In the modern age, wonderment is rare. We are under a constant barrage of email, texts and tweets—not to mention distractions from Instagram, Facebook and SnapChat. It seems the omnipresence of smartphones and all the apps they house, in our daily lives is persistently and overwhelmingly seductive, to the point that the real world, for some, has begun to pale in comparison.
As a small child without siblings, long before computers were in every home, I savored my time alone as much as my time with my grandma who helped raise me. With my mother at work, I moved freely in and out of direct supervision. Though I could run amok ‘til my heart’s content, I found my happiest times were spent in quiet observation.
Our kitchen table was of the wrought-iron garden variety with a clear glass top. My grandma would spend most of her mornings cooking, usually tending a soup on the stove, returning to a stack of papers strewn out at one end of that table, writing poetry.
A favorite pastime of mine was to set up a quasi-camp of pillows and blankets at her feet and look up thru the tabletop to watch her scroll words onto the page from below. Her big loopy letters mesmerized me while the smells of lunch would fill the room.
I would transfer my camp of cushions around the house and yard depending on the day’s affairs and weather. Sometimes I’d find myself just watching the clouds move overhead or shadows of leaves and branches dance across the walls in the living room bathed in afternoon light.
As an adult, I’m still quite fond of clouds and shadows. And, with more than a decade of yoga under my belt, I now know what I intuitively sought out since I was very young—a self-soothing, contemplative practice.
I’ve read up on scientific studies of meditation, like the International Shamatha Project, the most comprehensive study of meditation to date, which states this type of concentrated focus improves not only overall wellbeing and reduces stress, but to my surprise, it also greatly expands one’s visual attention span and increases cognition.
With this in mind, when I lead photo workshops, the first place I like to take my group is to a green space. I ask my students to tap into a type of “walking meditation” as they go into the woods. It only takes about five minutes on a tree-covered path for everyone to settle into a calmer state of mind.
I’ve found this isn’t only because of the mindful approach; the calming benefits can also be credited to the setting itself. A woodland cure, called Shinrin-yoku or Forest Bathing, emerged as a health regime in Japan in the 1980s as an activity whose benefits extend beyond exercise. It is said that the phytoncides—antimicrobial oils emitted by trees—directly bolster the immune system and reduces stress. There are a number of other positive effects including mental clarity and the ability to focus. It is the ultimate antidote to the entrapments of modern living.
According to Peter Wohlenben, the author of The Hidden Life of Trees, the age of the forest one traverses matters as well, “Walkers who visit one of the ancient deciduous preserves in the forest I manage always report that their heart feels lighter and they feel right at home.”
Reveling in a green space under a canopy of trees is advantageous but when water is added the benefits increase. According to studies in the United Kingdom, the presence of large bodies of water or rivers in wild places generated even greater effects on improving both self-esteem and mood.
For me, to successfully tap into a fresh, creative mindset and digitally detox, I need to find space away from home, and natural quiet. Sometimes a two-hour walk in the woods is necessary, but on other occasions, just sitting for 20 minutes and watching the waves topple in at Cave Point is enough.
In The Book of Hours, Bohemian/Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke offers, “If we surrendered to earth’s intelligence, we could rise up rooted, like trees.”
Springtime is the perfect season to retreat into the woods and Door County is the ideal destination to set one’s sights upon, in order to unplug.
The Ridges in Baileys Harbor is a great place to start. The paths, boardwalks and bridges weave through several unique microclimates making it a densely rich, old forest with excellent restorative powers.
When the mind quiets, all the senses have a chance to emerge and play a greater role in the experience. When the tethers of daily life loosen, we become relaxed and more curious about what’s immediately before us and, with child-like awe, begin to see deeper into the setting.
This is when the camera becomes a great tool, slowing us down and drawing us in. I like to call this “visual meditation.” It is a purpose-filled exercise that creatively connects us to our environment with happy byproducts: photographs.
With your camera in hand, find a comfy rock to sit and quietly observe, or leisurely walk a trail with your eyes and heart wide open. Let the freshness of spring reawaken your senses as the earth rises from its winter sleep.
My personal adage with a literal spin: “Take a picture, it’ll last longer.” As will the positive effects of nature’s embrace.
Visit www.doorcounty.com or stop in at the Door County Visitor’s Bureau for information on Door County’s many trails, state parks, public wild spaces, a spring wildflowers brochure and more. Visit www.suzannerose.com for a PDF Shinrin-yoku, upcoming photo workshops, mentorship programs and portfolios.