The Well-Gardened Mind, The Restorative Power of Nature
By Sue Stuart-Smith
Scribner Trade Paperback Edition, May 2021
I’ve long understood the mental and physical benefits of communing with nature, either by taking a walk in a forest, spending time gardening or simply being around plants and flowers. In Sue Stuart-Smith’s illuminating, The Well-Gardened Mind, she presents a series of fascinating case studies and evidence to underscore the positive impact that the natural world can have on a person’s life and well-being.
Stuart-Smith is a psychiatrist and psychotherapist who has worked with patients whose lives have been transformed by pursuing various horticultural activities. She provides many examples of how people suffering from depression, trauma and addictions have felt more at peace with themselves and more purposeful in life by embracing the natural world.
Her book begins with a tale about her late grandfather, a World War I veteran who had been a prisoner of war. Upon his release after the War, his pursuit of gardening became a lifelong passion. He was employed for a time as a gardener, and for the rest of his life, gardening provided a kind of therapy that helped him cope with the traumas he faced during wartime.
The positive impact of gardening can have health benefits for everyone, not only those who are suffering from trauma, addictions or mental health challenges. Stuart-Smith tells of a program run by the New York City Department of Corrections and the Horticultural Society of New York, where prison inmates are given the opportunity to tend gardens. The curriculum combines elements of horticultural therapy, vocational training, and ecological awareness.
The Hort program, as it is known, provides a welcome haven within the prison grounds, where inmates work in a relaxed environment and feel a sense of satisfaction in tending to and watching their flowers, plants and vegetables grow. Incredibly, among inmates who attend the program, the rate of re-offending is 10 – 15 per cent, compared to 65 per cent for those who don’t participate in the program. One inmate, Martin, who wasn’t keen on joining the program at first, soon grew to embrace it. Martin had this to say about his experience: “The sense of physical freedom in which the possibility of a different way of life can be glimpsed.”
This is a book that is well researched and endlessly quotable. While reading it, I kept jotting down quotes about the restorative effects of gardens, flowers, fresh air and philosophy. (“As children, and let us not forget it, as adults, too, we need to dream, we need to do, and we need to have an impact on our environment. These things give rise to sense of optimism about our capacity to shape our own lives.”) Each chapter begins with a quote by a well-known writer, poet or scientist. One of my favourites is by neurologist and writer, Oliver Sacks, who wrote: “In many cases, gardens and nature are more powerful than any medication.”
One of the most moving sections of The Well-Gardened Mind concerns Sigmund Freud (1856 - 1939), the founder of psychoanalysis. Stuart-Smith makes multiple references to Freud, who had a lifelong passion for flowers and gardens. He particularly enjoyed orchids, and friends would send him orchids on his birthday every year. During Freud’s final months, as his health was declining, he surrounded himself with flowers and a garden, and he took pleasure in viewing the abundant greenery within view. This anecdote hit home with me personally: during my late wife’s final months in palliative care, she would spend her days in our living room, staring out the window at the evergreens, the birds and the forest. The view of wildlife and nature gave her a sense of peace and calm.
Stuart-Smith’s writing style is clear, concise, elegant and highly descriptive, as shown here in her depiction of gardens:
“The garden is a place that brings us back to the basic biological rhythms of life. The pace of life is the pace of plants; we are forced to slow down, and the feeling of safe enclosure and familiarity helps shift us to a more reflective state of mind. The garden gives us a cyclical narrative too. The seasons come around again, and we have a sense of return; some things are altered, some things are the same.”
Some books speak to us at specific periods in our life. The Well-Tended Garden is one such book. I picked it up at a time when I had assisted in a few landscaping projects, and I’ve recently started buying plants of various shapes and sizes for my home. Horticultural activities had never interested me before, but now that I’m doing it, I enjoy it. I feel as though a whole new world has opened up to me, and I have learned that plant life - aside from its visual appeal - does indeed have a salutary effect on my mood.
After reading The Well-Gardened Mind, I have a deeper appreciation for nature and our relationship to it. As many lives today revolve around computers, technology, isolation (Covid-19) and working in congested cities, it has led to higher levels of stress, loneliness, and depression and feelings of emptiness. This book shows how connecting with nature, either by planning a garden, planting flowers, working with soil or taking a leisurely in the woods, can lift one’s spirits and bring a renewed sense of joy and purpose and to our lives.
The Well-Gardened Mind is a book well worth a second or third read, and definitely book club worthy.