Forest Bathing

A walk in the woods for the soul

Robert Clark

When an injury almost robbed him of his eyesight in 1867, famed naturalist John Muir vowed to spend as much time outdoors as he could, saying, “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.”

Decades later, Muir’s philosophy touched the soul of John Cely, a like-minded son of Richland County who cherishes the forests of South Carolina. What they both came to understand about the outdoors is just now beginning to be documented by public health experts. Simply getting out the door and into nature can be a major stress reliever, asserts the scholarly Environment and Behavior journal.

In her 2017 book, The Nature Fix, Florence Williams noted, “The digital world has drawn many of us away from nature’s soothing gifts. But a walk in the woods is good not only for the body but also for our hearts and souls as well.” A third of the world away, the Japanese have a word for it. They call it shinrin-yoku, a term that translates into “forest bathing,” or the practice of walking in the woods to boost the spirit.

John, a retired natural resource expert and land trust official, has never needed a public health expert to tell him about the beauty of nature and its impact on the spirit. He is particularly fond of the forests, rivers, and swampland that form the COWASSEE Basin, a 315,000-acre tract east of Columbia.

“It is full of magnificent scenic vistas and beauty beyond description,” John observed in his 2011 book, The COWASSEE BASIN: The Green Heart of South Carolina.

“I’ve been aware for many years, probably since I was a kid and played in the woods every chance I could get, that being outdoors is therapeutic,” he says. “Hiking for me is the best of both worlds — we know that exercise in general creates a feeling of well-being, but exercise in nature, surrounded by forest or field, creates even more.”

The COWASSEE Basin has great biological diversity along with a rich historical and cultural legacy. For eons before Europeans arrived, Native Americans lived there, traveling along the ancient Catawba Road and the Cherokee Path that modern folk would later turn into paved highways. European visitors such as Hernando de Soto and John Lawson explored the area, praising its beauty in their official journals.

The acronym COWASSEE was created from the names of the Congaree, Wateree, and the Upper Santee rivers. In addition to Congaree National Park, the basin also includes Poinsett State Park, the Manchester State Forest, Congaree Bluffs Heritage Preserve, Sparkleberry Swamp, the Wateree Swamp, and portions of the Palmetto Trail.

John Cely says that he has trekked most of the huge expanse, but at the end, “It’s hard to beat my all-time favorite, the Congaree National Park.”

That is not difficult to understand. After retiring from the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, John helped guide the Congaree Land Trust, where he served with trust executive director Billy Cate of Columbia, also retired. Together, they have enjoyed many a trip across the COWASSEE. Billy says, “I love to walk in the mature bottomland hardwoods in the Wateree Swamp. These areas are so mysterious and cathedral-like; they hold a certain aura for me that creates a feeling that’s almost religious.”

Among the COWASSEE Basin’s earliest inhabitants, the Cherokee had great reverence for nature and its healing properties; the tribe had a creation ritual of “going to water” to cleanse the spirit as well as the body.

Columbia psychologists Rhea Merck and Amy Montanez enjoy regular retreats to the mountains as a welcome break from a demanding profession.

“Like so many, we are all very busy, responsible professionals. Life is cluttered by our smart phones, emails, deadlines, obligations, bills, filtered air, and fluorescent lights — the grown-up version of ‘nature deficit.’ It is simply draining, and I’m convinced our bodies, minds, and souls were not meant to live this way,” Rhea shares. “We need more nature as the antidote to daily clutter. The time spent in the glory of those marvelous mountains is the cure for the messier parts of our lives today.”

She remembers a recent hike when the two women immersed themselves in a stream at the base of a waterfall, just like the Cherokee in their water ritual. “Once we adapted to the temperature, the experience was oddly calming. Time stood still. Peace poured over us. After a little more exploring, some photography, and rock balancing in the stream, we reverently hiked back down, marveling over the experience,” she says.

Echoing Ralph Waldo Emerson, she adds, “In the woods, we return to reason and faith, and I think that’s not a luxury, but rather, an imperative.”

Psychologists use the term “Nature Deficit Disorder” for people who suffer from too much time confined to the indoors, Rhea says, referencing Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods. The author believes children experience more depression, anxiety, inattention, and obesity because they spend more time indoors, creating a dependency on computers and other devices.

While it is a relatively recent diagnosis, the disorder has been developing over decades, researchers believe. Rhea and Amy collaborate on a popular online blog called “Life is Messy and Life is Marvelous,” focusing on coping and other healthy strategies in a demanding contemporary culture.

In The Nature Fix, subtitled “Why nature makes us happier, healthier, and more creative,” bestselling author Florence Williams explores state-of-the-art research from three continents to explain the inestimable benefits that spending time in nature has on the body, mind, and soul. In April, the Palmetto Conservation Foundation, which is building the public Palmetto Trail across the state, hosted Florence at its panel at 701 Whaley, where she discussed the premise of her book.

Southern author Tom Poland writes prolifically about the beauty of the South Carolina outdoors. Tom, like John, once worked at the Department of Natural Resources and says the Carolina bays in the Lowcountry flatlands are his favorite wilderness destination. The bays are elliptical or oval depressions of uncertain origin found along the Coastal Plains of the Atlantic Seaboard.

“While I often walk, run, and bike the trails in Harbison, my favorite place to hike, take photos, and just soak up nature is down in the Lowcountry, a Carolina bay. Wambaw Bay (in the Francis Marion National Forest) is a surreal, hauntingly beautiful place,” Tom says. “Now a remote Carolina bay isn’t like a walk in a park. It’s not for everyone, but it’s there for the adventurous types. Check out a map. It’s easy to find. Just don’t go alone, and dress for wilderness conditions, and take lots of water.”

Serving South Carolina apparently solidifies a great love for the state’s bountiful outdoor gifts. John Clark, Ph.D., former executive director of the S.C. Energy Office, is a seasoned outdoor adventurer, who wrote Hiking South Carolina. While John Cely chooses the Midlands and Tom prefers the Lowcountry for outdoor jaunts, John Clark favors the mountains.

“The Chattooga Trail through ‘Deliverance country’ in Oconee County is probably the prettiest hiking trail in South Carolina, but, because it is so attractive, it is popular and fails the serenity test,” John says. “My favorite places to walk are those with both natural beauty and serenity. Serenity means few people and no noise from nearby highways — just the sounds of nature. Because the beautiful small sliver of mountains in South Carolina is far less known than the spaces of our neighbors in North Carolina, many of our trails provide a high level of serenity. My favorite South Carolina mountain walks provide excellent hiking year-round.”

John enjoys jewels of the Midlands, such as Congaree and Poinsett parks, as well as Lowcountry treasures, such as the Santee Coastal Reserve, Bull Island, and Bear Island Wildlife Management Area.

According to John Cely, “South Carolina and the Columbia area have so many opportunities to hike: the Cayce, Columbia and West Columbia riverwalks; Sesqui; Congaree; Peachtree Rock; and Cook’s Mountain in the Wateree River Heritage. A real jewel is the Palmetto Trail that passes through the High Hills of the Santee over in Sumter County, on the bluff overlooking the Wateree Swamp, then down an old railroad causeway, now part of the trail that goes all the way to the Wateree River. This particular section is called the Wateree Passage, and there is no finer hiking trail anywhere in the Midlands. It’s interesting that, except for Sesqui, none of these hiking opportunities existed 40 years ago, so we have a lot to be thankful for in the Columbia area with plenty of outlets.”

He is glad to see more people embracing the outdoors. “I see a lot more people on the trails than I used to, and I think folks are realizing the many benefits of walking and hiking,” he says. “The way we design our towns and cities, the car is still king, and sidewalks are few and far between in the burbs, but hopefully things are changing for the better in that respect.”

Quoting again from his sage, John Muir, John Cely says, “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of autumn.”


Where to Go

John Clark shares the following as excellent for hiking: Fork Mountain Trail, which is six miles in the Ellicott Rock Wilderness Area; Big Bend Trail, which is three miles between Cherry Hill Recreation Area and Big Bend Falls of the Chattooga River; Jocassee Gorges segment of the Foothills Trail, which is 31 miles around the top of Lake Jocassee and into Laurel Valley; Eastatoe Creek Trail, which is 3.5 miles; Gum Gap Segment of Foothills Trail, which is 12 miles between Sassafras Mountain summit and Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area; and Falls Creek and Hospital Rock Trails, which are a combined 6.1 miles in the Jones Gap area.

He shares, “The South Carolina coast also offers pleasant hiking and great scenery and serenity November through March, when insects are napping.” Top walks there include Santee Coastal Reserve — about 20 miles of trails; Bull Island — 16 miles of trails; I’on Swamp — two-mile loop; Bear Island Wildlife Management Area — more than 20 miles of trails; and Boynton Nature Trail in Donnelly Wildlife Management Area — 2.2 mile loop.

For attractive hiking between the mountains and the Coast, he recommends Lake Moultrie Passage — almost 30 miles; Kings Mountain Loop — 10-mile portion circling counter-clockwise between Kings Mountain National Military Park and Apple Road in Kings Mountain State Park; Congaree National Park — 10-mile round trip River and 11.7 round trip King Snake trails; and Poinsett State Park — 8 trail miles of diverse terrain.