By Arnold. C Farley
To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palms of your hand and eternity in an hour.
I have always had a deep and abiding desire to be in nature. I often thought it was because I grew up in a row house in South Philadelphia surrounded by asphalt, brick and concrete. I loved the summers as a child attending camp in the country and being able to hike, climb trees, take nature classes and enjoy evenings by a camp fire next to the Brandywine Creek.
Psychologist Seth J. Gillihan found through his research that being outside in nature is good for our bodies and minds and will accelerate healing. The Japanese expression “shinrin-yoku” translated “forest bathing” also reflects the experience of being immersed in nature. The description of bathing implies a cleansing effect that is supported by other research. The Journal of Environmental and Public Health published an article in 2012 that identifies significant health benefits from “earthing” (grounding) or being in direct contact with the earth. This finding is based on the transmission of electrons from the earth into our bodies.
Reconnection with the earth’s electrons has been found to promote intriguing physiological changes and subjective reports of well-being. Earthing refers to the benefits, including better sleep and reduced pain, from walking barefoot outside, sitting or working in or on the earth. The greatest positive effects are felt from practicing gardening activities.
“I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order,” John Burroughs said. As a young adult I would often go backpacking along the Appalachian Trail from upstate New York down to southern Virginia. Even after becoming a psychologist, getting married and starting a family, I never lost the calling to be in and around nature. As a result, most vacations included river rafting, canoeing or kayaking, mountain, woodland or beach destinations, hiking or even ziplining obstacle courses. I felt being in a natural outdoor setting was always a home away from home for me.
“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better,” Albert Einstein advised. When my wife, Sandy, and I retired our commissions as Public Health Service officers, she wanted to become a Master Gardener and I wanted to become a massage therapist. We both accomplished our goals. Settling here in Corrales, Sandy began some herb and flower gardening with my total support and encouragement.
Out of an act of necessity to prevent erosion and control drainage, we developed a master plan for our property that included numerous garden rooms: believe it or not the major ones were “Mind,” “Body” and “Spirit!” David Monico, MPH, notes that nature has a restorative function cognitively and emotionally. He observed that being in nature can improve attention (used with children with ADHD), lower stress and improve overall well-being.
This gardening work of ours soon became an avocation for both of us with me designing, hardscaping and maintaining the gardens with Sandy choosing, planting and caring for hundreds of plants, vegetables and trees on our acre of land. As a result, we found ourselves caring for living things on a regular basis. We became gardeners.
The glory of gardening: hands in the dirt, head in the sun, heart with nature. “To nurture a garden is to feed not just on the body, but the soul.”
Then the pandemic hit! A nightmare to be sure, with all that we knew to be normal being turned upside down. Thankfully for us, we had our gardens! As a psychologist, I was somewhat familiar with the general health benefits of being outdoors in nature, including gardening, but now, Sandy and I would find it invaluable to our mental (and physical) health. None of this is new. For centuries we have known of the many benefits being in nature provides.
Philosophers, scientist, mystics as well as farmers and gardeners have been telling us so almost forever. “No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden.”
I have told many friends and family, if it was not for our gardens, I would be much worse off psychologically (Sandy can attest to that for sure.) More recently, in the fields of environmental health and psychology, we have accumulated more and more research and scientific evidence of the amazing mental health benefits, including physical health, being in nature, and specifically gardening, has for us.
The Journal of Clinical Medicine of the Royal College of Physicians reported in 2018 that exposure to plants and green spaces, especially gardening, is beneficial to mental and physical health. Studies in this report found the above exposures resulted in reduced stress, fear, anger and sadness as well as reduced blood pressure, pulse rate and muscle tension. A meta-analysis done in 2017 by Soga, Gaston and Yamaura in Preventive Medicine Reports found that gardening, specifically, was beneficial to numerous heath factors. These studies were from the United States, Europe, Asia and The Middle East. Outcome data found reductions in depression, anxiety and Body Mass Index (BMI) as well as increases in life satisfaction, quality of life measures and sense of community.
Horticultural therapy (gardening and other related practices) is a rapidly growing treatment for mental disorders as well as learning and developmental conditions around the world. I know how “good tired” I feel after working the gardens for a couple of hours. How “wonder-full” it is to sit, alone or with Sandy, in a garden spot and just take it all in: the smells, sounds, shapes, array of color, texture and variety.
“It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air that emanates from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.”
—Robert Louis Stevenson
Working in my gardens, I feel engaged in a form of mindfulness practice that is at the same time focused and creative. As if I was in a kind of organic dance, a co-mingling with the energies of the earth (weather, soil, living organisms, big and small, and me) all working to sustain and promote life. Way cool!
Virtually every religious and spiritual teaching throughout the ages has referred to a garden as an analogy for bliss, happiness, serenity or peace. “Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace.”
Research has shown that you do not need to go big on gardening to gain many of the benefits from nature. Roger Ulrich, an environmental psychologist found that simply viewing plants or trees in a post-operative setting improved mood, reduced analgesic use, surgical complications and length of stay of patients. Studies in the UK and Japan over the last few years, have supported these findings.
No need to become a Master Gardener either. Just being in nature is a good start. Walking in the woods, volunteering with a nature program (see notes at end of article) or even getting a few house plants is a good start. If you wanted to start a garden, perhaps begin with a few outdoor planters of herbs for your kitchen or plant a few vegetables such as peppers, onions or tomatoes. Anything you do is good for you and will help you mentally, physically and emotionally. The added benefits of getting into any form of gardening include the physical activity components, the social/community connections and, of course, the bounty of healthy food to savor and enjoy!
“To forget how to dig the earth and to tend the soil is to forget ourselves.”
• Master Gardeners of Sandoval County: http://sandovalmastergardeners.org.
• Corrales volunteer tree planting committee: get information here or contact Village Clerk Aaron Gjullin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Seed to Need: https://seed2need.org