Natural Highs: How to Engage the Senses and Immerse Yourself in Nature
A cultural shift has seen more people – perhaps once strictly city dwellers – embrace the outdoors by disconnecting from their everyday stresses and reconnecting through nature. But how do you actually engage with nature, as opposed to just taking a walk outside?
This was the focus of our Natural Highs expedition in partnership with Merrell 1TRL, which brought together a group of creatives to Epping Forest in Essex, England, and kitted them out in 1TRL’s SS23 modular collection to aid them on a journey of mindful exploration. From Japanese forest bathing to birdwatching, we spent a day in Epping Forest engaging our senses and learning how to take our outdoor experiences to new heights.
Why 1TRL? The collection features footwear that embodies the core principles of exploratory design, experimentation and respect for natural spaces. For our expedition, we wore Merrell 1TRL’s SS23 collection of modular footwear systems, comprised of the Hydro Moc AT Cage, SS Bootie, SS Bootie Mid and the Hut Moc Packable – all of which can be adapted and packed to multiple combinations depending on the terrain. As a system that’s built for the outdoors, it provided us with ease of mind, preparing us for the journey ahead. Read on for our key learnings on engaging with nature through sight, sound and touch – and explore the full 1TRL collection here.
The presence of birds has been shown to improve our well-being. Birdwatching, in particular, engages several senses. While it primarily engages with sight, sound is also key in spotting wildlife. For the morning session, sports coach and activist Nadeem Perera walked us through a birdwatching exercise. The group wore the Hydro Moc AT Cage and SS Bootie: the former made from Bloom Performance Foam and the latter crafted from EVA foam, resulting in a resilient pairing that’s suitable for varied terrains. Water-friendly and lightweight, it suited the morning session as birds were not alerted by heavy footfall.
Amal Omari, a radio host, A&R and city dweller who joined us on the trip, spoke about the experience: “It was an incredible way to start a weekday for me, which is usually filled with a lot of work stress and general anxiety. I wish I could start most mornings as we did; definitely a natural high.”
Forest bathing, also known as shinrin-yoku, is a form of eco-therapy that originated in Japan in the 80s. Residents were encouraged to slow down and spend more time in nature to counteract burnout. Stefan Batorijs, who led a forest bathing session on the experience, explained: “To put forest bathing into practice, we simply go out into the forest, switch the phone off for a while, and walk very slowly. In going slow, we notice how alive the forest is and switch on our senses in a new way.”
“It is a science and research-based approach that has demonstrated that being in the forest brings measurable physiological and psychological health benefits,” he elaborated. “By consciously engaging each sense in turn, focusing on our connection with the sights, sounds, smells, textures and tastes of the forest environment, we realise how interconnected everything is.”
“Sensory exercises take us deeper into being – a rewilding of our senses, leading to a reduction of mental chatter, anxiety and the disconnect so prevalent in society. The forest has a profound healing effect on our immune system, blood pressure, metabolic diseases, sleep disorders and parasympathetic nervous system, leading to reduced stress levels. Part of the impact of the trees comes from what we term ‘soft fascination’: a way of seeing that relaxes and soothes the brain.”
He added, “The other effect is from certain chemicals the trees emit, which, when breathed in, have a positive effect on many aspects of our well-being.”
For this part of our trip, the Hydro Moc AT Cage was removed, exposing the SS Bootie Mid, a reinforced neoprene tabi-foot insert that allowed our group to become one layer closer to nature, and to help better understand the principles taught in the session. Writer and researcher Hélène Selam Kleih reflected on the experience: “Forest bathing helped me with applying tools of meditation and the act of being still. [I became] more aware of my breath work and my pulse.”
You can find out more about shinrin-yoku via our podcast Roots & Ritual.
Sound and music can enhance your environment, making listeners more attuned to their surroundings. Take, for example, Japan’s environmental music produced in the 80s. This was a particular strand of Japanese minimalism and ambient sounds designed to improve your current location rather than transport you sonically to another. On our trip, we experienced a sound bath in the forest, led by producer Sian O'Gorman from electronic drone choir NYX. “I work in music and completely support the idea that sound and music carry frequencies that can heal us and help us tune in to our core being,” Amal said. “I felt so relaxed and completely disconnected from everything.”
Khloe Bailey Obazee, who runs the queer and Black book club OKHA, added, “I've always loved a sound bath. It's a great way to zone out and hone in on internal healing. Being able to do this surrounded by woodland was calming and deeply enriching.”
Lying down on the floor to experience the sound bath, all the parts of Merrell 1TRL’s footwear systems felt appropriate for this part of our expedition. Some of the creatives in our group chose to wear the Hut Moc, others the SS Bootie. Packing a system of footwear gave us the flexibility we needed to adapt to different parts of the day, and both parts kept the group warm and comfortable as they switched off for an immersive sound bath experience.
Travelling to an off-grid location
And, of course, this last point is focused on travel and physical movement. Location can play a central role in helping you to switch off. To help you engage with your senses in nature, prioritise travel to remote, off-grid locations that will allow you to immerse yourself in an environment with few distractions.
In addition to the AT Cage footwear and the inserts we brought with us, we carried the Hut Moc Packable with us. Its zip and clip design system meant we could zip our shoes together so we were prepared for any kind of terrain in nature. When asked about the location, Hélène Selam Kleih said, “Working online can be extremely overwhelming and I tend to dissociate from reality and avoid routine or structure when faced with too much screen time and too little real time. I loved that we were able to find a pocket of peace and work collectively to claim back natural serenity in all of our lives. It was a community building exercise for the whole group and interesting to learn from each others’ hiccups and tips on mental health.”
On the importance of location, Amal explained, “Going off the grid allows me to go back to centre. Being in nature with a small group of people heightened the experience for me. Living in such technologically advanced societies, I worry that I don’t make enough time to switch off, and this was a great reminder to do so.”
“In recent years, I definitely try as much as I can to take a few days each month to truly relax – I have family living by the seaside, so this has been easy for me,” Khloe said.
Head to the Merrell 1TRL’s site to check out the full collection.