BOOKWISESummer2020
Flourish, Wise Gurus, WWB Book Wise Club

WORLD WISE BEAUTY Selects ‘The Well Gardened Mind’ as the Summer 2020 ‘Book Wise’ Pick

There is all kinds of research and case studies on the restorative power of nature for people struggling with stress, depression, trauma, and addiction, and Sue Stuart-Smith a psychiatrist and psychotherapist in the UK investigates them in her insightful book ‘The Well Gardened Mind’. When a therapist, with a love for English literature and gardening writes a book about nurturing our connection to nature, you know it is going to be thought provoking and beautifully lyrical. My Mom was an English Literature major and she always said the great writers in literature were the real therapist of the world. It is a gift and a treat that Sue bridges wisdom from great writers with her own clinical knowledge of the human condition as a trained psychiatrist.

The wise takeaway from the book I find most comforting is that humans are wired with a great capacity and  ‘instinct to care’ setting our species apart from other primates. As Sue writes in her book “To practice true care means becoming receptive to another, as we tune in and focus on the needs of someone or something outside ourselves.” With this thought in mind, I invite you to read ‘The Well Gardened Mind’ and learn how cultivating a garden (even simply taking care of a plant) can help you cultivate a peaceful sound mind, and in turn create a more caring world we can all live in.

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Laura Connolly, Founder of World Wise Beauty

 

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Lauroly Q – I loved the quote you shared by Oliver Sachs. He said “In many cases, gardens and nature are more powerful than any medication”.  I really appreciated how you synthesized so much wisdom from the field of psychology, neuroscience, and English literature. To get us started learning more about your book and your mindset, I would like to dive right in by having you expand on Olive Sachs quote. What is the concept of therapeutic gardening?

Sue Stuart-Smith: Like most things in life, gardening is not so much about what you do but how you do it. Gardening can be a way of dominating or controlling nature rather than entering into a relationship of connection and care. It is the latter that is therapeutic to us. A garden is much more than a physical space, it is also a mental space because being immersed in nature gives you quiet, so you can hear your own thoughts and through working with your hands you free the mind to work through feelings and problems. I think deep existential processes can be involved in creating and caring for a garden such as working through experiences of trauma, grief and loss.

Gardening is empowering and gives us the joy of feeling creative and it also helps give us a sense of a future.  I interviewed people from mental health gardening projects – prisoners, veterans and at-risk youth, as well as people suffering from depression, anxiety and addiction – hearing their testimonies made me realize how much people can change their lives when they experience these kind of affirmations.

Lauroly Q – As psychiatrist and psychotherapist you explore ideas from prominent thinkers in the field of psychology who are keen observers of human nature like Freud, Jung and Eric Fromm. I was a psychology major and familiar with all of them, but I think any reader will be fascinated as you share their insights about the restorative powers of nature. I think Eric Fromm’s ideas seem more relevant than ever today. Fromm believed that many modern ills were linked to the loss of our unconscious kinship with the natural world, giving rise to a level of unrecognized separation distress in us. He said “The soil, the animals, the plants are still a man’s world and the more the human race emerges from these primary bonds, the more it separates from the natural world, the more intense becomes the need to find new ways of escaping separateness.” People may not understand attachment theory from scientific perspective, but they can understand the concept of painful loss and how we humans sometimes go to great lengths to avoid experiencing painful loss and also a feeling of emptiness.  There are so many stories and examples of how nature and particularly gardens help us navigate loss, depression and grief. What is your favorite story or example that most exemplifies reparation in the context of healing and feeling ‘whole’ again?

Sue Stuart-Smith:  Each one of the personal stories in the book encapsulate this in their own way but Renata is probably most relevant to the points you raise. I interviewed her in an Italian community called San Patrignano. The addiction recovery program here lasts 2 to 3 years. Renata worked in the flower nursery and had spent most of the first year making very little progress. She remained full of anger about her life which had been very troubled and she was unable to connect with the plants. It was only when she ‘adopted’ some languishing cacti and started taking care of them and seeing them recover that she began to believe that something similar could happen for her. Her mindset was profoundly altered and she began to experience the rewards of ‘serenity’ through cultivating colorful flowers. When I interviewed her she was close to finishing the program and had recovered a sense of motivation and hope for the future. She understood that the relationship with the plants she looked after was a form of give-and-take. She cared for the flowers and they gave their beauty back to her and others in the community.

Lauroly Q – Your whole chapter on ‘Bringing Nature to the City’ is so interesting and because there was so much research even as far back as the eighteen hundreds on the challenges of city of living. Challenge is putting it mildly. You share that the rapid expansion of metropolitan living during this era gave rise to the idea that city living was responsible for undermining people’s health. This is eerie, because as we are experiencing the Covid crisis, we are learning just how unhealthy many areas of major cities in the U.S are for vulnerable populations who are poor. The poor can’t escape the city, the way a person with means can. George Miller Beard, an American physician coined this new disease ‘neurasthenia’ a disease of civilization. Can you talk about this disease and what are some of things we are doing today to address this in our modern culture. More people are living in cities and I know the greening of cities has been a major initiative in cities in the last decade. Creating gardens have been wonderful urban projects and have proved successful right?

Sue Stuart-Smith: We may not refer to it as neurasthenia today, but I think we are seeing the same set of symptoms in the levels of anxiety, depression, stress and burnout that people are experiencing. There are some interesting  historical models for addressing the deprivations of urban life. One of them is Patrick Geddes who was based in Edinburgh and was an urban pioneer in in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He set about creating community gardens and encouraged people living in the most run-down tenement areas of the city to grow flowers in their window boxes.

In our own time there is growing interest in various forms of Green Care. The model originated in New Zealand where family doctors started prescribing exercise in the outdoors for these kind of conditions, either as an alternative or in addition to medication. The practice is now gaining popularity in the NHS ( National Health System) in the UK where doctors can refer patients to community or therapeutic garden projects. The studies conducted so far show that people experience significant improvements in mood and self-esteem. But there is much work to do in order to address the lack of access to green space that many people experience within disadvantaged neighborhoods. A pan-European study that I cite in the book showed that having access to gardens and green space reduced the adverse mental health outcomes associated with urban deprivation by 40%. The need to green our cities through trees and parks is increasingly recognized to be a public health issue thanks to studies like this.

Lauroly Q – You explain in the book how the climate change crisis is also a crisis of biodiversity. It is overwhelming because you emphasize the dwindling number of birds, butterflies, and bees is only a fraction of the depletion of nature that is taking place. To quote you “ A combination of rising temperatures, loss of habitats, and excessive use of agrochemicals, as well as the damaging effects of other pollution has grievously damaged the interconnected web of life that underpins the health of the planet.” Can you hear me sigh, Sue? It is so tragic, and here we all are watching it happen in slow motion. I am so glad you shared some good news immediately after the section about biodiversity hotspots and gardens. Can you explain how gardens however small can help our crisis?

Sue Stuart-Smith: There is a growing body of research into the role that gardens can play in reversing biodiversity damage. These studies show that gardens that are planted for variety and complexity with plenty of flowers that attract pollinators and where chemicals are not used function as ecological hotspots. Douglas W Tallamy has written an excellent book on this called Nature’s Best Hope. Gardening like this is a form of action that many people can make and according to a study conducted in Melbourne Australia, it benefits people‘s mental health as well because they experience the benefits of connecting to nature through seeing wildlife flourish within their garden. People often feel powerless and despairing about the planetary crisis because it is so difficult for us to know what we can do as individuals but this is one positive intervention that is achievable not only for individuals but for whole communities.

Lauroly Closing- Thank you so much Sue for writing such an informative book on how nature has an amazing effect on our mental health and well-being. I read a lot of books for World Wise Beauty, and your book is one of the few I have tabbed almost every other page and underlined several paragraphs! ‘The Well Gardened Mind’ is filled with so much wisdom as well as touching stories I will never forget. It is an honor to feature your book and thank you for helping us all to cultivate wisdom about the restorative powers of a living garden.

Sue Stuart-Smith Closing: Thank you Laura for inviting me to contribute to World Wise Beauty and for your thoughtful questions.

 

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