What are your experiences with nature?
How often do you take a leisurely stroll through the grass, a garden or the woods? How often do you stop to look at, touch or smell a flower?
How do you feel when you are alone in nature? Do you find it relaxing, invigorating, healing?
In “The Healing Power of Gardens,” Oliver Sacks, a neurologist who died in 2015, wrote:
As a writer, I find gardens essential to the creative process; as a physician, I take my patients to gardens whenever possible. All of us have had the experience of wandering through a lush garden or a timeless desert, walking by a river or an ocean, or climbing a mountain and finding ourselves simultaneously calmed and reinvigorated, engaged in mind, refreshed in body and spirit. The importance of these physiological states on individual and community health is fundamental and wide-ranging. In 40 years of medical practice, I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical “therapy” to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens.
The essay continues:
I have lived in New York City for 50 years, and living here is sometimes made bearable for me only by its gardens. This has been true for my patients, too. When I worked at Beth Abraham, a hospital just across the road from the New York Botanical Garden, I found that there was nothing long-shut-in patients loved more than a visit to the garden — they spoke of the hospital and the garden as two different worlds.
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.
My friend Lowell has moderately severe Tourette’s syndrome. In his usual busy, city environment, he has hundreds of tics and verbal ejaculations each day — grunting, jumping, touching things compulsively. I was therefore amazed one day when we were hiking in a desert to realize that his tics had completely disappeared. The remoteness and uncrowdedness of the scene, combined with some ineffable calming effect of nature, served to defuse his ticcing, to “normalize” his neurological state, at least for a time.
An elderly lady with Parkinson’s disease, whom I met in Guam, often found herself frozen, unable to initiate movement — a common problem for those with parkinsonism. But once we led her out into the garden, where plants and a rock garden provided a varied landscape, she was galvanized by this, and could rapidly, unaided, climb up the rocks and down again.
I have a number of patients with very advanced dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, who may have very little sense of orientation to their surroundings. They have forgotten, or cannot access, how to tie their shoes or handle cooking implements. But put them in front of a flower bed with some seedlings, and they will know exactly what to do — I have never seen such a patient plant something upside down.
The essay concludes:
Clearly, nature calls to something very deep in us. Biophilia, the love of nature and living things, is an essential part of the human condition. Hortophilia, the desire to interact with, manage and tend nature, is also deeply instilled in us. The role that nature plays in health and healing becomes even more critical for people working long days in windowless offices, for those living in city neighborhoods without access to green spaces, for children in city schools or for those in institutional settings such as nursing homes. The effects of nature’s qualities on health are not only spiritual and emotional but physical and neurological. I have no doubt that they reflect deep changes in the brain’s physiology, and perhaps even its structure.
Students, read the entire Opinion piece, then tell us:
— What role does nature play in your life? Do you actively seek it out? How much time do you spend there? Tell us about your experiences in nature.
— Have you ever experienced any of the restorative or healing powers of nature and gardens — physical, spiritual, emotional — that Mr. Sacks describes? Where do you go to relax and find peace when you are feeling stressed out or down?
— What is your reaction to the stories of nature’s effect on people with mental and physical illnesses that Mr. Sacks recounts? Which story stands out or fascinates you the most and why?
— How accessible is the natural world where you live? Are there many gardens available to stroll through or sit in? Do you have any plants in your school or home? Are you more likely to seek out nature after reading this article? Do you think young people spend enough time in nature?
— Look through the photos featured in the article. Select one that you find most beautiful, or one that shows a place you would like to visit and experience. If inspired, write a poem about the picture.
Students 13 and older are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.