Removing his sandals, Amos Clifford walked barefoot over a bed of golden brown leaves blanketing a trail at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park.
Beads of perspiration formed on his forehead beneath the brim of an Australian bush hat. Regarded as an authority on “forest bathing,” the 61-year-old Sonoma Mountain resident treaded slowly, absorbing every sensation that greeted him this warm morning at the park near Kenwood.
After crossing a bridge, the father of two sat down in a fold-out chair. Above him, a squirrel performed a circus act of vaults in the canopy of a large oak tree. Clifford grinned as he recalled being pelted on the head by acorns on an earlier visit to the park.
“It’s a good sign,” he said. “I think prosperity is coming.”
Clifford has journeyed a long way to reach this place in his life, beginning in Santa Barbara, where he sought escape from a troubled youth in the botanical gardens, nature museums and forests near his mother’s Mission Canyon home.
Today, the trained Zen practitioner and former wilderness guide is at the center of a worldwide movement to get people back into nature in an effort to improve their physical, mental and spiritual health. The movement is known by many names, but for Clifford and a growing number of his acolytes, it centers on the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, which translated means “forest bathing.”
Developed in 1982 by Japan’s Forestry Agency, shinrin-yoku combines elements of Shinto and Buddhist practices to promote intense awareness of natural surroundings in its practitioners, which in Japan includes legions of stressed-out urbanites.
A growing body of scientific research shows that time spent in nature results in measurable health benefits, including eased symptoms of depression and anxiety, improved cognitive function and lowered blood pressure. Some physicians and mental-health professionals have begun prescribing nature time-outs as part of their practices.
Getting outdoors is good for us. And few places on Earth provide a better laboratory for proving that theory than on the North Coast, where forest bathing, eco-therapy and other similarly-themed excursions are starting to proliferate.
At Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve in Guerneville, “forest therapy” walks are now regular offerings.
The jaunts help restore perspective for people pulled in different directions by the demands of their personal and professional lives, according to Michele Luna. She is executive director of Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, which operates the park.
“If we can find ways like this to bring that balance back, we can be happier,” Luna said.
Several years ago, Clifford was seeking ways to reach a broader audience for his nature advocacy work when he happened upon an article about forest bathing. After researching the concept, he established the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs, which Clifford said is the nation’s first — and to date, only — organization offering certification in guided forest therapy.
The standards are those that Clifford developed himself. For a fee, he or members of his small team certify guides. Clifford travels extensively for the work, including a trip planned next summer to Japan, the birthplace of shinrin-yoku. He said he also will be featured in an upcoming segment of National Geographic Explorer that was filmed on location at Sugarloaf.
Amos Clifford's 5 favorite forest bathing spots
Finding settings to apply the principles of forest bathing isn’t hard to do in Sonoma County, nor does it necessarily require an actual forest. Amos Clifford said one of his favorite “sit spots” is near an oak tree at his Sonoma Mountain home. There he’ll decamp for 20 minutes or so and let nature take over. “It’s nothing more complicated than that,” he said. “You sit and hang out with the critters.”
Some of Clifford’s other favorite forest bathing locations:
Laguna de Santa Rosa — Clifford parks at the main lot on Highway 12 and heads out on the 1.8-mile multi-use trail, which is open to hikers and equestrians. The trail runs on the east side of the laguna channel between Highway 12 and Occidental Road. “If you’re working in downtown Santa Rosa and want to get out, it’s only a 10 minute drive (to the laguna),” Clifford said.
Ragle Ranch Regional Park — This 157-acre park includes a grove of oak trees and a nature trail that leads to Atascadero Creek, both ideal settings to connect with nature.
Red Hill Trail at Sonoma Coast State Beach — The 5.8-mile trail is accessed across from Shell Beach on Highway 1, south of Jenner. Clifford said he enjoys walking to a redwood grove at the top of the ridge.
Quarry Hill Botantical Garden — “It’s near my office,” he said.
Luther Burbank Gardens in Santa Rosa — “Take some food and enjoy the spaciousness of being outside. Turn off your cellphone.”