For the Week of April 24, 2016: In the Garden: Nature’s Restorative Power

I like the dirt
under my fingernails,
the roughness that comes
from pulling weeds,
churning the soil for new beds.

(From:  “The Garden,” by Lee Robinson, in Hearsay, 2004)

My body is complaining this morning, the cost of an afternoon spent re-potting several plants on our deck, lugging pots, bags of soil, lifting root bound plants from their old pots to larger ones, replenishing the soil and moving them back in their respective places.  My husband helped, of course, but as he and I grow older, even the simplest tasks of gardening seem more physically demanding than they once did.  Still, there is something about being outdoors, digging in soil, tending to plants, and pulling up weeds that feeds the spirit.

I don’t possess a green thumb unlike some of my friends, or more accurately, I do not spend enough time in my garden to yield the results I would like.  Yet my garden forgives me year after year, understanding, perhaps that I need it more than it needs me.  The soil around our house tends to favor succulents and cacti, unlike the flowers blooming in the garden of my youth.  I tend to them as best I can; some survive and thrive.  Many have not.  Yet despite my haphazard efforts, sometimes I think my garden is actually tending to me.

“Even silence can feel, to the world, like happiness, like praise, from the pool of shade you have found beneath the everlasting” (Mary Oliver, from: “Just Lying on the Grass at Blackwater,” in Blue Iris, 2004).

Long before our neighborhood comes to life, I go outside to sit on the back deck in the early morning,  Our deck perches over one of San Diego’s many canyons, and the peacefulness of gazing out at the canyon, my dog curled at my feet, while serenaded with a riot of birdsong is kind of daily infusion of gratitude.  In recent weeks, the birds have become more active with the start of mating season.  The quiet is punctuated by choruses of call and response,  in particular, the who-whooing of a pair of doves, persistently calling to one another.

I noticed the same two doves began lingering on the deck railing morning after morning until one disappeared last week.  Yesterday, I unexpectedly found the missing dove, startling her as I began watering the plants on the front porch.  She, in turn, startled me as she frantically flapped her wings and flew from the  hanging planter on the far wall.  I stepped to the planter and peered in to find a nest, carefully hidden behind the succulents. Two pale eggs lay inside.  I moved back, making an immediate decision to forego the watering of those plants for as long as necessary and, as much as possible, to use the side door to the house so the mother dove is not frightened away.  I felt the same sense of awe and wonder as I did as a child.  What is it, I wondered, about these small signs of new life that ignite such reverence in us?

Yesterday afternoon, as I put away my trowel, the potting soil and broom, I was stiff and tired, but I felt a sense of lightness I hadn’t had for a while.  The garden, it seemed, had lifted my spirits.   I recalled one morning a few years ago when one of my Scripps writers arrived breathless and late to our  session, still wearing her gardening hat. She apologized for the tardiness but explained she simply had to go into her garden that morning because it helped her suspend the worry about her treatments.  I remembered another of my former cancer writers—a gifted poet—who had moved to a little cabin in the redwoods during the last years of her life.  Despite a terminal diagnosis, she lived several years longer than her physicians predicted.  She was healed, I believe, in ways only Mother Nature could provide.  All the while, her poetry deepened and flourished, and she seemed more radiant and peaceful than ever.

The simple act of reconnecting with the earth and witnessing its seasons can be healing.  Studies suggest that a walk in a garden or even seeing one from a window lowers blood pressure, reduces stress and 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 been developed and play a part in the care and treatment of the elderly, those with Alzheimer’s and AIDS, as well as cancer and cardiac patients.  Even in medieval Europe, healing gardens were used in hospices for the dying.  Vincent Van Gogh, writing during the period he spent in a French asylum wrote, “For one’s health it is necessary to work in the garden and see the flowers growing.”  As recognition increased that we need more than sophisticated drugs and treatments to heal us, landscape architects gathered in 1999 to form the Therapeutic Landscapes Network, “a knowledge base and gathering space about healing gardens, restorative landscapes and other green spaces that promote health and well-being”  (

In recent years, many hospitals and cancer centers have worked to create environments to heal the body and nurture the spirit.  “Nature heals the heart and soul, and those are things the doctors can’t help.”  These are the words of San Francisco landscape architect, Topher Delaney, also a breast cancer survivor, writing for the American Cancer Society in 2002. After a mastectomy at age 39, Delaney went into menopause and lost her sense of smell.  The grim surroundings she experienced during 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 other patients 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” (“Healing Gardens Nurture the Spirit While Patients Get Treatment, American Cancer Society, July 24, 2002).  Delaney has since designed healing gardens for the Marin Cancer Center and the San Diego Children’s Hospital, among others.

Mary Oliver, whose poetry is so much inspired by the natural world, reminds us that inspiration is found in nature—and being in 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).

Writing Suggestions:

Has Nature been healing for you?  How?  Do you remember a garden that you loved from another time in your life?  What memories does it inspire?  If you have a garden, what do you love most about it?  What do you feel after you’ve allowed yourself the quiet of simply sitting in nature?  Grab your notebook and take a walk in a garden, the hills or near the ocean.  Notice what captures your attention.  Make a few notes, describing in as much detail as you can, what you see.   Use those notes to write, describing what you’ve observed and felt, and keep writing for another 20 minutes.  See where it leads you.

About Sharon A. Bray, EdD

Best known for her innovative work with cancer patients and survivors, Sharon is a writer, educator and author of two books on the benefits of expressive writing during cancer as well as personal essays, a children's book, magazine articles and the occasional poetry. She designed and initiated expressive writing programs at several major cancer centers, including Breast Cancer Connections, Stanford Cancer Center, Scripps Green Cancer Center and Moores UCSD Cancer Center. She continues to lead expressive writing groups for men and women living in the San Diego area and teach creative writing workshops and classes privately for UCLA extension Writers' Program. She previously taught professional development courses in therapeutic writing at Santa Clara University and the Pacific School of Religion, was a faculty member of the CURE Magazine Forums and at the Omega Institute in 2014. Sharon earned her doctorate from the University of Toronto and studied creative and transformative writing at Humber School for Writers, University of Washington, and Goddard College.
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