Forests and their therapeutic effect
A Japanese scientific study has discovered that walking in a forest has great therapeutic power, contributing to a good mood and lower levels of anxiety. The magnificence of the trees, the bright colours of their leaves, the pungent soil, and diverse foliage that populate this environment all stimulate a positive mood.
If we go further, we discover that this experience creates a profound sense of well-being – a kind of synthesis between the vibrant outside world and our hidden inner world. In our busy modern world, we often silence our inner thoughts and dreams. As we listen to the sensations of the forest, we are brought back to the memory of magical pages that we have read in our childhood and transported us to a fantasy world .
ACTIVITY – Close your eyes and think of a forest. What image comes to your mind?
Forests and childhood memories
Try asking your students when they first recall the word “forest“. The answers will be surprising. Forests begin to flood the imagination while we are young children as the settings of fairy tales, adventures, and even thrillers. The dark mysterious mass of trees give birth to emotions that stay with us well into adulthood.
Little Red Riding Hood is the first heroine of the forest: she crosses it bravely alone to visit her grandmother. And that’s not all. She meets one of the natural world’s most dangerous and ruthless creatures – the big bad wolf. Fortunately, through human cunning, the wolf is killed and Little Red Riding Hood is safe; however, the imagery remains embedded on our childhood minds. Regardless of language or culture, most adults around the world have this tale stored within their memory as a warning against the dangerous outside world.
The natural setting of the forest in these fairy tales trigger our most basic human emotions of curiosity, courage, fear, self-preservation, and even love, embedding their tales in our minds forever. As a child, our imagination creates the sounds and sights of an ancient dark forest that houses a dubious wolf. Little Red Riding Hood symbolizes the curiosity and naivete of our youth, braving the lonely expansive forest in search of her comforting grandmother, yet ignorant of the threat of the wolf to her own survival along the way. Although this story is about a little girl, it taps into the human tension between fear of unseen danger and attraction of unknown adventure. Re-entering the magnificence of the forest unhinges these primordial instincts buried in our psyche. Even as an adult, out for a walk in a familiar wood, the crack of a branch sends the twinge of fear up our spine and makes the hairs stand up on the back of our neck. Is it the wolf?!
ACTIVITY – Send a tweet to a friend with a 120-characters short story containing the words highlighted here above.
Legends of the forest
From fairytales to legends, the path winds deeper into the mythical forest of the human imagination. In King Arthur‘s narrative cycle, the forest is alive with magic and myth, testing the characters courage and will at every turn. In the forest, humans are vulnerable, unprotected, and at the will of the elements. In many medieval narratives of past and present, the forest represents the fear of the unknown. For King Arthur and his knights, these internal battles take place within the Forest of Brocéliande as they face thick insurmountable vegetation or magical opponents. Knights armed to the teeth, fear the hidden inhabitants of the forest that not even a sword can stop. The oaks and beeches of these legends are home to fairies and goblins, unpredictable creatures who tease and taunt humans. A witch may cast a spell. A monster can crush their bones. Or perhaps their imagination will run wild and haunt their dreams. Fortunately, Merlin , King Arthur’s wizard friend, can decode the mysterious forest messages and mystical creatures. Merlin’s spiritual connection to the forest allows him to decipher symbols, foil danger, and foresee the emergence of magical creatures. He represents the purest form of human instinct and our deep connection to nature , reassuring us of our ability to understand and ultimately conquer it. As we venture into the forest through literature, we are forced to confront our collective human history and our place within the natural world .
Other characters, like Merlin, feel at home in the forest. The legendary figure of Robin Hood demonstrates how a forest can be a refuge from external dangers. In this fictionalized story, Robin and his group of Merry Men fight against the corruption of the Crown. The forest provides a safe haven from the evils of society for this band of hooligans. The treacherous and wealthy Sheriff of Nottingham is afraid of Sherwood Forest, as it represents the freedom and uncertainty of the natural world. Even though he desperately wants to capture Robin Hood, he refuses to venture in the forest where he has no control over the environment and is vulnerable to one of Robin Hood’s many ambushes. He prefers to lure Robin Hood out into his realm where he can apply his human laws and resources to capture and punish Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men. In this story, the forest represents ultimate rejection of material possessions and social conventions in favor of freedom. Robin Hood symbolizes the state of nature, whereby man lived according to his desire and emotions, only adhering to the natural law of respecting one’s environment.
ACTIVITY – Which word matches each character best according to your opinion? Explain why and discuss!
The forest as a meaningful life in contact with nature
The American poet, philosopher, and naturalist, Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), wrote extensive on respect and freedom in the context of nature. He is the greatest witness of how to cultivate a meaningful life in contact with nature. Thoreau loved the natural world, believing in the free essence of the individual (in fact, he was an abolitionist and a transcendentalist). He sought deep and real contact with the natural world. In 1845, he built a simple house in Walden Pond, an area in the middle of the woods owned by his friend and fellow poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson. He lived there until 1847, writing and living in contact with the trees, the forest, and the natural world in its deepest essence. From his experiences was born Walden or Life in the Woods (1854), a philosophical essay that reflected on his life in the woods for two years. Walden has become a reference text for anyone who wishes to find a deeper connection with nature, following his or her instincts and inclinations, inspired by its existence to at a minimum understand his or her own relationship as part of the natural world.
As Thoreau himself wrote:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”
This is the great lesson of the forest.
All you need to do is walk beneath the trees and let go of the sensations you feel, to imagine your adventure, to be inspired, and ultimately to grow.
TO GO FURTHER – The Talking Forest
1) Divide the class into groups of equal size.
2) Each group chooses a theme concerning the forest (see below for suggestions).
3) On a sheet of paper each group should write3 to 7 sentences concerning the chosen theme, then create a title for their work.
4) After completing a paragraph on the forest together, the groups can read their paragraphs aloud and share them with the other groups.
5) The final task is to assemble all the individual group texts together, establish a general title for the group narrative, and read the completed text to the class.
6) If you want to take it a step further, you can formulate the completed text into a theatrical drama to be performed in front of an audience.
– natural components (flora and fauna)
– ways of living
– literary characters who have a link with the forest (e.g. Robin Hood, Little Red Riding Hood, Merlin the Wizard, the Knights of the Round Table, the Unicorn)