Sometimes, heading outside in winter is less about getting exercise and more about the sensory experience of simply being that is central to forest bathing.
The shhhh shhhh shhhh of my skis, the click of my poles, the wind, and my own breathing are all I hear. When I stop, it’s just the soft ticking of snow on my jacket. Everything is white and gray and sepia, blurred by the fast-falling flakes.
This morning we woke to a bright, clear sky and six inches of fresh, fluffy snow. When we went out, my almost-two-year-old simply craned his neck and said, “Sky.” By the time I stepped into my cross-country ski bindings in the late afternoon, it had clouded up again, the snow was falling fast, and the temperature was dropping toward single digits. But this is my favorite way to get out among the woods and fields of winter — there’s nothing like forest bathing on skis.
I ski down the driveway and up our dead-end dirt road to a series of fields bordered by woods. The snow is deep enough to provide a good base but light enough to move through without great effort. People will tell you that forest bathing is not about exercise. Just wander around, slowly and aimlessly, they say; see what you see. On a cold winter day, though, you have to keep moving to stay warm.
The truth is, sometimes exercise is not about exercise. Sometimes it’s about remembering your body, your breath, your heartbeat — the way your muscles remember a repetitive motion or familiar route. And since remembering your body as a feeling, sensing organism among so many marvelous sensing organisms is a key part of what is being called forest bathing these days, then I say: whatever works.
Tufts of unhayed grass spurt up here and there through the snow, whispering dryly as I ski over them. My fingers are numb inside my gloves, but I know they will warm up. In the woods to my right, a few desiccated beech leaves still cling to their branches, hissing as the snow tumbles off them.
There are so few colors in a winter landscape like this that when they do appear, they can be startlingly bright. Splotches of green lichen on tree trunks stand out far more than they do in summer. I look up at a limb of white birch: blue, green, pink, and yellow lichen make an unexpected rainbow. I think, as I often do when looking at lichen, of Elizabeth Bishop’s beautiful love poem “The Shampoo,” which begins by imagining the concentric rings of slow-growing lichen as having arranged “to meet the rings around the moon, although / within our memories they have not changed.” Such slowness feels right this time of year. Plans and dreams and goals? Sure, those too, but obtained (perhaps) through the nearly impossible patience of lichen.
As I ski along the farthest edge of the field — where, from a distance, I often see deer or coyote standing with ears perked — I scan the ground for tracks. But there’s only this fresh sweep of snow, no sign that any warm body has been here today at all. As I head home, fingers warm now, breath steady, a quick wingbeat flutters some twenty feet above my head: the signature flap, dip, and glide pattern of a woodpecker.
I can’t help it: though the snow and skis have helped me feel winter’s lightness, my mind leaps ahead to spring. In just two months, there will be woodcock in this same field, performing their acrobatic mating dance, circling higher and higher, specks in the sky, before plummeting, daredevils, to the grassy field below.
I look up into the dizzying squall. I can wait.