As the new year begins with resolve and good intentions we often focus on healthful pursuits such as exercise, reducing stress, and keeping a positive attitude. I believe enjoying gardens is a great way to keep one’s resolve for better living all year long.
Asian philosophy has long believed one’s physical and mental health is nurtured by time in a garden. Western garden thought also stresses the garden as a healthful activity, The English Gardener in 1699 wrote, “. . spend spare time in the garden . . .there is no better way to preserve your health.” Many a historical novel has the ingenue taking a turn in the garden to sort out her feelings.
Today Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods theorizes much of today’s stress on children’s physical and emotional lives is linked to the lack of time spent in nature. Paul Bloom, Psychology Professor at Yale University makes the case that natural happiness is achieved when we are surrounded by trees, water, animals and sky. Phillipa Lewis, author of Everything You Can Do in the Garden Without Actually Gardening, asks ”do we become nicer human beings under the influence of being in a garden?”
So how do you keep your healthful resolutions by enjoying gardens? Begin in your own garden. A blanket on the ground allowing you to gaze up into sky and tree can energize you at any time. A seat in a far corner of the garden can remove you from phone and computer and give you a different perspective of your little piece of earth.
Find a public garden to visit on a regular basis (one is less inclined to prune when we are a visitor). Consider Phoenix’s own Japanese Friendship Garden at 1125 N. 3rd Avenue in Phoenix. One does not power walk through a Japanese Strolling Garden. Strolling gardens set you on a path around a pond with a hide and reveal principle that requires the visitor to walk to fully experience the garden. The path is designed to shape the visitors’ experience. The stepping stones of uneven size require you to slow down and focus close at hand.
Slowing us down we observe the texture and pattern of the stones. As the stones even out you raise your head and focus on a larger view, noticing a particular scene framed to be observed from just that transition. A gravel path creates a different sound as your footsteps move you forward. When the path moves uphill requiring more effort you will likely find a bench placed to provide rest and reflection overlooking the pond. The sound of water may emerge providing a calming effect. The traditional curved bridge over The hide and reveal design layers sensory experience each step of the way. As with life we can’t see the entire picture of our future, the garden provides a metaphor for navigating our own life in not racing through from beginning to end but to fully experience the path we tread. The traditional curved bridge over the pond symbolizes transitions in our lives. The curved reflection of the bridge in the water creates a circle representing the continuity of earth and sky, the cycle of life.
The Phoenix Japanese Friendship garden or Ro Ho En is a joint project of the Phoenix sister city Himeji, Japan. Ro is the Japanese word for heron, a symbol of Himeji Castle, a major palace of Japan. Ho is the Japanese word for the phoenix bird and En means garden. The garden opened in 1996, and this garden’s design adapted for our local climate is a place of beauty and reflection covering 3 1/2 acres. Age is revered in Asian culture and even in this young Phoenix garden trees have been shaped to resemble ancient trees symbolizing the beauty that comes with time. Strolling through such a garden will provide physical exercise and space for reflection. Sitting for a while will provide mental release, reducing anxiety and stress.
Most gardeners are aware of the Japanese gardens exceptional pallet of shades of green and the minimal blooms placed to surprise and delight us. The Zen gardens with raked sand representing the waves of water are meditative destinations inviting us to sit and reflect. Tea Gardens are for ceremonial rituals. Pond gardens are viewed from a distance or from a boat presenting an idealized view of nature with no humans in the space.
Now is the season of fresh starts and though we be gardeners resolve to allow some time to put down one’s spade and clippers and stroll through a garden. Perhaps especially in these difficult times we can keep those resolutions thanks to gardens.