I’m never quite ready to leave Toronto, the city that, even now, has my heart, but I reluctantly said good-bye to my granddaughter and her parents this past week and boarded my flight to San Diego. As the plane touched down at Lindbergh Field several hours later, my heart was heavy. I wanted to be back in Toronto, my home for several years, walking its gracious, tree-lined streets, drinking coffee at Ezra’s Pound, or walking along Lake Ontario. I was filled with regret that we’d ever left Canada. Even the rhythm of my usual routine failed to comfort me. I was out of sorts, blue.
Mother Nature who rescued me from the doldrums. It happened accidentally. A pair of doves had been nesting in the flower boxes on our front porch. When I’d left for Toronto, the doves were tending to two pale eggs, but while I was away, the chicks hatched. I stood still, quietly gazing at the two baby doves peering at me from the safety of the flower box. Springtime is a time of new life and new beginnings. I felt my mood lighten as I walked back into the house and tossed the mail on the kitchen counter. I pulled on my clogs, stepped out on the patio and went to work, watering plants, sweeping the deck, and pulling up the weeds from the garden. My lingering sadness began to dissipate.
I do not possess a green thumb unlike some of my friends, but my garden forgives me, perhaps understanding that I need it more than it needs me. I’m an impulsive gardener, planting flowers or succulents on whim, many that struggle to survive in the arid soil around our house. I tend to them as best I can; some survive and bloom. Many do not. Yet, despite my haphazard approach, I think my garden is actually tending to me. I was far from the tree-lined streets of Toronto, but I experienced a quiet satisfaction as I sat and gazed across the canyon from our deck. Before I knew it, I was impulsively grabbing my garden shears to trim a shrub or a trowel to dig the wild grasses edging up the slope and into my flower beds, and I felt invigorated. My garden brought me back to myself, to my home in San Diego.
Yesterday afternoon, as I put away my trowel, the potting soil and broom, I recalled when Janet, from one of my San Diego writing groups, arrived late to a session. Breathless and smiling, she still wore her gardening hat. “I had to go out in the garden today,” she said, telling us how it helped suspend her persistent worry about her treatments. I think of another writer, Ann, and her cabin in the redwoods—how healing her environment has been for her. The abundance of Nature’s gifts in her redwood forest inspire her poetry.
The simple act of reconnecting with the earth and witnessing the changes of its seasons can be healing. Planting a garden or strolling through one can make us feel better. Studies suggest that a walk through a garden or even seeing one from the window can lower blood pressure, reduce stress and ease pain. In a 2005 study, cardiac rehabilitation patients who visited gardens and worked with plants experienced an elevated mood and lower heart rate than those who attended a standard patient education class (USA Today, April 15, 2007).
Healing gardens have become a part of many medical centers, as hospitals and cancer centers try to create environments that will not only heal the body, but nurture the spirit. Such gardens are not new, originating in the hospices of medieval Europe.
“Nature heals the heart and soul, and those are things the doctors can’t help,” Topher Delaney, a San Francisco landscape architect, stated in a 2002 American Cancer Society article about healing gardens. Delaney, a breast cancer survivor, had a mastectomy in 1989. She was 39, and after surgery, went into menopause and lost her sense of smell. The grim surroundings of her hospitalization inspired a change in her work.
“I had my pact with God,” she said. “Oh, God, if I get through this, then I’ll do healing gardens. You keep me alive, I’ll keep doing gardens.” She wanted to give others the kind of retreat she wished she’d had during treatment. ”That’s what this [healing] garden is all about — healing the parts of yourself that the doctors can’t. The garden really gives hope because people see flowers bloom and others enjoying life,” she said. “It’s a garden full of change and metaphor” (July 24, 2002, American Cancer Society). .
Mary Oliver, whose poetry examines the natural world, reminds us that inspiration is found in nature, and at the very least, it opens up our hearts.
“I walked, all one spring day, upstream, sometimes in the midst of the ripples, sometimes along the shore. My company were violets, Dutchman’s breeches, spring beauties, trilliums, bloodroot, ferns rising so curled one could feel the upward push of the delicate hairs on their bodies. … The beech leaves were just slipping their copper coats. Pale green and quivering they arrived into the year. My heart opened, and opened again. The water pushed against my effort, then its glassy permission to step ahead touched my ankles” (from “Upstream,” in Blue Iris, 2004).
How has Nature been healing for you? What do you feel after you’ve allowed yourself the quiet time in nature? Nature can also be the inspiration for writing. Why not take your notebook outside with you? Whether you sit quietly or walk along a path, notice what captures your attention. Make a few notes, describing in as much detail as you can, what you see. Begin writing by describing what you’ve observed, and then keep writing for another 15 or 20 minutes. See where it leads you.
“even silence can feel, to the world, like happiness, like praise, from the pool of shade you have found beneath the everlasting” (from “Just Lying on the Grass at Blackwater,” by Mary Oliver (in Blue Iris, 2004).