Umrah is a pilgrimage that can be performed at any time of the year
John Muir, the respected Scottish-American naturalist, once called Muir Woods National Monument — named after him — “the best tree-lovers monument that could possibly be found in all the forests of the world”. As soon as I stepped into this forest, I knew what he meant.
This reserve of giant redwood trees is said to have a different character in different seasons, and on that warm spring day, it seemed to be aglow in a blanket of golden green. Walking with my neck craned to see the treetops reaching out to the skies, I had deep awareness of how I was but a mere speck in the scheme of things in the natural world. For California’s coastal redwoods (sequoia sempervirens) are said to be the tallest living things, with the loftiest of them at Muir Woods equalling the height of a six-foot man 45 times over. And they can live to over 2,200 years; these redwoods around me were comparatively young, with an average age of 600-800.
And while I was content just soaking in the soothing greenery and breathing in large lungfuls of fresh air, these trees were also busy playing a significant role in the ecosystem of the forest, supporting plant and animal life by recycling nutrients in the soil. This forest is home to 380 species of plants and animals, but I had eyes only for the superstars. After all, this park is known as the cathedral of coastal redwoods.
Back in San Francisco, I found myself still cloaked by the comforting sense of calm that I had experienced at the forest. I didn’t know it then, but I had gone ‘forest bathing’
— a mindfulness practice followed by the Japanese. Known as “shinrin-yoku”, this form of ecotherapy became popular in the 1980s, as an antidote to stress and burnout at work. It means experiencing the forest through all the senses, or mentally bathing in the recuperative goodness of nature.
Dr. Qing Li from Tokyo’s Nippon Medical School is an ardent practitioner and believer in the healing powers of shinrin-yoku, and author of the book Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness. He has said that time spent in the outdoors, especially among trees, has the power to heal both the body and mind —from disorders as varied as sleep disorders and chronic depression, to gastric troubles and high blood pressure.
The beauty of forest bathing is that there is no strenuous huffing and puffing involved, nor is there a need for high-tech devices. It is just a chance to take time out from the never-ending routine to connect with nature. At Muir Woods, all it required was for me to be completely present in that time and place. In the midst of such magnificence, I had no other choice anyway.
A few days later, on a drive down to Big Sur, I knew I had to stop at Big Basin Redwoods State Park for another look at these beautiful giants. This park is an easy detour just off Highway 1, with its sharp twists and turns, secret coves and cliffside walks along the Pacific coastline.
There was a time when these redwoods grew in abundance all along the west coast of America. Because of unchecked logging activities, they are now found in a small strip from Monterey in California to southern Oregon, making them all the more special and valuable to lovers of the outdoors.
Opened in 1902, Big Basin is the oldest state park in California, with 80 miles of mud trails that wind through the tall redwoods. Hiking the easy ‘Redwood Loop’ in that haven of ancient coastal redwoods, I felt alive in a way that city life could never make me feel. Indeed, the forest is a never-ending story of life and rejuvenation: even when a redwood falls with age or due to natural disasters like fire or floods, it doesn’t just die, but continues to exist through the multiple offspring of the original root structure. Along the trail, we came across examples of this in the form of rounded depressions on the ground, surrounded by living trees that carried on the parental legacy.
Along the trail that runs right along the slightly murky Opal creek, I stood for several minutes in silent awe in front of the 1,800-year-old Father of the forest, and its neighbour Mother of the forest — one of the tallest trees inside the park, at 293 feet, and still growing. We walked past evergreen tanbark oak and timber-rich Douglas fir trees, crossed clear streams and sat down to rest on natural hammocks created by the tree trunks reaching out to each other across the fecund soil.
Along the trail that runs right along the slightly murky Opal creek, I stood for several minutes in silent awe in front of the 1800-year-old Father of the forest, and its neighbour Mother of the forest – one of the tallest trees inside the park, at 293 feet, and still growing. We walked past evergreen tanbark oak and timber-rich Douglas fir trees, crossed clear streams and sat down to rest on natural hammocks created by the tree trunks reaching out to each other across the fecund soil.
At the Chimney Tree, I also got to experience the unmatched thrill of walking inside a tree. I stepped into the hollow base of this living, growing redwood and sat down to look up through the green treetops and the blue skies beyond. This was my own shinrin-yoku epiphany moment — when I came to fully understand the magic of meditative silence and mindful communion with nature.
Although there were dozens of other hikers, it felt like I had the whole, expansive space to myself. Perhaps these magnificent redwoods had encouraged people to unconsciously become slower and quieter, or perhaps they had taken over my mind so completely and thoroughly that I paid no heed to any other sound or sight. Either way, all I could sense was the dozen shades of green and brown, the occasional birdsong and the burble of flowing water. And more importantly, the strange and new quietude within.
Back home now, when the clamour and chaos of everyday existence get too loud, I mentally retreat to my silent space inside the heart of a giant redwood. And within moments, I find my breath slowing down and my mind calming down — and without even realising it, I have a serene smile on my face.
Umrah is a pilgrimage that can be performed at any time of the year
Replete with spiritual vibes, this is a place that people return to time and again
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