Guest columnist Mary Carey: Forest bathing on the bike trail

  • A beaver swimming among the lily pads along the Rail Trail. CONTRIBUTED/MARY CAREY

  • A mother goose plucked her own feathers to feather her nest. Mary Carey

  • Mary Carey

  • Mary Carey

  • Two rollerbladers stop to snap photos of the foliage as the sun begins to set on an October afternoon along the Rail Trail. CONTRIBUTED/MARY CAREY

For the Gazette
Thursday, August 12, 2021

I recently returned to one of my favorite haunts, the portion of the Norwottuck Rail Trail between Amherst and Belchertown, after a five-week trip to Europe in May and June.

Walkers and bikers had shed their masks. The beaver pond was covered with white water lilies, young red squirrels criss-crossed the path along with chipmunks and gray squirrels, and a snapping turtle here and there faced the path as if to cross it later. I had come back full circle to March 2020, when the m agnitude of the change that COVID would bring first began to loom.

Since then, I’ve been on the trail almost every day. I’ve been able to bike in every season, strictly recreationally, not expertly or fast, and when it was too snowy, I went for a walk. I’ve gotten to see a pageant of ever-changing nature, walkers, bikers and rollerbladers and have often reflected on what a precious public health resource our rail trail is.

I’ve found that anything goes on the bike trail, really. As long as you stay in your own lane, respect nature and don’t bike too fast, you’re almost guaranteed to have an uplifting experience.

Often, my husband Brian biked too, and we’d sit on the rugged stone bench with a prospect of the pond and compare it to a lake house view. Fantasizing about houses and constantly checking Zillow was one of the many regular COVID-time activities I adopted, along with sourdough bread-making, knitting, keeping a daily diary, not going to a hairdresser or dentist, and above all, for which I am deeply grateful, forest bathing on the trail.

“Nature heals me with a mysterious power,” the photographer Yoshinori Mizutani noted in the introductory notes to a 2018 photo essay in The New Yorker about the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, meaning to take in the forest atmosphere through the senses. Although it has ancient roots, what we call forest bathing began to be promoted widely in Japan in the 1980s in response to a national health crisis of stress-related illnesses.

“Decades of research show that forest bathing may help reduce stress, improve attention, boost immunity, and lift mood,” according to a Harvard Medical School blog post on the growing interest in the subject in this country. A walk in an urban park has similar healthful effects, which are greater than a walk in a strictly urban setting, and, I think easy-paced recreational biking is just as restorative as walking.

While gliding down the path near sunset in fall, the light coming through the trees created a psychedelic, strobe-like effect. One time, I saw two Baltimore orioles flitting among the leaves and I felt like I was seeing tropical fish while snorkeling.

There were loud choruses of frogs, a deer, the beavers, of course, and the regular bird crew, which includes a great blue heron, a pair of green herons and a kingfisher. The most unexpected creature I’ve seen on the trail was a stubby-tailed young bobcat in early October, crossing the path near Amherst College.

I saw a goose pluck feathers from her breast in late March to create a fluffy, down-covered nest in the largest section of the beaver pond. In another section, a different goose created an entirely different-looking nest surrounded by grass. I eagerly watched their progress throughout April. The beautiful, feathered nest eroded from wind and rain, while the grassy nest grew tall and lush. On May 1, I saw the first of two sets of goslings pecking in the grass by the trail, guarded by their parents.

On New Year’s Day this year, I saw two Amherst policewomen rescue a little dog named Lula, who had gotten stranded in a section of the pond. I was charmed more than once by the polite greetings of children.

“Good morning,” a toddler in a mask urbanely addressed me one time. “Oh boy, these two look like trouble,” I thought another time, as two high-spirited adolescent girls approached, making whooping sounds and bouncing on their bikes.

“I like your pink shirt,” one of them said kindly as they sped by.

Mary Carey is an adjunct instructor of journalism and public relations at UMass Amherst.