The Healing Power of Gardens: Oliver Sacks on the Consolations of Nature

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From Brain Pickings: “‘I work like a gardener,’ the great painter Joan Miró wrote in his meditation on the proper pace for creative work. It is hardly a coincidence that Virginia Woolf had her electrifying epiphany about what it means to be an artist while walking amid the flower beds in the garden at St. Ives. Indeed, to garden — even merely to be in a garden — is nothing less than a triumph of resistance against the merciless race of modern life, so compulsively focused on productivity at the cost of creativity, of lucidity, of sanity; a reminder that we are creatures enmeshed with the great web of being, in which, as the great naturalist John Muir observed long ago, ‘when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe’; a return to what is noblest, which means most natural, in us . . .

Those unmatched rewards, both psychological and physiological, are what beloved neurologist and author Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015) explores in a lovely short essay titled ‘Why We Need Gardens,’ found in Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales (public library) — the wondrous posthumous collection that gave us Sacks on the life-altering power of libraries. He writes:

As a writer, I find gardens essential to the creative process; as a physician, I take my patients to gardens whenever possible. All of us have had the experience of wandering through a lush garden or a timeless desert, walking by a river or an ocean, or climbing a mountain and finding ourselves simultaneously calmed and reinvigorated, engaged in mind, refreshed in body and spirit. The importance of these physiological states on individual and community health is fundamental and wide-ranging. In forty years of medical practice, I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical ‘therapy’ to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens.

Having lived and worked in New York City for half a century — a city ‘sometimes made bearable… only by its gardens’ — Sacks recounts witnessing nature’s tonic effects on his neurologically impaired patients: A man with Tourette’s syndrome, afflicted by severe verbal and gestural tics in the urban environment, grows completely symptom-free while hiking in the desert; an elderly woman with Parkinson’s disease, who often finds herself frozen elsewhere, can not only easily initiate movement in the garden but takes to climbing up and down the rocks unaided; several people with advanced dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, who can’t recall how to perform basic operations of civilization like tying their shoes, suddenly know exactly what to do when handed seedlings and placed before a flower bed. Sacks reflects:

I cannot say exactly how nature exerts its calming and organizing effects on our brains, but I have seen in my patients the restorative and healing powers of nature and gardens, even for those who are deeply disabled neurologically. In many cases, gardens and nature are more powerful than any medication.

More than half a century after the great marine biologist and environmental pioneer Rachel Carson asserted that ‘there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity,‘ Sacks adds:

Clearly, nature calls to something very deep in us. Biophilia, the love of nature and living things, is an essential part of the human condition. Hortophilia, the desire to interact with, manage, and tend nature, is also deeply instilled in us. The role that nature plays in health and healing becomes even more critical for people working long days in windowless offices, for those living in city neighborhoods without access to green spaces, for children in city schools, or for those in institutional settings such as nursing homes. The effects of nature’s qualities on health are not only spiritual and emotional but physical and neurological. I have no doubt that they reflect deep changes in the brain’s physiology, and perhaps even its structure.”

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3 COMMENTS

  1. “In forty years of medical practice, I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical ‘therapy’ to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens.”

    Someone needs to properly educate the “therapists.” My therapist told me to stop listening to music that I found inspiring. And after I was weaned off of her drugs, drugs that made me sick, and was working on a “secret garden” for my children. Another psychiatrist wanted to murder me for “manically” gardening. While this song was popular on the radio, and functioning as my inspiration:

    “… If I lay here
    If I just lay here
    Would you lie with me and just forget the world?

    “Forget what we’re told
    Before we get too old
    Show me a garden that’s bursting into life …”

    I agree, music and gardening are helpful healing tools. And I’m quite certain “the merciless race of modern life, so compulsively focused on productivity at the cost of creativity, of lucidity, of sanity,” is the problem. Our “mental health” workers want to murder or control all the artists – leave us alone, insane “mental health” workers.

    I will say that latter psychiatrist also wanted to kill me because I had been awakened to the potential existence of ” the great web of being, in which, as the great naturalist John Muir observed long ago, ‘when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe’.”

    That psychiatrist thought that a connectivity of all was a bad thing, or non-existent. Anything spiritual, even belief in God, was a “mental illness” to that psychiatrist. She confused belief in reason, or common sense, with “millions of voices.” I’m quite certain the psychiatrists are way too “compulsively focused on productivity at the cost of creativity, of lucidity, of sanity.”

  2. So true! We helped my daughter plant a garden behind her cottage and she has been planting-watering and weeding consistently this year-and we can tell the benefits to her clarity of mind are discernible. Some of it is simple pride. Six years in the backwards-she was not only deprived of all wilderness and organic beds–there was no purpose given to the inmate-patients. Just from the savings on expensive brand name antipsychotics if we drugged people less-hospitals could use the savings to build greenhouses and beds

    • I’m glad you’ve finally gotten your daughter home, madmom.

      And I agree, “Just from the savings on expensive brand name antipsychotics, if we drugged people less-hospitals could use the savings to build greenhouses and beds.” And I do believe time spent in such, would help more, than the neurotoxic neuroleptics/antipsychotics, ever did help anyone.