If you will indulge me, this post is much longer than others…
I saw a reference a few weeks ago to Your Brain on Nature by Eva M. Selhub, MD and Alan C. Logan, ND. It looked like an interesting book, about the science “of nature’s influence on your health, happiness, and vitality”, so I bought it and read it.
Many of the chapters start out with quotes from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s to illustrate that much of what we feel today about how nature impacts us has been felt and described by other generations. The authors of Your Brain on Nature go beyond these feelings, however, and provide the scientific evidence of why we benefit from nature. If you read this book, you are hereby forewarned that you will find compelling information between the covers on how you can improve your life with more contact with nature.
Be further forewarned that if you enjoy the writings of old garden writers from the turn of the century, the quotes alone will draw you down into a rabbit hole to explore more about their writings.
Today, I’ve been chasing down the authors of several of the quotes from the book, in particular Richardson Wright (1887-1961) who was the editor of House & Garden magazine from 1914 to around 1949. I discovered somewhere in this rabbit hole that I own a reprint of one of his books, The Gardener’s Bed-Book: Short and Long Pieces to be Read in Bed by Those Who Love Green Growing Things (2003: Modern Garden Library, originally published by J. P. Lippincott Co. in 1929). I’ve just ordered another one of his books, The Story of Gardening.
What I am most fascinated with now, though, is an essay that appeared in the May 1918 issue of House & Garden, titled Why Do People Garden. A sentence or two from this essay was included in Your Brain on Nature to introduce the science behind the benefits of soil, in particular the benefits of certain bacteria in the soil, on our health and well being. The authors included this quote from Richardson Wright:
“But if you are of the really elect in the ranks of gardeners… you know what actual contact with the soil and the things that grow therein means in the way of mental and physical rejuvenation.”
In a matter of a few seconds, I found the entire essay online. It was written at a time when we were at war, so there are references to gardening for the war effort. For those of you who want to read the entire essay, here it is.
A simple question, perhaps, on the face of it, and one to which a dozen answers spring to mind. They garden because they want to make their bit of earth beautiful with flowers, you say; or because they seek an excuse for useful occupation out in the spring sunshine; or because they enjoy the fresh corn and peas and beets which are the fruits of their labors.
Excellent reasons, all, and true so far as they go. But are they sufficient to explain the unbounded enthusiasm and the deep, quiet joy in his work which grow outward from the heart of the true gardener? These emotions are characteristic of tens of thousands the world over— men and women, rich and poor. Their cosmopolitan quality hints at more than merely practical, obvious causes.
Someone has said that the deep appeal of gardening lies in the feeling that we are “in at the creation” of something. The seed in its printed envelope is powerless, dormant, dependent upon the hand of man to gain its chance for the great adventure of life. Tiny and shriveled and hard, as unsuggestive of green leaf and bright flower as is a pebble by the roadside, it makes us feel that the miracle of its transformation is almost as much a part of our own handiwork as of the processes of nature. We place it in the soil knowing that its subsequent development is chiefly independent of us, but that we can materially help or hinder it; that though the power to germinate and grow is inherent in the seed and the soil surrounding it, its awakening and expansion are direct results of our bringing the various life elements into conjunction.
So we are really “in at the creation” of our garden. The knowledge of this may be subconscious—probably is, in the majority of cases—but its influence is none the less potent on that account. We like the sensation of playing our parts in the game, of broadening our influence in the general scheme of things.
Egotism, you say? Well in each of us, I suppose, there is a more or less developed streak of primitive nature, of desire to approach in a measure a simpler manner of life. In its exaggerated forms this crops out in the dyed-in-the-wool camper, in the hunter of big game who eagerly exiles himself for months on the Upper Congo, in the prospector who is never so happy as when sampling some hidden canyon of the Coast Range or panning for gold at the headwaters of the Magdalena. Under the ostensible purpose of each of these is a cause far deeper: a lack of satisfaction with modern civilization and a longing for more natural standards.
These are extreme manifestations, of course, but in the last analysis they are closely akin to the feeling which prompts the “back to the land” movement. And gardening is simply a modified form of going back to the soil as we have come to understand that dangerously overworked phrase.
Would it be so unreasonable, after all, to think rather seriously about that time-worn expression, “Mother Earth”? Call it pagan, if you will, and mere mythology. But if you are of the really elect in the ranks of gardeners, the kind that is born and not made, you know what actual contact with the soil and the things that grow therein means in the way of mental and physical rejuvenation.
It amounts to more than the benefits directly traceable to the exercise and the change of thought. The actual grubbing in the soil, the literal handling of the warm, fine earth in the making of drills and sowing and covering, holds peculiar spiritual comfort if we but acknowledge it to ourselves.
Closely akin to this is the soothing effect of the plants themselves, as they attain their growth. Have you ever watched the ethereal yellow petals of the evening primrose uncurl in the summer dusk? Or have you walked between the rows of corn, the long, bountifully green leaves shutting the world away and giving but a glimpse of the blue sky directly overhead, and heard the silken rustle of the breeze approach, pass, and die away in the distance? Then you know how calming these experiences are, and how much better fitted you are afterward to step back into the accustomed daily path.
These, too, are reasons why people garden.
AND finally—many people garden for no other ostensible reason than L to contribute their share to the great cause which keeps the world at war. “Food Will Win the War—Produce It” is a slogan which has come home to the heart of America. It is the slogan which thousands have adopted who never before grew anything more edible than potted hyacinths from fashionable Fifth Avenue florists. And it is the slogan which many more thousands must adopt if America is to do her utmost as a member of the Entente. Purely utilitarian gardening, this, yet one cannot but feel that it will have its spiritual after-effects.
We of America have done more serious thinking in the past four years than ever before in our lives. Especially since April of last year we have broadened and sobered and come to a truer appreciation of the really worth-while things in life.
When peace comes it will find a nation from which false standards have largely melted away in the fires through which it is now passing. There will be a great and sane and lasting reaction to home-making in the truest sense of the word. It will not be merely houses that we will be seeking—shelters to which we can return casually to eat and sleep and go away from in the morning. We shall want simplicity and sunshine, the smell of fresh-turned earth and the myriad insect voices vibrating through the August night. The songs of birds will mean more to us then than they do now; the white shower of petals as the May breeze stirs among the apple boughs will have a new appeal; the delicate blue-black tracery of twigs on the moonlit snow will find a quicker response in our hearts. These are but parts of those true homes that are the units upon which civilization is built.
Through the soil we are being led to know these truths. In the world’s crisis we garden that we may do our share in the trenches at home; but while doing it we are coming to a realization of how infinitely much more the soil is to humanity than a mere producer of food. Peace will dawn upon a nation that not only answers the urge to garden for gardening’s sake, but that knows how. This our war gardens will have taught us. While we are helping to save the world by “raising our bit,” we are coming inevitably to a full understanding of the wisdom of the Greek philosophy which counsels “Know thyself.”
My favorite quote from the above? I have two:
We shall want simplicity and sunshine, the smell of fresh-turned
earth and the myriad insect voices vibrating through the August night.
The songs of birds will mean more to us then than they do now; the white
shower of petals as the May breeze stirs among the apple boughs will
have a new appeal; the delicate blue-black tracery of twigs on the
moonlit snow will find a quicker response in our hearts. These are but
parts of those true homes that are the units upon which civilization is
In this world where we are constantly bombarded by messages, instant and subliminal, and spend far more time than most of us will admit in front of a screen of some kind, I think what Wright says we shall want is true nearly 100 years later. It’s time to go outside.
And I enjoyed this one:
Through the soil we are being led to know these truths. In the
world’s crisis we garden that we may do our share in the trenches at
home; but while doing it we are coming to a realization of how
infinitely much more the soil is to humanity than a mere producer of
food. Peace will dawn upon a nation that not only answers the urge to
garden for gardening’s sake, but that knows how.
I’m grateful every day that I know how to plant a garden. I resolve to somehow spend more time “gardening it forward” to help others learn to garden, too.
Thank you for indulging me down to the bottom of this post. I hope you enjoyed it and found food for thought on a cold, blustery Sunday in early spring.