As part of my literature review for my book exploring the connection between nature and wellbeing in New Zealand, I have been reading Shinrin-yoku: The art and science of forest-bathing, by Dr Qing Li, who has researched the subject extensively in Japan.
In describing the Japanese experience of spending time in a forested environment, he draws the reader’s attention to the Japanese word ‘komorebi’, 木漏れ日 in Japanese characters, meaning ‘sunlight filtering through leaves’ (木 = tree, 漏れ = leak through, 日 = sun).
As he points out, perhaps the closest equivalent expression of this idea in English is ‘dappled sunlight’, but this does not relate specifically to the effect leaves have on light.
The author goes on to describe the enjoyment he derives from the visual experience of ‘komorebi’, especially when the sun is low, in the morning or evening. Whether consciously or not, most of us will have enjoyed this visual experience when in a forested area or in a park (I know I have – the photo above was taken when walking with my two-year old son in a kohekohe grove on the Kapiti Coast 8 years ago); not having a dedicated term in English to describe it does not prevent us from doing so. But I do feel that the Japanese language is richer for having such a word, reflecting I suspect a long poetic and literary tradition that celebrates the beauty of nature. I suspect too that having ‘a name for something’ makes us more alert to it.
I would be interested to know whether other languages have equivalent expressions for ‘komorebi’, or other sensory experiences people have while in the forest or another natural environment.
See also: The kohekohe forest of Hemi Matenga Reserve
German has the wonderfully poetic word ‘Waldeinsamkeit’ (sometimes spelled ‘Waldeseinsamkeit’), which is perhaps best translated as ‘forest solitude’. It describes the state of being alone in the woods and experiencing the surrounding natural world on a profoundly sensory, if not spiritual level. The associated mood is usually contemplative and reverential, and often involves a feeling of being connected with and uplifted by nature.
‘Waldeinsamkeit’ is a key idea in literature, music and art of the German Romantic period (i.e. late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries), though it does occur elsewhere. There is a quite well-known poem about the great outdoors by Ralph Waldo Emerson which has the German word as its title, and Ferdinand von Hochstetter also uses the term (albeit ironically) on one occasion in relating his trek through the King Country bush in 1859.
Germans do have a word for ‘forest-bathing’ too, by the way – ‘Waldbaden’ – but this is a much more modern coinage, and reflects their recent uptake of Shinrin-yoku directly from the Japanese. (The practice is currently gaining a wide following in Germany, with articles about it beginning to appear in major newspapers).
Much closer to home of course, the therapeutic potential of trees and the image of sunlight filtering through leaves have also been stated musically in the Fourmyula’s ‘Nature’ (and in the Mutton Birds’ brilliant cover version of that Kiwi classic), though this is almost certainly just a coincidence, rather than a direct cultural influence.
‘Forest solitude’ – that is so evocative! I am not surprised that the Germans have such wonderful words to describe human interaction with forests – like the Japanese, I think it would be fair to describe them as ‘forest people’. Thank you so much for these insights, James.