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

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