Today I hit a wall. It’s still rainy and cold in Seattle and I couldn’t deal with the gloom. Do you ever get that trapped feeling at this time of year? You feel like spring should be coming but it isn’t quite. So I started just flat out daydreaming of blue skies and warm sun, what my mood would be like right now if I were on a tropical beach. Who am I kidding, my mood would be awesome. Then I realized I did have those blue skies and sun just six months ago. I still couldn’t move about but I was able to relax on my patio chair. The memories of summer make winter fade for a little while.
What does this have to do with plants? Well, my summer’s are always jammed with gardening fun. I’m in nature nearly every day. I love the free feeling I get being outside in a T-shirt and sandals, sharing a moment with a passing bee that lands on a flower in bloom. It’s heaven. Even at home during this sad pandemic, it’s heaven.
Plant Photos Help Relive the Dream
So seeing how these images give me a bit of stress releaf, I thought I’d share them. My memories of summer might help you through the winter blahs too.
In his book, The Nature Principle, journalist Richard Louv brilliantly explores the restorative powers of the natural world. It’s a great compendium of the physical and psychological benefits of being in nature. In addition to compelling research, Louv uses interesting anecdotal evidence and his own personal experiences to lay out how much healthier and happier we can be when we spend time in green places. It’s a thoughtful, tenderly written, optimistically envisioned portrait of our society today.
Last Child in the Woods
Years ago, Louv sort of exploded on the scene when he released his now bestseller Last Child in the Woods. In that book, he outlined how our indoor lifestyle has deprived children of the active healthy connection with nature they need to fully develop. They often suffer from what he calls Nature-deficit Disorder. In The Nature Principle, he examines how adults suffer from it as well.
Here are the main questions The Nature Principle asks:
What would our lives be like if our days and nights were as immersed in nature as they are in technology?
How can each of us help create that life-enhancing world, not only in a hypothetical future, but right now, for our families and for ourselves?
I can’t recommend this book enough. While it doesn’t shy away from our modern day problems, it will also convince you that all is not lost. They’re are a lot of great people doing wonderful work as it relates to nature and healing. In fact, like me, you may find the book downright inspiring.
W.S. Merwin is one of my favorite poets because he’s intensely connected to the natural world. He digs deep into plant love through his words. Not only did he believe in the importance of preserving the environment, he lived for years in Hawaii, gradually restoring a palm forest on Maui. It now houses almost 3,000 palm trees. Within that collection, there are 125 different tree genera, which subdivide into 400 species and 800 varieties. Botanically speaking, that’s incredibly impressive.
A Vision Early On
I also admire W.S. Merwin (as well as many poets) because he understood the important relationship between our mental health and the natural world. Decades ago, he noticed what we lose as a society when we go indoors. Here’s his thoughts from the 1990s: “We go into a supermarket and we have artificial light, canned music, everything’s deodorized–we can’t touch or taste or smell anything, and we hear only what they want us to hear. No wonder everybody wanders around like zombies! Because our senses have been taken away from us for us a while. A supermarket brings the whole thing into focus. The things that are there don’t belong there, they didn’t grow there. They have a shelf life, which is being tented, so that we can buy them. It’s only about selling things. This is a very strange kind of situation, but it’s typical of our lives.”
A Moment of Peace
Here’s a lovely poem by Merwin about a tree. Notice how the poem travels to different places and where it ends. So simple and ephemeral. I hope it gives you a moment of peace.
Place On the last day of the world I would want to plant a tree what for not for the fruit the tree that hears the fruit is not the one that was planted I want the tree that stands in the earth for the first time with the sun already going down and the water touching its roots in the earth full of the dead and the clouds passing one by one over its leaves
Photo by Maria Maliy
Social media is jammed with dreamy images of perfect people with perfect houseplant collections, but the truth is just one houseplant can heal you from the stresses of the day. There are a lot of myths in those images anyway, some of which I’ll write about in a future post. In the meantime, consider choosing and growing one wee houseplant to reap its destressing benefits.
Which Houseplant is Best?
Not too long ago, I wrote a post on the five easiest houseplants to grow. These are the low-maintenance, starter houseplants that nearly anyone can keep alive. They’re tough and forgiving of most conditions. While these plants are enormously useful and I love all of them, I actually recommend, if you’re going to grow a plant for the mental health benefits, you choose a houseplant that makes your heart soar. That way you’ll be more inclined to take the time to care for it.
My First Houseplant
When I was in my early twenties, I roomed in a house with three other women. Above the sink on the window ledge was a glass block with a hoya vine in it. It was a beautiful variegated variety, though at the time I had no idea it was Hoya carnosa ‘Tricolor.’ I just knew it was gorgeous. I asked my roommates who owned it but no one claimed it. So I started caring for it.
About a year later when I moved out, I took the plant with me. It was a part of my life for the next 15 years (before the cat chewed it away), through three different homes, all kinds of good and bad events, sadness and happiness, triumphs and losses, and all else. All the while, the plant grew new stems and showed off its pretty pink, green, and white colors.
What that plant offered me the most though was stability. During the most stressful times of my life, I could always come home to it. It didn’t care whether I’d had a good day or a bad day, it was just there for me. It didn’t care whether I’d been at my best or worst. The plant simply gave me its beauty and silence. It softened the hard edges of my life.
Your First Houseplant
So if you’re interested in trying your hand at growing a houseplant, I encourage you to visit a nursery and buy the one plant you fall in love with. Which one takes your breath away? Which one sends a surge of wonder through you? Find the one you will always want to look at. As I’ve said looking at plants is a significant way to reduce stress. So which plant do you want to look at after you’ve had a tough day? That one is the one to adopt and give a forever home.
How to Decide
But with little to no experience, what if you don’t know which one makes you happy? Well, you must be drawn to one plant in particular. And if it’s a high-maintenance plant like a String of Pearls or an orchid, that’s okay. You’re only choosing one. And if you only choose one, then you won’t be overwhelmed if it takes a little extra care. That care builds your relationship with it and the ritual of loving the houseplant will ultimately heal you.
But you have to put in the time. If the plant needs a lot of light, then buy a grow bulb and turn it on for a few hours a day. If the plant likes a dry environment, make sure to put it in a sunny window. Get the right soil and container and set it in the right conditions. If you’re unsure about what those are, check out the internet. Google of course is a wealth of information. And if you’re too pressed for time with that, you can always contact me through this website.
Quieting the Mind
The point is to incorporate a little green life into your world. Use it as a momentary refuge. Turn off your screens and visit it in silence. Let your soul leave the chaos and chatter of the hectic modern world. As you look at it, remember its innocence and simplicity. Smile. Breathe a deep breath. Study its unique attributes. Its arrangement of leaves, its overall form, its colors. If it’s not a cactus and your hands are clean, gently touch its leaves. Yes, like petting. How do the leaves feel? Does it smell at all? It might smell like freshly watered soil. Take in its little green wonders. Relax into the moment. All it takes is one houseplant to heal. Then you’ll be a bit more ready to deal with real life again.
Photo by Veronique Trudel
So yesterday I talked about looking at plant photos as a way to relax. Today, I’m going to offer an easy way to relax with trees. First, we need to refer back to the benefits of looking at fractal patterns, which I explored the other day. These are the patterns that our eyes are naturally in sync with, where a simple design repeats itself over and over to form a complex whole. That complex whole can exist in several ways in nature. One of the most common is in tree branch formations.
The Beauty of a Leafless Tree?
In the Northwest, we’re blessed with conifers that hang onto their needles all year. But in much of the U.S. winter brings leafless trees, turning our horizons brown and making things feel a bit depressing. But in those leafless tree skeletons, nature has created an elegant network of a main thick trunk dividing into thinner trunks that divide into thinner branches and thinner branches until the tips gracefully end in a motif of little points. That elegant design is the beauty of nature’s work.
Ever notice a poorly pruned or topped tree that grows in a strange abrupt tangle of trunks and branches? How do you feel when you see it? Maybe a bit sad. Or if it’s Halloween, like it captures a dark mood. The perfection of a naturally grown tree actually pleases us (despite a lack of leaves in winter). We know it’s form to be “right” or “whole” because the fractal pattern fits with the natural way it needs to grow.
Relaxing Within the Elegance
Every day, my husband and I take a walk after lunch. It’s only about a twenty-minute walk up the gentle hill of our street and back. But because we live in a forested suburb, we’re immersed in a cathedral of fir, cedar, and pine trees. We usually chat about what we’re up to that day or our kids or the latest news, but as we do we’re unconsciously taking in the fractal patterns of our trees. They rise before us as we walk, both presenting themselves close to us and on our view’s horizon.
A Double Benefit
Because we’re taking a walk “in the woods,” we’re getting a double benefit: we’re looking at fractal patterns and we’re mildly exercising. Of course, I don’t need to go over the benefits of walking, but I do want to emphasize how refreshed and vibrant I feel afterward. My mind is clear, my body’s warm, my ability to tend to complex issues restored.
The bottom line is if you can go for a walk among trees, even down a busy city street with leafless trees, you’ll engage in a relaxation break exercise on steroids. You’ll gain the relaxation benefit of the branches’ fractal patterns and you’ll give your body the exercise it needs to renew your system.
It turns out taking a walk down a leafy street isn’t just a nice break from the work day but also a scientifically proven way to relax with trees and lower your stress. How awesome is that?!
Photo by Craig Vodnick