Forest Bathing

To cap off the summer, Dave and I spent almost a week in his beloved Adirondacks. It may very well sound silly to travel 3,000 miles from Oregon, home to some of the most spectacular wilderness in the country to go to . . . upstate New York? But the Adirondacks are D’s ancestral summer playground, and after 3 years away from them, he needed to commune. Also, Oregon is markedly deficient in lakes. It took me two years of living here to realize that something fundamentally important was missing from my summers, and that was access to large bodies of fresh water. Something to do with the volcanic soil in the Pacific Northwest apparently: it’s porous, so wherever water might accumulate into lakes and ponds, the way it does in granite-girded New England, instead drains away. Frankly, I’ve always been a tad cranky about going up to the Adirondacks, even when we lived in Boston, a ‘mere’ 5 hour drive away. Partly, it’s that it’s not my native summer watering place. My family always went to New Hampshire, where on Squam Lake we always rented one or the other of two rambling 100 year old+ houses of great, creaking charm, named “Rest-a-While” and “Gray Birches.” They were nestled in the woods, built with uninsulated walls the thickness of a single board (you could hear a mouse fart anywhere in the house), and decorated with a multitude of quite accomplished watercolors—some protectively framed, but many others still affixed by the original rusted thumb tacks and precariously crumbling around the edges—of the Reverend So-and-so to whom the property belonged in the 19th century. The houses were not right on the lake, but swathes of forest had been cleared for some hundreds of feet down to the water, akin to the corridors cut for power lines, only for the sight-lines. Both houses had screen porches with rocking chairs, outdoor showers (is there anything more enchanting then showering surrounded by the green woods, standing on a rock?), and separate wings for the kitchen and dining room, where huge raucous meals were held and games of dictionary played around the table afterwards. Lake water came out of the bathroom taps for bathing, but for drinking one had to go to the kitchen and use the old hand pumps at the sink to bring up potable well-water, which is where I learned what it actually means to have to prime the pump.

David’s family’s house is fully insulated, has access to a truly lovely lake, and has the virtue of sleeping a lot of people but charm, well, it has not. Aesthetic snobbery is impossible to defend without sounding like a complete asshole, so I’m not even going to try. I can only say that being in surroundings that displease me aesthetically gives rise to a constant, OCD-ish desire to fix them somehow, to think of ways to make them more attractive to me, and it’s not very restful, visually or mentally. On this trip, however, having not had lake-access for three summers, I was so excited for swimming and boating and all things fresh water that I kind of got past my issues with the house and focused on spending as much time as possible outdoors (which was quite blissful). And I could see that much of my resistance to David’s summer house is in large part my nostalgia for those wonderful, romantically antiquated houses, and the vanished days of those extended-family vacations. Certainly, my family hasn’t been to Squam Lake in 10 years or more, and sadly, inevitably, the older generation of those family members who used to anchor those gatherings have mostly passed on.

I schlepped my landscape painting gear all the way from Portland to Boston and thence up to Speculator, NY, planning this time to make the Adirondacks my own by painting there. However, the first couple of days there I was alternately overcome by a deep, pleasant lassitude or unable to find any sights that I really wanted to paint. Dave and I wandered around in the woods, me freighted with all my gear, waiting for the recognition of a possible painting to flutter within me, but all that happened was that I become incredibly tired, and had to lay down on the fragrant pine needles and fall asleep.

(There was an article this summer in the Times about a Japanese practice called Shinrin Yoku or “forest bathing”—isn’t that the loveliest phrase?—which is a practice in Japan where people go to parks and forests to be around nature for therapeutic reasons. Apparently, not only does it sound poetic, but studies have now shown that breathing in forest air, which contains phytoncides (airborne chemicals that plants emit to keep them from rotting), has measurable effects on humans, notably a decrease in cortisol and an increase in white blood cells. Don’t you just love it when studies verify something you already knew intuitively?)

Anyway, it wasn’t till day three that I suddenly saw something I thought I could paint, and spent the day working, in the morning painting some yellow canoes stashed between some hemlocks marked for removal, and in the afternoon a view of the water, because I knew Dave was hoping for a little painting of his beloved lake. Unfortunately after that the weather turned sour and there were no more plein air possibilities for the remaining 3 days of our stay. So the ratio of schlepping to painting wasn’t so great. On the other hand, I’ve come around to the Adirondacks, which made Dave very happy.

Yellow Canoes, 6" x 6"

Lakeview, 5" x 7"