Growing On Trees

Ever considered ‘forest bathing’? Even if you can get over the phrase, what if you can’t afford the bus ride there? Poppy Wonnacott – one of the new writers we sent to Goodfest to hunt for the seeds of a Strike article – explores the physical and mental benefits of time in the trees, the challenges of accessing them, the UK’s ‘tree poverty’ and the people on a mission to tackle it one sapling at a time…

By: Guest Contributor,   6 minutes

In the UK, 25 November – 3 December 2023 marks ‘National Tree Week and marches us steadfastly into tree planting season. We already know the massive benefits of having trees in our environment, from their excess CO2 removal skills to the shelter they provide, their ability to stabilise landscapes by keeping soil secure to their urban cooling effect. But recent years have also seen a wave of research detailing the health benefits we can gain from spending time in forests – and even just being close to trees.

Much of this research originates from Japan. In 1982 a research programme was created at Nippon Medical School, headed up by Dr Qing Li, to look into ‘Shinrin-yoku’; practising mindfulness under a canopy of trees.

“The good news is that even a small amount of time in nature can have an impact on our health,” Li writes in his book, Shinrin-yoku, The Art and Science of Forest-Bathing. “A two-hour forest bathe will help you to unplug from technology and slow down. It will bring you into the present moment to de-stress and relax you.”

Li argues that spending just two hours a month in a forest can reduce our blood pressure, lower stress levels, improve concentration and memory. It can also lift depression and boost the immune system. These health benefits are attributed to the higher level of oxygen content in the forest air and the chemicals that trees expel, phytoncides – natural oils within the tree that are part of its defence system, which boost our own immune systems and increase the count of our body’s natural killer (NK) cells.

Losing our roots

At Goodfest 2023, I met Carl Rowlison, director and co-founder of Plant One, a woodland creation organisation based in Cornwall. He described the original inhabitants of the UK as a “woodland tribe”. Before the Industrial Revolution, UK dwelling humans would have spent the majority of their time in a natural environment. But we’re now predominantly an urban dwelling species.

This change to our state of being means our automatic nervous system is more often than not in sympathetic state – especially with our ‘always on’ constant exposure to technology. The sympathetic state is associated with fight or flight mode, where our body is constantly alert and pumping with adrenaline.

In contrast, the parasympathetic state – where we’re relaxed, and our body gets to rest and digest – is activated by sleep and, as research has proved, by spending time in the woods. After being surrounded by trees for two hours, our automatic nervous system gets to switch states as it slows down. Thanks to this research, Japan now has over 65 healing forests designated for forest-bathing.

Back in the UK, on a clifftop at Goodfest, Rowlison explains the massive shifts that have led to our current tree-starved post-industrial state. “As the ice sheets rescinded from northern Europe 12,000 years ago, forests migrated across the channel across into the UK,” he says. “A Celtic rainforest stretched all the way from the Galicia in Spain up the Atlantic ridge, through Cornwall, Wales, Ireland and Scotland and created what’s now known as temperate rainforest. We had 90% forest covering across the whole country. But now we only have 2% of that original wildwood – and only 13% tree cover in the UK.”

This 13% coverage of our land is incredibly low compared to our European neighbours, like France, which has 31% coverage. Dr Gabriel Hemery from the Sylva Foundation has described the UK as being in “tree poverty”. Our tree count per person is at 47 – far behind France, which has 182 trees per person.

While there’s zero doubt about the need to tackle this and increase our tree cover once more, many people have more immediate concerns than ‘tree poverty’ while living with the harsh realities of everyday poverty. Is the conversation around forest-bathing alienating? And does it feel like forest-bathing is only for a particular type of person, even if it can benefit us all?

At Goodfest, John Brown of creative brand activism agency, Don’t Cry Wolf gave a talk titled ‘Too Poor to Matter’. “The working classes are not included in the climate crisis conversation,” he says. If you’re struggling to make ends meet and have to choose between eating or heating, condescending language about making better choices is not going to be helpful.

What’s more, Rowlinson shared that over half of the UK’s woodlands are privately owned. So, how do we access the forests legally available to us? More than likely via car.

In Cornwall 85% of households have a car. In my former neighbourhood, Tower Hamlets in East London, 34% of households have a car. If you live in an urban area, you’ll likely need to rely on various forms of public transport in order to visit a wood or a forest, to experience being among trees any more than in your local park.

But what if money’s too tight, or public transport isn’t easily accessible to you? And what if you’ve never been to a forest… What clothes should you wear? What shoes do you need? How are you supposed to behave and stay safe in a forest? Where do you get the answers to these questions without feeling the embarrassment of having to ask?

Also, what if you have a disability, use a wheelchair or need assistance with walking? Will there be paths and if so, will they be clear enough to follow? I grew up with a disabled parent who would occasionally drive me to woodland and tell me to hug a tree for them as they couldn’t always access the forest with me. Parks are generally accessible for everyone, but can be a very different experience from the tranquil forest bathing featured in Li and co’s research.

Urban areas in the UK often have well established parks, like Victoria Park in East London. This was a pioneer park opened to the general public in 1845. It was intended to be a healthy space for all Londoners to use in a time rife with cholera, but it also had the effect of mixing the social classes. The working classes got exposed to ‘the manners’ of the upper classes and it was hoped their behaviour would modify accordingly. I’m not sure if that worked but the park has remained open for almost 180 years, and many of the original oaks are still there providing tree canopies for everyone to walk under.

Ways to the wild

I’m not aware of any organisations which specifically focus on making forest-bathing accessible for all, but charities like Wild in the City are doing a great job of enabling contact with nature in urban communities, and enhancing personal wellbeing and family and community cohesion along the way. They also provide experiences in woodland living skills, natural history and ecotherapy for children and adults in London and beyond.

There are also free apps we can access, like Wylder, which encourages us to engage more with nature on our doorstep. We can build mindful moments, extending our knowledge and confidence as anyone who uses a mobile phone can get involved. Parents can download The Wild Network explorers’ app which helps encourage getting children back outside into the wild.

By getting involved with planting trees locally this winter (see how below), we can get some fresh air, do ourselves and our local environment some good, forge greater community connections and help reduce the UK’s tree poverty along the way. I’ll be collecting a sapling from my local council in December, and will soon be joining Carl and his team of volunteers in a Cornish field, helping to create a new forest for future generations to enjoy and bathe in.

How to: get planting

The UK government committed to increasing tree-planting rates across the UK by 30,000 hectares per year by March 2025. We can all get involved on a local level by looking at initiatives in our communities.


  • In the South West, you can join one of Plant One’s volunteer planting days in winter and woodland creation days in summer.
  • If you have a field you’d like to reforest, reach out to Plant One to find out how.
  • Check in with your local council to see if they’re providing trees to plant this winter.
  • Cornwall Council is running the Forest for Cornwall Project, which aims to plant 8,000 hectares of new trees, hedgerows and woodlands to help the county reach zero emissions by 2030.
  • The Woodland Trust is giving trees to local communities and schools to plant all over the UK
  • Live in a city? Check out Trees for Cities, an organisation cultivating positive change in urban areas.


Feature by guest writer Poppy Wonnacott

All images kindly provided by Plant One, photographed by Kasia Murfet

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