Forest Bathing and Stream Ecology

Danny Stock

Sunlight filtered through the chestnut oaks, sycamores, and tulip poplars of Battery Kemble Park, just south of GDS, onto the trickling stream below–and also onto the students in the applied research in environmental science field ecology class. Wearing tall rubber boots, the students were collecting and testing water samples from Maddox Branch in order to determine the overall health of the stream. 

Teams and pairs of students worked side by side, at times straddling or squatting down in the creek to collect a new sample or holding a test tube up to the light to get an accurate reading. They measured, added reagents, and packaged samples for further study back at school. And while they still used their mobile devices for time-sensitive sample analysis, they were fully immersed—from foot to fingertip—in the eco-excursion and experiential learning activity just a stone’s throw from campus. Proponents of the physiological and psychological benefits of being unplugged in the woodlands call this “forest bathing,” or shinrin-yoku from its Japanese origin, meaning “taking in the forest atmosphere.”

All the science they would have covered in the classroom went with them to the woods; and yet, the activity of science—science as a verb—took on a different, more lively quality. They had to account for variables and conditions not present in the controlled space of a classroom: stirred-up silt from a disturbed creekbed, shadows beneath the trees, and friendly dogs wandering over to their lab table. The quality of their banter was different than it might have been back at school.

“It’s an enriching experience to take what we’ve learned in the classroom out to the field and apply it to actual nature, rather than just learning about it in a school environment,” said senior Pierson Cooper, who enjoyed working alongside his partner, junior Christian Charles.

Senior Liam Zeilinger said, “I like the field trips because they offer an opportunity to experience the testing first-hand and interact with the material we are learning about. It helps us understand it in a deeper, more comprehensive way. Battery Kemble Park is a popular dog park and, even though it is in the woods, the stream there is affected by runoff from the neighborhoods around it.” 

The field trips highlight, Liam explained, the interconnectedness of the various factors impacting stream health. Arriving from the neighborhood and standing beside the creek as dogs pass by are essential reminders of the real-world factors affecting stream health.

“Being in the field adds a context to the work that you just can’t get in the lab,” said High School science teacher C.A. Pilling. “Sure, I could collect a bucket of stream water and have the students run the same tests back in the lab. However, without experiencing the setting from which the sample has been taken, much of the analysis of—and the critical thinking about—the data is muted.”

Eager, craving-to-discover curiosity doesn’t spark the same in a sterile lab. The onsite labs, C.A. added, help nurture a sense of care for the natural places they visit. That intimacy with the site, she said, “may be the most important takeaway for these students from my perspective. If this next generation isn’t inspired to advocate and care for our streams and forests, we’re going to be in a heap of trouble in the future.”

Students returned to campus having filled data tables with stream health-related readings for dissolved oxygen, phosphates, nitrates, turbidity, temperature, biological oxygen demand, and more, including identification of micro- and macro-organisms, which they gathered (and released from) various stream-sampling nets. Yet, they also returned with much more. They carried with them, on the bumpy bus ride back to campus, new keys to understanding—and appreciating—the world around them. 


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