The Japanese have a practice translated in English as “forest bathing,” in which people immerse themselves in a forest as a preventative health measure.
Studies have shown tremendous benefits of this practice, including lower blood pressure, reduced stress and improved sleep, which in turn promote better focus, a boosted immune system and higher energy levels.
I can think of no better oasis to practice forest bathing than a local park.
The simplicity and benefits of a park, no matter where it is, cannot be overstated. Parks provide a place to reconnect with nature. Short sojourns offer a break to clear the mind and get exercise — to take care of ourselves physically and mentally, and to become spiritually recharged.
I recently had the fortune of visiting Dumbarton Oaks Park in Washington, DC, which provides that very opportunity.
Major urban centers, like DC, can be exciting places to live, but they can also be stressful and fast-paced. Dumbarton Oaks Park, situated in Georgetown with an entrance along R Street, offers residents and visitors a place to escape and connect with the natural world. It was formerly the home of Ambassador Robert and Mildred Woods Bliss, who donated the property to the National Park Service in 1940 to be a part of Rock Creek Park.
This 27-acre sanctuary offers a path along a small stream with gorgeous little waterfalls, each built so that the water makes a different sound as it goes over each fall. A stone bridge straight out of a transcendentalist essay took me over the stream and into a meadow at the foot of a hill covered with beech trees — my absolute favorite tree.
I walked through the park with members of the Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy, and they pointed out efforts to remove invasive plants and replace them with native species. At the same time, deer were sipping water less than 20 feet away from us. It was magical to see such a place in the heart of a major city. I felt refreshed and invigorated as I walked out from the forest and onto the city street.
Dumbarton Oaks is a wonderful example of how modern conservation can inspire our citizens. Through a partnership with the National Park Service and help from dedicated volunteers, the Dumbarton conservancy is restoring the park to its natural state. They are also repairing damage caused by stormwater runoff, which has eroded the stream banks, caused sediment buildup and damaged the stone waterfall structures.
The Chesapeake Conservancy, where I work, has joined this project, providing high-resolution data and analysis that have helped to identify which of these improvement projects will provide the greatest benefit and make the most of limited funding.
The process of restoration and the return of the park’s health are opportunities for educational programs. The Dumbarton conservancy offers such programs to local children to show them the ecological importance of restoring native plant species as well as the spiritual significance of accessing such a wonderful and wild place in a big city.
At the Chesapeake Conservancy, we believe the connection between people and the environment — whether to something as large as the Chesapeake Bay or a 27-acre park in the middle of DC — is vital to protecting the places like Dumbarton Oaks Park that sustain us physically, mentally and spiritually.