Nature to touch: feeling the forest to the tips of your toes

Date
16.09.2019

Nature to touch: feeling the forest to the tips of your toes

Forests, mountains, nature in general can be experienced in many ways. The most popular is certainly the sporty version of being outdoors. Uphill and downhill on the mountain bike trail, in hiking boots to the summit cross, winding up the slope light-footed through dense forests and on mountain pass roads – always with a destination in mind, be it the alpine pasture, mountain lake, mountain pass or inn. But what if you apply "The journey is the reward" proverb to experiencing nature? Or... what if there is no particular journey?

Let's admit it: we all haven’t done this for a long time – slowly and consciously absorbing nature with all our senses. Maybe we've forgotten the power of good this does? "Walking barefoot is a strong element that enhances mindfulness, creating a healthy and healing connection between man and nature," says the Internet. But what does it feel like? Oh yes, and “forest bathing” is currently on everyone's lips anyway. Rightly so? Is it really that beneficial? Who better to answer these questions than someone who has tried both?

Hiking barefoot With nothing on your feet for once – on quiet soles from Madonna di Pietralba to Nova Ponente

Alexander Bisan is a trained hiking guide, trainer for appreciative communication, sexual and adventure educationalist and a convinced barefoot walker. He likes accompanying children, teenagers and adults barefoot through the forests of the Val d’Ega.

"We're born without shoes. At that time our feet are still quite broad at the front on the ball and at the toes, the toes are also movable – babies can still spread their toes really easily! There's a reason for that." An exercise should explain it. To start our 3-hour hike from Madonna di Pietralba to Nova Ponente, we spread our toes so that the big and small toe are as far apart from each other as possible. And then we stand on this one leg. It actually works quite well, keeping our balance. But now, for the second attempt, we press our toes very tightly together, so we make a very pointed foot, just like it is always shaped in shoes. And we try to stand on one leg again. We wobble and throw our arms around to try and keep our balance. It's not working. “We’ve shaped our feet over the years they’ve been in shoes. We lose our steadfastness, in the truest sense of the word, we can no longer keep our balance as well. Almost 60 percent of the elderly have problems with their legs. I am absolutely convinced that more walking barefoot could prevent this. And not just that!" The tension remains in the air, because we’re about to set off.

Gravel is a challenge for the start of a barefoot hike! But my soles are already touching soft, warm forest ground, which has been softened by the rain overnight. Grassland feels good on the feet. There's a kind of childish excitement going on in me and we dare to walk in a puddle. I look at my dirty toes wiggling merrily and boring around in the damp and cool mud. "Walking barefoot makes you happy," says Alexander. And he's right: hiking barefoot is a mud bath, Kneipp cure and reflexology massage. And it feels really good very quickly.

Alexander himself walks barefoot most of the year. He actually only puts on shoes for warmth during the winter months. “Walking barefoot prevents foot damage, improves our motor skills and strengthens muscles, ligaments and joints. It boosts the circulation and toughens you up. Eventually you get used to it! You don't even notice the lack of shoes any more."

And it's true. After a good hour I’m not looking as fixated at the ground any more, not thinking about where to put my feet with every step. Somehow walking is already more unconscious, even if it’s slower than usual. And somehow it seems to me that you don't just perceive the ground under your feet more intensely! "We have 1,700 nerve endings in the soles of our feet. If they're not stimulated for years, they waste away more and more. And the more these nerve endings waste away, the higher the risk of developing dementia in old age. That's proven! Dementia, impaired balance and hip and back problems come from wearing shoes your whole life, among other things! But... let's devote ourselves to a more beautiful topic." Alexander points to the landscape all around.

Because apart from the fact that hiking barefoot does something for your own health, and I am absolutely convinced of this halfway through, hiking barefoot also does something for your own mind in return. Having hiked over moss and wet swamps to cross a beautiful meadow and then reaching a hill where wide coniferous forest areas literally lay at our feet, I feel very connected to my surroundings. "Would you like to put your shoes on again now, on the short descent to the hut?" "No." I say for sure and start out cheerfully on the gravel path.

Forest bathing – when you want to embrace the world, a tree will often do too

Georg Kirchmaier is a forest educationalist, a lecturer at the Latemar educational centre for forestry, hunting and the environment, an ex-manager in the media and loves nature. Georg Kirchmaier invites you to explore and discover the forest as a habitat with a head, heart and hand.

"If we could take a look at South Tyrol from above, from a bird’s eye perspective, we would be amazed at how much forest we actually have!" He knows the forest here well, it is a very special forest, he says. And I'm going to bathe in it. At the beginning I didn't know exactly what I should imagine by this. But I did some research: forest bathing actually comes from Japan. The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture introduced Shinrin-yoku at the beginning of the 1980s and supported a research programme worth millions of dollars to prove the medicinal effect of the forest bath. Twelve years ago, the first centre for "forest therapy" was opened, and Japanese universities now offer a specialisation in "forest medicine".

"It was always clear that the forest did us a power of good. But HOW good it really is for us was surprising," says Georg. Now you can prove it, scientifically. And people still prefer facts to feelings. However, today is all about the latter.

Eengrossed in a conversation about the new longing for the forest we move towards the trees standing close together. "Forest bathing influences the autonomous nervous system, the hormonal system and the immune system. Two sensors are often attached at shoulder and chest height during forest bathing, which collect the data while forest bathing in order to measure the effect of the forest in medical terms. Today I want to leave it to your feeling of whether you really feel different in certain situations or during certain exercises." And then we’re in the middle, in the forest, and all the sounds from outside seem to be swallowed up. This forest world is a very unique, self-contained system.
The light falls through the conifer treetops. "A squirrel lives here." Georg lifts a clearly nibbled cone from the ground. "And underneath, the mice waiting for anything the squirrels drop." He points to a few holes under the tree roots. “Everything is actually in symbiosis. We’ve just forgotten this."

We walk. Concentrate on our steps. We breathe, consciously. We are here in the moment and feeling our way. We touch trees and embrace them intimately. We close our eyes and concentrate on feeling, we’re completely in harmony with nature. According to Georg, the trees point to places of power. There are invigorating spots where you can recharge your batteries and of course places where you can find total relaxation. "Basically, once you get involved with the subject, it's not so hard to understand, it's geobiology." And it really is: The forest always has a magical effect on me, but I admit that today I can immerse myself even deeper into this dark green universe again. It's... different, and Georg's enthusiasm is catching. You really don't have to be a scientist to understand what just slowly being in the forest does to you. But having the facts about the feeling explained to me does give me one or two Eureka moments. And lots of feeling pleasure is also guaranteed.

Ines Visintainer

responsible for Content Strategy at clicktext, the South Tyrolean agency for corporate content, sees stories everywhere and loves to capture them, sometimes in the form of stories, sometimes in a few words, sometimes in the form of a snapshot.

The Italian version of this text is the work of our translation wizard Serena Schiavolin, responsible for Italian content at clicktext, who brings a typical Italian touch to our stories!