Lois DeVries on the Transformational Power of Gardening
On the future of mental health
Posted Mar 23, 2016
The following interview is part of a “future of mental health” interview series that will be running for 100+ days. This series presents different points of view about what helps a person in distress. I’ve aimed to be ecumenical and included many points of view different from my own. I hope you enjoy it. As with every service and resource in the mental health field, please do your due diligence. If you’d like to learn more about these philosophies, services, and organizations mentioned, follow the links provided.
Interview with Lois DeVries
EM: You take a special interest in the “transformational power of gardening.” What do you mean by that phrase?
LD: The Transformational Power of Gardening is a palpable energy exchange that takes place between certain types of gardeners and their gardens in which they have grown into a symbiotic pair whose holistic union is necessary to both. In these gardens, speaking with these gardeners, visitors experience a transfer of energy that touches their own life force, a noetic or optimal event. You know it when you feel it.
There’s an x-factor at work, something “extra,” that’s knowable more by its symptoms than anything else: This type of garden generates a kind of harmonious resonance in visitors. You can’t quite put your finger on it, but you know you like being there and don’t want to leave.
Over time, as I interviewed the owners of such gardens more deeply, I found that, in every case, their connection to the garden reaches far beyond the sheer enjoyment of plants and mechanics of gardening and into their mind, heart, and soul. In the most dramatic examples, gardening has changed a person’s life, or allowed an individual to triumph over a physical disability. More typically, such gardeners talk about how gardening reduces their stress, affords a time of private enjoyment, and allows them unfettered expression of their innermost being, most cherished gardening experiences, or creative spirit.
EM: How do you see the activity of gardening helping with or healing emotional and mental distress? What is the “healing power” of gardening?
LD: I think there’s something very primal that we reconnect with when we’re digging around in the dirt. It engages a deeper level of our being. We literally become more grounded when we’re kneeling or sitting on the earth. It has a calming influence and calls on our nurturing instincts.
Gardening has physical and mental effects on the body beyond mere exercise. Scent, for example, is a major element that affects garden memories, because we begin to form the nerve connections that interweave the smells of the garden with emotions during our first encounters with gardens. This happens because the capacities for both smell and emotion are rooted in the same (limbic) system in the brain.
Trees, shrubs, and flowers are living beings, as are the birds, insects, worms, chipmunks, etc., that are all part of the gardener’s world. People who never get out into the natural world lose some essence of their humanity, their capacity to relate to their place in the web of life.
Gardening lifts us out of the self-absorption that is part and parcel of emotional distress. We begin to engage more with seasonal cycles and to notice the busy lives of the various creatures that are drawn into our garden. Because growing plants to maturity takes time, we start to cultivate more patience and become less impulsive.
There’s plenty of scientific evidence to back up the claim that contact with Nature is basic to human mental health, from as early as Dr. Benjamin Rush’s 1782 observations of mental patients who were allowed to work outdoors, to Dr. Frances Kuo’s founding of the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois.
EM: Do you have an anecdote of someone who was helped to heal through gardening?
I have quite a few, but I’ll tell you just two. The most dramatic story is of the naturalized citizen from Egypt, trapped in a locked-down Port Authority building adjacent to the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. He couldn’t avoid seeing what was happening. He was wracked with guilt and began to feel that, as an Egyptian-American, he was somehow responsible.
He was so shaken that he was unable to return to work, even after months of counseling. He and his wife became fearful of what might happen to them in a community that had lost a number of residents during the attack.
With little to do but replay his haunting memories over and over, he suffered terrible depression. Then one day, two neighbors who were avid gardeners reached out to him, helping him find solace and relaxation by teaching him how to garden. When I met him that was how he was spending most of each day. “Gardening has helped me to look toward life and away from death,” he said.
The other story is my own. During a bout with breast cancer in 2012, I used my love of gardening to make the transformation from victim to survivor. From stressed to de-stressed. I was stunned when my doctor told me the news. I didn’t hear much of what she said, but I knew I had breast cancer. After I set the phone down, my priorities became crystal clear – my husband, my dog, and my garden. I remember sobbing, “I don’t want to leave my garden.” During the next 283 days, my husband and I created a series of incrementally more difficult garden-related goals that drew me into the future and culminated in our week-long trip to Tucson for the Garden Writers Association conference.
EM: Are there other activities or pursuits “like gardening” that you feel also help to relieve emotional and mental distress?
LD: It isn’t enough to just be doing something outdoors. Many outdoor activities actually have a negative effect on the environment, or focus solely on the person’s mastery of nature. Snowmobiling and rock-climbing, for instance, come to mind.
Fly fishing, on the other hand, offers the same type of meditative, low stress, inner-directed experience that can be enjoyed solo or in the company of others. Learning how to tie the flies yourself is an art in the same way that gardening is and can offer similar creative challenges and outlets.
Non-competitive cross-country skiing can play to our sense of wonder when done in a natural area. Leisurely walks in lightly-visited natural lands, or along beaches are another good choice. It’s so easy to get “lost” in thought or time as you rummage through pinecones, colorful stones, shells, or sea glass, watch the birds, etc. This is “zoning out” in a good way.
It’s more about being than doing, so anything that helps you get into a FLOW or “optimal” experience on a regular basis is good. It can be something as simple as anchoring your boat in the middle of a lake and watching the world go by, or visiting a public garden and breathing in the beauty.
EM: If you had a loved one in emotional or mental distress, what would you suggest that he or she do or try?
LD: I have no medical training, but in general I think medications just cover up the symptoms of mental or emotional problems without really solving them. So my suggestion would depend on the severity of the problem. Clearly, someone with schizophrenia has different needs than someone who is afraid to cross a bridge.
If people close to me were having problems with the normal stresses of life, I’d probably invite them to accompany me to a garden center on the pretense that I was looking to buy some plants, or to go with me “for company” to a public garden, arboretum, flower show, state park, the beach, or other open space. Seriously. In my own life, I’ve found the quickest cure for “the blues” is to get out amongst the plants and animals, birds, bees, and butterflies, and go for a walk.
Longer term, I would encourage them to take some classes at a botanic garden, join a Master Gardener program (available in every state) or garden club, go on a garden tour, etc. These offer the advantage of a structured activity and timeframe, as well as a non-threatening space to socialize with others over a common interest. Gardeners tend to be very chatty and willing to share.
Lois is Executive Director of the Sustainable Gardening Institute and founder of SGI's Sustainable Gardening Library. She chairs the Garden Writers Association Sustainability Committee and is a recipient of the prestigious Jefferson Presidential Award for nearly a decade of service in environmental advocacy. She can be reached at http://www.loisjdevries.com/ or firstname.lastname@example.org .
Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is the author of 40+ books, among them The Future of Mental Health, Rethinking Depression, Mastering Creative Anxiety, Life Purpose Boot Camp and The Van Gogh Blues. Write Dr. Maisel at email@example.com, visit him at http://www.ericmaisel.com, and learn more about the future of mental health movement at http://www.thefutureofmentalhealth.com
To learn more about and/or to purchase The Future of Mental Health visit here