Almost every day for the past five months, I have done the same seemingly crazy thing: In spite of having been severely ill with "long-haul" covid-19 for more than 130 days (it is day 150 as I write this), I have driven 30-45 minutes from my home in Albuquerque, to the mountains. I felt called to the dense green forests on the eastern sides of those mountains, and I went. It was not always easy. There were days I was dizzy and feverish as I drove, days when I felt I couldn't catch my breath, days when my stomach hurt, my chest hurt, my head hurt. There were days when I was convinced I would die there. Still, I went, because something deeper in me than my own bones was calling me to. Something I could not name.
I mean...What desperately ill woman in her right mind drags her aching body off, alone, into the woods, to sit, gasping for air under a silent massive tree all day? What kind of a lunatic woman, sick to her marrow, befriends a tiny, determined sapling in a rocky ravine off the trail, and names it, and talks to it, and brings it offerings of pretty pebbles? And yet this is exactly what I did.
I could not, at first, explain what it was that drew me to these forests - juniper at the lower elevations, oak and ponderosa pine up higher. But the pull was magnetic, and instinctive. I knew I had to be there.
As time went on, I realized I was able to walk further each time - a few dozen feet in April, before collapsing on a log as my heart went tachycardic and the world went swirly and quiet and I nearly passed out. By May, I could make it a quarter mile on the trails where, back before I got sick, I had been trail-running four miles at a pop, a couple times a week. May is also when I began picking juniper berries, eating them on the spot, because it seemed like the right thing to do. By June, I was back up to a mile. July, three miles, then four. And now, in August, I'm up to walking further than I used to run, six miles a day, every day.
Now, with the sickness behind me, thanks in large part to dietary and supplement changes (and in zero part to doctors), I've begun to research whether or not this call to the forests and trees that soothed me through my illness might have had something specific to do with my recovery.
Unsurprisingly, the answer is not just yes, but a resounding and deeply scientific YES.
We all know trees provide us with oxygen. I thought maybe that was what it was, my body craving oxygen and the forest providing it. I'm sure that's part of it. Part, but not all.
It turns out that trees do much more than just provide us with oxygen. Studies have shown that being around trees has a profound, measurable positive impact on human health, effecting everything from immune system function to blood pressure and concentration.
A study on the effects of "forest bathing" (spending time walking or being in a forest) in Japan (where forest bathing is even prescribed by doctors) showed a remarkable increase in Natural Killer cells (white cells that fight disease) activity among forest visitors. In other words, the immune response of people who did nothing but spend time around trees was much better than that of people who stayed in the city. The study attributes this difference to the breathing in of a substance emitted by trees, called phytoncides. The benefits to the immune system lasted 7 days after the forest visit.
Another study showed that walking in the forest lowered glucose levels in diabetic patients much more than walking in the city. People with ADHD have much-improved concentration in forests, according to another study. Other studies have shown that adding green spaces to city neighborhoods results in lowered stress hormone (cortisol) levels for those in the area. Visiting a forest also lowers blood pressure, improves mood, and leads to faster healing after surgery - which might explain why, after my emergency gallbladder removal in May, I felt pulled to the trees more than ever before.
There is something in all of us that remembers when we lived in the forest. I'm convinced that paying attention to that ancient ancestral voice, deep in my cells, helped me recover from covid-19 faster than I would have without the company of trees. And as for those juniper berries I craved, without ever having eaten them? They are full of antioxidants and are a powerful natural anti-inflammatory.
I know it's not possible for everyone to access a forest, but even if you can find and befriend a few trees in a nearby park, I think it can help.