Finding God and Healing in Nature

Pam Durrant

“Come in Nature Forth into the light of things, Let Nature be your teacher.” William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850)

I am part of the St Luke’s Garden Group – one of eight volunteers (obviously unpaid) who, for service and the love of God and with the help of Meshack and Sam, look after and tend St. Luke’s Gardens.   My mother, June Smith, has always been a very keen gardener – I have learnt so much from her over the years…….  in the late 1980s she and I helped look after St Luke’s gardens for a while.  When my father and mother moved into the cottage in our garden, Mum and I would do our “weekly ward rounds” as Mum, a retired Nursing Sister and me, a Clinical Psychologist, called them.  We both always “knew” that gardening is therapeutic and healing both for the body and soul, but it was only during this time of COVID that I, when reading the book The Well Gardened Mind: Rediscovering Nature in the Modern World by Dr Sue Stuart-Smith (a psychiatrist and psychoanalytic psychotherapist) became more aware of how much research has been done into the healing powers of gardens and gardening.  I quote a lot from this wonderful book – the chapters alone say a lot: Green Nature: Human Nature; Seeds and Self-Belief; Safe Green Space; Bringing Nature to the City; War And Gardening; The Last Season of Life to name a few.  My hope is to encourage you not only to read about the enormous restorative benefits you can receive from walking, sitting, contemplating or just mindfully being in our beautiful, restful gardens but that it will encourage you to experience them.  

The authoress of the book The Well Gardened Mind writes of how courses in horticulture were set up in England in the 1920s (as well as the allotments/plots for those who live in flats or without opportunities to garden) – after the First World War – with the aim of rehabilitating ex-servicemen whose horrific war experiences and terrors resulted in young men being unable to function in the world due to what we now know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) with incredibly good results showing the powerful healing and therapeutic benefits of working with their hands in nature. 

Incredible as it may seem gardens were created by soldiers, chaplains, doctors and nurses during the First World War (p185).   A hospital chaplain, John Stanhope Walker, arrived at the 21st Casualty Clearing Station in December 1915 and the following spring started making a garden as a place of refuge. “July 1916 the battle of the Somme commenced… 1 000 badly wounded soldiers were brought in almost every day”.  He wrote “The garden is really gorgeous and the sides of the tent are down so the patients just gaze out at it” (p185).  Chapter 9 of the book War and Gardening makes fascinating and worthwhile reading.

“Burnout is what happens when not enough recovery time and the ability to regulate stress is lost……………one of the most important centres for treating burnout and stress through horticulture is in Sweden.” (p.240).  There are numerous studies demonstrating the benefit of what has become known as “The Alnarp model” (p240) also makes fascinating reading.

Poets (Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot and Wordsworth) have long known of “the consolations of Nature and the cycle of life” and how gardens put us in touch with fundamental aspects of life.  “A loss that devastates a family generates a need to lean on each other but at the same time, everyone is bereft, everyone is in a state of collapse.  There is an impulse to protect each other from too much raw emotion…………..Nature is unperturbed by our feelings and in there being no contagion, we can experience a kind of consolation that helps assuage the loneliness of loss” (p5).  William Wordsworth, sometimes regarded as the forerunner of psychoanalytic thinking, explored the influence of nature on the subconscious mind and understood (which modern neuroscience confirms (p. 14) that we “construct experience even as we are undergoing it…….. Nature animates the mind and the mind, in turn, animates Nature”…..which helps foster a healthy mind.  

Gardens can play a significant role not only in adults’ lives but in children’s lives as well ….they can spend hours inhabiting an imagery world of their own making, as my own grandchildren do in our garden.  Thus a garden can be a fantasy place and a real place at the same time.  So gardens offer us an in-between or transitional space.  A garden is always the expression of someone’s mind and the outcome of someone’s care.

When we learn to garden we can experience gardening as a “conversation” – I do a bit then Nature does her bit and I respond to that – and, thankfully as is the way of life, a lot of plants can survive some neglect and incompetence.  “A garden gives you a protected physical space which helps increase your sense of mental space and it gives you quiet, so you can hear your own thoughts. The more you immerse yourself in working with your hands – not only gardening but knitting, cooking, sewing etc. the more free you are internally to sort feelings out and work them through” (p.12).    

Not everything is about creating – “many acts of garden care are infused with aggression – whether wielding the secateurs, double digging the veg patch, slaughtering slugs, killing blackfly, ripping up goose grass or rooting out nettles. ……………all forms of destructiveness that are in the service of growth……A long session in the garden like this can leave you feeling dead on your feet but strangely renewed inside – both purged and re-energised, as if you have worked on yourself in the process.  It’s a kind of gardening catharsis.” (p. 8).

Gardens have since ancient times been recognized as restorative.   An Egyptian Tomb inscription c 1400BC “May I walk every day on the banks of the water, may my soul rest on the branches of the trees which I planted may I refresh myself under the shadow of my sycamore”( Chapter 10 THE LAST SEASON OF LIFE.).   “At this point in the 21st century, with rates of depression and anxiety and other mental disorders seemingly ever on the rise and with a general way of life that is increasingly urbanized and technology-dependent, it is, perhaps, more important than ever to understand the many ways in which mind and garden interact.”   

“The fear of death is a primal fear generated by the instinct for survival………the death of someone we love is a traumatic wrench – the finality, the irreversibility and the inhumanness – it is beyond our grasp.    Gardening is about a balance of different forces, human and natural, life and death “In the dark days of winter, the garden is three-quarters asleep – soon there will be new growth – admidst the dead, discarded leaves, fresh green shoots rise from the earth……. “we have separated ourselves from nature to such an extent that we forget we are part of a vast and living continuum, that the atoms in our bodies are derived from the products of the earth and that in time they will slip back into the chain of life. ………. The naturalness of death does not come intuitively to us and probably never has”.  (Chapter 10 The last Season of Life p209).   If you are not a gardener it may seem strange to think that scrabbling about in the soil can be a source of existential meaning, but gardening gives rise to its own philosophy and in it one that gets worked on in the flower beds”.

In the book there are links to all the amazing research.  I found the book such a worthwhile, well written and thought provoking read…

I hope these little snippets from this wonderful book inspire you to read it or to experience gardening for yourself or to spend more time in St Luke’s gardens….we can learn so much about our miraculous world watching the birds, the bees, really looking at the beauty of each different tree, bird, flower or plant…. As I type this in my own garden I can see 7 different bird species and hear calming birdsong, a little lizard has come close, picked up a little feather and scurried off … to build a nest – do lizards have nests?? I’ll have to google – so much to learn and to wonder at in our incredibly beautiful world.  So much to learn from Nature and nature’s cycles.  So much for which to give thanks.  I end with a poem penned by my mother many years ago –