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05th March 2021

Book in Focus

International Handbook of Forest Therapy

Behind-the-scenes of writing the International Handbook of Forest Therapy

By Dieter Kotte

Writing a book is not easy and takes a toll on the author or authors. However, being the editor-in-chief of an international handbook is, believe me, a challenge of its own. Unless you have done this over and over again, and you find an intricate pleasure in being an editor, your guard will go up automatically if someone suggests such an idea to you.

In my case, two “lucky stars” came together coincidentally, but at the very right time. Admittedly, the odds for such a “conjunction” are—and I do have a professional background in empirical research and statistics—fairly small. Close to nil, one might say. However, this coincidence happened in early 2018. At that point in time, I had taken over a new role as Secretary of the International Nature and Forest Therapy Alliance (INFTA). INFTA had been founded as a not-for-profit organization in Australia aimed at streamlining scientific and political efforts in Asia in the area of a new public health practice, termed Forest Therapy. The strategic idea behind the organization was not just to bring Asian and Australian stakeholders around a table, but to extend its research and PR efforts to Europe, the Americas and Africa to create the necessary awareness about this evidence-based public health practice.

Sure, you can release research articles in journals. You might even be lucky with a publisher and release a ‘special edition’ focusing on a certain ‘hot’ topic in your area of research. However, what about the field of “Forest Therapy”? Back in 2018, hardly anyone was aware of this term, even in Asia or Australia. The concept originated in Japan, where it first came to light in 1983 under the name “Shinrin-yoku”—freely translated as “immersion in a forest”. Some of its research roots, however, date back to the early 1930s in Russia, when a certain Dr Boris Tokin noticed that plants have their own defence mechanism against intruding insects, parasites and microorganisms by emitting volatile organic compounds, the so-called phytoncides. Much later, Japanese and South Korean researchers spearheaded findings about the significant health benefits of phytoncides when taking people outdoors to carry out certain simple activities in forests.

However, seen from an international perspective, these were rather marginalized research efforts. They were nice, but were neither here nor there. In addition, where would Forest Therapy be placed? In forestry, as it dealt primarily with being active in forests? Or was Forest Therapy a new branch of well-being, perhaps not even scientifically sound? Perhaps a distinct branch of “Forest Medicine” could be created at medical faculties, as a handful of Japanese academics would have preferred?

No, from a strategic point of view that would not have been wise. It would have been a dead end. Trust me, I am quite aware of what strategies are and how they should be defined and implemented, having had three decades of professional experience in the area of international comparative education and corporate and political consulting around the world. So, in my humble judgement, Forest Therapy deserved better.

To come back to the lucky, but rather coincidental, “conjunction” I mentioned earlier, while stumbling about the uncut public health diamond that was Forest Therapy, my mentor at the time, Professor T. Neville Postlethwaite happened to be the editor of the International Encyclopedia of Education. If my memory serves me well, Neville edited several volumes of this masterpiece. In those days, the late 1980s, this encyclopedia was regarded as the baseline of everything in education, especially in an international context. The internet was not around then.

I was privileged to learn from Neville, but also was able to meet several of his acclaimed authors from around the world. In fact, I saw what it meant to put an encyclopedia together. It was, without doubt, a huge challenge in book writing.

So, when pondering how to push Forest Therapy strategically and globally, the immediate need for putting this new research domain upon its own proper scientific foundation became apparent.

I took the idea of publishing an International Handbook of Forest Therapy up with INFTA’s President, Susan V. Joachim. For many years, we had collaborated on a range of projects at an international level in education and corporate and organizational consulting. While she shared my idea wholeheartedly, she had reservations about the resources needed, finding a publisher, finding authors, wasting time, and not getting rich overnight.

Of course, she was right. Putting together an international handbook of repute is a tricky and cumbersome task. Selecting authors and convincing them to contribute to an international handbook was the first obstacle to overcome. Finding a publisher, drafting a timeline and the many smaller and bigger issues which arise in the process are all daunting tasks. In contrast to others, Cambridge Scholars Publishing was open-minded from the beginning. 

In the end, I was able to convince three esteemed and well-published co-editors to join us in publishing the international handbook:

  • Dr Qing Li (who during his tenure at Nippon Medical School was instrumental in detecting the beneficial effect of one very common phytoncide, alpha-pinene, on the production and activity of ‘natural killer’ cells, cells which are meant to eliminate invading and dangerous cancer and tumor cells);
  • Professor Won Sop Shin (the mastermind behind the establishment of Forest Therapy as a public health practice in Korea and former Minister of the Korea Forest Service);
  • Professor Andreas Michalsen (Chief Medical Officer and Director of the Department of Integrative and Internal Medicine of Immanuel Albertinen Hospital, Berlin, and Chair of Clinical Integrative Medicine at Charité University Medical School, Berlin).

However, do not underestimate the authors’ personalities either! As editor-in-chief of an international handbook, you don’t just deal with renowned researchers, you also have to carefully manage and find a balance the various different personalities and their ideas. Moreover, you deal with politics and work across time zones. In an international setting like getting this handbook together, you deal across all time zones. Sitting at my desk in Grovedale, a suburb outside Melbourne, I had the daunting task of dealing with authors from East Asia, Australia, the Americas and Europe. For this edition, we could not identify any author from Africa. However, in time to come for a future edition, we surely will.

It took about two years from the concept to the release of the International Handbook of Forest Therapy. They were tough years which, fortunately, paid off. It has laid the invaluable scientific foundation for Forest Therapy as a public health practice. Overall, the book was the joint effort of many who participated: the authors, the publisher and the editors, in addition to the many unknown others who helped spark the idea, pushed the concept, and promoted nature and nature-connectedness in the process.

In the end, and in retrospect, I am even a little bit proud. Then again, however, the International Handbook of Forest Therapy was probably just a lucky coincidence of two bright stars in the right “conjunction”: Forest Therapy and a brilliant mentor.

There is one more latent force which was instrumental in making everything happen, and which I would like to sincerely thank: my wife’s patience. I might give her a copy of the International Handbook of Forest Therapy for her next birthday…

Dieter Kotte is CEO of Causal Impact, Statistics and Management Consulting, Germany. He is also the Secretary and International Strategic Advisor of the International Nature and Forest Therapy Alliance (INFTA).

Qing Li is a Senior Assistant Professor in the Department of Hygiene and Public Health at Nippon Medical School, Japan. His academic specialities include forest medicine, environmental immunology, and immunotoxicology.

Won Sop Shin is a Professor in the Department of Forestry at Chungbuk University, Republic of Korea and a retired Minister of the Korea Forest Service. He specialises in the use of forests for public health.

Andreas Michalsen is a Director in the Department of Integrative and Internal Medicine of Immanuel Hospital, Berlin, and Chair of Clinical Integrative Medicine at Charité-University Medical School, Germany. His research interests include naturopathy, traditional medicines, and public health.

International Handbook of Forest Therapy is available now in Hardback, Paperback, and eBook formats. Enter the code PROMO25 at the checkout for a 25% discount on the Hardback.

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