How Bicycles Can Revolutionize Our Lives: Case Studies from the United States, Netherlands, China & Britain

A two- (and three- and one-) wheeled revolution is upon us. Dubbed “micro-mobility” by start-up marketers and influencers, the trend incorporates all sorts of personal means of transport. While the buzz may hover around electric scooters and skateboards, the faithful bicycle still leads the pack, as it has for over a hundred years. And advocates—who bike as their primary means of exercise, commuting, and running daily errands—are challenging the orthodoxies of car culture.

As an avid cyclist myself, who bikes as often as I can for groceries and other errands, I will admit to a strong bias in their favor. But even I’ve been challenged and surprised by what I've learned from biking advocates like Liz Canning, producer and narrator of a new documentary film, Motherload, a portrait of the many people who have chosen to use cargo bikes instead of cars for nearly everything.




The film is remarkable for the ordinariness of its subjects. As one cargo cyclist, Brent Patterson of Buffalo, New York, says, “I’m not an athlete. I’m not superhuman. I’m just a completely normal person like you.” The Patterson family “sold its car,” notes Outside magazine, “and travels by cargo bike year-round, even in snowstorms.” Another cargo cyclist in the film, Emily Finch, “carts all six of her kiddos around on two wheels.” We see cargo cyclists around the world, using bikes as emergency transport haulers and daily grocery-getters.

Most of the Americans profiled live in bike-friendly communities like Marin County, California or Portland, Oregon. But others, like the Pattersons, do not, “and not all are as comfortably off as Canning,” who retired as a commercial filmmaker to raise her kids in bike-friendly Fairfax, CA. “Some had to sell their car or take out a no-interest loan in order to afford a cargo bike.” No one seems to have regretted the decision.

Readers who hail from, or have lived in, places in the world where bike-reliance is the norm may scoff at the presumed novelty of the idea in Canning’s film. But at one time, even the Netherlands—home of the ubiquitous Bakfiets—was almost as car-centric as most of the U.S., as American Dan Kois writes in a New Yorker essay about how he learned to become bike commuter in the Netherlands.

I had assumed that Dutch people’s adeptness at biking was the result of generations of incessant cycling. In fact, after the Second World War, the Netherlands had, like the U.S., become dominated by cars. Cycling paths were overtaken by roads, and neighborhoods in Amsterdam were razed to make room for highways. Between 1950 and 1970, the number of cars in the country exploded from about a hundred thousand to nearly two and a half million. During that same period, bike use plummeted; in Amsterdam, the percentage of trips made by bike fell from eighty to twenty.

That all changed when young activists and parents, especially mothers—like the biking mothers in Motherload—began protesting high numbers of traffic deaths. They took to the streets on their bikes, blocking traffic, running for office, and pressuring city officials to make infrastructure and public space safe and accommodating for bikes. Now, there are more bikes than people in the Netherlands, and cars co-exist on roads full of cyclists of all ages and classes, on their way to work, school, and everywhere else.

Dutch drivers “look out for cyclists,” writes Kois. “After all, nearly all of those drivers are cyclists themselves,” using the car for a brief, necessary outing before they get back on their bikes for most everything else. Next to Kois’ first-person account of his few-months-long sojourn through Delft, we have the global testimony of the Bicycle Architecture Biennale, a “showcase of cutting edge and high profile building designs that are facilitating bicycle travel and transforming communities around the world.” The exhibits, writes Karen Wong at David Byrne's Reasons to Be Cheerful, "point the way to a two-wheeled utopia."

BYCS, the group responsible for this well-curated exhibition, come from Amsterdam. The projects they feature, however, are in London and Chongmin and Chengdu, China. The cargo cyclists in Motherload, and the ferocious activism of cyclists in places like New York City, despite tremendous "bikelash," may show Americans they don't need to look abroad to see how bikes could slowly displace cars as Americans' vehicles of choice in some parts of the country. But learning from how other places have reimagined their infrastructure could prove necessary for lasting change.

Many Americans cannot imagine life without their cars, even if they also have garages full of bikes. Some lash out at cyclists as a threat to their way of life. The country is enormous (though we do most driving locally); cars serve as modes of transport—for human, plant, animal, and everything else—and also as escape pods and status symbols. Canning’s film shows us ordinary American men and women getting the gumption to trade some comfort and security for lives of minor adventure and ecological simplicity. (And a good many of them still have cars if they need them.)

We also see, in exhibitions like that previewed in the video above how design principles and policy can help make such choices easier and safer for everyone to make. Canning pointedly frames her argument in Motherload around cycling's radical history. "100 years before the bicycle saved me," she says in the film's official trailer at the top, "it liberated the poor, empowered the suffragettes, and transformed society faster than any invention in human history. It could happen again."

via Outside

Related Content:

The First 100 Years of the Bicycle: A 1915 Documentary Shows How the Bike Went from Its Clunky Birth in 1818, to Its Enduring Design in 1890

The Art & Science of Bike Design: A 5-Part Introduction from the Open University

How Leo Tolstoy Learned to Ride a Bike at 67, and Other Tales of Lifelong Learning

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Meditation for Beginners: Buddhist Monks & Teachers Explain the Basics

In the app-rich, nuance-starved culture of late capitalism, we are encouraged to conflate two vastly different concepts: the simple and the easy. Maybe no better example exists than in the marketing of meditation—the selling of an activity that, in essence, requires no specialized equipment or infrastructure. What mediation does require is a good instructor and encouragement. It is simple. But it is not easy. It’s true, you’ll hear teachers ruefully admit, they don’t print this on the brochures for retreat centers: but sustained meditation can be difficult and painful just as well as it can induce serenity, peace, and joy. When we sit down to meditate, we “feel our stuff,” to paraphrase David Byrne.

Next to the host of physical complaints and external stressors clamoring for attention, if we’ve got personal bad vibrations to contend with, they will hamper our ability to accept the present and relax. This is why, historically, those wishing to embark on the Buddhist path would first take ethical precepts, and practice them, before beginning to meditate, under the presumption that doing good (or non-harm) quiets the mind. “It is true that meditation is important in the Buddhist tradition,” writes Tibetan teacher Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche at Lion’s Roar. “But in many ways, ethics and virtue are the foundation of the Buddhist path.”




Of course, there are non-Buddhist meditation traditions. And the mindfulness movement has demonstrated with great success that one can carve most of the religion away from meditation and still derive many short-term benefits from the practice. But to do so is to dispense with thousands of years of experiential wisdom, not only about the difficulties of sustaining a meditation practice over the long term, but also about meditation's inherent simplicity—something those of us inclined to overcomplicate things may need to hear over and over again.

Tibetan teachers like Mingyur (and teachers from every Buddhist lineage) are generally happy to expound upon the simplicity and joy of mediation, with the good nature we might expect of those who spend their lives letting go of regrets and fears. Sometimes their messages are packaged for easier consumption, which is a fine way to get a taste of something before you decide to explore it further. But the point remains, as Mingyur says in the video at the top from The Jakarta Poet, that “meditation is completely natural.” It is not a product and doesn't require any accessories or subscriptions.

It is also not an altered state of consciousness or a nihilist escape. It is allowing ourselves to experience what is happening inside and all around us moment by moment by tuning into our awareness. We can do this anywhere, at any time, for any length of time, as the monk further up tells us. “Even three seconds, two seconds, while you’re walking, while you’re having coffee and tea, while you’re having a meeting… you can meditate.” Really? Yes, since meditation is not a vacation from your life but an intensified experiencing of it (even the meetings).

We get a celebrity endorsement above from the man who plays the angriest man on television, Gordon Ramsay. The chef takes a break from his abusive kitchen rages to meet with a Thai monk, who says of his decision to enter the monastery, “I’ve been to many different places, I’d traveled around, but the one place I hadn’t looked at was my mind.” Westerners may hear this and think of far out states—and there are plenty of those to be found in Buddhist texts, but not much talk of them among Buddhist teachers. Generally, the word “mind” has a far more expansive range here than the firing of synapses: it includes movement of the stomach lining, the tension of the sinews, and the beating of the heart.

One of the most tragic misunderstandings of meditation casts it as a mental discipline, splitting mind and body as Western thought is wont to do for centuries now. But the awareness cultivated in meditation is awareness of everything: the senses, the body, the breath, the space around us, our cognition and emotion. Every Buddhist tradition and secular offshoot has its way of teaching students what to do with their often-ignored bodies while they meditate. The differences between them are mostly slight, and you’ll find a good guided introduction to beginning meditation focused on the body just above, led by Mingyur Rinpoche.

The happiness one can derive from a meditation practice does arrive, according to meditators worldwide, but it is not a solitary achievement, Buddhist teachers say, a prize claimed for oneself like a profit windfall. It is, rather, the result of more compassion, and hence of more humility, better relationships, and less self-involvement; the result of stripping away rather than acquiring. Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, who left a career in cellular genetics in his twenties to study and practice in the Himalayas, hasn’t shied away from marketing as a way to teach people to meditate. But he is also upfront about the importance of ethics to beginning mediation.

In addition to being a “confidante of the Dalai Lama,” notes Business Insider, Ricard is also “a viral TED Talk speaker, and a bestselling author.” His message is the importance of compassion—not as a goal to achieve some time in the future, but as the very place to start. “There’s nothing mysterious” about it, he says in an interview on Business Insider’s podcast. He then goes on to describe the basic practices of “Metta, ”among other things a way of training oneself to have kind and loving intentions for others in an ever-widening circle outward. In the video above, Ricard talks about the practice, and the science, of compassion at Google.

Many people balk at this kind of sentimental stuff, even from a man Google describes as “the world’s best bridge between modern science and ancient wisdom.” But if we can hear anything in the ancient wisdom distilled by these Buddhist teachers, perhaps it’s a simple idea fast-meditation apps and utilitarian programs generally skip. No, you do not need to put on robes, become a monk or nun, or take on a set of ancient traditions, beliefs, or rituals. But as American Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield says below, “if you want to learn to be wise and present, the first step is to refrain from harming yourself or others.”

Related Content:

Alan Watts Presents a 15-Minute Guided Meditation: A Time-Tested Way to Stop Thinking About Thinking

How Meditation Can Change Your Brain: The Neuroscience of Buddhist Practice

Daily Meditation Boosts & Revitalizes the Brain and Reduces Stress, Harvard Study Finds

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

What Happens To Your Body & Brain If You Don’t Get Sleep? Neuroscientist Matthew Walker Explains

As an insomniac in a morning person’s world, I wince at sleep news, especially from Matthew Walker, neuroscientist, Berkeley professor, and author of Why We Sleep. Something of a “sleep evangelist,” as Berkeley News calls him (he prefers "sleep diplomat"), Walker has taken his message on the road—or the 21st century equivalent: the TED Talk stages and animated explainer videos.

One such video has Walker saying that “sleep when you’re dead” is “mortally unwise advice… short sleep predicts a shorter life.” Or as he elaborates in an interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, “every disease that is killing us in developed nations has causal and significant links to a lack of sleep.”




Yeesh. Does he lay it on thick? Nope, he's got the evidence and wants to scare us straight. It's a psychological tactic that hasn’t always worked so well, although next to “sleep or die” sermons, there’s good news: sleep, when harnessed properly (yes, somewhere in the area of 8 hours a night) can also be a “superpower." Sleep does “wonderfully good things… for your brain and for your body,” boosting memory, concentration, and immunity, just for starters.

But back to the bad....

In the Tech Insider video above, Walker delivers the grim facts. As he frequently points out, most of us need to hear it. Sleep deprivation is a serious epidemic—brought on by a complex of socio-economic-politico-technological factors you can probably imagine. See Walker’s comparisons (to the brain as an email inbox and a sewage system) animated, and learn about how lack of sleep contributes to a 24% increase in heart attacks and numerous forms of cancer. (The World Health Organization has recently “classified nighttime shift work as a probable carcinogen.”)

On the upside, rarely is health science so unambiguous. If nutritionists could only give us such clear-cut advice. Whether we'd take it is another question. Learn more about the multiple, and sometimes fatal, consequences of sleep deprivation in the animated TED-Ed video above.

Related Content:

Sleep or Die: Neuroscientist Matthew Walker Explains How Sleep Can Restore or Imperil Our Health

How Sleep Can Become Your “Superpower:” Scientist Matt Walker Explains Why Sleep Helps You Learn More and Live Longer

10 Hours of Ambient Arctic Sounds Will Help You Relax, Meditate, Study & Sleep

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

The Therapeutic Benefits of Ambient Music: Science Shows How It Eases Chronic Anxiety, Physical Pain, and ICU-Related Trauma

“In forty years of medical practice,” wrote Dr. Oliver Sacks near the end of his famous career, “I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical ‘therapy’ to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens.” The comment might not surprise us, coming from such an unorthodox thinker as Sacks. But we might be surprised by the considerable amount of traditional scientific research linking music and mental health.

Sixty years ago, when Sacks was still in medical school, avant-garde jazz bandleader Sun Ra had a very Sacks-like experience when he played for an audience of patients in a mental hospital, and inspired a catatonic woman who hadn’t spoken for years to stand up and say ‘Do you call that music?’” The gig, booked by his manager, constituted a fringe experiment in alternative medicine at the time, not a serious subject of study among medical doctors and neuroscientists.

How things have changed in the last half-century.




Several recent studies, for example, have linked drumming, the oldest and most universal form of music-making, to reduced anxiety, pain relief, improved mood, and improved learning skills in kids with autism. Listening to and playing jazz and other forms of syncopated music, have been shown in study after study to promote creativity, enhance math skills, and support mental and emotional well-being.

But what about ambient music, a genre often characterized by its lack of syncopation, and almost certain to feature as background music in guided meditation and stress reduction recordings; in slow, relaxing yoga videos; and thousands of YouTube videos promoting supposedly stress-reducing frequencies and stereo effects? Ambient seems purpose-built to combat tension and dis-ease, and in a sense, it was.

Brian Eno, the artist who named the genre and often gets credit for its invention, wrote in the liner notes to Ambient 1: Music for Airports, “[this record is] designed to induce calm and space to think.” Whether he meant to make a scientific claim or only an artistic statement of purpose, research has validated his inferences about the salutary effects of long, slow, atmospheric music.

Noisey Associate Editor Ryan Bassil, a longtime sufferer of anxiety and panic attacks, found the statement to be true in his own life, as he explains in the video above (illustrated by Nathan Cowdry). Music from ambient composers like Eno, William Bassinski, and Fennesz helped him “ground” himself during extremely anxious moments, bringing him back into sensory contact with the present.

When Bassil looked into the reasons why ambient music had such a calming effect on his over-stimulated nervous system, he found research from artist and academic Luke Jaaniste, who described an “ambient mode,” a “pervasive all-around field, without anything being prioritized into foreground and background.” Immersion in this space, writes Bassil, “can help the listener put aside what’s on their mind and use their senses to focus on their surroundings.”

We may not—and should not—ask music to be a useful tool, but ambient has shown itself particularly so when treating serious neurological and psychological conditions. Forensic psychiatrist Dr. John Tully of London’s Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience traces the form back to Bach and Chopin, and especially Erik Satie, who “was the first to express the idea of music specifically as background sound,” and who had no qualms about music serving a specialized purpose.

The purpose of what we broadly call ambient has evolved and changed as classical, minimalist avant-garde, and electronic musicians have penned compositions for very different audiences. But no matter the intent, or where we draw the genre boundaries, all kinds of atmospheric, instrumental music has the therapeutic power not only to reduce anxiety, but also to ease pain in surgical patients and reduce agitation in those suffering with dementia.

When he performed with his group Darkroom at the Critical Care Unit at University College London Hospital, writer and psychologist Charles Fernyhough found out that ambient music had significant benefits for patients trapped in what he calls “a suburb of hell”: the ICU. Stays in intensive care units correlate closely with later PTSD and what was once called “ICU psychosis” in the midst of traumatic emergency room experiences. Sedation turns out to be a major culprit. But music, especially ambient music, brought patients back to themselves.

Hear the 2016 Darkroom performance at the University College London Hospital ICU further up, and read more about Fernyhough’s research and performance at Aeon. The science of how and why ambient works the way it does is hardly settled. Where Fernyhough found that patients benefited from a lack of predictability and an ability to “escape the present moment,” Bassil’s research and experience uncovered the opposite—a sense of safe predictability and enhanced sensory awareness.

Physiological responses from person to person will vary, as will their tastes. “One person’s easy listening is another’s aural poison,” Fernyhough admits. But for a significant number of people suffering severe anxiety and trauma, the droning, minimal, wordless soundscapes of ambient are more effective than any medication.

Related Content:

The “True” Story Of How Brian Eno Invented Ambient Music

The 50 Best Ambient Albums of All Time: A Playlist Curated by Pitchfork

Stream 72 Hours of Ambient Sounds from Blade Runner: Relax, Go to Sleep in a Dystopian Future

The Health Benefits of Drumming: Less Stress, Lower Blood Pressure, Pain Relief, and Altered States of Consciousness

Why Do Sad People Like to Listen to Sad Music? Psychologists Answer the Question in Two Studies

This is Your Brain on Jazz Improvisation: The Neuroscience of Creativity

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

The 1855 Map That Revolutionized Disease Prevention & Data Visualization: Discover John Snow’s Broad Street Pump Map

No, he didn’t help defeat an implacable zombie army intent on wiping out all life. But English obstetrician John Snow seems as important as the similarly-named Game of Thrones hero for his role in persuading modern medicine of the germ theory of disease. During the 1854 outbreak of cholera in London, Snow convinced authorities and critics that the disease spread from a contaminated water pump on Broad Street, leading to the now-legendary infographic map above showing the incidences of cholera clustered around the pump.

Snow’s persistence resulted in the removal of the handle from the Broad Street pump and has been credited with ending an epidemic that claimed 500 lives. The Broad Street pump map has become “an enduring feature of the folklore of public health and epidemiology," write the authors of an article published in The Lancet. They also point out that, contrary to popular retellings, the “map did not give rise to the insight” that the pump and its germ-covered handle caused the outbreak. “Rather it tended to confirm theories already held by the various investigators.”




Snow himself published a pamphlet in 1849 called “On the Mode of Communication of Cholera” in which he argued that “cholera is communicated by the evacuations from the alimentary canal.” As he reminded readers of The Edinburgh Medical Journal in an 1856 letter, in that same year, “Dr William Budd published a pamphlet ‘On Malignant Cholera’ in which he expressed views similar to my own.” Germ theory had a long, distinguished history already, and Snow and his contemporaries made sound, evidence-based arguments for it.

But their position “largely went ignored by the medical establishment,” notes Randy Alfred at Wired, “and was opposed by a local water company near one London outbreak.” The accepted, mainstream scientific opinion held that all disease was spread through “miasma,” or bad air. Pollution, it was thought, must be the cause. After the pump handle’s removal, Snow published an 1855 monograph on waterborne diseases. This was the first public appearance of the legendary map—after the removal of the handle.

Helping to inform Snow’s map, another investigator, parish priest Henry Whitehead had “concluded that it was the washing of soiled diapers into drains which flowed to the communal cesspool that contaminated the pump and started the outbreak,” writes Atlas Obscura. Whitehead, a former critic of germ theory, later pointed out that the removal of the pump handle didn’t actually stop the epidemic, which, he said, “had already run its course” by that point.

Nonetheless, Snow and other proponents of the theory were vindicated, Whitehead had to admit, and Snow's intervention “had probably everything to do with preventing a new outbreak.” The simple, yet sophisticated data visualization would lead to radical new ways of conceptualizing disease outbreaks, helping to stop or prevent who knows how many epidemics before they killed hundreds or thousands. Snow’s map also deserves credit for giving “data journalists a model of how to work today.”

It was hardly the first or only data visualization of cholera outbreaks of the time. "As early as the 1830s," Visual Capitalist points out, "geographers began using spacial analysis to study cholera epidemiology." But Snow's was by far the most influential, and effective, of them all. In his TED talk above, journalist Steven Johnson (author of The Ghost Map:The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World) tells the story of how the outbreak, and Snow's theory and map, "helped create the world that we live in today, and particularly the kind of city that we live in today."

Read a Q&A with Johnson here; head over to The Guardian's Data Blog to see Snow's visualization recreated over a modern, satellite-view map of London and the Soho neighborhood of the famous Broad Street pump; and learn more about Snow and deadly cholera outbreaks in the crowded European cities of the early 19th century at the John Snow Archive and Research Companion online.

Related Content:

Florence Nightingale Saved Lives by Creating Revolutionary Visualizations of Statistics (1855)

Napoleon’s Disastrous Invasion of Russia Detailed in an 1869 Data Visualization: It’s Been Called “the Best Statistical Graphic Ever Drawn”

The Art of Data Visualization: How to Tell Complex Stories Through Smart Design

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How Sleep Can Become Your “Superpower:” Scientist Matt Walker Explains Why Sleep Helps You Learn More and Live Longer

"I'll sleep when I'm dead": those words have been a mantra to hard-living types everywhere since Warren Zevon first sang them back in 1976, but as Berkeley sleep scientist and Why We Sleep author Matt Walker sees it, taking them to heart is a "mortally unwise" choice. The example of Zevon himself, who died at the age of 53, would seem to validate that judgement, but it also comes backed by serious research. In the TED Talk "Sleep Is Your Superpower" above, Walker builds on what we all know — that we need to sleep, regularly and without interruption — by explaining "the wonderfully good things that happen when you get sleep, but the alarmingly bad things that happen when you don’t get enough, both for your brain and for your body."

Not only, for example, do "you need sleep after learning to essentially hit the save button on those new memories so that you don’t forget," you also "need sleep before learning to actually prepare your brain, almost like a dry sponge ready to initially soak up new information."




As anyone who has tried to pull an all-nighter before a big test has felt, sleep deprivation shuts down your "your memory inbox," and any incoming files just get "bounced" without being retained. But deep-sleep brainwaves, as Walker puts it, act as a "file-transfer mechanism at night, shifting memories from a short-term vulnerable reservoir to a more permanent long-term storage site within the brain, and therefore protecting them, making them safe."

Improper sleep threatens not just learning but life itself: compromised sleep means a compromised immune system, hence the "significant links between short sleep duration and your risk for the development of numerous forms of cancer" now being discovered. "The shorter your sleep, the shorter your life," as Walker starkly puts it. As far as how to improve your sleep and, with luck, elongate your life, he has two main pieces of advice: "Go to bed at the same time, wake up at the same time, no matter whether it’s the weekday or the weekend," and "aim for a bedroom temperature of around 65 degrees, or about 18 degrees Celsius," slightly cooler than may feel normal. We'd also do well to remember the importance of breaking the habit of staying on the internet late into the night — or more specifically, having stayed up well past midnight writing this very post, I'd do well to remember it.

Related Content:

Sleep or Die: Neuroscientist Matthew Walker Explains How Sleep Can Restore or Imperil Our Health

How a Good Night’s Sleep — and a Bad Night’s Sleep — Can Enhance Your Creativity

Dr. Weil’s 60-Second Technique for Falling Asleep

240 Hours of Relaxing, Sleep-Inducing Sounds from Sci-Fi Video Games: From Blade Runner to Star Wars

Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Sleep Plan: He Slept Two Hours a Day for Two Years & Felt “Vigorous” and “Alert”

The Power of Power Naps: Salvador Dali Teaches You How Micro-Naps Can Give You Creative Inspiration

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Oliver Sacks Promotes the Healing Power of Gardens: They’re “More Powerful Than Any Medication”

Early European explorers left the continent with visions of gardens in their heads: The Garden of Eden, the Garden of the Hesperides, and other mythic realms of abundance, ease, and endless repose. Those same explorers left sickness, war, and death only to find sickness, war, and death—much of it exported by themselves. The garden became de-mythologized. Natural philosophy and modern methods of agriculture brought gardens further down to earth in the cultural imagination.

Yet the garden remained a special figure in philosophy, art, and literature, a potent symbol of an ordered life and ordered mind. Voltaire’s Candide, the riotous satire filled with gardens both fantastical and practical, famously ends with the dictate, “we must cultivate our garden.” The tendency to read this line as strictly metaphorical does a disservice to the intellectual culture created by Voltaire and other writers of the period—Alexander Pope most prominent among them—for whom gardening was a theory born of practice.




Exiled from France in 1765, Voltaire retreated to a villa in Geneva called Les Délices, “The Delights.” There, writes Adam Gopnik at The New Yorker, he “quickly turned his exile into a desirable condition…. When he wrote that it was our duty to cultivate our garden, he really knew what it meant to cultivate a garden.” Enlightenment poets and philosophers did not dwell on the scientific reasons why gardens might have such salutary effects on the psyche. And neither does neurologist Oliver Sacks, who also wrote of gardens as health-bestowing havens from the chaos and noise of the world, and more specifically, from the city and brutal commercial demands it represents.

For Sacks that city was not Paris or London but, principally, New York, where he lived, practiced, and wrote for fifty years. Nonetheless, in his essay “The Healing Power of Gardens,” he invokes the European history of gardens, from the medieval hortus to grand Enlightenment botanical gardens like Kew, filled with exotic plants from “the Americas and the Orient.” Sacks writes of his student days, where he “discovered with delight a very different garden—the Oxford Botanic Garden, one of the first walled gardens established in Europe,” founded in 1621.

“It pleased me to think,” he recalls, referring to key Enlightenment scientists, “that Boyle, Hooke, Willis and other Oxford figures might have walked and meditated there in the 17th century.” In that time, cultivated gardens were often the private preserves of landed gentry. Now, places like the New York Botanical Garden, whose virtues Sacks extolls in the video above, are open to everyone. And it is a good thing, too. Because gardens can serve an essential public health function, whether we’re stressed and generally fatigued or suffering from a mental disorder or neurological condition:

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.

“In forty years of medical practice,” the physician writes, “I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical ‘therapy’ to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens.” A garden also represents—for Sacks and for artists like Virginia Woolf—“a triumph of resistance against the merciless race of modern life,” as Maria Popova writes at Brain Pickings, a pace “so compulsively focused on productivity at the cost of creativity, of lucidity, of sanity.”

Voltaire’s prescription to tend our gardens has made Candide into a watchword for caring for and appreciating our surroundings. (It’s also now the name of a gardening app). Sacks’ recommendations should inspire us equally, whether we’re in search of creative inspiration or mental respite. “As a writer,” he says, “I find gardens essential to the creative process; as a physician, I take my patients to gardens whenever possible. The effect, he writes, is to be “refreshed in body and spirit,” absorbed in the “deep time” of nature, as he writes elsewhere, and finding in it “a profound sense of being at home, a sort of companionship with the earth,” and a remedy for the alienation of both mental illness and the grinding pace of our usual form of life.

via New York Times/Brain Pickings

Related Content:

Oliver Sacks’ Recommended Reading List of 46 Books: From Plants and Neuroscience, to Poetry and the Prose of Nabokov

A First Look at The Animated Mind of Oliver Sacks, a Feature-Length Journey Into the Mind of the Famed Neurologist

How the Japanese Practice of “Forest Bathing”—Or Just Hanging Out in the Woods—Can Lower Stress Levels and Fight Disease

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

More in this category... »
Quantcast