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Photographer documents the last surviving rainforests of Great Britain

By Nell Lewis, CNN

(CNN) — Lush greens, tangled wood, blurs of light – giant images of rainforests hang on the walls of a church in London. Sounds of the wind whipping through trees and birdsong fill the room.

The images are not of tropical rainforests, but very rare temperate rainforest in the UK. This type of woodland once covered most of western Britain and Ireland – the country’s wet, mild conditions providing the perfect conditions for it to flourish.

Today, due to excessive agriculture and development, rainforests cover less than 1% of Britain, found in isolated pockets running from Cornwall in the south to northwest Scotland.

When photographer Joanna Vestey discovered that rainforests existed in her home nation, she wanted to see them for herself and make the forests accessible for everyone else. Through a series of photographs and audio recordings, on display in an immersive exhibition in London’s Fitzrovia Chapel this week, she hopes to raise awareness of the endangered habitat, while also exploring the forests’ potential health benefits.

Forest bathing

Vestey’s first trip to a temperate rainforest was in Devon, southwest England. Stepping into it from a modern conifer forest, she immediately felt the difference: the temperature dropped, the trees became more varied – oak, birch, ash, pine, hazel – and a tangle of mosses and lichens climbed over it all. The experience was “magical,” she said.

Since then, Vestey estimated she has visited around 60% of the remaining temperate rainforests in the UK. At each spot, she would find a position to take a photograph, set up her tripod, and using an analogue camera, take a long exposure image over a period of two hours. Leaving the camera’s shutter open so long created a unique effect: “There are these incredible blurs where the wind blows branches across where it’s raining and raindrops fall on the lens,” she said. “It’s a more organic way of working.”

Her method was inspired by research into “forest bathing,” a concept that originated in Japan, whereby being quiet and calm among trees while breathing deeply is thought to help people de-stress and boost their health.

Vestey had read “Into the Forest,” a book by Japanese immunologist and forest medicine expert Dr. Qing Li, who, after extensive physiological testing, discovered that being exposed to a forest environment for two hours is beneficial mentally and physically. After four to six hours’ exposure a person’s immune functions can be boosted for one week, and after three days and two nights changes occur on a cellular level that can boost immune functions for up to 30 days, according to Li’s research. To reflect this optimal time period, Vestey’s final collection of 26 images amounts to a combined exposure time of three days and two nights.

She recorded the sounds of the forest at the same time. “(There’s) everything from babbling brooks to torrential rainfall, to noisy birds and sheep, and the beautiful wind in the trees,” she said, adding that the aim of the combined audio and visual elements is to recreate the experience of sitting in the forest for those who don’t have access.

“Anxiety levels and depression are so high at the moment, especially among young people, and there’s so much research about the connection with nature and how beneficial that can be,” she said. “I’m trying to explore whether I can share the experience I have standing in a forest, by taking it into a hospital or a clinic or a school and share in some way that virtual immersion into nature.”

Healing powers

With a grant from the UK’s Art Council, Vestey is working with a team of researchers from the University of Exeter to test whether these benefits are transferable to an audio and image experience. She has also partnered with The Thousand Year Trust, a charity founded by Merlin Hanbury-Tenison and his wife Lizzie, which is working to triple the amount of rainforest across the UK in the next 30 years.

The couple are strong advocates of the health benefits time in the rainforest can bring. After working in the British military and doing three tours in Afghanistan, Hanbury-Tenison was suffering from complex PTSD, while Lizzie was struggling after a series of miscarriages. They started spending more time in the ancient woodland at Cabilla, their family’s 300-acre farm on Bodmin Moor, Cornwall.

“Both of us were getting a lot of healing and nourishment from spending time in this space, and it became very clear to us that the healing power of nature was something we wanted to focus more of our energies upon,” said Hanbury-Tenison.

As well as working to plant more trees and restore rainforest cover across the UK, the charity is building what it calls the first Atlantic temperate rainforest research station on Bodmin Moor. Similar to Vestey, some of the research will explore whether the forests’ mental health and wellbeing benefits can be accessed outside of the natural space.

Hanbury-Tenison explained that the lichens and mosses that grow on the trees in the UK’s temperate rainforest secrete volatile organic compounds called terpenes which some say can reduce a person’s inflammation and cortisol levels, the main stress hormone, when breathed in. “We’re doing a lot of research into how we can synthesize the terpenes within the rainforest so that you could have diffusers and room misters that are put into places like NHS wards or nursing homes,” he said.

Vestey hopes that by combining scientific research with immersive art, her photographs will move from being in an exhibition space to being in a support or wellbeing space – all while raising awareness of the UK’s remaining rainforests.

“I’ve always been really interested in what photography can do, and how it can amplify things,” she said. “If you can invite someone to sit with an image … they can decide whether they now feel more connected to nature and want to do something about stewardship.”

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