I spend a day a week in one of Berlin’s forests. I set out first thing in the morning with a backpack, a water bottle, spiritual reading, a sandwich, towel, earphones, notebook, and insect spray. The day becomes one long meditation, — a form of spiritual communion. I don’t hike as much as wander, keeping far enough from roads that I hear only the sounds of the forest, stopping to meditate on tree stumps, or touching mosses and mud and bark. Sometimes, I put my hand on a tree and ask it a question: they always reply. I don’t worry about getting lost. It’s like the poet David Wagoner wrote: “Stand still. The forest knows where you are. You must let it find you.”
Forests are an important motif in Indian culture. The forest was where the Buddha reached enlightenment, where the ashrams of old were located, where elders retired to spend their remaining years in contemplation. In fact, they’re important to almost every culture. Once, while walking, I listened to a podcast featuring Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann, who explained the forty- thousand-year-old Australian Aboriginal practice of dadirri, a form of “deep listening and quiet, still awareness”.
“There’s no need to do a lot of thinking”, she says, “or even to try: Just be and let it find you.”
Recently, I learned of the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing”. Developed in the eighties, it means to take in the forest through all five senses as a method of healing, of therapy. A M. Amos Clifford writes in his book on forest bathing, “You have a forest within you“. This is something I experience every time: The forest within you communicates with the forest outside. You begin to realise that the way you feel about the forest is the way you feel about yourself. Do you see the divine in the treetops, or are you afraid? Do you feel lost, or do you feel held, embraced, found? Do you feel threatened by other hikers, or do you recognise them as fellow journeymen and friends?
So far, there has been only one occasion on which I felt any real anxiety: I had taken a train forty kilometers north of the city, much further out than I normally venture, and started to worry about encountering neo-Nazis (which happened to me once in rural Germany, many years ago). Panicking, I ended up returning to the city and going to Plänterwald, where I always feel safe. This wasn’t an entirely irrational response. People of color do need to exercise caution in many parts of Brandenburg. But we also have to remember that nature belongs to us all and, more importantly, that we belong to it, without exception.
The forest doesn’t care who you are, or how you are dressed, or what color skin you have; it simply embraces you. The forest is one huge, breathing, intelligent organism, and when you enter it, you become a part of it, without judgement or separation. You don’t visit the forest; you join it, and as a result, it always a shock when you have to leave, emerging from its sanctity into traffic and advertising and droves of people. Cities can have a very different effect to forests: They don’t diminish ego; if anything, they enhance it; they divide as much as they conjoin. In Berlin, it’s the forests that have kept me whole, gently revealing me to myself, healing me, accepting me in a way no human society ever has, and for this,
I will love them forever.