The Well-Gardened Mind
Photo by Eva Nemeth.
Esteemed British psychiatrist Sue Stuart-Smith's new book, The Well Gardened-Mind, is one of my very favorites of the year. I have given copies, and recommended it, to many for its inspired exploration of the connections between the natural world and our mental well-being. Stuart-Smith writes lyrically about how the beauty and biology of plants, and the physicality of gardening, can not only heal, but be transformative. We were privileged to speak with her about her extraordinary work.
Photo by Harry Stuart-Smith
Your book bridges the scientific and aesthetic, which is such an extraordinary gift for those who find purpose in creating beauty: It is revelatory to understand the biological underpinnings of the effects of artistry. For those who haven't yet had the opportunity to read the book, would you mind introducing one or two of those connections?
It’s hard to know where to start because the natural world influences us on so many different levels. The great power of gardening is the way that it answers to the emotional, physical, social, and spiritual aspects of life and I wanted to capture the full scope of these effects in my book.
In terms of physical benefits, the research shows that spending time in green nature alleviates anxiety, improves mood and revitalizes cognitive functioning, as well as reduces blood pressure and levels of the stress hormone cortisol. In addition, the presence of plants and trees shifts us towards being more generous and empathetic. This has been called the 'pro-social' effect of nature.
But gardening also involves creativity and care. Tending plants puts us in touch with the cycle of life in which destruction and decay are followed by regrowth and renewal. As a result, deep existential processes can be involved in creating and caring for a garden. Many people report that it has helped them work through experiences of trauma and loss. In the course of researching my book, I interviewed people from mental health gardening projects - prisoners, veterans, and at-risk youth, as well as people suffering from depression, anxiety, and addiction – they spoke of gardening as a life-changing and in some cases life-saving experience. Hearing their testimonies was deeply moving.
The Prairie Garden. Photo by The Garden Gate is Open.
As living creatures we are nourished and heartened by beauty, and its absence has an impact as well. For example, I feel physical restlessness and unease if my environment isn't visually harmonious. Would you share why that is?
Beauty is often seen as something non-essential but it really is a form of nourishment. The neuroscience of beauty’s effects on the brain demonstrate that to be the case, and these effects can be far-reaching. For example, the presence of flowering plants or aesthetically pleasing pictures on a wall can make a huge difference to how people cope with being admitted to hospital. Studies have found the benefits to include needing less pain relief and being discharged sooner. Introducing natural beauty through small gardens and parks in deprived urban areas has been shown to reduce crime as well as levels of depression and stress. Sigmund Freud had a great love of flowers and he once commented that whilst beauty “cannot protect us from suffering, it can compensate for a great deal.”
Delphiniums by the greenhouse. Photo by Sue Stuart-Smith.
You write that you've "come to think of gardening as a type of space-time medicine." What a beautiful concept. Would you talk a bit more about this idea? I do feel, for example, that when I'm completely immersed in the design process I'm in flow—operating "out of time," or in "slow time."
A garden is much more than a physical space, it is also a mental space. The feeling of safe enclosure and immersion in nature, frees us from everyday pressures and gives us a sense of quiet so we can hear our own thoughts.
Many people experience a sense of ‘flow’ through the rhythmical activities of weeding, hoeing, and sowing. In this way, gardening is intrinsically a mindful activity. And above all, it is a living relationship in which we're not completely in control. When you make an intervention in the garden, you have to wait to see what happens. You have to notice and you have to respond. It forces us to slow down and we feel part of something much larger than ourselves. Whether you participate in gardening or not, I believe it’s important to spend some time each day in mindful appreciation of the natural world around you.
The forward-looking aspect of gardening is also important and can be very helpful at times when life feels arduous or uncertain. Look how people rushed to buy seeds at the start of the pandemic. The ritual of sowing provided something to look forward to at a time when it was hard to feel positive about the future. Fundamentally, gardening is a hopeful act.
The Alnarp Rehabilitation Garden in Sweden. Photo by Sue Stuart-Smith.
In one of the most hauntingly beautiful moments of the book, you describe standing in a field of radiant blue lupines. It is a painting in prose, a beautiful example of a modern sublime. Would you talk a bit about this moment, and how nature takes us out of our "left brain" activity?
The right hemisphere of the brain seems to be more closely attuned to nature than the left hemisphere and is also specialized in the kind of receptive attention that helped our hunter-gatherer ancestors survive in the wild. In contrast, many of the tasks of modern working life involve a narrow focused attention in which we are spending more time than ever looking at screens. I find the earthy physicality of gardening a great antidote to that. A large area of the brain is devoted to our hands because as a species we evolved to use our hands in shaping our environment. Gardening provides a way of doing this and it can feel empowering and stabilizing as a result.
You write of Hildegard of Bingen, the extraordinary 12th century healer, abbess, composer, and writer. Do you feel as though she is an incredibly relevant figure for the current moment in which we see so many people, women in particular, revitalizing traditions of herbalism and wild crafting?
Hildegard was a truly remarkable woman. She was a composer and a theologian as well as an herbalist. She developed her own philosophy based on the connection between the human spirit and the growth force of the earth which she called ‘viriditas’. She recognized that people can only thrive when the natural world thrives and that we pay a terrible price if we neglect this truth. She was, in many ways, a forerunner of the modern ecological movement and I think she is an inspiring figure for many women. I certainly feel that myself.
Photo by Russell Sach.
It also feels like we're entering a new Romantic age, as artists again turn to the natural world. In the 19th century it was in opposition to industrialization, now it is in response to digitalization—Authors like Robert McFarlane, the eco-poetic movement, and exhibitions like the phenomenal Trees at Fondation Cartier are all contributing to this collective consciousness. Is that something you also sense and draw on?
It's becoming ever more clear that we need to cultivate our connection with nature in order to thrive but we can easily become detached from these fundamental realities and there are so many distractions and diversions in today’s world. Gardening tends to be thought of as something people grow into as life progresses but it seems that it currently appeals to many young people in their 20's and 30's. I think this is not only about digitization but is a response to feeling disempowered and anxious about the future, both in their personal lives and in relation to the climate and biodiversity crises.
You also speak so eloquently about sustainability—how treating mother earth as an endlessly exploitable resource is a dead end. Would you share for our readers how that mindset developed when we began to separate the natural world from the sacred?
Of course there is not a single point in history when this happened but there certainly was a shift with the advent of industrialization towards regarding the earth as a source of resources that could be relentlessly extracted. But land was being exploited long before that as is portrayed in the Sumerian myth that I describe called The Gardener’s Mortal Sin. The desacralisation of nature has been a gradual process and we have much to learn from indigenous communities who have retained an intimate and respectful relationship with the natural world.
The Barn West Garden. Photo by The Garden Gate is Open.
In a wonderful conversation you had with the writer and artist Edmund de Waal, you spoke of the impact of returning to an experience, of repeated action being at the heart of intimacy with place. I feel that in the creation of a garment—that through the repetition of stitches or of draping as I craft an edition of a coat or dress I really get to "know" the piece. Would you share from a psychiatric/biological perspective how the tilling of, the loving attention to, a particular place or experience creates intimacy?
This quality of ‘knowing’ that you describe arises through a relationship of care. Care has come to be devalued in much of contemporary culture. It is often seen as a draining or demeaning activity but acts of care are intrinsically replenishing. Care is connected with the brain’s endorphin system which accounts for the feeling of calm and pleasure that a caring focus gives rise to.
You're cultivating a global garden of people interconnected by your book, and, on a personal level, you're creating a community through The Orchard project at your home in Hertfordshire. Would you share a bit with our readers about that inspiring initiative and if there are ways they might be able to support it?
Over the last couple of years, with my husband Tom [distinguished landscape designer Tom Stuart-Smith], I have been working to create a community gardening project in an orchard close to our home. The Serge Hill project for Gardening, Creativity, and Health will offer resources to local schools and charities as well as local residents who want to get involved in gardening. We are working closely with a Hertfordshire based charity called Sunnyside Rural Trust, which provides horticultural training for people with learning disabilities. The aim is for the orchard garden to include a nursery operated by Sunnyside. They will propagate plants from the ‘plant library’ garden we have created there. This includes more than 1,000 varieties of perennial plants and Sunnyside will be able to grow them on for commercial sale. We are also working with local youth organizations and schools and are currently constructing a building in the orchard which will function as an education and resource center. Our aim is to promote all aspects of gardening, in particular the impact that regenerative gardening and care for the environment can have on health and well-being.
Lan finding restoration and renewal at home in the garden wearing the House Cardi.