In the Middle Ages, gardens were deemed to be an important facet of human healing, particularly in monastery settings. For example, with its centrally-located water feature and its open view of the sky, the traditional monastery cloister was designed to facilitate meditation for both resident monks and patients.
During the Victorian era, gardens were often found in hospital settings. And beginning in the nineteenth century, French churches advocated community gardens as a way to improve the circumstances of the working poor. In the United States, the Quakers’ Friends Hospital in Pennsylvania treated patients suffering from mental ill health with gardening and walks in the surrounding lands.
This focus on nature and healing, however, was lost for much of the twentieth century, and only in the past few decades have outdoor and nature-based therapies once again gained popularity. Some interesting and important work is being done with victims of torture, and I’ll share two examples.
Healing gardens for victims of torture
In Germany, the Berlin Center for Torture Victims (Behandlungszentrum für Folteropfer Berlin) incorporates a garden project, the Intercultural Healing Garden, as part of its work with victims of torture and human rights violations from more than 50 countries. For many of the patients, gardening is meaningful work that improves their health and well-being, and self-confidence. And as the Center describes, many patients come from rural areas where gardening was a part of their daily reality, and so work in the Intercultural Healing Garden helps to reconnect them with some of the positive aspects of their former lives, despite living through horrific experiences of torture.
The Center for Victims of Torture in Minneapolis similarly incorporates a garden. Clients, many of whom suffer from post-traumatic distress, can wait for their appointments in the garden, and many of the Center’s counselors also spend time there to help them cope with the stress and anguish that come from hearing stories of pain and suffering every day. Sarah Wash reports that many of the Center’s staff have also taken up gardening at home. Further, since trauma survivors often suffer from loneliness and isolation, the Center uses gardening “to help people connect with one another and reestablish a sense of trust” (¶6).
The Center’s garden designer Betty Ann Addison beautifully tells Sarah Wash that:
“Gardens are all about transition – whether it be from illness to healing or from life to death. They change by the hour, week, month, and year. They require us to relinquish control: A deep appreciation of life emerges with each sprouting plant, even the weeds. And simply by embracing natural rhythms, people from all walks of life, no matter the nature of their past experiences, can learn to accept the inevitability of loss and find hope in the promise of new life.” (¶7)
The bottom line
The word “meaningful” comes up often in my own research, and I also find it here in connection with the work on healing gardens – particularly in the ways that gardening and connecting with the earth, soil and plants provides meaningful connections with life in the face of horrific and traumatizing experiences. And for me, it highlights the importance of reflecting on and finding meaningful work in all of our lives, in contrast with the sometimes mundane – and perhaps meaningless – tasks that many of us are asked to do.
Berlin Center for Torture Victims (no date). Healing garden.
Di Iacovo, Francesco, and O’Connor, Deirdre (Eds). (2009). Supporting policies for socialfarming in Europe: Progressing multifunctionality in responsive rural areas. Press Service srl, Sesto Fiorentino (FI).
Louv, Richard. (2008). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder (updated and expanded). Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
Messer Diehl, Elizabeth R. (2009). Gardens that heal. In L. Buzzell and C. Chalquist (Eds). Ecotherapy: Healing with nature in mind (pp. 166-173). San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
Pretty, Jules. (2004). How nature contributes to mental and physical health. Spirituality and Health International, 5(2), 68-78.
Wash, Sarah. (2006). The healing power of flowers:Torture victims turn to gardens for hope. Utne Magazine (March/April).