Why We Need Gardens: Oliver Sacks on the Healing Power of Gardens

Art by Violeta Lopíz and Valerio Vidali from The Forest by Riccardo Bozzi.

I live and work in an apartment twenty floors up in the air. My “office” overlooks a lattice of mostly other tall buildings that stretch into the distance, thankfully graced by some greenery of trees from scattered parks and reservoirs. But it is not nearly enough; green is my colour of calm and creativity, and I’m certain it is for many other people as well, We “greenies” feel privileged to be in the company of illustrious names in the arts and sciences. Names like the novelist Virginia Wolf, the poet Walt Whitman, the Spanish abstract painter, Joan Miro and so on.

“I work like a gardener,” Miró wrote in his meditation on creative work. Walt Whitman knew as much about the healing power of the garden when he wrote these words while convalescing from a paralytic stroke:

After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on — have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains? Nature remains; to bring out from their torpid recesses, the affinities of a man or woman with the open air, the trees, fields, the changes of seasons — the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night.

Those sublime rewards of nature were also explored as a therapy by the noted physician, neurologist and author Oliver Sacks (1933-2015). In a short essay titled, “Why We Need Gardens, published in his 2019 book, Everything In Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales, Sacks extoll the inexplicable power of nature to reinvigorate even those who suffer from highly impaired states of the mind.

Oliver Sacks at the New York Botanical Garden. (Photograph by Bill Hayes from How New York Breaks Your Heart)

Here are excerpts from Sack’s essay.

As a writer, I find gardens essential to the creative process; as a physician, I take my patients to gardens whenever possible. All of us have had the experience of wandering through a lush garden or a timeless desert, walking by a river or an ocean, or climbing a mountain and finding ourselves simultaneously calmed and reinvigorated, engaged in mind, refreshed in body and spirit. The importance of these physiological states on individual and community health is fundamental and wide-ranging. In forty years of medical practice, I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical “therapy” to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens.

Having lived and worked in New York City for half a century — a city “sometimes made bearable… only by its gardens” — Sacks recounts witnessing nature’s mysterious tonic effects on his neurologically impaired patients: A man with Tourette’s syndrome, afflicted by severe verbal and gestural tics in the urban environment, grows completely symptom-free while hiking in the desert; an elderly woman with Parkinson’s disease, who often finds herself frozen elsewhere, can not only easily initiate movement in the garden but takes to climbing up and down the rocks unaided; several people with advanced dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, who can’t recall how to perform basic functions like tying their shoes, suddenly know exactly what to do when handed seedlings and placed before a flower bed. Sacks reflects:

I cannot say exactly how nature exerts its calming and organizing effects on our brains, but I have seen in my patients the restorative and healing powers of nature and gardens, even for those who are deeply disabled neurologically. In many cases, gardens and nature are more powerful than any medication.

] Illustration by Ashleigh Corrin from Layla’s Happiness by Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie.

Sacks add:

Clearly, nature calls to something very deep in us. Biophilia, the love of nature and living things, is an essential part of the human condition. Hortophilia, the desire to interact with, manage, and tend nature, is also deeply instilled in us. The role that nature plays in health and healing becomes even more critical for people working long days in windowless offices, for those living in city neighborhoods without access to green spaces, for children in city schools, or for those in institutional settings such as nursing homes. The effects of nature’s qualities on health are not only spiritual and emotional but physical and neurological. I have no doubt that they reflect deep changes in the brain’s physiology, and perhaps even its structure.

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