Bruce is a clinical psychologist who tends to the most acute mentally disturbed patients –the schizophrenic, homeless, and hopeless. Many of his patients have lost the ability to feel anything – physically, mentally, and emotionally. In an effort to reach his patients and help them find balance and connection, Bruce turns to the garden. In an ideal world, he would build a field of grass – in my mind I imagine it as an infinite field, green in all directions with no ending, filled with sunshine. And Bruce would just let his patients run, and run, and run until maybe they had run so far and so long that they would be able to leave behind whatever it was that haunted them. And if they didn’t want to run maybe they could just sit or lie on the grass and feel the grass, feel the sun, feel some connection to something outside of them. Absent a field of grass, Bruce makes do with a small patch of grass and is beginning an experimental garden; he has found that sometimes in the garden, working side by side, there are opportunities for conversation that are not possible in other situations; it’s a place for building relationships. The garden also provides a place where his patients can interact with the plants learning to care for them and notice their changes and transformations. Not a flower garden for display, with lots of rules, but a place where people are able to begin to care for something live, and he hopes that maybe then they might take one small step toward caring for themselves.
My two year old neighbor, Harper, has a tricycle, a box of balls, and dozens of other play toys and yet her preferred activity is to spend time in my garden. She loves my crab apple tree; the low hanging branches allow her to freely pick fruit independent of adult assistance and the size of the apples are just right for a two year old. She never seems to mind the somewhat bitter taste. Once she has finished exploring the apple tree, she turns her attention to my flower and vegetable gardens. She can spend an inordinate amount of time, measured in grown-up hours, watching the zucchini grow. Harper was so delighted the other day when together we picked a zucchini for her to take home. When she’s not engaged with the garden, she is focused on collecting rocks from our gravel drive; one by one she moves the rocks from one place to another with care and purpose.
When I recount these two stories, I am reminded of what I believe to be our innate and intuitive desire to connect with the landscape. For it is when we are in and of the landscape that we are able to lose ourselves much as one might in a painting, or a dance, or a piece of music. Like Harper, we carry with us memories of times spent in the landscape during our childhood; maybe it was playing in the neighboring fields, wandering through a grandmother’s garden, building a fort from leftover woodpiles, painting rocks, or scratching our names in the dirt on the playground. In a world riddled with depression, anxiety and isolation, the landscape offers an avenue for healing, connection and self expression. As landscape architects, we have the ability to help create venues for healing by providing opportunities for people to interact with the land in ways that restore and renew.