A night in the rainforest
After three flights, one truck ride, and a two-hour river trek in a disturbingly low canoe, we arrived at a small eco-lodge deep within the Peruvian rainforest and entered our room.
My eyes were immediately drawn to the glass that covered the entire far wall, and I marveled at the density of trees and foliage. The sounds of the jungle were escalating as evening approached, and I could feel the press of saturated air against my body.
Unconsciously, I reached my fingers toward the window and . . . my hand passed through it.
There was no window.
Our room was entirely open to the rainforest beyond, without a barrier of any kind, not even a screen. A few feet ahead of me stood gargantuan trees—and presumably the creatures they hosted. I thought of the guide’s recent patter about capybaras (the world’s largest rodent) and bullet ants (the world’s most vicious insect) and golden poison frogs (the world’s deadliest amphibian)—all of them apparently wandering at will in my immediate vicinity.
I later discovered that, during the planning stages for this trip, there had been a whispered consultation about this so-called “room.” (Call me crazy, but I believe a room requires four walls.) Apparently, it was the boys (Et tu?) who advised my husband not to mention the nature (so to speak) of our accommodation lest I veto the booking.
As you’ve probably guessed, I struggled during that trip, shuddering as flying insects dive-bombed me in my tiny bed all night, thwarted only at the last second by thankfully powerful mosquito netting, and comforting myself by designing retributive torments (none implemented) for my husband. Every hour brought a new creature to sniff at the luggage, as well as critters—and bite marks—of every shape and color.
My many discomforts aside, I learned a lot on that trip—and not just to book my own hotel rooms. After all, this was the second largest expanse of the Amazon rainforest, with hundreds of animal species and thousands of plant species, not to mention millions of indigenous people, some of whom have never had contact with the world outside their own communities. The number of threats was equally staggering—deforestation, illegal businesses, poaching, violence.
But more than any particular fact or figure, I remember the feeling I had while walking the roughly hewn trails, looking out at the trees that anchored all these species, and indeed, the entire ecosystem. Despite the billion creatures teeming within that rainforest, I had the sense I was witnessing one massive ecological entity at work.
One morning, one of the other eco-lodge guests took to the trails to look for the hat he’d lost the previous day. When he returned, he showed us the hat—or more precisely, the wire frame that had once been a hat. Over the past eight hours, every thread and fiber had been eaten off it.
An image flashed through my mind, of the whole rainforest descending upon and devouring it—one living system, alert, awake, rapacious.
I grew up in a small northeastern Ohio town with beautiful tracts of woods. Over 25 trees populated our backyard, and my favorite of these possessed three trunks that expanded toward the ground to make a surprisingly comfortable perch to read or dream or just gaze up through the branches. And, as an only-child proficient at self-entertainment, I found it to be the perfect base for games of make-believe, serving as throne, dungeon, stage, and whatever else my imagination required.
Much later, when I moved to an Indiana home with very few trees on the lot, I heartily missed the backyard of my youth, particularly on behalf of my young children. Fortunately, we could easily visit city and state parks, and I loved watching them navigate that environment and play their own games of make-believe. Through them, I remembered the feeling of being enveloped and embraced by trees.
In the early 1980s, Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries began to promote spending quiet time in forests, and it coined the term shinrin-yoku—literally “forest bathing.” At first, that term seemed odd to me, but then I thought why not? After all, it wasn’t referring to hiking and trekking, but rather, to being fully absorbed in the woods and in the moment—being literally awash in the forest.
At that time, Japan was responding to research about the health benefits of spending time among the trees and in nature—lowered blood pressure and heart rate, improved cortisol levels and immunity. As the agency shared this health data with the general public, it also built outdoor infrastructure in the forests, such as benches and tea houses and yoga platforms, to welcome citizens into the outdoors for peaceful contemplation.
Forest bathing is at last becoming more prevalent, as a term and as an activity, in the U.S., as people begin to comprehend the mental and physical benefits of spending time mindfully in nature. My own experiences with the kids certainly brought us those benefits, leaving us refreshed and rejuvenated after our hours spent in the natural world.
Also only recently recognized in the U.S. is research showing that trees do not function in isolation, but rather, as a system, their roots interconnecting in vast fungal networks through which they actually communicate with one another and collaborate with other species for survival. As a child, I certainly didn’t think of my backyard trees as being in relationship with one another, but now, especially given my memories of the Amazon, that interconnectedness feels intuitively right.
[If you find this concept of natural interconnectedness intriguing, here’s a mini reading list: Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard; The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben; Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Kimmerer; and if you prefer fiction, The Overstory by Richard Powers.]
Rainforests are often called the lungs of the earth due to the vast amount of carbon dioxide they absorb and of oxygen they exhale, both to our great benefit. I can certainly visualize the swath of land comprising the Peruvian Amazon as a breathing organ, with its intersecting roots and vines and tendrils and fibers—systems within systems, all overlapping and undergirding one another, all functioning as one, all breathing out what humanity breathes in.
But, according to the Rainforest Foundation, one acre of rainforest is destroyed per second. At that rate, we have 100 years of rainforest left.
A forest ecosystem of particular concern to me is the Cauvery River basin in South India, close to much of my family. As trees are destroyed, so are the root systems anchoring the topsoil needed to grow food. And without trees for transpiration, the rivers are drying out. In short, the once fertile and teeming tropical land is rapidly turning to desert, unable to grow crops or sustain life.
The magnitude of these problems and my fear for the next generation often make me freeze with terror and doubt that I have power or agency to do anything about it. Usually, during times of existential angst, I turn to Wendell Berry’s The Peace of Wild Things where he writes, in part:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
—Wendell Berry (read The Peace of Wild Things in full)
I fully acknowledge the irony of turning to nature for comfort and relief from my fear of the destruction of nature. Nevertheless, I think that within that conundrum lies a pathway from helplessness toward empowerment to speak and act on behalf of earth’s ecology and ecosystems.
What Berry describes is essentially forest bathing—a full and mindful experience of nature, noting and concentrating upon the specific places and life forms it offers in the moment, the wood drake, the great heron. In The Joy of Forest Bathing, Melanie Choukas-Bradley in fact suggests concentrating on a single tree—sitting with it, lying down under it, climbing it, speaking to it, listening to it—in short, communing with it. “Getting to know a tree, and then having a relationship with that tree over time . . . is one of the most powerful nature connections a person can have.” This makes me think of my childhood tree, which felt like a friend to me as I grew up.
What Berry and Choukas-Bradley knew is that, over time, this sort of communion is consciousness-shifting. It illuminates our connection with that bit of nature, showing us we are not separate from it, but rather, entwined with it—and in a larger web connecting us all. And we cannot help but speak and act on behalf of what we include as part of us.
How to Love One Tree
To love one tree,
start with your hands—
place them upon
the roughness and ridges,
the coarseness and cracks.
Watch that line of
red ants scatter—
see, they don’t mind
making room for you.
And you mustn’t bother
about what accumulates on
your palms and
under your fingernails.
don’t think of it as dirt—
think of it as the stuff of Earth
and the dust of Cosmos
all settling into your own body,
a body that is made of the same.
Remember all this, then
hold this grand being and
think of your hands as
Put your lips to the bark
and give it the same kiss
you plant on your
little one’s forehead.
You can mother anything
you want in this world.
feel your boundaries thin,
feel the roots and tendrils and fibers
move through you—
but don’t be afraid.
This is what love is,
this is the same brightness that
Now forgive my little trick.
I just wanted to show you:
when you learn to love one tree,
your heart can hold a planet.
—Dheepa R. Maturi
I love the fact that Earth Day (April 22nd) occurs during National Poetry Month. After all, some of the most beautiful poetry in existence has emerged from our reaction and response to nature. And, at this crucial point in time, we must deeply feel and comprehend our intimate connection with nature so that we can internalize how tightly bound we are to Earth’s ecological trajectory.
As the world begins to bloom this month, I am reading “Threshold of Spring,” one of Rilke’s many tree poems, as I like to call them, which includes these lines:
A softness, as if from everywhere,
is touching the earth.
Paths appear across the land and beckon.
Surprised once again you sense
its coming in the empty tree.
—Rainer Maria Rilke (listen to Threshold of Spring in full)
I hope you’ll join me in finding your own “empty tree,” and watching it bud and blossom this spring. Let’s place our palms on the bark, feel its pulse against our own, and visualize its connections with the next tree, and the next, and with the soil, and the plants, and ourselves as well. Let’s feel everything on this planet breathing as One.
Your Turn: Poetry Prompt
If this post resonated with you, try the following:
While forest bathing (or walking in a park or wooded area), select one bit of nature with which to commune for a few minutes. Write your observations and insights about that object in a poem.
- Poet Laura: For the Birds—A Poetry Reading … for Chickens - September 7, 2023
- Poet Laura: The Butterfly Effect—Year of the Monarch - August 4, 2023
- Poet Laura: I Surrender - July 6, 2023