National Geographic : 2016 Jan
62 national geographic • january 2016 rates of depression, alcoholism, and suicide, government-funded researchers asked thou- sands of people to rate their moods and stress levels after visiting both natural and urban ar- eas. Based on that study and others, Professor Liisa Tyrväinen and her team at the Natural Resources Institute Finland recommend a min- imum nature dose of five hours a month—sever- al short visits a week—to ward off the blues. “A 40- to 50-minute walk seems to be enough for physiological changes and mood changes and probably for attention,” says Kalevi Korpela, a professor of psychology at the University of Tampere. He has helped design a half dozen “power trails” that encourage walking, mind- fulness, and reflection. Signs on them say things like, “Squat down and touch a plant.” Perhaps no one has embraced the medical- ization of nature with more enthusiasm than the South Koreans. Many suffer from work stress, digital addiction, and intense academic pressures. More than 70 percent say their jobs, which require notoriously long hours, make them depressed, according to a survey by elec- tronics giant Samsung. Yet this economically powerful nation has a long history of worship- ping nature spirits. The ancient proverb “Shin to bul ee—Body and soil are one” (not body and soul) is still popular. At the Saneum Healing Forest, east of Seoul, a “health ranger” offers me elm bark tea, then takes me on a hike along a small creek, through shimmering red maples, oaks, and pine-nut trees. It’s autumn, and the changing foliage and crisp air have lured scores of urban refugees to the woods. Soon we come upon a cluster of wooden platforms arranged in a clearing. For- ty middle-aged firefighters who have been di- agnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder are paired off on the platforms as part of a free three-day program sponsored by the local gov- ernment. In North America groups of men in the woods likely would be hunting or fishing, but here, after a morning of hiking, they practice partner yoga, rub lavender massage oil into each other’s forearms, and make delicate dried flower collages. Among them is Kang Byoung-wook, a weathered 46-year-old from Seoul. Recently returned from a big fire in the Philippines, he looks exhausted. “It’s a stressed life,” he says. “I want to live here for a month.” Saneum is one of three official healing for- ests in South Korea, but 34 more are planned by 2017, meaning most major towns will be near one. Chungbuk University offers a “forest heal- ing ” degree program, and job prospects for grad- uates are good; the Korea Forest Service expects to appoint 500 health rangers in the next couple of years. It’s a cradle-to-grave operation: Pro- grams include everything from prenatal forest meditation to woodcrafts for cancer patients to At the Twin Oaks Communities Confer- ence in Louisa, Virginia, where people from around the world come to talk about eco- villages, cooperative housing, and how to live closer to nature, a conference attendee immerses herself in the communal mud pit.