Tuesday, August 18, 2009

In the garden

One of my great joys of middle age has been perennial gardening. In addition to other benefits, it has proven to be a great stress reducer. I freely acknowledge having no conception whatever of garden design. I buy one of any plant I like and stick it in where I have room, with just a little thought to color combinations and space. As a result my garden from afar looks like a crazy quilt.

But I like to look at it from up close, to see the growth of individual plants that interest me, how their leaves and stems spring up from the earth, how they blossom and flourish in the summer heat. There is something about the rebirth of the world in spring, the cycle through summer and even into the fall, when I can see the plants preparing themselves for the winter to come, that I find deeply satisfying and calming. It seems to me to have to do with the cycle of death and rebirth, something about how I experience my own body aging but my children coming into full maturity, that gives me a sense of continuity and some degree of acceptance of my own mortality. And it's more than just a state of mind. I get up early in the morning and go out to see what I see new in the garden. I come home from work and can't wait to go weeding or transplanting. I feel energy throughout my body.

But the Zen-like peace that I find in the garden only lasts through the waning days of fall. By February I'm bored, grouchy, sorry for myself, withdrawn, a bear who can't get to sleep. The intensity of the change certainly feels to me as if it comes from something more than being deprived of my favorite leisure activity. It feels qualitatively different. There are plenty of other things I can do besides gardening, but I don't want to do them; and I have trouble enjoying the other things I normally enjoy. I can usually force myself out of this mood, but it requires a deliberate act of will.

My little meltdown in winter is a microcosm, I think, for the situation far too many of us face today. We're deprived of the opportunity to be in touch with nature, and that is a very real stress, and stress hurts us in ways science is just beginning to understand. Humans were designed to live in harmony with the cycles of the day and night and seasons. We were surrounded with reminders to be humble—that earth and the universe were much bigger than us, that birth and death were all around us, that hunger was always just around the corner. We had a lot of quiet time when we could let our minds shift into a contemplative state—watching the sun rise, waiting for the fish to bite, hauling water, tending the garden.

It turns out that contemplative state is necessary for our mental health. When we have the opportunity to lean on the hoe and just be, we're letting our left brains—the creative, impressionistic, coherent side—take over and giving the right brain time to rest. The right brain is terribly overworked by all the decisions we face every day, the busy schedules we keep, the overstimulation of traffic and television. When we can use the left brain, we can see ourselves in our own mind's eye—consider the self as a whole person, connected with the real world—and get our priorities back on track. Scientists who have been studying the effects of regular meditation have found it has wonderful effects on the mind and body: it helps us with major depression, chronic pain, anxiety and panic; it makes our mood more positive and our immune systems stronger. I think it won't be long before science proves that activities like walking in the sunshine, petting the dog, and planting, watering, weeding and just viewing the garden, have the same kind of healthful benefits. They make us slow down, be patient, pay attention; stop striving so hard all the time and get in harmony with the world.

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