Pretty plant microbes benefit people too
Gardening Heals The Human Spirit
As days draw in and temperatures fall, the pandemic siege is beginning to wear us all down. We may find ourselves getting snippy, taking offense more readily, finding fault, criticizing, being too easily annoyed (I certainly see this building in myself). Back in March, who imagined that we would find ourselves still in this dreadful situation in December? Who could foresee the most basic pandemic precautions flouted, the country more fiercely divided than ever, the rise of covid19 denial despite solid and mounting evidence in every state and all around the world? Probably any historian, actually, as human nature hasn’t changed greatly in millennia.
Historically, more people than ever are living apart from nature, and I think that’s a contributing factor to our national and international malaise. Those of us fortunate enough to have a garden or access to parks and woods and beaches can tell instinctively that immersion in the natural world is a powerful antidote to the toxins of our anxiety-producing cultures. It’s well documented that spending too much time alone leads to depression and anxiety, and so many Americans are living alone these days. It’s also widely recognized that being-or at least seeing-out of doors is important for our health and wellbeing. Numerous studies show that hospital patients and office workers who can see trees from their windows heal faster and feel more positive about work than those who lack windows or see only parking lots. Humans evolved in natural settings and we still need a daily dose of light and air and breathing in greenness.
Forest Bathing Without A Forest
There’s been a lot of media attention to the idea of forest bathing, a physical plunge into a natural environment that brings us emotional and health benefits. It’s a lovely concept, but obviously we don’t all live near a forest and urban parks are often so “parked out” that they don’t provide much sense of being in the natural world. Even so, when we can spend a little time each day amongst green trees and growing plants, all those petty but persistent irritations fall away. Some of my friends are confined to elder housing but are allowed to walk around the (admittedly meager) grounds for some relief from the four walls of their small apartments. One woman takes her walker to the parking lot at night so she can see the stars that are invisible from her rooms (her screened windows don’t allow her to poke her head out far enough). Another has an aide wheel her around the block, stopping to admire flowers (right now camellias and a few lingering fuchsias) along the way. For those whose indoor life offers only restricted glimpses of the natural world, such a daily outing can be an emotional game changer.
True, it’s not always tempting to go outside in December. Brief days, long nights, grey skies and wild weather make the idea of a comfy armchair and a book very tempting. It can be tough to muster the will to walk on blustery, wet or freezing days, but those getting outdoors, even for a few minutes, offers a rich reward. Those starchy English nannies were famous for making sure their charges got at least 15 minutes a day of fresh air, even if the little ones were bundled up from head to foot. Turns out they were right; spending even a few minutes outside has clear benefits. Fresh air can lower our blood pressure, steady our heart rate, help clean out our lungs, and improve our digestion. Even gentle walking boosts our immune system, increases our energy, and refreshes our mental abilities. Being outside makes us feel happier, during and after the experience.
Gathering Garden Goodness
Gardening delivers all of these benefits with an added bonus of elevating our mood and reducing depression, effects that can persist for days. Just breathing while in plant-rich settings can be helpful, thanks to phytonicides, airborne, plant-based chemicals that trigger production of white blood cells that are most abundant around where mature trees and shrubs. Getting your hands dirty while planting or weeding increases the goodness by exposing us to a naturally occurring soil bacteria (Mycobacterium vaccae) that stimulates brain neurons that produce serotonin and help fend off seasonal affect disorder and other forms of depression. No wonder gardening is such a rewarding addiction!
Even as we age, gardening can be among the healthiest ways to get gentle outdoor exercise. However, some of us might need to re-think the way we garden (as the heating pad on my back can attest). If we’re used to working outside all day, we may have to cut back and take our time. When you’re strong and fit, you can enjoy double digging vegetable beds and hauling heavy branches out of the woods. If gentle exercise now suits your body best, get out the rake. Raking leaves, grass, or gravel uses all the body’s major muscle groups (arms and legs, back and shoulders, belly and butt). What’s more, steady raking builds strength as it burns off holiday calories and makes only a pleasing sound (unlike those horrible leaf blowers). I for one have never been more grateful for the smaller chores of winter, from weeding and tidying up beds to gathering wood for our solstice fire. Though we longer have acres wide and space for a roaring winter bonfire, our new solstice celebration, sitting around a small fire flickering in our metal fire bowl, is just as comforting. As this challenging year slides away, I’m looking forward to exploring such new patterns in many areas of life, from holiday celebrations to daily socializing. Our lives will never be “the same” but they may be better, more just and equitable for everyone, and that’s certainly worth celebrating. Onward!