Life

Take on Nature: Taking a leaf from Japan on the benefits of 'tree hugging'

Male hiker walking into the bright gold rays of light in the autumn forest, landscape shot with amazing dramatic lighting mood

A BRIGHT red globe nestles among the roots and fallen branches of a coniferous forest floor. Nature could not be more clear in its message – danger, back off.

The name of this small and brightly coloured mushroom is another unequivocal warning: the Sickener. Eating a Sickener raw will not kill you, but it is poisonous and will make life quite unpleasant for anyone who dares to taste it.

On the same walk last week, I saw Dryad's saddle growing from the rotting trunk of a dying ash tree – large plate-like protuberances jutting out and on the verge of collapsing under their own weight.

If spotted earlier, these could have been picked to be cooked and eaten, but they had dried out and taken on a leathery texture and looked as if a variety of insects had bored their way in to feed on the flesh.

We have an abundance of mushrooms and fungi in Ireland which are edible, but even using a good guide book is not recommended. Virgin foragers should try to accompany someone more experienced who knows what is safe to eat and what is not before tasting anything.

The Sickener was in a small cluster in a neglected woodland in Co Down, close to Slieve Croob between Castlewellan and Dromore. The walking trail signs at Drumkeeragh Forest have faded away and the tracks are poorly maintained and there are large areas of open space where trees have been felled, their stumps and branches still littering the landscape.

It's a bit like the sort of out-door location that was used in low-budget sci-fi movie or late 1970s TV series – Blake's 7, The Tomorrow People or Doctor Who – when the action was taking place on a planet recovering from being bombarded by radiation or asteroids.

However, in among the devastation, life is returning: saplings have taken root in Drumkeeragh and are starting to stretch upwards. Whin bushes, nettles, ragwort and other shrubs are flourishing in the open ground.

Among the mature trees which have survived are spruce and larch, with a mixture of pines and firs, as well as a few rowan among them.

And then there is the view over to Slieve Croob on the slopes of which the source of the River Lagan rises. On a clear day you can see the Belfast hills to the north.

Despite its neglect, Drumkeeragh began to win me over and, as always, I felt energised walking in woodland. The Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku – 'forest-bathing' – is promoted to help reduce stress and help a feeling of well-being. It is actually prescribed by Japanese doctors.

Shinrin-yoku emerged in the 1980s when medical research seemed to suggest that sitting among trees could lower blood pressure and boost the immune system. Trees and plants release a chemical called phytoncides, which the Japanese researchers said helped improve human health. As a result, forest-bathing is now part of Japan's health system, which emphasises promoting good health rather than simply trying to cure people when they become ill.

The practice is now being exported across the world, although those of us who spend any time in among in either forests or smaller woodlands will already know the restorative effects that spending time in among the trees can bring.

Environmentalists and nature-lovers used to be referred to, and often still are, as tree-huggers. It was meant as a derogatory jibe – but then maybe it is the tree-huggers among us who should be smirking at those who mock.

Just stay away from the bright red mushrooms.

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