Sonoma County's Amos Clifford guides Japanese practice of ‘forest bathing'
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.
Clifford still makes a point of getting outside to lead forest therapy excursions, including a recent four-day camping trip to Sugarloaf. More than a dozen people from across the United States joined him for the event.
“If I’m going to be an international trainer and spokesman for this, I want to keep my street cred,” he said.
Forest bathing involves stripping down only in the sense of removing one’s day-to-day concerns to focus on the present moment. The goal is not exercising the physical body, but calming the mind to ultimately achieve a more relaxed state.
At Sugarloaf on a recent morning, Clifford invited Sonoma psychotherapist Susan Karle to close her eyes while she caressed a smooth stone she held in her hand.
“If there’s anything that distracts you, ask the stone to hold it,” Clifford said.
Further along the trail, Clifford instructed Karle to use her “body radar” to find a tree.
“If you’re holding something or would like support for something, ask the tree,” he said.
Clifford is acutely aware of how such moments might sour some people on the concept of forest bathing. At his Santa Rosa office overlooking the Ninth Street railroad tracks, he explained that he does not explicitly highlight what he referred to as the “culturally loaded” concepts of Buddhism, meditation and other mind-body practices in his work.