The forced isolation of the past few weeks has turned our lives upside down and, if nothing else, has revealed just how socially dependent the human animal is. Most bee species live alone, but we are more like the honeybee, craving the complex social order and the buzz of the hive.
Even if you have escaped the virus, the hardships of the shutdown are incalculable and include losing livelihoods and trying to home-school children while working remotely and worrying about loved ones stuck elsewhere. No one wants the shutdown to last a minute longer than necessary.
But there is value in our quarantine, and we would be remiss in not exploring the opportunities, which some may see as gifts. The comforting path leads to the garden, if you are lucky enough to have one in any form. A patio, a backyard, a balcony even, all offer places where we can get outside without having to dodge others. Here we can establish an alcove in which to see, touch, smell and, in some cases, taste plants. Plants also sing — I’m thinking of leaves rustling in the breeze, or swaying grasses — but the dominant soundtrack now is provided by songbirds, which suddenly seem so unabashed.
This notion of a personal paradise may seem simple-minded in the context of the angst of the shutdown. But sooner than we think, life will return to its frenetic pace, and it is this moment of stasis that will pass. I cannot remember a time when the world stopped like this, not even in the bucolic surroundings of my distant childhood, and it seems that the gods are not punishing us, but trying to tell us something about living a slower and more contained existence. This may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see how much more tranquil our lives can be.
Most of us inhabit urban environments, and to live, work and play in the city is to be constantly bombarded with noise. Many people seem inured to this onslaught, and others are now craving it, feeling empty, antsy and even scared in isolation.
But when I step into the garden, I value more than ever its state of stillness. This search for contemplative peace underpins the Japanese practice of forest bathing, Shinrin-yoku, in which you find a quiet, mossy woodland and mindfully apply all the senses to it. It is purposefully slow-paced and meditative. It is unplugged from technology, and it is not hiking or jogging along a trail. Forest bathing has caught on in the West, judging by the raft of related titles now available online.
If this is all too New Age, scientific studies abound to support the idea that immersing yourself in a quiet natural environment not only helps your mental health but also your physical state by lowering heart rate and blood pressure, along with other beneficial effects.
Actually, we don’t need to embrace Shinrin-yoku or heed scientists in white coats to understand the therapeutic value of a walk in the woods. This has long been understood by harried souls. Germans, with their predisposition for nature, even have a word for it: waldspaziergang, a forest walk.
Forests may be too distant or, ironically, crowded at the moment. But there are ways of designing and planting gardens that soothe. You will find professionally designed healing gardens in hospitals, where the landscape elements are deeply considered and geared to respite.
In broad terms, the mind is settled by a sound architectural frame for the garden; the subconscious seems to respond favorably to the strong horizontal lines of walls and hedges, which also give a comforting sense of privacy and enclosure. Avoid fussy floral displays and plantings that lack structure and contrast. Carefully made shade gardens are calming, because they rely more on the interplay of leaf textures and plant forms, and the dance of light across them.
Those qualities enhance the experience, and are something to consider if you are creating a new garden or want to revamp your existing yard. For now, the perfectly designed serene landscape isn’t necessary to tap the garden’s powers. A single tree may be enough, because within this stillness, we have a capacity to see things we haven’t noticed before.
Gardeners, like artists, develop powers of perception, so that a maple tree suddenly reveals the various textures of its gray bark, the pattern of leaf veins, backlit by the sun, or the way the winged crimson seeds are joined like kissing tadpoles. This revelation is not a magical power; it is available to anyone who is willing to sit quietly and look.
We have time, too, to reevaluate our relationship with nature so that we view other life with humility. For 60 years, we have been watching nature programs on television. At first, they brought us wild, strange creatures, such as the Komodo dragon and the duck-billed platypus. Now, they bring us, in full living color and with amazing optical technology, the perils of habitat loss and climate change. The narrative has come full circle, from a vast, uncharted world of wondrous beasts to a small planet under existential threat from the human race. But from either angle, there is a sense that nature is a subject of entertainment, to be received from the couch.
The global eruption of a potent virus that propagates by attacking our bodies is surely a sign that we are not in control of Earth’s biology. We can blithely damage ecologies, but we are not above nature, nor are we apart from it. We are nature. Or a small element of it. This is what the garden can teach us, I believe.
I find it reassuring that plants are fellow travelers of a sort; there’s a kinship there that must lessen any sense of isolation and loneliness. Throw in such enchanting animals as butterflies, frogs and birds, and you’ve got yourself a party.
The garden offers one other lesson at this time. We live in societies and with technologies driven by short-term expectations, whether that’s politics, business or the next ping on your smartphone.
The garden exists in the past, the present and, most of all, in the future. To plant a shrub, a tree or even a peony is to look forward a few years, perhaps a few decades, and provides a temporal perspective so often missing from a world made febrile by incessant stimuli.
During this interlude, we should consider forging and strengthening our relationship with the plant world and all its treasures. It is a bond that promises to bring us back to ourselves.