Toby Israel Ph.D.

Design on My Mind

Women by Design, Transforming Home, Transforming Self

Part 4: Tweeting Birds, Healing Gardens

Posted Sep 12, 2015

Flowers at Wiawaka
Source: Flowers at Wiawaka

Until I arrived at Wiawaka Center for Women for my summer stay, I’d almost forgotten that birds twitter in the morning and they have something genuine to tweet: 

We are red and blue and gold and lightly occupy your soul.  Draw back your paisley quilt. Uncovering in the early morning can be slow, but we’ll sing so you’ll know how deeply, sweetly your day can resonate.

“OMG!” I thought as I jolted out of bed, “The birds used more than 140 characters!”

Damn! After four days at Wiawaka my workhead was still on. I’d been dreaming that the birds, my interns, were tweeting about Design Psychology.  Stop! Enjoy the present!

Homemade coffee cake that first morning:  ‘So good when eaten on a screened-in porch looking out over Lake George. Gail, Wiawaka’s volunteer Master Gardener, sat down next to me at the breakfast table. I noticed her no-nonsense pixie haircut, sturdy build and serious gardener’s deep tan. I sensed her vibrant spirit beneath our morning chit-chat.

Gail doesn’t just tend Wiawaka’s gardens, she created them. She is one of many women over the centuries who have worked wonders in the landscape. Gardening has long been one of the few fields of design where it’s been acceptable for women to make their mark - - not by dabbling but by creating spectacular gardens around the world. (GOOGLE/TWEET: #GreatFemaleLandscapeDesigners = #GertrudeJekyll #VitaSackville-West #MayaLin #ClareCooperMarcus) (IM TO SELF: Stop tweeting. B present. Listen 2 Wiawaka’s real birds sing.)

Gail explained that she’s been gardening all her life without professional training. Seventy-three years old by the time we met, she remembered that her father had a Victory Garden when she was a kid, so gardening was part of her early experience of place.

“When I first started visiting Wiawaka in 2003, there were wild daylilies and phlox but nothing special,” she explained, “I thought a little formal Victorian garden right near the entrance to the main house might be perfect. I could see in my mind’s eye how different Wiawaka might be with plantings all around the grounds.”

“I’d love a tour,” I said and after breakfast we began to walk. Ferns, hostas, begonias, smoke bush, ribbon grass, plume poppies, morning light. Then she paused beneath one tree saying, “Inspired, I began a small crazy quilt planting project by this spruce tree. The roots of the spruce reminded me of stitching, so now each section under the tree has a different type of flower, like a crazy quilt.”

Roots like stitching seemed a strange metaphor, so I asked Gail where that vision came from.

My Great Grand Aunt was a dress maker to Lillian Russell and other famous people in Saratoga Springs. She began a crazy quilt that’s never been finished, and has been passed down from generation to generation.  I’ve had it stored away and thought of completing it someday, perhaps when I retire.  It’s threadbare now but that’s what inspired this section of the garden.

We walked on to a hidden portion of the landscape where she’d created a labyrinth- - a spiraling stone path, a maze to walk through while quietly contemplating life. Gail was recently widowed and I asked her if working in the gardens was a kind of horticulture therapy for her. “Yes, absolutely therapeutic and empowering!” she replied and then elaborated:

Last year when my husband was so sick, this was the one place I could come and not deal with doctors and hospitals. It was relaxing and restful.  It’s given me a much-needed focus and time away from my house.  It’s always been a respite for me.  I get totally immersed in it.  It’s the creativity.  Making something out of nothing and believing other people will get pleasure from it.  It’s an absolutely soul-satisfying thing to do.

Still curious about her crazy quilt garden, I questioned her further and she explained:

I think that crazy quilt was meaningful to me because I have always loved the idea of extended family.  My family always had a pride in connection.  My grandfather worked for Edison for a small time.  Aunt Marjorie met Clark Gable. I was impressed.  So the importance of a person wasn’t who they were but who they met.  Now in my old age, I think, who cares?

But what was really important about the original quilt and garden quilt was that they symbolized connection for me. I felt connected to my great grand aunt, my grandmother and other aunts because my mother and father weren’t anyone I wanted to emulate. I am an adult survivor of an alcoholic father and an enabler.  I don’t tell people about this. I don’t scream it but sometimes it helps other people that have that background to know this about me.

When you have such a negative background in your own home, you are hunting for someone of worth to connect with and sometimes you have to hunt really hard.  I think it’s a self-preservation thing. I don’t think it was conscious at the time. 

I emulated this Aunt Marjorie (who had the real quilt last). Whatever she thought was important, I thought was important. I started doing needlework because she did.  Aunt Marjorie thought church was a very important part of your life, so I went to church even when I was a teenager. My Aunt Marjorie was a secretary, so I became a secretary.

Gail led me further down the hill to see the ‘fairy trail’ she’d created deep into the woods. There she’d carved a little town with Lilliputian-sized, wooden homes- - birdhouses retrofitted in Adirondack style. Here and there on minute porches or mushroom chairs sat tiny fairies, paused (no iPhones in hand) waiting to chat in person with Gail or me or maybe you about ways magical gardens uplift. (GOOGLE ‘horticultural therapy’ TWEET: #TherapeuticGardens help #heal us )

I struggled to keep my SmartPhone in my pocket, but didn’t.  Glancing at HEALING GARDENS links, I flashed back to ten years beforehand when I was digging in my own garden.  I’d just been stood-up by a well-known architect I’d been dating. He’d sprinkled star dust in my eyes with tales of all of his accomplishments.  “Mr. Big” was also “Mr. Big Time No Show” so from him I learned, “All that glitters is not gold.” 

Which brings us to the marigolds I’d started to plant while waiting for him to phone.  Let me tell you- - on that day my gardening turned into “gardening therapy.” Feeling abandoned, I began digging up roots to clear the space but soon started to cry.

My sobbing went on longer than “Mr. Big No Show” deserved and I realized that my sadness was about more than being blown off by some dumb guy. I went down deep and there at the bottom of the hole I found the loss I felt when my father died when I was fifteen.  Like an archeologist of the soul, I’d unearthed a long-buried fear of abandonment that had mysteriously plagued me for years. At last I understood its roots.  I wiped my eyes, sprinkled soil on the ground, tenderly positioned the gold flowers, and patted them down to stand sturdy. (Do you want to grab a trowel now- - perhaps a shovel- - to dig down deep or smack back down?)

For Gail and me (and you, too, I think) a patchwork of life experiences lies just beneath the surface of our outdoor and indoor places. Some call the patchwork “life’s rich tapestry.”  Do you want to reveal the tapestry’s fullest beauty and meaning? Do you want to weave your life story together in a way that feels whole?

Gail did, so she continued to excavate by attending the Home Design Psychology Workshop that I gave at the end of my three-weeks at Wiawaka.  During the sessions, while exploring her sense of home, Gail realized that she spent the majority of her spare childhood time outdoors but not just in her father’s Victory Garden. She’d escaped her family’s dysfunction by running, running with packs of kids down paths through local woods and open land, past river flats. In this way she could be part of a group, as well as remain alone as she was shy and introverted, yet yearned for connection. 

Now that her husband’s died, Gail wondered, “What’s next?” At present she is alone in a too-big house surrounded by beautiful gardens.  Yet during the summer at Wiawaka she can garden all day, hum, sing along with those morning birds, and feel connected to the group of women there.  Still when she returns home, the house is filled with her husband’s stuff, her stepdaughter’s things and only some decor that feels like ‘Gail.’ She can imagine downsizing to a smaller, Adirondack-style house. Would the garden fairies help her build the ideal home Gail envisioned?:

MY IDEAL HOME is a simple place surrounded by nature with a long view where I can relax, contemplate my natural world, be calm and peaceful. It has a small garden that I can design, take care of and call my own.

( GOOGLE/TWEET:  ‘Home Design Psychology Workshop’ )

 Now put away your SmartPhone and listen to the wiser birds sing.


Wiawaka Center for Women in Lake George, New York was founded in 1903.  Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it’s the longest continuously operating retreat center for women in America.

Copyright Toby Israel, 2015

About the Author

Toby Israel is an environmental psychologist who studies design psychology.

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