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Archive for October, 2015

A couple of weeks ago, Sydney newspapers carried a happy story about a much visited and much appreciated garden. The garden is the creation of Wendy Whiteley, who lives in the Sydney harbourside suburb of Lavender bay in a house she shared with her ex-husband, the artist, Brett Whiteley, and their actress daughter, Arkie.

The house backs onto State Government land where there is a disused railway line. Two decades ago the piece of this land immediately behind the house was weed infested, overgrown with Lantana and an unofficial dump.

Soon after Brett’s death in 1992, Wendy set about building a garden on this very unpromising patch. She had no authority to do this and risked seeing her efforts swept away, as the Government had refused to commit to keeping the land as a reserve or park.

But caught up in the creative nature of the project, she pressed on, spending a great deal of time and money and eventually employing the services of two gardeners.

The result is this beautiful place – Wendy’s “secret garden”.

Wendy Whiteley's garden a

Wendy Whteley's garden b

Wendy thinks that Brett and Arkie, who passed away nine years after him, would both approve of the garden. The ashes of both are buried there.

The good news reported by newspapers was that the future of the garden had been assured by the government’s decision to lease the land to the local council on a 30-year renewable basis. As the Government Minister announcing the lease remarked, “I’m pretty sure it would be a game politician in 30 years’ time not to continue what is absolutely beautiful.”

More than a beautiful place and the creative realisation of a dream, the garden is a powerful example of what the Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore described as “the wooing of the earth”. Like the wooing of one person by another, the wooing of the earth is the forming of a bond of love and respect that is achieved through reciprocity and mutuality. Wooing is being moulded as well as moulding . For Tagore, the wooing of the earth is the “perfect union” between humanity and nature.

He arrived at this idea when marvelling at the beauty of the English landscape and realising that it was the product of centuries of collaboration between people and the elements and processes of nature – soil, water, wind, rain and so forth.

The eminent microbiologist and pioneer in the development of antibiotics, the late René Rene DubosDubos made wooing nature the centrepiece of his environmental thinking. In his book, The Wooing the Earth: New Perspectives on Man’s Use of Nature, he pointed out that many of the landscapes which we admire and seek because of their “naturalness” are the result of successions of adaptations – of people to nature and nature to people. This process, which has been going on for tens of thousands of years, rests on the belief that we can manage the Earth and improve on Nature.

This is a belief with deep roots in the past. We see manifestation of it, for example, in the Stone Age people who domesticated animals and plants some ten thousand years ago; in the farmers of all ages who created agricultural land by cutting down the primeval forest, draining the marshes, or irrigating the deserts; in the planners of all historical periods who have converted natural landscapes and waterscapes into artificial parks and gardens; in today’s homeowners who maintain lawns where brush and trees would naturally grow.

And we see it in Wendy’s secret garden where her intervention has not only restored nature but enhanced it. This is the essence of wooing the earth – working with, rather than dominating, nature to achieve a result that is to the benefit of the Earth as well as ourselves.

Dubos called himself a “despairing optimist” as far as the future of Earth is concerned. He was as alarmed as anyone about the environmental crises that we have brought upon ourselves. But he drew optimism from his conviction that by working lovingly, respectfully and insightfully with nature, we can satisfy our own material and societal needs while taking care of nature at the same time.

Dubos called this a “new” perspective even though it has been around for a very long time. It is new in the sense of having a new relevance.

Broadly speaking, conversations about the environment tend to be dominated by several mind-sets or positions, especially those of:

  • The eco-warrior – human intervention in nature must be kept to a minimum (downplays the reality that humans have survived only by both adapting to and changing nature);
  • The eco-dominator – nature exists to be exploited for human benefit (ignores the reality that human and planetary wellbeing are interdependent)

Eco terrorists

  • The eco-indifferent – nature can look after itself (ignores the reality that humanity is capable of inflicting irreparable damage on the natural world)Eco apathetic
  • The eco-romantic – nature is there primarily to enrich the human mind and spirit (ignores the fact that humans need to and are programmed to interact with nature in a whole range of other ways)
  • The eco-concerned – nature is under threat and needs our help but knowing what to do for the best is difficult (ignores the strength and potential of Dubos’ famous rallying call: Think globally and act locally)

There is truth and legitimacy in all of these positions but when held fanatically and to the exclusion of other points of view, they are unhelpful, often dangerously so.

“The wooing of earth” straddles all of these positions, taking what is valid from each without losing sight of the realities they ignore or downplay. It is unavoidable and inevitable that we will continue to intervene in nature, but this has to be done with a sense of responsibility for the welfare of the Earth as well as humanity. If we do this we will create conditions in which both humanity and the Earth retain the essence of their wildness – and are more likely to flourish as a consequence.

Wendy Whiteley’s secret garden is flourishing in its “wildness” while nourishing the wildness in all who spend time there.

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If you asked Australians to nominate their favourite TV comic character, the odds are that it Gary McDonaldwould be one created by this man, Gary McDonald.

His Norman Gunston, for example, continues to be recalled as a phenomenon of TV satire, and his hapless Arthur Beare in Mother and Son extracted bitter-sweet humour from a masterfully rendered love-hate relationship with a manipulative mother.

Gary McDonald as NormanGary McDonald mother and son

But this same Gary McDonald is also remembered with respect and admiration for his struggle with a very different persona – that of the “clown-who’s-crying-inside”.

A chronic sufferer from hyper-anxiety, he suffered a severe depressive episode in 1993 while attempting to revive The Norman Gunston Show. He responded well to cognitive-behaviour-therapy (CBT), learning in the process the importance of monitoring and constructively managing self-talk. Gary has drawn courageously and frankly on his experience to help others with mental-health problems and to advocate for improved mental health services.

In a recent ABC documentary for Mental Health Week, he once again shared his experiences Gary McDonald in natureand insights. The documentary showed him in the rural home to which he moved in order to sustain his recovery and safeguard his mental well-being. There he raises chooks, gardens, walks and goes fishing, revelling all the while in the isolation, seclusion, peace and beauty of his sanctuary.

I was very pleased that Gary linked his on-going mental well-being to his nature-connected way of life because there is overwhelming evidence that one of the best things we can do to maintain our mental health is to have regular doses of vitamin G (for green space).

There is also growing evidence that the efficacy of standard therapies such as CBT is improved if nature is added to the mix. In one recent study, 63 patients with depression were assigned to weekly CBT sessions in one of three different settings – an arboretum, a hospital or a community facility. The patients who had their therapy in the arboretum showed the greatest overall reduction in symptoms and the odds for their complete recovery was 20-30 % higher than was observed for medication alone. What’s more, the arboretum group also had a pronounced reduction in the physiological markers of stress (stress hormone levels, blood pressure, heart rate, for example). The researchers concluded that nature does not simply provide a congenial setting for therapy it can be therapeutic in and of itself.

Gardening is one way by which the therapeutic effects of nature can be tapped. In a study from Norway, patients with moderate – tending to severe – depression were engaged in sowing, germinating, potting, planting, cultivating and cutting vegetables and flowers for three hours twice a week for a total of 12 weeks. The patients were also free to indulge in other garden activities such as strolling around, admiring the plots and looking for insect life. Depression scores were found to have improved significantly and were still lower at follow-up testing three months later.

A particularly interesting supplementary finding was that improvement was associated with “fascination” – the extent to which patients were “caught up” or “lost in” the gardening activities. This may have something to do with the fact that when our minds are focussed on Negative self talk ban activity we are less likely to engage in damaging self-talk or rumination (repetitive negative thoughts about oneself).

Rumination is known to be a risk factor for mental illness, so curbing it is a very useful therapeutic strategy. A team headed by Gregory Bratman from Stanford University found that something as simple as a 90 minute walk in a natural environment (compared with a comparable walk in an urban one) reduced the subjects’ reported level of rumination as well as the neural activity in the area of the brain linked to the risk of mental illness.

According to Bratman and his team, these results suggest that accessible natural areas may be vital for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world.

I would go further and say categorically that such areas are essential for mental health. Some of the best-established effects of urbanization concern mental well-being. Evidence from several studies indicates that city dwellers have a substantially increased risk of anxiety disorders (by 21%) and mood disorders (39%). For the major psychotic illness, schizophrenia, incidence is almost double in people born and brought up in cities. The social stress of city life may be an important factor accounting for these differences.

We can’t all be like Gary McDonald and make our home in a rural sanctuary, but we can make greater use of the natural areas and green spaces that may be available to us. And we can all support efforts to make our cities greener and to preserve surviving natural areas.

Sitting in a park 2Forest destruction b Tarkine

In a society estranged from the natural world, our sanity becomes imperilled, no matter the material comforts and conveniences we enjoy. By contrast, a life of affirmative relation to nature carries the potential to be rich and rewarding. (Stephen Kellert, Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World)

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