Urgent Biophilia

“When we sow a seed, we plant a narrative of future possibility,”

                                                ~ Sue Stuart-Smith

Yes, things are kind of crappy right now. We’ve got this incredibly bad pandemic keeping us mostly housebound for the last year and killing hundreds of thousands of Americans and millions worldwide. We’ve had four years of white supremacy, racism, a destroyed economy and the general chaos of the Trump administration. The cheater and general asshole Tom Brady won the Super Bowl again. It’s mid-winter and Punxsutawney Phil just predicted another six weeks of it, which means a couple of months before I can start serious gardening.

Reporter Rebecca Mead writes, “The spring and summer of 2020 have been shadowed by death — not just by the loss of hundreds of thousands of people to covid-19 but by the loss of our ordinary way of life …

In mid-March, in the tense week before the British government announced its belated coronavirus-induced lockdown, certain everyday products became extraordinarily hard to find. Panicked buyers swept up fundamentals of alimentation and elimination: yeast, flour, bathroom tissue. More surprising, the horticulture industry experienced a surge in demand … As Britain faced the COVID crisis, reassurance was difficult to come by, and one way it could still be attained was in the reliable germination of a windowsill pot of watercress or a garden-patch row of chard.”

She quotes Sue Stuart-Smith, a British psychiatrist and psychotherapist, “’When life forecloses on us, the lack of a sense of a future is the hardest thing to deal with.’ Many people, when faced with their own mortality or that of their loved ones, become more attuned to the natural world. This is evidence not just of a garden’s power to distract and inspire but of its power to console through its cyclical replenishment.”

She continued, “Whenever there’s a crisis — be it a war, or the aftermath of war, or a natural disaster — we see this phenomenon of urgent biophilia.”

There’s something about getting your hands dirty, digging in the fresh earth, releasing the scent of raw nature. As kids, we spent a lot of time close to the dirt (of course we were shorter and more nimble back then) and in many ways we were more of the earth. We knew the worms and bugs and played with the sticks and leaves and threw dirt clods at each other to watch them burst on impact. Water was an ingredient in our backyard pies, along with dirt and all the other materials that came with it. Life was good — and dirty.

“A garden, Stuart-Smith suggests, can be a Winnicottian ‘in-between’ space that allows the inner and the outer worlds to coexist simultaneously —‘a meeting place for our innermost, dream-infused selves and the real physical world.’ The meditative and repetitive aspects of gardening can function as a form of play for grownups who have otherwise stopped playing.”

“Gardening has been a solace to so many … because it invokes the prospect of some kind of future, however uncertain and unpredictable it may be. ‘When the future seems either very bleak, or people are too depressed to imagine one, gardening gives you a toehold in the future’ Stuart-Smith said.”

The COVID vaccinations are becoming available, we have a new President and administration, football season is over for now, and the days are getting measurably longer. By summer, maybe, we can eat out again and possibly go to the movies or concerts. And, most importantly, the time is very near when I can start turning in the compost and preparing the garden.

Mead says, “The future promised by a garden may not always be ours to enjoy, but a future there will be, with or without us in it.”

I think I prefer to be in both the garden and the future.

Additional information:

Rebecca Mead, The Therapeutic Power of Gardening, August 17, 2020, The New Yorker

Sue Stuart-Smith, The Well Gardened Mind — The Restorative Power of Nature, ©2020, Scribner

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