. Maybe I’ll see you there, masked up.

Toronto’s skyline from Tommy Thompson Park

What has been keeping you from unravelling during this stressful year?

4 comments

  1. A lovely post, Helen. Nature and the garden have been keeping me sane, too, whether it’s out along a trail, our garden, or admiring others in our diverse neighborhoods while walking.

    Returning to the NC Arboretum natural areas and walking along Bent Creek was so uplifting and magical after it opened up again last spring, after being closed for a couple of months (ditto for Biltmore Estate, walking along the French Broad River).

    I haven’t been hiking as much as I’d like, as our trails here in Western North Carolina have been overrun, by newbies, residents, and day-trippers alike.

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