“If you love a tree, you will be more beautiful than before!” – Amit Ray.
This year, the theme for the International Day of Forests, “Forests and Health,” is an invitation and an opportunity to reflect on what these expansive ecosystems do for us and how we can, in turn, serve them through conservation, species preservation, mindful nutrition, and ecological awareness.
Over time, humans have lived in and interacted with forests in myriad capacities. The vast and variable vegetation in them has fed us with rich nutrients; their respiratory systems have cleaned the air so we can breathe more readily; the motherly arms of trees have provided dense shelter—sustained us by supporting our mental and physical well-being. Whether we live in them, near them, or far away from them in urban areas, forests benefit us in integral ways, both directly and indirectly. They can help us reduce the risk of certain diseases and health conditions by lowering stress levels, promoting healthy gut biomes (just being in forests can allow our bodies access to this benefit), and giving us places to be inspired and connect (Un.org).
The Ancient Greeks believed in Dryads: tree spirits that inhabited trees, giving them souls and voices—products of a creation myth; Japanese folklore tells of the Kodama, a tree-like spirit that may impose a curse on those who would cut it down; Central and South America has the holy and medicinal Palo Santo Tree, held sacred by those who have relied on its healing properties for centuries. Each culture upholds its own belief on the worth of trees and forests; its own reverence for these natural phenomena; each has its unique way of honoring, protecting, and acknowledging the power of these ancient, wooded landscapes. Yet, we watch helplessly each year as another patch of this wondrous ecosystem ignites or shrivels due to ever-increasing drought—the consequences of climate change and our own behavior.
I grew up in rural England; a forest or patch of accessible, vibrant woodland was never far away (in England, there are public footpaths even on private land so that most natural landscapes can be connected). Through these dense and active environments, I learned about the seasons, local animal and bird populations, flora, and fauna. I learned about the sacred Yew and Hawthorn and when to visit the Queenswood to walk the carpet of bluebells (which, incidentally, is late March to early May). Forests are central to my work as a musician, artist, and writer, and it’s most probably because of how these early experiences imprinted on me. I was lucky. As an adult now living in a semi-urban neighborhood in Northern California, I have to seek out old-growth forest with some effort, though it’s never that far away (California is more privileged than some other states, with just under a third of the land being forest). I don’t know anyone who did not meander down some kind of woodland path during the height of the pandemic; I think it says something when we are particularly drawn to forests in more hopeless times. Yet other factors have made some of these places a little less accessible to the general public as the years have progressed. Conservation areas are only necessarily, open during certain seasons or days of the week, either due to the delicate cycles of the creatures who live there or our over-use of the land; perhaps both. Sometimes we cannot visit these natural places without a docent or license. In the West, we have unlearned how to protect and respect our forests and their inhabitants to such a degree that the everyday person is no longer trusted, by those who know better, to walk these places unattended for fear we will inadvertently or purposefully do damage.
We have become expert gleaners; America is built upon it. Most things are available most of the time—for those who want or can afford it—things that we don’t even consider might be sourced from or connected to forests. When we smooth argan oil into our hair, we do not consider the distance it has traveled just to tame our frizzy locks (the nuts may have originated from a tree somewhere in North Africa). We sit with our laptops on pre-built desks, not knowing whether the pine used to seat our technology was sustainably sourced or where it was felled. We gulp down pills encased with cellulose, a non-toxic substance derived from wood (Rayonier.com). We drink coffee made from rainforests; coffee made from mushrooms; mushrooms that feed furred creatures fueling fungi that connect living organisms, silently, vitally, underneath the mossy bed of forests—the same organisms that connect us to the earthy places under our own skin. We talk about six degrees of separation, but in forests, this concept cannot truly exist because almost all things are connected by nature’s delicate and powerful symbiosis. Perhaps we can learn ourselves a little better—how to be alongside each other—by considering this.
We carry forests in our bodies. Whether we think of being connected to them or not, they are ever present, one microorganism, one root at a time. We are modern-day walking dryads, fibrous and alive. The responsibility is on us all to learn what we can do to help alleviate the pressures we put on our natural environments—the micro and the macro—and what is being done now in industry, science, literature, art, and agriculture to preserve our forests for future generations, so they can experience the same health benefits from these amazing places while learning to conserve and give back.
To find out more about how forests contribute to our individual and collective health and well-being, please visit the United Nations information page on the International Day of Forests here.
Baxmeyer’s Suggested Reading List
Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
Walden by Amy Berryman
Something New Under the Sun by Alexandra Kleeman
Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy
“The Ghost Birds” by Karen Russell
The Free People’s Village by Sim Kern
Activism in Commercial Climate Fiction (lecture available on YouTube) by Lauren James
Crews, J. Forest and Tree Symbolism in Folklore. www.fao.org/3/y9882e/y9882e07.pdf Accessed March 11, 2023.
FAO. 2020. Forests for human health and well-being – Strengthening the forest–health–nutrition nexus. Forestry Working Paper No. 18. Rome. https://doi.org/10.4060/cb1468en
Gharby, Said, and Zoubida Charrouf. “Argan Oil: Chemical Composition, Extraction Process, and Quality Control.” Frontiers in nutrition vol. 8 804587. 3 Feb. 2022, doi:10.3389/fnut.2021.804587
Rayonier. “Why are trees in so many medical products?” Rayonier.com. www.rayonier.com/stories/why-trees-are-in-so-many-medical-products/ Accessed March 10, 2023.
United Nations. “Healthy forests for healthy people.” UN.org. https://www.un.org/en/observances/forests-and-trees-day Accessed March 9, 2023.
Liz Baxmeyer is a writer, musician and visual artist living in Sacramento, CA, but originally from England. She is a graduate of Antioch’s MFA program (Cotinga cohort) where she concentrated in writing and contemporary media. Much of her work is inspired by the environment, folklore, and feminism, especially where these things intersect. Her work can be read in Syncopation Literary, The Examined Life Journal, Luna Station Quarterly, Querencia Press, Beyond Words Literary Magazine, and more. @lizbaxwrites