Nature meets culture: Forest bathing, nature symphonies and more

© Elfstrom

Conservation is everywhere in pop culture — even if we don’t always recognize it as such. In an occasional series, we review shows, podcasts and more that bring nature to life for you.

Across the globe, one Japanese mindfulness practice is helping people combat depression, ease anxiety and boost their immune systems — just by stepping outside. 

Known as “shinrin-yoku” — or “forest bathing” — this practice goes one step further than a typical walk in the park, enabling a person to connect with nature without any distractions or objectives. 

While forest bathing, a person should engage all five of their senses to note every aspect of their surroundings, from the crisp smell of tree sap to the rhythmic melody of a bird’s call. 

The health benefits of this type of “ecotherapy” are backed by science, with a range of studies documenting that prolonged exposure to green space can reduce a person’s risk to type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure. Many doctors support forest bathing and other nature-related activities as a supplement to conventional Western medical care. 

Apart from its medical applications, forest bathing offers people around the world a chance to reconnect with nature — and take a breath of fresh air. A recent study revealed that the average American spends more than 90 percent of their time indoors, where the concentrations of some pollutants can be 2 to 5 times higher than levels found in many outdoor spaces. 

  • Ready to give forest bathing a try? Read National Geographic’s top five destinations to experience this unique Japanese tradition.

More than half of the global population lives in urban areas — and getting out of the city and into nature can be difficult for many. 

Luckily, a new podcast is working to make nature — or at least the sounds of nature — more accessible to city-dwellers across the globe. 

Each episode of “The Walking Podcast” follows author and conservationist Jon Mooallem as he strolls through the forests of the Pacific Northwest of the United States. Aside from the occasional thought spoken aloud — or grunt, as Mooallem slips on a pile of leaves — the podcast primarily features the gentle crackle of trees rustling in the wind, the crunch of snow beneath a pair of lug-soled boots and other ambient sounds of the natural world. 

This environmental soundscape is part of a growing trend within pop culture to target a listener’s ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) — described by psychologists as the “brain tingles” that a person experiences when they hear a pleasant sound. A recent study revealed that listening to an ASMR podcast or video can actually help lower a person’s heart rate and ease stress.  

Voted as the fourth-best podcast of 2019 by New York Magazine, “The Walking Podcast” can help a listener experience pleasant sounds of nature — and potentially a shower of brain tingles — no matter where they are.

Smartphones provide a constant stream of information to their owners, flooding one’s feed with news alerts, texts, tweets, emails and more. This can be overwhelming — and distracting. 

Ironically, a phone app called “Forest” could actually help people curb their screen time —while supporting reforestation efforts in Africa. 

With the catchphrase “Stay focused, be present,” the Forest app encourages users to stay off their phones by growing a virtual tree; the longer a user stays off their screen, the taller their tree will grow. If a user fiddles with their phone — whether to check social media or answer a text — their tree will wither away. 

Forest also offers a collaborative function that allows multiple users to grow a shared tree, which will die if any of the participants exit the app. Taking advantage of the power of positive peer pressure, this feature transforms an otherwise mundane resolution to limit screen time into a competitive team effort. 

Every time a user successfully grows their tree, it is added to their personal forest, offering a visual representation of how much time they are spending in the real world instead of the digital one. 

As users expand their virtual forests, they can also help plant actual trees in Senegal, Cameroon, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. The Forest app allows users to donate the virtual currency they earn by growing trees in the app to Trees for the Future, a U.S.-based environmental non-profit that supports farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa. This partnership has already helped to plant more than 650,000 trees.


Kiley Price is a staff writer at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.

Cover image: Sunlight shining through the forests of a jungle canopy. (© Elfstrom)

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