Sunday, 3 July 2011

The healing power of a garden

Gardens, in this life, are paradises for many people.  They offer peace for those of us in a busy noisy and tempestuous world.  They offer an atmosphere which is conducive to meditation, and are sanctuaries where people can feel at one with nature, and perhaps for some, even feel God's presence.

I recently visited one such oasis with a work colleague.  The Chelsea Physic Garden can be accurately described as an oasis in the bustling London district of Chelsea.  Originally founded as an apothecaries' garden, it now offers visitors a chance to experience a day out in a garden of just under one acre in size.  There are guided tours for those with inquisitive minds who wish to learn more about the medicinal uses of certain plants and their origins.  It is, in many ways, a horticulturalist's playing field. 

The Chelsea Physic Garden

The power of gardens has been recognised for centuries.  The poet Andrew Marvell led a very busy life as a long-serving MP, a member of Cromwell's government, and a public figure who made a successful transfer from the Commonwealth to the world of Charles II.  But in one of his poems Marvell makes it clear that all the rewards of his public life cannot compare with the fair quiet and innocence he found in the garden:


What wond'rous Life in this I lead!
Ripe Apples drop about my head;
The Luscious Clusters of the Vine  35
Upon my Mouth do crush their Wine;
The Nectaren, and curious Peach,
Into my hands themselves do reach;
Stumbling on Melons, as I pass,
Insnar'd with Flow'rs, I fall on Grass.  40
  
Mean while the Mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness:
The Mind, that Ocean where each kind
Does streight its own resemblance find;
Yet it creates, transcending these,  45
Far other Worlds, and other Seas;
Annihilating all that's made
To a green Thought in a green Shade.


An extract of The Garden by Andrew Marvell (1621 - 1678)


There is, I suppose, a profound satisfaction in spreading the roots of a plant in earth, feeding that earth, watering it and caring for it.  I recall being given a valuable piece of life advice by Noel, who was one of the veteran residents at the old people's home at which I volunteer on a quasi-quarterly basis.  Noel told me that growing old involves losing many happinesses. Therefore, he said, "any kind of happiness that is highly perennial, capable of withstanding the frosts of winter, is a very good thing to have."  In Noel's experience, gardening had proved to be an immensely valuable pass time.  He told me that he felt at peace in the garden, he felt at one with nature and certainly felt at one with God there.  Noel described the garden as his church, and that garden's trees as the pillars of the church pointing up towards God.  Noel is no longer with us, but I cannot help but believe that when his soul departed this life, it was at peace, and that the garden had contributed significantly to that peace.


The last time I saw Noel (pictured here with me), an ardent fan of the garden, was in Christmas 2010.


Lizzie Hopthrow, Chaplain of the Pilgrims' Hospice in Canterbury is very much involved in caring for and speaking to people who are terminally ill as well as their relatives and friends.  Her hospice places great significance on a garden in the healing process. "Having a garden around the hospice is enormously important.  Every patient in every part of the hospice will look out on to a part of the garden.  People tell us how comforting that is - to be able to see something growing and green, or even woody in the winter", says Lizzie.  The day patients at the hospice are particularly fond of the garden.  They say that they find it calming to walk in the garden, they like to sit by the pond and watch the fish swimming, the squirrels running about and the birds singing.  Patients at the hospice are encouraged to sow seeds on the garden patio - Lizzie explains that this is enormously important for many people as they feel involved with the future, even though they may not be around to see the fruits of what they have sown. In a way, that makes them feel that they too will, in some sense, belong to the future.  They look forward to the thoughts of people coming to their sown plants and harvesting their fruits. 

Lizzie, herself a patient of multiple sclerosis, claims that such is the power of the garden at her hospice that there are some conversations, she feels, that can only be had in the garden. The garden provides, she says, an amphitheatre of a kind. It is a place where patients find it possible to get in touch with God at the deepest level - the garden helps patients to feel the spirit of God which brings them much needed encouragement, hope and comfort. Lizzie explains this phenomenon by the use of an analogy - she says: "Perhaps we could say that God walks in our internal garden, where at the deepest part of ourselves all is beautiful and flowering.  Those kind of thoughts can only occur to us in our external gardens."  In many ways, the garden represents the cycle of life and death.


Lizzie Hopthrow in her hospice's garden

In many ways, I can relate to Lizzie's claims.  Last year I visited the Prior Park Landscape Garden in Bath. One of only four Palladian bridges of that design in the world can be crossed at Prior Park, which was created in the 18th century by local entrepreneur Ralph Allen, with advice from 'Capability' Brown and the poet Alexander Pope. The garden is set in a sweeping valley where visitors can enjoy magnificent views of Bath.  I felt at peace there.  And as I walked through the garden, there was a profound sense of serenity and tranquillity.  I felt at one with nature, and felt very close to God.  It is an inexplicable feeling, one which you will, I hope, experience for yourself the next time you are in a garden.

 Prior Park Landscape Garden - the Palladian Bridge

Prior Park Landscape Garden 


Perhaps, my disposition towards gardens comes from my childhood.  I, for one, was very lucky to have grown up in a home in Mombasa, Kenya with a sprawling garden that covered much of our one-acre site. I spent a lot of my time there - running around the Ixora coccinea flower bushes (only to be stung by bees!) that were neatly trimmed and aligned to form a garden periphery.  Our garden is lined with palm trees, the leaves of which generate a calming rustling sound when swayed by the wind.  My childhood bedroom looks out on to the garden.  Upon my mother's insistence, we had a large swing installed in a small paved area of the garden.  That area has since hosted a number of my delightful conversations with my parents and grandparents.  It was a particular favourite whenever there was a power cut, in order to escape the equatorial heat we would flock to the swing area with our deck chairs and enjoy the breeze.  It was in that part of the garden that my grandparents would often tell me tales about their lives in colonial Kenya, and let me in to old family secrets and gossip. That area still remains a favourite of mine - it is a place for everyone to get together, watch the sunset, and just connect.  

Spending time with my grandfather in the garden at home in Kenya

Summer is here - what a better time to experience the outdoors. If you're looking for ideas of gardens to visit,   check out the National Trust's website which will present you with thousands of exciting places to visit in the English country.  










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