A “Forest Bath”

A beautiful Autumn reflection.

In a recent Facebook post, I joked about people buying Life and Longbows overseas and being “somewhat relevant in Japan”. A friend commented the popularity of outdoor activities, such as Shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing” in jest and peaked my curiosity. A quick search led me to a Time Magazine article titled “The Benefits of Forest Bathing” by Dr. Qing Li, who wrote the following about the activity and his book on the topic:

This is not exercise, or hiking, or jogging. It is simply being in nature, connecting with it through our senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. Shinrin-yoku is like a bridge. By opening our senses, it bridges the gap between us and the natural world. – Dr. Qing Li

I stopped there. There was no need to read any further. I knew exactly what Dr. Qing was referring to, having experienced something similar a few days prior.

It was a beautiful Autumn evening and I’d made it my mission to spend it at my favorite public land spot in search of the elusive Michigan Whitetail. The 2019 season had been a bust thus far. My work and family life were busy, which meant my hunting life was non-existent. I tend to get irritable when that happens and was looking forward to something more than snappy emails and tornado-stricken playrooms. I needed something green, red, yellow and eventually brown.

I arrived to find the dirt parking lot empty, which was a fantastic start. A Saturday evening in October was almost always a crowded affair here. The odds seemed to be shifting in my favor and I was sure that fate was on my side. I stepped out of the car, slipped my longbow from its sock, and climbed the familiar path into a sea of maples, oaks, and firs.

Opening the senses wouldn’t be a problem. The sight, sounds, and smells of the natural world were well known to every bowhunter and a bow in the hand always meant an adventure afoot. I expected nothing less that evening and would receive more than I bargained for.

The hike in was perfect. The birds began to chirp, the squirrels began to chatter, and the wet ground muffled my feet enough to hear it all the better. I slipped into a trance of sorts. My mind was light and my heart was full. I felt connected to everything and there was a “rightness” in the air that was difficult to explain. I prayed it would never end.

Was this Shinrin-yoku? Possibly. The gap to the natural world had indeed been bridged but I wasn’t ready for what awaited me on the other side.

My hunting spot sat atop a ridge of red oaks with pine barrens to the west and a marshy creek to the east. It was a well-used whitetail corridor and I believed a savvy bowhunter could do well with a little patience and the proper wind. I had plenty of both that night but would need to cross the creek to make it happen.

With a depth of 6-8″ and a width of 2-3′ feet it wasn’t the most formidable body of water in the state, but what it lacked in statistics it made up for with annoyance. We had a history – this creek and I. I’d crossed it dozens of times and always ended up dirtier on the other side, regardless of the approach. I was certain the result of this trip would be the same and I didn’t care. It kept other hunters away and that was fine with me. Besides, I was one with the forest – Shinrin-yoku – and not at all concerned with muddy boots. I confidently strolled to the bank, stepped to the edge and prepared to jump.

I’d never been a fan of jumping. I disliked it when I was a chunky ten-year-old and loathed it post-35 when everything started to hurt. It was an awkward skill and I always looked awkward doing it. I learned early on that some of us were born to soar and others to sink, which is exactly what my left foot did before leaving the bank – it sank – the instant I put pressure on it. I was on my backside, staring at a muddy stump with little hope of freeing the leg beneath it.

The soothing serenity of the evening vanished, as I shoveled through the mud and muck. Shinrin-yoku had become too literal for my taste. My senses were still open but the stimuli had changed for the worst. I’d traded leaves for mud, mosquitos for birds, and crisp Autumn air for the smell of my own sweat. I was angry, humiliated, and planned on leaving the moment I freed myself.

Then something peculiar happened. With a final yank, my boot popped free, and relief followed. My anxiety was gone and I felt terrific – even better than I had before the accident happened. The hunt would continue. I scraped my mud-caked boot against a tree, and proceeded up the ridge to finish the hunt. It was cold, my pants were wet, and the rest of the evening was uneventful, but none of it mattered. I sat there, grinning like a fool, until the sun sank behind the pines.

Taste the freshness of the air as you take deep breaths. Place your hands on the trunk of a tree. Dip your fingers or toes in a stream. Lie on the ground. Drink in the flavor of the forest and release your sense of joy and calm. This is your sixth sense, a state of mind. Now you have connected with nature. You have crossed the bridge to happiness. – Dr. Qing Li

Now that I know more about Dr. Qing Li and forest bathing, I can’t help but wonder if he had considered scenarios like these when he wrote his book. Would he consider my forest bath a “forest bath” and add “sinking into a muddy hole” to his list of ways to connect to nature?

I doubt it. But he should.

If you like what you are reading, please consider buying my book, Life and Longbows. It is available on Amazon and Kindle. You can also purchase a personalized copy on this site. Visit my Bookshelf to do so. If you like outdoor related content in podcast form, check out the Traditional Outdoors podcast.

Clumsy Predators

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As seen in the Winter 2019 edition of STICKTALK, the official publication of the Michigan Longbow Association. You can expect content like this (and more) quarterly for a mere $20 a year. Check out the MLA here.

It began on a dreary afternoon that was nowhere near inspiring or even remotely special. In fact, it was rainy and much too warm for the likes of October. The latter I could tolerate. The former is what kept me out of the woods that morning. I’d weathered the rain before. It wasn’t the discomfort that kept me in bed. Rather, it was something my old friend Hawley would always say that stayed me from the woods.

“Hunting in the rain ain’t no damn good. If matted fletching and poor arrow flight don’t get you, the lack of blood will. You won’t find a drop of blood once that rain begins to fall.”

I knew he was right. But advice – no matter how accurate – isn’t always potent enough to slow the beating of a hunter’s heart. Precipitation might have kept my bow on the rack that morning but nothing short of a hurricane would do so twice. I was headed out the door and into the woods when our cuckoo clock chimed 3 p.m.

My footsteps were quiet as a result of the morning soak but my ears rang from the water spilling from the still-green oaks and maples. I would need to move slowly, rely on my eyes, and shift very little once settled. The land moved here. It climbed, crawled, snaked, and swirled – everything but lay flat. I loved all of it but favored one chunk of earth (or lack thereof) in particular: “The Brown Bowl”.

The bowl was a canyon with steep, wooded slopes on all sides, a creek up the center, and a muddy slough to the South. A series of sister ridges rippled out beyond its edges – the aftershock of some ancient geologic event. The shifting wind, ample browse, and natural funnels made this piece a fantastic choice for anything furry and 4-legged. It had been a year since I hunted this property and the idea of crossing paths with a wayward whitetail washed away the morning’s disappointment. I shouldered my bow, checked the wind, and set a course for success on the eastern edge.

Rubber boots seemed the obvious choice for the hike in. The forests’ sloppy surface squished and belched beneath my feet and licked at my calves wherever water collected. I giggled at the sound, knowing full well my six-year-old would do the same had she been there to witness.

“You tooted, Daddy.” She would squeal. “You smell like stinky farts.” And there would be no defending myself, as there was always plenty of evidence to back up the accusation. Mackenzie enjoyed the squishy things and didn’t mind getting her hands and feet dirty. Her favorite hobby was making slime from baking soda, glue, saline, and food coloring, in fact. The basement was littered with the remnants of the activity, which drove me crazy more often than not, but was worth the joy of observing her creativity. Her sister Aubrey shared her passion for the gooey. She loved the water and embraced it at the expense of material things such as boots and snow pants. She never met a puddle she didn’t like to stomp in.

I smiled. The thought of my children followed me everywhere – even those places I sought to exclude them from – but they were never totally absent. They added to the experience, in fact. Trudging through mud, sloshing through puddles, and destroying perfectly good trouser bottoms were all part of the adventure. That was what hunting was — after all — an adventure, which were usually silly things. They began in the thrill-seeking, logic-bypassing portion of your brain, are encouraged by the heart, and culminate with little more than the desire to have another. Everything was an adventure to children below the age of ten. Hunting wasn’t any different for adults below the age of 100.

It was the notion of adventure that carried me to the creek, which was usually a few inches deep and narrow enough to jump across with solid footing on either side. I discovered the ongoing rain had made it anything but. It had increased a foot in all directions with loose slop on either side. Even with the rubber boots, crossing it the traditional way would make for an unpleasant evening sit. I wasn’t willing to risk it and looked up and down the bank in search of a means to cross and remain dry while doing so. A solution presented itself within the bowels of a recently felled maple, spanning bank-to-bank.

“Why that’ll do just fine.” I thought. “It appears my luck is changing for the better.” I would soon be reminded of karma’s delicate balance. That maple was as slick as a freshly caught brown trout and crossing it didn’t go as smooth as anticipated. My rubber boots had succeeded in keeping my feet dry and scent contained but failed miserably where traction was concerned. Had you witnessed the beginning of my ascent, you wouldn’t have noted anything out of the ordinary. I set out across the log creeping cautiously – toe-to-heel – as if stalking a Pope and Young caliber animal. I learned to trust my toes afield. They kept me quiet and upright no matter the obstacle and I am certain the results would’ve been similar had I stuck with the plan. I did not. I chose hubris over caution, straightened up, and strutted the remaining feet to the opposite bank. It was there, where log met earth, Mother Nature would remind me how insignificant I was.

The log had been there for some time and the bark around the end had been worn away to the bare flesh beneath, which had been marinating in the rain for several days. Add a little bit of mud and carelessness and you’ve got a recipe for the greatest tumble this particular stretch of woods had ever seen. It happened fast. My head went back, my legs shot skyward, and my arms flapped helplessly in a circular motion. Several preservation-inspired thoughts shot through my mind mid-plummet: “Save your head. Save your shoulder. Save your bow.” They were not in any particular order, so I tried to do all three at the same time. I dropped my shoulder, rotated to my left, stuck my bow out to brace my fall, then pulled it back to keep from damaging it.

The results were mixed. My forearm and hip took the brunt of the impact, causing my entire left side to go numb with pain. My bow quiver popped off, cartwheeled into the bank, and rattled to a halt in the mud. My lungs emptied. My eyes filled with stars. Never, in all of my years playing contact sports, had I taken a hit like that. I tossed my bow to the bank, rolled to the arm I could still feel, pulled myself to my feet, and immediately checked to see if anyone had seen the mishap. My entire existence was on fire – my body from the pain, my mind from the embarrassment. I gathered my gear, hobbled to a large oak, and sat against it to re-strap my quiver and get my head back into the hunt. And I might have stayed there had it not been for the repressed voices of over a dozen football coaches screaming at me in unison.

“You’re fine Viau! Get up! Nothing is broken! Rub some mud on it! Walk it off! You’ll be fine! You’re tough! You ain’t hurt! The game ain’t over! Get up! Get back out there!”

And I did. I stood up, grabbed my gear, and slipped down the trail towards the Bowl. Whether it was the manifested collective of barking coaches or my unwillingness to revisit the bridge mattered very little. I was there to hunt and I was going to hunt – even if it killed me.

The walk was uphill and seemed longer than usual from that point. I looked forward to it most hunts. The rolling, hardwood ridges and brush-covered flats had begun Autumn’s transformation and the air always had a potpourri smell to it. Pain aside, I loved hiking these areas. There was something about elevation that made the experience more exciting. Hunting terrain like this was a game of give and take with little in your favor. You needed to understand how the wind affected your scent and be ready to adapt when it changed. You needed to sit extra still when it was time to sit, move extra slow when it was time to move, and avoid wet logs at all costs. These were things I learned the hard way – the latter being my most recent entry – with very little to show for it save for a handful of near successes, a numb arm, and a sore hip. But I regretted none of it. Nor would I ever stop. If I took my lumps on one ridge, I’d climb the next. There was always another ridge and adventure waiting on the other side.

This hunt would be no different. The lumps had been taken and the next ridge was ahead. An eerie feeling washed over me as I climbed it. The steady breeze gave way to sporadic gusts with periods of stillness sprinkled between. Water dripped from the canopy above and steadily pattered the ground below. I moved in silence. I could hear everything. And could see everything once I got to the top of the ridge. That is where I saw the feathers – small pile at the base of a maple. An unlucky crow had met its end by the claw and fang of a predator far more efficient than I. I couldn’t help but envy the beast. What stealth it must have required to get that close. What skill to kill so quickly – so efficiently.

“I bet you never make a mistake.” I thought, examining one of the feathers. “I bet you’ve never missed an opportunity.”

Suddenly a loud “CRACK” erupted from a hollow to my right. The rustling of leaves came after, followed by the un-mistakable sound of claws on bark. I crawled to the edge and peered over, hoping to catch a glimpse of the perpetrator. What I saw was the epitome of woodland comedy. There, in on the trunk of a large maple, was a bobcat, clinging to the trunk by one paw. He flailed there, searching frantically for a foothold but, finding none, plummeted to the earth, in a twisted ball of furry fury. He stuck the stereotypical feline landing, but slipped on a wet log, dragging his rear-end behind him. He stopped, looked around, shook the water from the tufts behind his hind legs and walked off into the woods, as if nothing happened. It was sad to see bad luck befall such an efficient killing machine. I felt bad for him but a whole lot better about myself.

I rolled to my back and laughed, right there in the wet leaves. I had witnessed some hilarious activity in the woods, usually by squirrels or chipmunks, but never from a predator on a stalk. It was a very special moment. Something I would probably never see again.

“What a pair we make.” I chuckled. “A couple of clumsy predators making the best of bad situations.”

I climbed to my feet, bushed myself off, and was about to continue on when I noticed the feathers out the corner of my eye.

“Maybe there is hope for me yet.” I chuckled.

I plucked one of the primaries, stuffed it in my pullover, and headed up the ridge, in search of redemption.

If you enjoyed this please consider purchasing a signed copy of my book. You can do that here. It is also available on Amazon in both Kindle and print. I will also be at the Traditional Bowhunters Expo in Kalamazoo this weekend. You can find me at the St. Joe River Bows booth.