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Into the Woods

By Echo Garrett
Posted On Sep 15, 2016
Into the Woods

Learn the unexpected ways in which Mother Nature can nurture you. 

The invitation comes at the perfect time. My good friend Judy is planning a visit to Primland (primland.com), a 12,000-acre resort in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, and asks me to come along. “We’ll be staying in a tree house,” she says.

That’s all I need to hear.

I live a high-octane life, and my doctor had just told me that I was suffering from adrenal exhaustion. His main prescription? Have more fun. “What did you enjoy doing when you were younger?” he said as my mind raced back in time. “Get back to that.”

One of my favorite things when I was a kid was to climb trees and explore
the woods behind our house. I had just read about the many health benefits of Shinrin-yoku, which translates to “forest bathing.” The practice of spending dedicated and mindful time among trees has been popular in Japan and Korea for almost three decades and is now catching on in the United States. Several studies by Tokyo-based researcher Qing Li, M.D., Ph.D, president of the Japanese Society of Forest Medicine, show that breathing in phytoncides—a substance released by plants—lowers stress levels and blood pressure while boosting your immune system and your mood.

One of Dr. Li’s studies shows that spending time in the forest significantly increases a positive mood and decreases levels of anxiety, depression, and anger. Forest bathing is now routinely recommended in the East to minimize stress-related diseases. His other studies on immune function have found that a two-night, three-day stay in a forest along with three daily walks among the flora and the fauna significantly boosts a person’s natural killer (NK) cells, a key component in the immune system that fights cancer. The increase lasts as long as 30 days after such a trip. Even one day spent communing with nature means that the NK cells did their work for the next seven.

All of my life’s worth of travels left me unprepared for the wild beauty of this retreat, owned by a French family who is dedicated to the preservation of its pristine state. Judy and I are ushered to Cooper’s Hawk, our luxurious tree house, perched on a ledge overlooking the Dan River Gorge. We watch the sunset in silence from our rockers on the deck while observing hawks riding the wind currents at practically eye level, and listening to the spring green leaves rustle. I feel myself unfurl.

The next morning, our guide takes us on an ATV-tour among the woods and fields of wild flowers in the Meadows of Dan, where Primland is located. We
spy deer, pheasant, quail, geese, ducks, and wild turkeys as we wind up and down the trails that are wet with recent spring rains. The fresh mountain air feels crisp and cool in my lungs, leaving me invigorated as we splash through
the stream overflowing its banks. I start to understand that this feeling isn’t my imagination. My body craves the oxygen-rich air yielded by the old-growth forest that surrounds me.

On tap for the afternoon is tree climbing. I’m curious, wondering why we need climbing expert Bob Wray to guide us. I soon see why. Wray has developed a method for climbing the most challenging trees, similar to mountain climbing. He greets us with a smile. We put on helmets and harnesses, and he coaches us on how to use the system of pulleys and ropes to hoist ourselves up the 70-footer we will be scaling. The first branch is 20 feet up. The sugar maple in my front yard that I used to conquer with the help of my tricycle was no match for this challenging climb.

Judy and I climb for the better part of an hour. Our reward is that we get to rest in a hammock, 40 feet up above the ground, swaying in the breeze. A sense of peace envelops me and I drift off to sleep. When I awake, a hummingbird skims a nearby branch, so close I can almost touch him.

We are having lots of fun, so we consider moving our spa appointments to later in the afternoon. We don’t want to leave our incredible perch. Wray laughs at this. He understands our tree-loving dilemma.

On our last morning at Primland, we sign up for a guided fly fishing trip
that takes us to an upper part of the Dan River, one that isn’t easily accessible. We hike down the gently sloping woodland path, admiring the many types of ferns and the passionflower and trillium in bloom, punctuated by splashes of purple and sunny yellow wild flowers. We spend another half hour walking near the river before our guide instructs us to try our luck.

The wild trout elude us that day, but I don’t care. I soak up the sounds of the forest and the flow of the water. In this moment, I am exactly where I need
to be. What I have seen on this trip is far more valuable: The beauty of nature really can gently wash away my stress and restore my health.