A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

My mother and I have been looking forward to our forest bathing appointment for weeks. We’re late. I curse as I make another wrong turn while driving through the North

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

My mother and I have been looking forward to our forest bathing appointment for weeks. We’re late. I curse as I make another wrong turn while driving through the North

Soak in the Trees

My mother and I have been looking forward to our forest bathing appointment for weeks. We’re late.

I curse as I make another wrong turn while driving through the North Carolina Arboretum in Asheville.


“This is supposed to be RELAXING!” I yell.

“It would be more relaxing if you wouldn’t use that language,” my mother says.

Exactly what language would be appropriate here, lady? I think as my mother folds the unread arboretum map in her lap. I make another wrong turn.

“It’ll be fine,” she says, more gently. “We have time.”

When we pull into the parking lot to meet our forest bathing group, our guide, Christa Hebal from Asheville Wellness Tours, greets us with an open kindness, hands us a pair of sit-upons, and tells us that she’s glad we came to bathe in the forest with her.

Christa Hebal (center) begins forest bathing tours by helping participants get into the right frame of mind. photograph by Charles Harris

And before you get any ideas, forest bathing doesn’t involve any actual bath-taking. Instead, it’s about bathing your senses in the whole of a forest with the help of a certified guide. The goal is to let down your walls and release yourself of the worries of the man-made world.

In Japan, this practice is called shinrin-yoku, or “forest bath.” It’s been medically prescribed as part of Japan’s national health program since the 1980s. Today, some North Carolina doctors prescribe time in nature, too.

Something about walking among the trees can release us from the daily stressors that twine and tighten inside us. It turns out that forest bathing can lower your blood pressure and heart rate, and increase your mental and emotional well-being. Chemicals from trees can boost our immune systems. Forest bathing can increase self-esteem and reduce stress.

This is good news for North Carolinians because our state ranks fourth in the nation in total forested area. More than half of our state remains forested, and more than a million acres are national forests, open to all who want to wander.

Our group of nine wanders behind Hebal. We hail from at least four home states, and our ages span more than 50 years between the youngest and oldest of us. Most of us are strangers to one another.

We reach the threshold to the woods, where trees touch tips to make a tunnel, separating cultivated arboretum from the wild woods that border Pisgah National Forest. Here, Hebal asks us to pick up a piece of nature and leave it there as a gesture symbolizing that we are leaving something behind on our journey.

My mind starts racing: What am I supposed to leave behind? Should it be something big? Fears or anxieties? Should it be something smaller? My annoyance with myself for being late? The franticness of schedules, appointments, arguments? What is Mama leaving behind? What about these strangers?

I miss the opportunity. I put a pine cone next to the threshold like everyone else but can’t slow my brain enough to figure out what else I’m leaving here.

“Welcome,” Hebal says as we enter the woods. “We have time here.”

Forest bathing with Hebal is a series of invitations followed by a walk in the woods. At each invitation, we gather. As we pass around a piece of the forest, a twig or pine cone or leaf, we share a bit about what we found.

Hebal guides her flock with intentions that we try to set for ourselves. Taste the air. Listen. She invites us to cup our hands at our ears to focus the sound. To turn our cupped hands to face behind us and hear sounds all around. From one direction, we hear birds and insects, whirs and trills coming from beings made invisible by the lush growth. When we turn our hands to face behind us, we hear the splash and murmur of water from an unseen brook. Hebal teaches us to “walk as though we are kissing the earth with our feet,” a nod to Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. Touch the textures of the natural world. Look for its colors, its light and shadow.

What we are not doing, I learn, is hiking.

“We miss a lot while we’re hiking,” Hebal says. I always knew it, I think. I loathe hiking, mostly because it’s a form of exercise disguised as “enjoying nature.”

During the walks, bathers share with one another the treasures — pieces of nature — that they find in the forest. photograph by Charles Harris

What we also are not doing, is taking a naturalist walk. I learn this while bent over some wild ginger, trying to figure out which crane fly species is mating on its leaves.

“Forest bathing drops us out of our analytical minds to remind us of the whole of what we are,” Hebal says. Nuts. I think as I right myself. Walking around nature looking for things is my favorite activity.

“Slow our hectic pace,” Hebal tells us. “Even the squirrels do that.”

I can be a squirrel and slow my hectic pace. A squirrel among the riot of mountain laurel and rhododendron, the sourwood trees with bark like crocodile hides. The hornets and ground beetles. A squirrel with her mother, who quoted Robert Frost at our first invitation to share with the group. A squirrel who’s not late, one who has lots of time.

I know a secret about the forest: Its time is very different from our time. Under the ground, filaments of fungi called mycelium bind to tree roots. They spread from root to root, tree to tree, living hairs that connect the woods. Through these hairs, the trees talk to each other, take care of each other. Robust mother trees can feed those who are hungry. They can coddle their saplings, encourage them to grow. Using chemicals in the air, they also cry out to each other. When we cut one down, remaining trees can still send the chopped tree the food that it can no longer make for itself. They make nutrients with their leaves and send them to their old friend underground. They take their time, take care, and they don’t forget. In this way, they keep their fallen friend alive.

“There is joy in grief,” Hebal says, “grief in joy.”

The trees take their time for each other even as we walk quietly among. Every footstep affects 300 miles’ worth of mycelium beneath the ground. The trees know we are here. They could tell each other if they wanted to.

We gather treasures from the forest, relishing textures and colors. I pick up a fallen piece of lichen, ruffled and leathery. Others find leaves, rocks, bark, and tumbled laurel blossoms.

At the end of the tour, Hebal performs a tea ceremony. photograph by Charles Harris

As our walk comes to its end, we place our forest treasures in a pile between us next to a creek. Waterways works like mycelium. This creek flows to the French Broad River, heads north to the Tennessee and Ohio rivers and on to the sea. What messages are carried there? What of our few minutes together will remain by the time it reaches the Atlantic?

We stand under the trees, with the light around us changing as a gentle breeze shifts and sways the leaves above. We came from different places, but for a few minutes, we are together under the trees, connected by this experience that we shared. How far will these moments follow us after we leave?

Tea is made with ingredients from nature, and pairs well with post-walk snacks of nuts and chocolate. photograph by Charles Harris

We complete our forest bath with a tea ceremony. Hebal brews us tea from white pine needles. She pours a cup onto the ground for those who couldn’t be with us and one for the forest itself. The whole of the forest, not just the crane flies and ginger, not just the sourwood trees and mountain laurel. The sounds of birds, of footsteps, of water tumbling over rocks. The occasional hikers and dogs. They’re part of this, too. No cell phone notifications, no wondering which species. Just a wholeness, a fullness.

“We have time,” Hebal tells us, the same thing my mother said when we were running late. It was the same thing Hebal was saying when I couldn’t figure out what parts of my own small life to leave behind. We have time for each other, time taken and time given. But we also have the unmeasured spools of forest time, a time that leaps clear of speculation and bathes us only in what is. We have time for peace.

To learn more about forest bathing with Asheville Wellness Tours, call (828) 407-0711 or visit ashevillewellnesstours.com/tour/guided-forest-bathing-nature-therapy.

This story was published on Aug 28, 2023

Eleanor Spicer Rice

Eleanor Spicer Rice earned her Ph.D. in entomology at North Carolina State University. She is the author of Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Ants of New York City.