I remember lying in my bed as a child, imagining my place or “address” – my bed, my room, my house, my street, my neighbourhood, my town, my province, my country, my continent, the Earth, the Milky Way, the universe – until my mind could go no farther.
Then I’d think of the vast millions of people and creatures who had lived before and were living elsewhere on this planet and, while it was frightening to think of myself as an infinitesimal speck of sand (and probably not as long lived), there was also a peculiarly thrilling kind of frisson.
Today, that childish imagining has grown into a deep feeling of awe at the forces that knit air, water and dust into a complex skein of life whose richness and diversity we’ve only begun to understand.
It is this intricate web that sustains us, from the teeming bacteria in a teaspoon of soil to the rolling oceans and misty rainforests. But in our self-important rush through modern life, we have lost our sense of place, and not just broken our connection with the land but damaged it severely.
The garden, as Peter Harper so eloquently puts it, “provides a unique opportunity to explore the mutual healing between you and the Earth. It is a model of the universe, a microcosm of the biosphere and a metaphor for yourself.”1
I have wrestled somewhat with that word, healing, because for many people — and according to the first dictionary definition — it is synonymous with cure. I prefer the second definition: “to set right,” as in “to heal the rift between us.”
If we grow in understanding and set things right with nature in our gardens, then we too can be “set right,” and the rifts in our lives, whether with our family, our work, or within ourselves, will be healed. There is a third, equally essential definition of healing: “to restore a person to spiritual wholeness.” That is something we can all strive for—and can achieve, despite disease or disability.
Whether consciously or not, we know the healing power of nature: it’s what drives us into our gardens to dig in the earth, revel in a bed of peonies and flaunt our dirty fingernails as a badge of honour. It’s what sends city people on weekend traffic marathons to the cottage, or compels us to seek out the nearest sheltering tree or patch of greenery when we are stressed.
To better understand (and thereby benefit from) nature’s healing powers, I believe the prescription calls for a more holistic approach. Just as holistic medicine requires looking at the whole person (body, mind, emotions and environment), so we need to look at all the elements of nature (flora, fauna, air, water and soil) and understand how they fit together.
Nothing in nature happens in isolation. You’re not setting anything right if, when you see a few aphids on your roses, you start blasting them with a chemical spray. That’s like breaking an egg into a bowl and expecting to make a cake, with no other ingredients, with no mixing or baking.
Every system in nature is synergistic, that is, “the whole produces a different effect from what the parts produce on their own.”2 All the parts are inextricably entwined. Take one away—or damage it irreparably—and the whole system collapses. Take soil for example: organic matter is great stuff but plants struggle if grown in organic matter alone. Growing them hydroponically (in water) is fine in the short term but not in the long term (they don’t reproduce well). It takes a balanced mixture of organic matter, minerals, air and water to create the ideal growing medium.
Like each one of us, nature is constantly striving to achieve balance out of constant upset, from an earthquake shattering a coastal ecosystem to a bacterial invasion of a single tree. We wrestle with balancing the rational and the emotional, the spiritual and the secular, our work and our home, our need for solitude and our desire for company—for in balance lies harmony. And to achieve that, even briefly, is to be filled with the exquisite sense that all is right with the world.
Of course, the Earth’s ecosystems have been evolving for millions of years, recovering from sometimes catastrophic changes, and they will continue to do so in ways we cannot imagine, with or without us. But it behooves us to remember our place in this ecosphere and to do everything in our power to preserve its diverse and complex systems. For what, according to the scientists, is the ultimate state of the most biodiverse, stable ecosystems? Harmony—the state that we instinctively recognize as being set right.
1 The Natural Garden Book: Gardening in Harmony with Nature by Peter Harper with Jeremy Light and Chris Madsen (Trafalgar Square Publishing, 1999).
2 “The Synergism Hypothesis: On the Concept of Synergy and its Role in the Evolution of Complex Systems,” by Peter A. Corning, www.complexsystems.org.
“wonderfully made poppies” sheesan @flicker.com. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.
“garden refraction” mjkimmel @flickr.com Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.
“CASA community garden” William A. Franklin @ flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.