Somewhere deep into the third week of the pandemic, my son gave me the idea of hiking while wearing a backpack full of small bags of sand. The idea was that the extra weight, which didn’t have to be extreme, would make the hike more of a physical challenge. It wasn’t that I was getting bored of my hiking route–I liked the forest, but simply making the two-hour trot was no longer reason for a parade; “Hey everyone! I just did that moderately neato thing again.” I filled three resealable bags with sand to the tune of something under ten pounds total, put them into my small backpack, and walked to my trailhead.
Spring here in Southern Ontario is filled with all different tones of the dullest beige, but as I walked I reminded myself that green was on its way back and would show itself with little lag if the temperature stayed on the warm side–pandemic or no pandemic. This cheered me. I rarely see anyone on my trail; footprints in the snow or mud the only clues that others make the trek. On this day I heard noises ahead of me–not clear speech, but movement, and an odd kind of snorting sound which I figured was being made by somebody’s dog. I kept on through a clearing into a set of switchbacks on the well-treed side of a hill, and noticed, as you might, that there was a bear standing on its hind legs, facing away from me. At the same time that I noticed the great beast, my right foot came down on a dry stick that cracked under my weight-plus-ten-in-sand. The bear raised its head, clocked it around until it saw me, then turned its body at the same time as it pulled an earbud out of its right ear. It had some kind of device on which it had been watching 'whatever,' and paused it in order to give me its full attention. The bear stood staring at me for not very long before it raised up the device in order to draw attention to it.
“IPaw. Can’t take my eyes off the damn thing.” It shook its great head. “Addictive, like honey.”
The bear pulled the remaining earbud out of its other ear and looked at me. I looked at it. It sat back on its haunches. I tried not to fall over. A minute passed. The bear shook its head, then rose up again.
“I’m sorry. You want to pass and here I am all ‘owning the forest,’ like I do. ’Don’t want to be a bother.” With that, the great bear stepped awkwardly to the side then with the free paw, motioned for me to pass. I did a quick check to see if I had wet my pants. Then another to see if I had working legs, because nothing seemed to be moving. I made a sound, some kind of “glorf,” made by involuntary air moving through my throat.
“Okay,” I said, but still did not move.
“Okay,” the bear said, and waited. I still did not move. Then, “Jasmine,” it said.
“Huh?” I replied.
“My name, it’s Jasmine.”
“Oh, ugh, right,” I spluttered.
Jasmine put her paws on her hips. “I know, seems weird, right? I know what you’re thinking: ‘What am I doing here?’ and I’m wondering the same thing.”
“Well I suppose it is odd to see a bear here on this trail,” I managed to say.
“I know, right? Thing is, I am newly certified and needed to find my own territory,” she announced.
“Newly certified?” I said. “I’m not sure that I’m…you’re a real bear, right?”
Jasmine sat down and put her iPaw and earbuds on the stump next to her. “You bet, AND, get this,” she said, like she was telling me a good secret. “I am a fully certified FOREST BATHING GUIDE!”
“That’s…a thing?” I said.
“It sure is,” she said, and reached into a backpack set on the ground next to the stump, pulled out a plaque and handed it to me. I was beginning to relax. I moved forward enough to be able to grab onto the plaque. Yes, she was right:
“Let it be known that on this day, which is Tuesday, Jasmine Urstein, of somewhere near a tree and some rocks, did complete, through rigorousness strivings, and passable hygiene, everything needed to appear helpful in the realm of guiding people through the woods: to keep them from running into trees or off of cliffs, from falling blindly into holes, caverns, or any dangerous natural formations. This graduate has been tested thoroughly and knows to keep people from putting just anything in their mouths. She, likewise, has promised to abstain from eating her clients as is written in unreadable small print somewhere in an insurance file. Be she, a bear of sound mind and body, enormous teeth, and excellent credit, Jasmine Urstein may now go forward, with zeal and fortitude, and help those flummoxed with stress to calm down by getting the fuck into nature. Signed, This day, Tuesday, as previously mentioned. Philomena Braithwaite, BA, BBC, NBC, LOL, WTF.”
I looked up from the plaque. “This is very fancy,” I said, “but is it a real thing? I mean, are people getting certified in walking people through the…”
“You would not believe it, “ Jasmine said, swooshing a paw in front of her as if swatting a fly. “Few do woods these days.”
I looked down at the iPaw. Jasmine followed my gaze.
“Yes, I know, ‘how can I promote something when I’m just as connected as the next guy,’ but you see, I’m trying to set up shop here–to find office space. I’ve got to get out there! Fill the need, right?” she offered. “Look! Website!”
She picked up her iPaw and pulled up her site for me to see. The scene opened–a drone shot of a parking lot next to a forest. As the shot pulled in closer, I could see people getting out of their cars, then walking toward the woods. Some walked head-first into trees then fell backward onto the ground. Others walked onto the trail, but had large boom-boxes on their shoulders. One person had a banjo and played it while chasing a bagpiper around a giant spruce tree. A large man had sheets of paper in his hands–trying to do his taxes while walking. There was a small child having a tantrum, the mother offering the child treats from her purse–piling them up beside the screaming child’s head. There were teenagers. Then, out of the trees came Jasmine. She raised her paws. The people dropped whatever was in their hands and followed her into the woods. Moments later, they re-emerged. Some had sprouted wings and flew. The two musicians were burning their instruments and roasting marshmallows on the flames together–each with one arm over the shoulder of the other. The mother and child emerged all happy, followed by a hundred-or-so butterflies–the child holding a paper that has, ‘Harvard, Early Acceptance!’ on it. The teenagers had disappeared. A halo came up on the screen and then Jasmine’s face. “Forest Bathing Bear-apist. Call now.”
Absurdity hit me in the face at that moment. I let my hand with the plaque in it drop to my side. Jasmine motioned to a large stump across from her.
“Come. Sit,” she said.
“What’s that?” the bear asked, pointing to a thin, tan line evident a short ways back along the trail, leading directly to my back pack. I rolled my eyes.
“That is…sand,” I said, matter-of-factly.
“Are you worried about getting lost?” Jasmine asked.
“Ah, no. No, I know this trail too well. I think I have a leak,” I said.
“A leak?” Jasmine asked. “Are you made of sand?”
“No, I have…” I rolled my eyes here. “I have bags of sand in my back pack. Because…because I was trying to get a workout,” I explained.
Jasmine pulled back onto one hip, as if she was trying to get a better look at me. She took a great paw and gave her head a scratch. I handed her the plaque. She took it and tucked it back into her backpack with surprising dexterity considering the scale of paw size. She leaned towards me. I leaned towards her. I had never smelled breath that reminded me of whole other worlds before, in a new way, a strange, bigger way than anything I had experienced before. The bear looked deep into my eyes.
“You know, person, it’s okay to just go for a walk.”