As a writer, I find gardens essential to the creative process; as a physician, I take my patients to gardens whenever possible….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.
— Oliver Sacks
Natures of your kind, with strong, delicate senses, the soul-oriented, the dreamers, poets, lovers are always superior to us creatures of the mind. You take your being from your mothers. You live fully; you were endowed with the strength of love, the ability to feel. Whereas we creatures of reason, we don’t live fully; we live in an arid land, even though we often seem to guide and rule you. Yours is the plentitude of life, the sap of the fruit, the garden of passion, the beautiful landscape of art. Your home is the earth; ours is the world of ideas.
— Hermann Hesse
I grew up in the Texas countryside surrounded by trees, fields and animals. I started reading early and obsessively, forming an idea that artists and writers were city dwellers and that if I wanted to join their ranks, I would need to move to a big world city. New York, Paris or any city where great cultural ferment was happening or had happened were in my ambitious sights.
I ignored my unease, my sense of strain at being assaulted by people, noise, machines and lack of natural surroundings. I soldiered on, regardless.
Yet I was quite happy to leave New York in the late 70’s and I never went back. It was the same with L.A., San Francisco and even smaller cities in France and Italy. I don’t know why I kept trying, why I never realized it was city-living I couldn’t adapt to, not any particular city. I still keep fond memories of Venice and Paris, but I remember a feeling of tension that haunted my days and nights that simply disappeared when we moved to a tiny French village in the east of France. That life struck a balance between town and country that suited me. It was both provincial and civilized because of the people who were there, an unusual mix of artists, peasants, nature, farms and starry nights.
Arriving with an extensive library and more than a decade’s supply of paints, I made creative and intellectual advances I hadn’t managed living in cities. I guess I’m a delicate flower, that my sensitive nature is both a blessing and a curse. It has taken me a long time to just accept it and arrange my outward circumstances to fit who I am rather than try to force myself to be something I’m not.
I’m an idea person. I love concepts and reflections on existence and the human equation but my mind doesn’t work as well in the hubbub of hordes of people and the unrelenting hard surfaces of cities. I live with a woman who has a way with growing things, with arranging beautiful living environments, with visual, tactile and gustatory compositions. My existential roots are well nourished.
I’m that kind of male, not completely cut off from nature but I see what Herman Hesse is talking about. Women do seem to have a more direct connection to all things natural than men do, but I believe we men often suffer from being at a remove from the earth and its soulful life. We are so captured by our ambitions we’re blind to how fundamental nature is to our spiritual well-being.
I believe we all need to return to nature and natural connections. We need to see it and understand its processes and needs. We need to love and care for it. Seeing it as a possession, as an asset that can be equated with dollars is killing the world.
Judging from how long it took me to make these connections, I worry about people who grow up away from the natural earth and its flora and fauna.
The more people who wake up to the juggernaut of our cultural assumptions the better.