A dozen people stand in two rows facing each other, eyes closed, holding rocks in their palms. Moments later they are traipsing through Central Park, following their guide. They arrive at a boulder-filled clearing and spread out, sprawling over rocks, sitting with their knees drawn up or standing silently. Over the course of a few hours, they meditate and wander their way through Central Park, creating art projects out of sticks and pinecones and focusing on single trees for minutes at a time. Eventually, they gather in a circle and share what they’ve learned from nature, then the forest bathing walk is complete.
This scene takes place in a video on the website of Cultured Forest, a forest bathing company started by certified forest therapy guide Brooke Mellen. A forest bathing walk typically involves walking slowly through a forest, while focusing on your surroundings. Brooke starts each forest bathing walk by explaining the science behind the practice. The concept of forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, was established in 1982 by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in response to a spike in stress-related illnesses.
Numerous studies have shown that spending time in a forest can reduce the stress hormone cortisol, lower blood pressure, strengthen the immune system and improve overall well-being. But there’s also evidence that simply focusing on nature can be good for you. A few small studies have found that looking at pictures of nature or seeing nature through a window can speed up surgical recovery and lower stress levels.
Brooke, a 43-year-old from Topeka, leads forest bathing walks around the globe and runs a business that fits her talents and interests — including a love of nature, photography and art consulting. In 2019, she pivoted from working as a claims adjuster at an art insurance company to starting Cultured Forest in New York City — a very unforest-y place. She’s part of a new wave of American forest therapy guides who are working to bring forest bathing to people and places that aren’t obvious targets for what can sound like the newest overpriced wellness trend.
“I don’t try to create this huge sort of deeply healing experience,” says Brooke, speaking to me via Zoom from Austin. “I’m just helping people. It’s very simple. What I’m trying to do is help them slow down, get out of the worry, start to notice the beauty of what’s going on around them.”
Brooke trains forest therapy guides, leads forest bathing walks for individuals and businesses, gives advice on art collecting, works with companies to incorporate nature into their offices, and takes photographs of nature. She went to Japan to get her certification in forest medicine and has led forest bathing sessions in Melbourne, Finland, San Francisco, Austin and Tucson.
“It’s just been a very interesting journey for me, where whatever opportunities came, I would consider them,” Brooke says. “And I would try things out. People would come to me and say, I need you for this or that.”
And she would do it. Less than a year after Brooke started Cultured Forest, COVID hit and it was no longer possible to take people on in-person walks. Brooke created virtual experiences, intended for New Yorkers, where she led meditations and asked participants to imagine themselves in a forest. People from around the globe joined in, looking for a sense of community during a time of isolation.
“I was trying to recreate some of the calm and health benefits that you get from being in nature indoors to help people,” Brooke says.
That summer, George Floyd was killed, and protests erupted across the country. Brooke created an event for Black-owned outdoor businesses, and taught owners the fundamentals of forest therapy. Afterwards, one of the participants asked her to train him to be a forest therapy guide.
“So I developed a training,” Brooke says. “I was able to adapt my business model to be able to do that.”
That virtual training drew participants from across the world, including Erin Plum, a field instructor at an outdoor education center in Jamestown, Colorado. She picked Brooke’s training program because it was much cheaper ($750) and less time intensive (three Zoom meetings over six weeks) than other options.
“Her training is unique because she’s really trying to meet people where they are and help them figure out how to incorporate forest bathing into what they’re already doing,” says Erin.
Erin doesn’t plan to become a full-time forest therapy guide any time soon, but she says Brooke’s cheaper training model allows her to dabble in the practice.
“It really met my needs,” says Erin.
Brooke believes that forest bathing should be accessible to everyone. She offers community pricing for groups in financial need and makes an effort to work with disadvantaged groups. She’s told her story at events as a way of inspiring women to get outdoors. She says she was in a secure financial position when she started Cultured Forest, and didn’t have to worry about supporting herself solely through the company.
“I want it to be something where I can enjoy nature and help others enjoy nature and not have to make some grand living doing it,” says Brooke.
But the road to Cultured Forest was a winding one.
When Brooke was growing up in Topeka, her family would go to lakes or go on walks in their spare time. Her father, who she calls a “mountain man” from Utah, would take her and her brother on weekend nature trips to go fishing or take motorcycle rides. He worked with Vietnam veterans at the VA as a social worker, and used nature as an escape from hearing difficult stories.
“I learned from him that taking some time, spending time outdoors, connecting with nature is a good way to sort of relieve stress,” says Brooke.
It didn’t really hit home how much she loved nature until she moved to New York in 2004 to get a master’s in visual arts administration at NYU, and realized she missed being able to connect with nature on a daily basis.
After graduating from NYU, Brooke worked as a risk manager at Sotheby’s and the vice president of claims and loss consulting at an asset protection company. The work was interesting, but not her life path.
“I had always wanted to take some time to run my own business,” says Brooke. “I was like, okay, I’ll make a business out of my process of self-discovery in nature.”
Marianna Shvartsapel, a software engineer who lives in San Francisco, has experienced firsthand the benefits of forest therapy. She used to live in New York and participated in three of Brooke’s guided walks.
“I found it very relaxing and nourishing and really restorative,” says Marianna. “I remember feeling really good after those walks, and feeling more in touch with myself and the natural world around me.”
Marianna and Brooke have kept in touch since Marianna moved to California, and Marianna describes Brooke as strong, adventurous, resilient and creative.
“I feel she has a very deep sense of the healing power of nature,” says Marianna. “She is following her heart, and is exploring ways of doing meaningful work that is beneficial for others and for the world.”
Over the years, Brooke says she’s had all sorts of people come to her walks. NYU students who just moved from China and were stressed about their classes. Wives who brought their skeptical husbands. A veteran who spoke at length about a tree that had been through a lot, but was still standing.
“I ask them not to talk about the day to day,” says Brooke. “I want you to really notice what’s going on around you.”
During the pandemic, there was a renewed awareness of the importance of nature, and a corresponding increase in interest in forest bathing. But proponents of forest bathing emphasize that this isn’t a new concept.
“[Forest bathing] became a buzz word here… maybe the last five to ten years,” says Julia Plevin Oliansky, founder of the San Francisco-based The Forest Bathing Club and author of The Healing Magic of Forest Bathing. “But the practice of being connected to nature and being in an intimate relationship with nature is as old as humans.”
What is new is a paid industry built around spending time in nature. Forest bathing guides charge anywhere from $25 to $200 for a forest bathing experience, and getting certified in forest medicine will typically set you back $1,000 to $3,200.
But practitioners are adamant that forest bathing isn’t exclusive, and is instead part of the solution to getting people more involved with nature.
“You can do it in your backyard, you can do it in a city park, New York has great places for forest bathing… the cloisters are like primo place for forest bathing,” says Melanie Choukas-Bradley, a D.C.-based naturalist and forest bathing guide, and author of The Joy of Forest Bathing and Resilience: Connecting with Nature in a Time of Crisis. “You don’t need a pristine forest.”
All you need, according to these guides, is to be intentional about being in nature. Each of the guides I spoke to seemed to be making a concerted effort to reach a wider audience than well-off, fit, white health junkies — something that, in the wellness space, forest bathing might be ideally suited to.
As Julia puts it, many people might say meditation or yoga isn’t for them. “But no one says nature is not for me.”
The Forest Bathing Club offers a free guide to starting your own forest bathing club, with optional paid support programs. If you’re a person of color who wants to start a club, they offer a complimentary start up session.
“White or affluent people live in places that have better access to nature than people of color,” says Julia. “And there’s a lot of systemic injustice around that because…having access to nature is so beneficial to our health.”
Melanie rattles off a list of communities she’s led walks for: conservative organizations, people who are tuned into healthy living, freshmen in high school, elderly people, African-American neighborhoods. She tells me that when her father-in-law had Alzheimer’s, she would wheel him up to trees in his wheelchair and hand him pine needles or cones so he could smell the pine.
“He just loved it,” she says. “So I mean, it’s really for all stages of life, all people.”
And despite being paid to guide people on walks, all three practitioners say that forest bathing alone–without a guide–is wonderful. Melanie lists alternate ways for people to do forest bathing on their own: incorporate it into meditation, Tai Chi, yoga, hiking, biking or kayaking.
“I hope they will discover that sense of joy and wonder they had as children, when they were just running around in the yard,” says Melanie. “And they do.”
All the guides want people to reap the same benefits from forest bathing that they have experienced.
“If I’m seeing a lot of green, and a lot of colors, and a lot of textures, [it] is very good for my brain and good for me,” says Brooke.
With almost three years as a business owner under her belt, Brooke wants to lean further into her artistic passions. She hopes to continue exploring nature and to share more of her nature photos in galleries. With COVID-19 hopefully waning, she is excited at the idea of being able to once again lead forest bathing walks outside of New York.
“My main message is when things get tough, consider what it is that you love, and what brings you joy, whether that’s nature, whether that’s something else, and devote some time to that,” says Brooke. “Once I started devoting time to my passion, and what I love… all these new avenues kind of opened that I never knew were available to me.”