In mid-February 2016, I started taking women on walks in the woods, singly and in groups.
I started because the Jian Ghomeshi sexual assault trial had started and the coverage of the cross-examinations of the victims was everywhere and women in my life had started to talk, online and in person, about how they were angry and sad, how they were having trouble coping. Add this to the normal aches and pains, the doldrums, of the coldest weeks of winter, to full-time work or full-time studies, to family and household on top of it all, and I had the sense that people – and women especially – were struggling.
So I posted this to my Facebook page on February 1: “If anyone is having an especially hard time over the coming weeks, let me know. I’ll take you for a walk in the woods.”
By woods, I meant Assiniboine Forest, 287 hectares of aspen and oak parkland in southwestern Winnipeg, and one of my favourite places in the world.
My logic was that a walk in the Assiniboine Forest would help, at least temporarily, because of the exercise, and because of the time spent in the woods. Walking in the forest always made me feel better, no matter what mood I’d had when I arrived there. It also felt like something I could do. I wanted to offer the women around me some consolation; I’m not sure what it says about me that the only consolation I could think to offer was to take people on walks in the forest.
Wanting to quantify what I had been feeling when I made this offer, I turned to the research on people, public health, and trees.
“Many chronic diseases can, at least partly, be attributed to dysfunctional prolonged stress reactions,” write Matilda van den Bosch and William Bird in their introduction to the 2018 edition of the Oxford Textbook of Nature and Public Health: The Role of Nature in Improving the Health of a Population.
“While we are developed for a life connected to nature, we are today mostly spending our days in urban indoor settings experiencing stress from factors like economic uncertainties, management of conflicts, or hostile urban realms without opportunities for recovery.”
What’s more, van den Bosch and Bird note that according to World Health Organization (WHO) data, how we get sick in cities seems to be changing too.
“Noncommunicable diseases are currently dominating the global disease burden. This means that diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, obesity, and mental disorders have surpassed infectious diseases as the main health issues globally.”
For the twenty years I’d been walking in Assiniboine Forest, I’d walked alone or with my partner. Sometimes, I’d take a friend or two, but I’d never taken a group. I was a bit leery about how it might look and feel – too loud? too busy?
I realized that the women who were choosing to be there, were coming with me because they were curious about Assiniboine Forest, and liked the idea of a women-only walk or needed some kind of respite from the sidewalked world. That they’d be respectful of me, of the space.
Of course, it was glacially cold the day before the scheduled walk, the kind of day where if you don’t have to go out, you don’t. But it was important to me that we walk no matter what the weather was, no matter how cold. This is Canada.
On Saturday morning, I tried to talk myself out of walking. I checked the forecast: though it was minus twenty-five Celsius – colder still if you took the windchill into consideration – the temperature was supposed to be reasonable by mid-afternoon, when we were slated to walk.
I also knew that whatever the weather was out in the open, it was always better under the trees. If it was burning hot in the meadow, there was shade under the trees. If it was blustery, the trees provided a windbreak. And if it was cold, the trees seemed to offer some insulation.
I decided that we’d go ahead. I posted to the Facebook event I’d created, telling people that we were still walking.
I wondered, how do trees affect mental health? Also, what are the effects of improved mental health?
In the WHO’s Mental Health Action Plan 2013-2020, Dr. Margaret Chan writes that “good mental health enables people to realize their potential, cope with the normal stresses of life, work productively, and contribute to their communities.”
A recent study by Thomas Astell-Burt and Xiaoqi Feng that looked at the associations between green space and mental health in Australia started with the assumption that greenspace—like Assiniboine Forest—could help promote community mental health.
They discovered that living adjacent to trees scored much higher for improved mental health than grass. So the type of greenspace matters!
These benefits are, of course, in addition to the environmental benefits trees provide, including energy savings, carbon sequestration, improved air quality, and stormwater management.
In the end, seven of us walked. We proceeded in ones and twos, and I stopped us every so often to point out features of the forest. Women walked next to people they knew or with strangers. I moved between groups but mostly stayed at the front, because I was leading the walk.
On the first group walk, my favourite part was stepping onto the man-made pond in the middle of Assiniboine Forest, the sound of our boots on the hardpacked snow like metal being struck. On the island in the middle of the pond was a small hill, the top of which was devoid of grasses or shrubberies. The bare snow gleamed in the mid-February sun and suddenly I wanted to lie in the snow.
So I said, “Just one minute, I want to see something.” And I walked through the shrubs that bounded the hill, wading through two feet of powdery snow. Three other women followed me, and, one by one, we trust-fell into the snow. We were out of the wind, the sun was beautiful, and all we had to do was to look up at the faded denim of the mid-afternoon mid-winter sky and the silhouettes of overhanging branches.
We were quiet when we weren’t laughing. And then, we hauled each other up out of the snow and kept walking.
So we know that living under trees can help improve our mental health, encouraging people to exercise more and reducing stress. But is there any added benefit to walking in a treed area in a group?
In Geoffrey H. Donovan’s 2017 article, “Including public-health benefits of trees in urban-forestry decision making” in the journal Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, he notes:
“Research has shown that increased access to greenspace is associated with reduced loneliness and an increased sense of community. As with exercise and stress reduction, concentrated areas of publicly accessible greenspace have the strongest relationship with increased social connectivity.”
Donovan says that if cities plant trees with the goal of increasing the mental and physical health of its residents, the plantings should be concentrated in particular areas.
“Research suggests that trees in public rights of way, close to homes, in areas with high air pollution, and, in particular, parks and other greenspace likely produce the greatest public-health benefits.”
It’s hard to describe how it felt, but I left the forest after that first group walk feeling comforted somehow. Our walk had been celebratory. Like we’d accomplished something, and not just by forcing ourselves to walk in cold weather.
Since then, I’ve taken groups of women walking under the trees a dozen times in every season, in every kind of weather. I’ve put the women, and the forest I thought I knew, through their paces. I walked every path and every alternate path I could think of. I took childhood friends and colleagues and people I didn’t know for walks.
Every single walk helped me. It took me out of the stresses and deadlines of my day-to-day and helped me believe in something bigger than myself: a group of women. A stand of trees.
But what effect had these walks in the woods had on the other people?
I reached out to Louella Lester, a retired teacher and poet who has been on several of the walks.
“It is good to have a shared experience in the urban woods,” said Louella. “I like being able to share a word or thought with others here and there, but also just move off by myself when I want to, with no pressure. It’s nice to see others relaxed and happy. Getting to meet new people in a relaxing comfortable environment is great, too. You automatically have things to talk about. We can share knowledge about what we see and people point out things you might have missed.”
I’m not sure why I was surprised, but it turns out that actively creating a community around people and trees is a consolation.