Take a Walk on the Wild Side



I step off the northeast corner of our little farm and into a forest. It’s a small patch of trees really; semi-trucks can be heard barreling down the roads that border two sides of this small Eden. But despite its diminutive size this woodland packs a biodiverse punch. On my arboreal path I have encountered white tale deer, an American beaver, red-legged frogs, rough-skinned newts and birds of copious variety from owls to warblers to heron flying in cruciform overhead. And then there are the trees—magnificent Douglas Firs and towering Western Red Cedars whose branches fall like shawls off the shoulders of giant women.

As I walk amongst these trees I brake spider webs with my face and am reminded of Mary Oliver’s poem and the spider with her “surplus of legs” and injurious glare.

In the fall, when the spiders have grown to the size of coins I walk with a stick, held out like a machete, allowing me to hack my way through the gossamer threads, a hacking which sends the spiders sailing like trapeze artists to safer shores under twigs or leaves. But in spring and early summer I let my face lead the way. The light is usually so dim I don’t see the webs coming, but I walk on anyway, until strings of web and pencil point-sized spiders dangle from my head like Hasidic curls, imply a vow.

And this is my vow: to map this place with my walking. To, every day, wake to the gratuitous wonders served up by the hand of a generous Creator. To breathe in creation, and in that breathing find myself restored, recalibrated.

It sounds very Walden Pond Wonderful, doesn’t it? Walk in the wood, and, voila, a new saner self. It sounds so Walden Pond Wonderful, that even I, an every day forest walker, am tempted to roll my eyes and get on with the daily work of making the world a better place.

But what if I told you that science backs me up on this one? What if I told you that walking in woods lowers the stress hormone cortisol in the brain, while at the same time increasing cerebral blood flow, immune defense and overall mental health—all health benefits that the same amount of walking in the city or on a treadmill do not confer. This is true—studies have shown it, my friends!

This is why in the mid to late 1800’s doctors and hospital administrators built tuberculosis sanatoriums near woodlands. Patients who spent time under trees got well faster and in greater percentages than patients in the city sanatoriums. Recent studies have shown that even if people can’t walk or sit under trees, just being near or seeing plants has health benefits. In a fascinating ten-year study at a Pennsylvania hospital it was shown that patients recovering from gallbladder surgery in rooms with a forest view recovered remarkably faster and used less pain medication than patients recovering from the same surgery in rooms with views of brick buildings. A Norwegian study showed that office workers with a view of a plant (not even a whole forest, but just one solitary house plant) recorded fewer sick days than office mates with no view of a plant.

The studies and pro-plant findings go on and on and have been applied to everything from ADHD (yes, forest walking reduces symptoms in children) to depression and high blood pressure and road rage (yes, yes, yes in reduction of symptoms and incidents).

Why do plants make us healthier and happier? The answer is long, but it has to do with things like the aromatic chemicals evergreen trees emit, as well as the negative ions, those charged molecules found in abundance in forests and near moving water, both of which promote the release of happy hormones and antioxidants in humans.

Besides the physiological benefits, a recent theory on the plant-brain relationship centers around a psychological benefit dubbed the “provocation of fascination” effect. In other words—forests incite fascination, aka wonder. And wonder is psychologically good for us. It is also good for those around us. A study just coming out in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology shows empirically that people who participate in wonder-inducing activities are more immediately altruistic. In other words, people who regularly look at trees or the night sky are more likely to make their world a better place. In SheLoves parlance, they are more likely to be women who love.

None of this should come as a surprise. Two thousand years ago Jesus called his followers to become as little children. Have you watched a little child in nature lately? It’s a wonder-fest. It’s an emotionally recalibrating, kindness-inducing wonder-fest.

So, I walk in the woods.

Spider webs and all.

I walk in the woods because life is hard. It is beautiful and fascinating, but hard, and sometimes I don’t have the emotional grit to keep pushing against so much hardness—I need all the serotonin and negative ions I can get.


May I offer this bit of health and wellness advice? Not only for you but also for those whose lives will be better because you followed it?

Find some trees.

Walk under them.


For more information (and to read some of the 100’s of nature-brain studies for yourself):

Centre for Environmental Therapeutics
Your Brain on Nature
On Forest Medicine or Forest Bathing
On the altruistic benefits of wonder

Leah Kostamo
Leah Kostamo is the author of Planted: a Story of Creation, Calling and Community, a book Eugene H. Peterson called “remarkable” and Margaret Atwood called “clear-sighted and humorous.” She likes to read (and write) wise and winsome stories that inspire people to be the change they want to see in the world. She can be found online leahkostamo.com and @leahkostamo. She ministers with the Christian conservation organization, A Rocha.
Leah Kostamo
Leah Kostamo
Leah Kostamo

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  1. Kristen - Richards says:

    this is beautiful… Loved .. loved your article.. the prose was wonderful… you moved me through it effortlessly… And walking each morning with my dogs in the woods.. or up in the mountains makes me feel so good… If I have a problem and usually I do .. I can breathe in and breath out. and look around in wonder giving God thanks… Wonderful piece… great way to start my morning..

  2. Unreal and felt super confirming to this whole dream a friend of mine and I are starting up… http://www.wildwonder.ca – and not to post a link to be all business savy but literally to just soak in those words WONDER and WILD… It is so rejuvenating being in the outdoors. Thanks for the statistics to back up that unexplainable feeling! Now… Off to the woods! #inspired

  3. Anne-Marie says:

    Leah – love the science, and your admission that even the bravest need recharging. Since we’ve planted our veg garden outside the back window, I find myself staring out there all year. But the big woods – there is something…

    • Leah Kostamo says:

      Hi Anne-Marie! Yes, veg gardens and big woods, they are medicine to the soul! Blessings in your gardening and walking!

  4. This is so so good, Leah … I LOVE forest walks! My favourite one is on 24th Ave. I also get to have my morning coffee looking at the trees in Point Roberts in the summer. It’s always soothed my soul, but now I know WHY! Thank you! I love this post.

  5. Helen Burns says:

    So beautiful Leah. I have thought often recently of the words that have framed the invitation to our stunning British Columbia – “Supernatural B.C.”. There is something glorious about just breathing in it’s beauty and revelling in the wonder of the One who created it. xo

  6. Nicole A. Joshua says:

    Yes! Yes! Yes! My safe space is Kirstenbosch botanical garden in Cape Town. Thank you for affirming, scientifically, what I’ve been experiencing when I go there 🙂

    • Leah Kostamo says:

      I just met someone who works at Kirstenbosch botanical gardens who showed me lots of pictures of the place! I work with A Rocha and we have some volunteers who do stuff there. But, dang it I can’t remember his name! He leads bird walks once a week with kids and is a botanist. Any who, I agree, it’s a special place. 🙂

    • Can’t wait to do that with you some day, friend …

  7. Very beautiful!

  8. Great advice, great motivation, beautiful description!
    “I walk in the woods because life is hard.”
    Such a simple way of saying something that is so deeply true.

  9. Oh yes! Wonder is life transforming… I wonder why we don’t stop to wonder more often.

    Beautiful Leah… I felt the beauty and peace as I read.

    • Leah Kostamo says:

      Thanks, Bev! And on a different note, I’ve been thinking about you and your husband’s journey as our dear farm mate (i.e. we own a farm together) goes in for melanoma surgery today (it’s in his lymph nodes). I mentioned your story to him and his wife and thought that at some point they might enjoy chatting with you. I’ll keep you posted.

      • No worries, Leah. I’m up for that!

        Also I became a Christian because I got melanoma – went into hospital on my 22nd birthday to have it removed… they thought they may have to amputate my leg… but God did some awesome things and I have never had a recurrence …and I became a Christian… I know that the name of Jesus is great than even that ugly c word.


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