Sakura (桜) is the Japanese word for cherry trees and their blossoms. But the word means so much more than that. With just one word, the Japanese are talking about the beauty of nature, the renewal of spring, and the ephemeral quality of life.
The cherry tree at our family home is blooming. It has been a silver lining of sheltering in place that I have had the chance to witness its Spring wake up and explosion of petals. Especially this week that contains Earth Day, and especially this year of COVID-19, its beauty draws me in. Reminding me that life is fragile and fleeting. Reminding me that new life is ahead. This intersection of Sakura, Earth Day, and COVID-19 spurs my musings today about Mother Earth and mental health.
Bathing in Nature to Improve Mental Health. Shinrin-yoku (森林浴) is another great Japanese term relevant to today’s musings. Shinrin in Japanese means forest, and yoku means bath. Shinrin-yoku or forest bathing refers to the practice of taking in the forest through our senses. Research from Japan has shown that forest environments reduce the stress hormone cortisol and promote healthy blood pressure and heart rate. Gretchen Daily, Stanford Professor and Senior Fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, carries this work further and advocates for green space as a vital public mental health strategy. Daily and colleagues are building an evidence base documenting the mental health benefits of green space, including data demonstrating that simply walking in green space decreases activity in a region of the brain associated with a key factor in depression.
Sakura. Earth Day. COVID-19. Some years we are lucky and the cherry blossoms seem like they will last forever. But eventually and inevitably, and usually due to a spring storm, the petals are torn from their branches. It is the most bittersweet moment of loss and renewal. I can only hope that in the wake of the devastation of COVID-19, we find a path of renewal that is guided by a commitment to the health of all, including Mother Earth. For as goes the health of our planet, so goes the health of humanity. And in all the ways that Mother Earth sustains our mental health and wellbeing, Mother Earth’s health and wellbeing are also in our hands.