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Allan designs and plants flowering gardens in Montreal, Zone 5 [USDA Zone 4] .

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Entries in happiness (3)


Is Nature a Cure for Depression? 

Photo copywrited by Kathy Riepe @ Disorder is a relatively new concept that just might become the next catch phrase in our evolving lexicon. It refers to the physical and mental ailments of people disconnected from nature. Researchers suspect that our brains have difficulty functioning with a lack of natural stimulants, a situation that defines the modern, post- industrial world. Some believe that the human brain is unable to deal with the information-overloaded lifestyle, created by electronic technology.

Consequently, mental health interventionists, in an attempt to trace the roots of depression in our society, suspect that it is a direct result of 21st-century life. To corroborate their suspicion, scientists point to third world countries, where populations are yet untouched by modernity, and where rates of depression are lowest.

In his latest work, author Dr. Andrew Weil addresses the topic of sadness. Titled Spontaneous Happiness, his book was featured recently at Newsweek’s, online magazine, The Daily Beast. In that post, excerpts from the book were quoted to elaborate on the relationship between feeling depressed and being disconnected from nature.

While Dr. Weil is not universally acknowledged as a final authority, his many published works resonate with a significant portion of the public. Some consider him a medical guru; his influence in the mainstream is significant because his books attract media interest. However, on the subject of the healing power of nature, Dr. Weil gets my attention, as well.

Those of us who’ve been gardening for a lifetime, or even just a season, are aware of the feeling of euphoria and of the sense of well being that accompanies time spent outdoors. Circulating and shared among gardeners are anecdotes about the lingering physical and mental benefits of working in sun and fresh air, of immersing our bare hands into rich, warm soil, about admiring butterflies, and listening to the sounds of water, birds, and wind.

To understand the healing and invigorating powers of being both outdoors and away from modern life, one only has to observe the large numbers of people who regularly reconnect with nature to visit, camp out at, and explore national and state parks around the country.

Another aspect of nature that may contribute to one’s well being is the act of experiencing majestic landscape vistas. For many years, when I worked in industry, I would leave town every Friday afternoon in summer, to join my wife, for the weekend, in the Adirondack Mountains of Upstate New York. Just past the midpoint of my trip on Interstate 89, somewhere between the town of Plattsburgh and the village of Schroon Lake, there are a few combined mountain-and-sky vistas that make me gasp - they are that awesome to behold. Even after thirty years of driving the identical route every summer weekend, this scenery continues to emotionally overwhelm me.

The restorative benefits to my body and mind, when reconnecting with the outdoors, begin with my eyes, while I am driving on the highway, admiring the scenery.  By the time I arrived at the cabin, my stress and fatigue have dissipated. The clean, fresh, mountain air, that greets me as I step out of the car, is the ultimate natural remedy for the fatigue of the workweek.

Dr. Weil writes that in addition to the beauty and spiritual sustenance that it supplies, nature is essential to keeping our brains and nervous systems in good working order. Some of the examples he cites include the important contribution to brain health supplied by the sun’s vitamin D, the benefits to our sleep cycle from exposure to bright daylight, the benefits to ocular health derived from continuously observing long distance vistas, and the role that natural sounds play in soothing our emotions.  

In the context of brain health, Dr. Weil is also critical of the technological and information overload that we experience on a daily basis. He maintains that our brains were not created to handle this abundance. They were genetically adapted to help us negotiate a successful course through complex, changing, and often hazardous natural environments.  [Isn't it thrilling to explore the outdoors?]  In the long run, Dr. Weil believes that information surfeit – as he describes  it - will prove to be not only unsatisfying but, also, potentially harmful.

If the quality of mental health in modern, post-industrial society continues to deteriorate, perhaps one day “gardening” and “hiking” will appear on doctors’ prescription pads, as alternative therapies to help sad patients dis- connected from nature. I wonder what it will take to convince a skeptical or cynical medical student that nature can be a healer.



The Euphoria of Gardening

The author Tasha Tudor tending her garden.A chance encounter with a spiritual person led to a conversation about the benefits of gardening. My friend believes that gardening releases endorphins into our body to create a pleasurable experience. I was a bit puzzled by that linkage until I remembered the sensual delight of inserting bare hands into warm soil. Up until now, I have never paid serious attention to how I feel while gardening but whatever I do experience is awesome. Upon reflection, here are some factors that contribute to an almost out-of-body experience:-

Let’s start with fresh air that invigorates and awakens the mind. Now add sunlight, whose warmth makes us feel good while the wide spectrum band of its light rays acts as a mood enhancer.

Now, consider the creativity that is associated with gardening. This mental activity offers an opportunity to experience the “flow” that one enjoys during the process of discovery. The pleasure of this eureka moment defies words. Furthermore, when a gardening job is complete, there is sheer pleasure in admiring the results. This may lead to a satisfying feeling of great accomplishment- a source of pride and a generator of self esteem.

Another description-defying experience is the suspension of time and place while gardening. The deep and intense involvement that this hobby offers makes time stand still. It is possible to work in a trance-like state for hours. This euphoric journey is comparable to meditation, an act that relaxes and produces pleasurable endorphins.

Another similarity to meditation that occurs while gardening is the experience that occurs while we kneel down to focus on individual plants. This is an intimate interaction where we admire nature more acutely and in much greater detail. This intense visual focus helps to deflect worrisome thoughts in the same way that meditation does.

Gardening is an opportunity to engage in beneficial exercise. The physicality associated with this hobby includes walking, bending down and standing up, crouching, lifting, stretching and dragging. All of these activities work the body’s muscles and bones to deliver an aerobic experience to our lungs and heart. Exercise lowers blood pressure, generates a feeling of euphoria and releases endorphins. All of these factors contribute to relaxation; endorphins and relaxation are both sources for happiness.

Finally, there is the peacefulness of the garden that contrasts with the noise and stress of everyday life. Hearing no other sound except for the wind in the trees or birds singing is another pleasurable experience that leads to relaxation.

People who garden experience a decrease in depression, an increased ability to concentrate and a general feeling of physical and mental well being. If that is what the release of endorphins accomplishes, then my spiritual friend is right, after all.


How Gardening Made my Sad Parents Smile.

This is one of the finest photos of a perennial garden on the web. It is the front lawn sign of a nursery in Peterborough Canada that specializes in Daylilies and Hosta Hemerocallis Venetain Fringe, never saw a real flower up close until my sixteenth birthday. All things beautiful existed, for me, only in books and magazines; that's because my parents cared little for material possessions. They had no need to surround themselves with objects of beauty or comfort. Those were things that I would see in movies or in the homes of friends and relatives.

While still a young boy, I came to realize that I enjoyed looking at anything that was colorful, patterned, textured or faceted. I would spend hours trying to figure out what happened to light when it refracted off the beveled edge of a mirror and turned into a color spectrum. I was curious to know how snow crystals on the ground converted the rays of neon lights into scintillating stars. I could study the pattern of an Oriental rug for hours wondering where its sinewy lines might lead. My eyes have always yearned to see all things beautiful. To this day, they never tire of looking at anything; even the label on a soup can stimulates my curiosity.

I spent my childhood in a densely populated neighborhood that, to my mind, resembled a grey concrete jungle. Everything around me was hard and cold. All that I remember was the rhubarb that grew wild out of the crack that separated the foundation of our home from the sidewalk. The colors and aroma of flowers were merely something my mother talked about when she spoke of her childhood. They were nothing I had ever experienced.

On my twelfth birthday, my family moved to a residential town with lots of trees and lawns where I hoped to see color. But that didn’t happen. In our new neighborhood, trees were so mature that they created green canopies that overhung the streets. As a result, sun and rain barely touched the ground; consequently, all the lawns were bare.

Then, when I turned sixteen, we moved to a newer town where green lawns were bathed in sunlight. To my excitement, empty flowerbeds prepared by the previous ownersurrounded our home. Since they knew nothing about gardening, my parents gave me free reign, to learn what I could from the neighbors who gardened, and to replicate their successes in our back yard. All that my father asked for was red flowers.

The first summer, when I saw my garden in bloom, marked the first time I saw real flowers, up close. It was also the first time that I saw my father smile. It happened one day when he returned home from work to see his red flowers in bloom. Up until that day, my father had been such a somber man that I didn’t recognize the happy person admiring my garden. When I got used to his brightened disposition, I promised myself I'd garden forever if only to keep him smiling.

One day, my mother discovered the strong aroma emitted by Lilies of the Valley growing wild in our back yard and she became enchanted.  Never before I had heard my mother sigh with such pleasure. Happiness had been erased from her life by childhood tragedies. When she sang to my brother and me, the songs were cheerful but her vocal chords sobbed with grief. At last, thanks to plants, there would be real joy in her voice and under our roof. The aroma of my flower garden had brought newfound happiness both into her life and into our home.

That family transformation compelled me to expand my gardening horizons and I began to experiment, rather successfully, with fragrant plants such as roses, irises and nasturtium, and with every red plant that would grow in my climate zone. The greater the number of aromatic perennials that I could find, and the more varieties of red flowers I planted, the longer my parents' happiness endured. What an enormous burden for a young teenager to carry. Nevertheless, from that day onward, whenever they stepped into the garden, my mother would sigh with pleasure while a huge smile would explode across my father's face. That made me happy.

My parents' reaction gave me some measure of accomplishment. I felt useful and proud to give them a renewable source of happiness. Now, when I look back upon those formative years of gardening, I recall that I never planted flowers to please myself. I gardened to see my parents smile.

I continued my quest to bring happiness to others, through gardening, after I married. When I became a family man, my subsequent  gardens were filled with pink and yellow flower because those were the colors my wife had chosen for her wedding bouquet. Later on, when my daughters grew old enough to speak, one of them would ask for blue flowers. That began a hunt for blue perennials that goes on to this day. I still have not decided what my favorite color flowers might be. I spend too much time ensuring that those who admire my gardens will find happiness there.