Why Forests Give You Awe

Can you remember the time when you first felt awe, that feeling of being in the presence of something immense and mind-blowing? The natural world—with its domineering mountains, colossal trees, and tall waterfalls—is one of its main sources. I felt awe first when I was a young boy at the feet of the biggest tree in the world. I felt it next as a young man, when I walked in a tropical rainforest for the first time, in Sri Lanka. Here’s how I described it in my 2016 book Gods, Wasps and Stranglers: The Secret History and Redemptive Future of Fig Trees:

It hugged all it contained in a humid, humming gloom. The trees towered over us, viscerally alive yet so alien to our animal ways. Their breath sweetened the air we inhaled. It is hard to explain, but I could feel the concentration of life around me, as if its great density there had somehow reached into me physically. What struck me was the neutrality of that force. There was no malice or love there, just existence.

In 2003, psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt wrote that “nature-produced awe involves a diminished self, the giving way of previous conceptual distinctions (e.g., between master and servant) and the sensed presence of a higher power. Natural objects that are vast in relation to the self … are more likely to produce awe.”

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