red maple leaves

The scent of autumn

The Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing” involves using all your senses while strolling through the forest. Forest bathers are encouraged to move slowly, paying attention to details like the shape of a leaf, the feel of a tree’s bark, the sound of the birds and the taste and smell of the air. An hour or two of this can have a measurable impact on your physical and mental health.

Dr. Qing Li, who helped popularize the term in North America, says that the ideal forest will vary from person to person, and will depend partly on the experiences you were exposed to as a child. If you spent happy hours at the ocean, you may feel most relaxed when exposed to the tang of salt air; if your best childhood hours were hot summer days, the sound of cicadas may be enormously soothing.

That’s partly why many people in this part of the world find the scent of autumn so enticing.

On the surface, it is a bit odd that we would enjoy the smell of the fall woods. After all, part of what we’re smelling is decay, the aroma of the sugars and organic compounds in leaves breaking down, the scent of mushrooms emerging from the soil as they feast on the bounty of fallen organic material. It’s a musty smell – a bit sweet, a bit earthy. The sort of smell we would not be at all happy to find inside our homes.

But if you grew up surrounded by deciduous trees, there’s a good chance you have fond memories of playing in leaves when you were a child. A pile of freshly-raked maple leaves is a magnet for children. But even if you didn’t jump in them you probably picked up handfuls of newly-fallen leaves, shredding them or tossing them in the wind or just appreciating the novelty of these millions of leaves, playthings that were out of your reach all summer but are now just lying on the ground waiting for you to touch them. Children take delight in fall leaves; part of what you’re smelling now is the memories of your childish delight.

It helps, too, that autumn aromas are so much stronger than in summer. When the air is warm and moist, scent molecules move quickly so we are exposed to more of them. Bombarded with aromas, we are less able to distinguish between them. But when the air becomes cooler, scent molecules move more slowly. We experience fewer scents at once, allowing us to distinguish between them.. [moving slowly, lyke forest bathing].

Above photo by Marcel Lemieux

Posted in Connecting with Nature.