As a college freshman, new to the city of Providence, Rhode Island, stressed about looming class deadlines, and desperate for the open fields and rambling landscapes in which I had grown up, I discovered a small public garden tucked behind an environmental non-profit in the middle of the city. A wide gravel path bisected the space, carving out plots overflowing with Shakespearean flowers and herbs. The gardens were beautiful, wild and full, but that was not what had captured my attention. It was the gravel paths; more specifically, the weeds clawing through the otherwise orderly and tidy frames. I plopped in the middle of one of the weediest paths and started pulling…
There is something about the act of weeding – of removing detritus and restoring neatness and order – that has always had a calming effect on me. I weeded for nearly two hours that first day (unfazed by the strange looks I received from employees of the non-profit and the odd visitor that walked through) and returned to the garden regularly throughout the four years I was in Providence. This simple act of deletion and renewal sustained me through quizzes, final exams, and thesis deadlines.
Nearly twenty-five years later, I still find myself seeking solitude in weeding; in finding the meditative rhythm of yanking and tossing and in transforming chaos to order. There’s nothing more satisfying than the smooth and decisive extraction of a fully intact weed and nothing better than a patch of gravel dotted with unwanted vegetation to ease a jumbled mind. If I can bring order to a garden by pulling out plants that have strayed outside their boundaries, then certainly I can do the same for myself and create some semblance of calm within the turmoil inside my head.
In her essay, Messy Ecosystems, Orderly Frames, landscape architecture professor Joan Nassauer writes about how our landscapes communicate human intention, particularly intention to care for the landscape, and that a neat and tidy landscape is the clear product of this. Her essay goes on to explain how “cues to care” such as borders, frames, and edging can make ecologically diverse landscapes more familiar and that gardens that may otherwise be labeled as messy can become culturally acceptable through the inclusion of unmistakable indications that they are part of a larger intended pattern (Nassauer 1995). Although she is primarily referring to upholding cultural norms while shifting garden designs to include more native and biodiverse plants, I can’t help but try to apply her theory of orderly frames to the current “messy ecosystem” of a global pandemic.
As human beings, we have a deep-seated desire for certainty and control. Studies have shown that this need serves two major purposes: 1) it helps us believe we can shape events to achieve the outcomes we desire, and 2) it helps us feel like we aren’t under someone else’s control. This has been clearly reflected in our relationship with the natural world and our long history of dominance over nature, starting in the 17th century with rising interest in the rational order of the world and Francis Bacon’s theories that civilizations should be measured by how effectively they could manipulate nature for human needs, and further embodied in French formal gardens like Versailles and Luxembourg. Indeed, even Frederick Law Olmstead’s Central Park reflects an almost obsessive desire to create idealizations of nature, using artifice and sleights of hand to disguise the enormous amounts of labor and expense required to achieve the resulting “natural landscape scenery.”
Although some may associate this type of neatness and order solely with the human desire to exert control over nature (Tuan 1986; Stein 1993), an alternative theory posits that aesthetically pleasing landscapes are more likely to be appreciated and protected than are landscapes perceived as ugly, messy, or unkempt (Gobster 2007). In an age where we’re already showcasing our daily lives on social media (blogging about our urban gardens, posting photos on Instagram, uploading before and after shots to the Apartment Therapy website), the urge to create orderly frames around all we do is pervasive. Our home landscapes have thus become a personal reflection of ourselves. By clearing out the weeds, tidying up the borders, and sorting the material within our garden boundaries, we are projecting onto the world our own “cues to care,” through a curated vision of inner strength, beauty, and well-being.
Since shelter-in-place orders took effect, our home gardens have taken on an even greater primacy. In addition to functioning as a cultural reflection of our self-identity and, by extension, a physical reflection of how well we’ve been able to cope with the epidemic, they have also had to adopt the role of critical open space for respite and restoration. As this global pandemic forces quarantines or even tentative steps towards a semblance of normalcy, our minds are swirling in chaos. Gardening lets us slow down our thoughts and engage in an often-mindless process that reaps satisfyingly productive results. For some it may be a matter of taking out aggression on offensive plants; for others it’s a form of meditation or a time for reflection. Studies show that even a short time (several hours) spent working in a garden can significantly reduce depression and anxiety symptoms (Clatworthy 2013) and that gardening for just 30 minutes after performing a stressful task is significantly more effective at reducing salivary cortisol levels (which measure short-term stress) than reading a book for the same amount of time (Van Den Berg 2011).
I’ve discovered, too, that it’s not just the simple act of control over nature that soothes; it’s also full immersion (unplugged; phone on silent or left at home) in whatever garden or green space is close by. Attention restoration theory proposes that exposure to natural environments and images has the potential to provide restoration from mental fatigue and improve concentration (Kaplan 1995). As a landscape architect primarily interested in using plants (as opposed to built objects) to create outdoor spaces, I have long been steeped in theories of the healing power of people-plant relationships. I’ve studied the Kaplan’s theories, read Richard Louv’s books on nature-deficit disorder in children, and analyzed Japanese shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) therapy. But it wasn’t until I co-taught an undergraduate seminar called “Nature Rx: Exploring the Power of the Natural World” that I truly saw the healing power of nature immersion first hand.
With class sizes limited to 18, the UC Davis’ first-year seminar format presented a unique opportunity to introduce nature therapy to incoming students new to the campus. The seminar served the dual purpose of orienting freshmen and transfer students to the natural communities of UC Davis (instructors, places, resources, one another) while simultaneously introducing them to the concepts and research supporting the healing power of nature. Through experiential outdoor activities such as walks, bike rides, and guided tours, students explored the natural components of UC Davis and learned about events, internships, and scientific research occurring all over campus. Assigned readings and discussions focused on literature exploring the health benefits associated with such activities.
I have taught the seminar now for four years. A number of takeaways have emerged through the personal reflections students are required to submit at the end of the quarter. Students have written that dedicating a weekly two-hour block to Nature Rx “helped wind down my mind” and “decompress,” supporting the growing body of research demonstrating reduced stress levels and decreased feelings of depression after spending time in nature (e.g. Ulrich 1979; Astell-Burt et al. 2014; Bratman et al. 2015; Ward Thompson et al. 2016). One participant admitted feeling “rejuvenated and happier” after each class, another said the class helped ground her, and a third described the class as “filling a void in myself that I will be forever grateful for.” They reflected that they were deliberately setting aside time to incorporate nature into their daily lives through walks, recreation, meditation, or observation.
The most striking aspect of the reflections, however, was the resulting self-described changes reported by students. We expected participants would enjoy the class and ultimately take away some new insights about the healing powers of nature, but had no idea of the extent to which they would internalize the message. These students ultimately modified not only their attitudes towards themselves and their personal well-being, but also their behavior towards nature. “Everywhere I look now, I see nature in a new light. It may seem like I’m exaggerating, but I’m really not. When I look at the trees in front of me, I notice them. Actually, I search for them and explore them. I want to find that one tree that makes me feel at peace, or inspired, just by looking at it.”
Gardens are an essential (perhaps the essential) component of the built environment at all scales. As we take tentative steps forward towards a future where the next global pandemic likely lurks just around the corner, we must not underestimate the value of our gardens and green spaces. We need not only to protect and cherish them, but also to enlarge and reconfigure them to serve as safe outlets for public recreation, social interaction, and mental health and well-being. The need to connect—to oneself, to others, to the greater outdoors—is fundamental. Self-isolation is not. Whether a balcony of potted plants, a postage-stamp front yard filled with perennials, wildflowers spilling over a trail, or a well-worn dirt track along the bank of an urban river, gardens are fundamental. They nourish our soul, connect us to our communities, and provide safe and healthy places for us to escape confinement and recreate. Gardens let us showcase the best parts of ourselves.
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