You Are Nearer God’s Heart in a Garden Than Anywhere Else on Earth

However hard we try, we can neither control the forces of nature nor divorce ourselves from their effect. Medicine is at last accepting the reality of this fact. Dogs and cats are being prescribed like pills, especially for sick children and lonely geriatric patients, who are thought to be the main beneficiaries of what is now classified as Pet Facilitated Therapy. Psychologists have now launched a new discipline – ecopsychology – to explore our interrelationship with animals, plants, trees, rivers and rocks. These studies may seem far removed from our daily lives and yet they throw light on many of our contemporary problems. We cannot ignore our links with nature. These ties are not a matter of choice. Whether we like it or not , we are an inextricable part of our natural environment. This is an issue we must confront, if only because it influences our long-term well-being. In a 1982 statement called the World Charter of Nature, a United Nations commission concluded: “Civilisation is rooted in nature, which has shaped human culture and influenced all artistic and scientific achievement, and living in harmony with nature gives man the best opportunities for creativity, rest and recreation.”

Gardening provides one simple way of maintaining our atavistic pastoral roots and thereby making the most of our opportunities for creativity, rest and recreation. When we construct a garden, we surround ourselves with a green cocoon which serves as a microcosm of the natural world. In order to maintain his contact with the earth, in the sixth century AD, the Chinese emperor Yang Ti ordered the creation around his palace of lake-filled park more than sixty miles in circumference. Many of his subjects followed his example. Being far too poor to build gardens on the imperial scale, they perfected the art of miniaturization. For them a single, water-washed stone became the symbol of a mighty crag. A tiny pond created the image of a giant lake, and two sentinel trees became the metaphor for a towering forest. With their love of myth, the Chinese used the symbol of a bridge thrown across a miniature pond to suggest the fantasy Isle of the Immortals, a utopian sanctuary which was said to lie somewhere in the Eastern Ocean. These images were incorporated in their traditional pottery designs, which often include the figure of a misshapen man. He is one of the world’s earliest named gardeners, a man known as the Ugly Artisan, who worked to create the gardens of the Imperial Palace of Japan in AD 612. In the 1990s the Japanese government became concerned about the costly impact of stress on their fellow countrymen. To investigate the problem, they convened a study group of civil servants, scientists, sociologists and university professors. Eventually the panel concluded that the finest way to combat stress was to return to the traditional pastimes of dwarf tree cultivation (bonsai) flower arranging (ikebana) and simply ‘listening to the sigh of the wind in the trees’. We desperately need a foxhole into which we can escape. Soldiers suffer breakdowns in health if they are kept for too long in the front line, which is why they are given regular spells of rest and recreation well away from the action zone. We too need our breaks for R & R if we are to avoid the consequences of battle fatigue. These recovery spells need not be long but they should be frequent, and are best spent in a peaceful, natural setting. At one time the countryside was at everyone’s back door, whereas now we often have to travel miles on crowded motorways to reach a patch of unpolluted countryside. As a compensation, some people today listen to CDs which promise to soothe away the stresses of everyday life with recordings of the natural sounds of tropical rain forests and Caribbean sea shores. But there is no need to look so far afield, for the same effect can be obtained by quietly sitting in a garden listening to the gentle rustle of the wind whistling through the trees, and the mellifluous notes of blackbirds and thrushes.

(This item first appeared in The Therapeutic Garden, eBook versions of which are now available from Amazon at a bargain-basement price)

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