Gardening is my therapy, my pile a retreat and relief from the preoccupations of work and the whatnot of modern life.
The modest dose of natural refuge and respite that my backyard affords is like “a kind of cleaning of the mental windshield that occurs when we’ve been immersed in nature long enough,” in the words of David Strayer, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah quoted in a recent National Geographic article, “This is Your Brain on Nature.”
Writer Florence Williams makes the case that “When we get closer to nature — be it untouched wilderness or a backyard tree — we do our overstressed brains a favor.”
It’s an argument that goes back “at least to Cyrus the Great, who some 2,500 years ago built gardens for relaxation in the busy capital of Persia. Paracelsus, the 16th-century German-Swiss physician, gave voice to that same intuition when he wrote, ‘The art of healing comes from nature, not from the physician.’
“In 1798, sitting on the banks of the River Wye, William Wordsworth marveled at how ‘an eye made quite by the power / Of harmony’ offered relief from ‘the fever of the world.’
“American writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Muir inherited that outlook. Along with Frederick Law Olmstead, they built the spiritual and emotional case for creating the world’s first national parks by claiming that nature had healing powers.”
The latest neuroscience research support the long-held feeling that nature inspires and soothes the modern mind. “Motivated by large-scale public health problems such as obesity, depression, and pervasive nearsightedness, all clearly associated with time spent indoors, Strayer and other scientists are looking with renewed interest at how nature affects our brains and bodies. Building on advances in neuroscience and psychology, they’ve begun to quantify what once seemed divine and mysterious. These measurements–of everything from stress hormones to heart rate to brain waves to protein markers–indicate that when we spend time in green space, ‘there is something profound going on,’ as Strayer puts it.”
My backyard pile is a small piece of that profundity, and tending to it through the seasons is a pleasurable chore.
National Geographic gives me a clearer picture of what happens when my brain is on compost. “Korean researchers used functional MRI to watch brain activity in people viewing different images. When the volunteers were looking at urban scenes, their brains showed more blood flow in the amygdala, which processes fear and anxiety. In contrast, the natural scenes lit up the anterior cingulate and the insula–areas associated with empathy and altruism. Maybe nature makes us nicer as well as calmer.”
Those findings may help explain a random act of composting kindness I found myself performing this evening. Between breaks in a drenching rainstorm, I wandered out to the driveway to find it swarming with earthworms, flushed out of the saturated lawn onto the pavement.
It seemed a waste that most of these slithering critters would be crushed by the tires of my car or drown in the puddled streams along the curb, so I took a butter knife and tupperware bowl out to the driveway and scooped up dozens of sodden, stretched-out worms.
I was happy to be working under the cloak of darkness and a porch light, as it would be difficult to explain a rescue of invertebrates to all but the most committed of gardeners. But depositing the squirming worms en masse onto my pile pleased me with the thought that these refugees and their progeny would repay me many times over as they populate my pile over the coming months.
Such is the modest virtue of my pile and the benefits it returns to me. And I now have earned the eternal gratitude of a herd of homeless earthworms.
So I got that goin’ for me, which is nice.
“To forget how to dig the earth and to tend the soil is to forget ourselves.”
— Mahatma Gandhi