Posts Tagged ‘Gardening’

I find my back garden very relaxing and restorative. I was sitting there yesterday enjoying the display of spring blooms – orange clivias, yellow cymbidium orchids, mauve bromeliads, white rock lillies and yellow hibbertia – against the backdrop of differently shaped, coloured and textured vegetation.

My pleasure was tinged with regret because I was aware that the garden would not be mine for much longer. This prompted me to take these photos:


As you can see the garden is more informal than formal. I cannot really claim that it was planned to be this way. It is more an evolved than a designed garden, the product of intuition rather than horticultural expertise – of luck rather than good management you might say.

What I find interesting, however, is that the combination of intuition and luck seems to have produced a space that works very well psychologically for me (and others I have reason to believe). And this is really what matters.

As the pioneering psychiatrist, Carl Gustav Jung pointed out, “nature” and “landscape” (and “gardens” by implication) are psychological constructs or products of the mind. A contemporary writer on the psychology of visual landscapes, Maarten Jacobs, makes much the same point with this diagram:


One important thing this diagram tells us is that, as far as all natural landscapes including my garden are concerned, the “experienced” landscape is different from the “real” one. This can mean that what passes as a horticulturally excellent garden landscape can miss the mark psychologically.

This is demonstrated in a well-designed American study that compared the restorative potential of informal (or organic) versus formal (or geometric) gardens. The authors of the study did more than make a simplistic comparison between gardens at the extreme of natural and formal; variations within each of these broad categories were also compared.

The 295 male and female participants in the study represented a broad range of ages and ethnic backgrounds. They were each shown 40 photos of gardens chosen by a horticultural expert to form two sets – formal gardens from most to least and informal gardens from least to most. These are examples of the photos used:


Each participant ranked every photo according to four attributes:

  • Perceived restorative potential (how good a place it would be for a break when you are feeling overwhelmed, stressed or anxious)
  • Informality
  • Visual appeal
  • Naturalness (degree to which natural versus built features are present)

A sophisticated analysis of the responses revealed that the gardens having the highest perceived restorative potential were:

  •  Visually appealing
  • Informal
  • More natural than built

According to other research, features that give gardens their greatest psychological power include:

  • Unaltered terrain
  • Graceful curvilinear shapes
  • Few architectural elements
  • Many native plant species following their normal habits of growth
  • Natural looking water features such as ponds and streams
  • Partly open rather than dense vegetation
  • The absence of geometrical shapes and properties like axes and symmetry

It is no accident that these are much the same features our earliest human ancestors would have recognised and welcomed in their savannah woodland homes. It is strongly suspected that we modern humans are drawn to informal and natural landscapes because of predispositions and preferences that are inherited from our forebears and encoded in our genes (the biological factors in Maarten Jacobs’ diagram). So it is probably the case that my back garden is as much a product of my green genes as of gardening guidebooks or anything else.



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Birds dPhotographed barely two metres from the porch of my daughter and her husband’s house in Canberra, this kookaburra, along with his mate, is a regular visitor. As the photo shows, the house borders a large tract of native bushland that is ideal kookaburra territory.

Nevertheless, this fellow and his mate are happy to spend time (and possibly take up residence) quite close to the home of a pair of admiring humans.

This is by no means unusual as kookaburras are smart birds and quickly learn that where there are humans, there are often meaty tit-bits and other treats. They are even bold enough to pilfer sausages and the like from under the noses (sometimes quite literally) of picnickers and barbecue cooks.

I still have a very early childhood memory of the kookaburra that would snatch worms from under my father’s feet as he dug the garden. Knowing when he was on a good thing, the kookaburra appeared on the garden fence every morning, quickly managing to train my parents to feed him strips of meat for breakfast.

Feeding wild birds is a very common feature of human behaviour. It is a simple but compelling Birds cexpression of biophilia, the deep-seated human desire to affiliate with other living things. Surveys of wild bird feeders in North America and Europe show that between 45 and 75 per cent of households are actively engaged in feeding birds at home. Figures from New Zealand are similar and Australian studies indicate that between 38 and 80 per cent of households spend hard earned cash attracting birds to their backyards.

The Australian figures are intriguing because in this country artificially feeding birds is a very controversial issue and is actively discouraged by many authorities. The main reasons given by opponents of the practice are:

  • Diseases can be spread at feeding areas where large numbers of birds congregate
  • Artificial feeding may not meet all nutritional requirements and cause malnutrition and digestive problems in adult birds and developmental deficiencies in their young
  • Birds can become dependent on artificial food sources
  • Artificial feeding favours the spread of more aggressive bird species to the detriment of other species, leading to imbalanced populations

But the scientific validation of these concerns is far from complete according to ornithologist, Professor Daryl Jones.

Sure, certain diseases can be spread as birds crowd at feeders, but given the colossal numbers involved, these outbreaks are very rare indeed. Certainly, some types of foods, like bread, are inadequate and potentially harmful. But for most birds, the proportion of their overall diet made up of human-provided food is so small that little harm is likely.

Furthermore, Professor Jones says, there is no good evidence that backyard bird-feeding leads to dependency. “Almost all species investigated still find and consume a diet dominated by natural foods, and only visit to our bird tables for snacks”.

One thing numerous experiments have found, however, is that even a little extra food leads to earlier breeding, more chicks, and a greater chance of their surviving to the next year. In other words, feeding typically results in more birds.

The Australian reserve about the backyard feeding of birds is not shared by bird-lovers in the Northern Hemisphere. In the UK, for example, the British Trust for Ornithology and the Audubon Society actively and passionately advocate the feeding of birds, and claim it as the act of any genuine conservationist: ‘‘If you care about birds, feed them!”. In the USA, the bird seed industry is currently worth over a US$10 billion. American households now distribute over 500,000 tonnes of seed to suburban birds annually.

Harsher winters and much less natural food and habitat, in the UK particularly, probably mean that birds in the Northern Hemisphere benefit more from human assistance than those in our neck of the woods.

But the motivation for attracting birds by feeding them is broader than safeguarding the welfare of the creatures. There are also practical, social and psychological reasons, including:

  • Birds are attractive and interesting friends
  • Watching and listening to them can reduce stress and provide pleasure
  • They help with flower pollination and the control of plant pests
  • Having birds around fosters environmental awareness and guardianship

A survey conducted by Daryl Jones and Peter Howard found, as well, that a powerful explanation offered by backyard bird feeders was what the researchers labelled “environmental atonement”. Humans had caused so much damage to the natural world, their respondents explained, that feeding the wildlife was one way of giving something back, a personal attempt to redress the balance. This powerful component of the feeding story has since been identified among feeders throughout the world.

Where does all this leave Australians who could miss out on these benefits if they adhere to the recommendation not to feed wild birds?

Well, the choice may not be quite as black-and-white as it might appear. For one thing, many of us may be able to have bird-attracting gardens that have these basic features:

  • A variety of pollen, seed, fruit and nectar-producing Australian native plants
  • Plants of different textures and heights that provide shelter for a range of species sites

Your bird-friendly garden could also include one or two nesting boxes, water pond or birdbath – all safe from predators like the neighbour’s cat!IMG_0975

There may also be some place for bird feeding that is responsibly managed according to these guidelines:

  • Feeding stations are placed out of the reach of cats and other predators
  • Stations are cleaned daily and food removed after an hour
  • The time of day when food is provided is varied
  • Good quality food is used such as commercial nectar mixes or seed mixes (The cheaper supermarket seed does not contain sufficient nutrition for birds)
  • Only sliced meat is fed to meat-eating birds and only after careful consideration has been given to the impact that these birds will have on smaller birds
  • Feeding is ceased when more than 20 birds have gathered at the same station
  • Pets are fed indoors or remaining food is removed so common Mynas and other birds can’t share it
  • Providing food for the birds is made an occasional treat and not a daily event

I confess that I once tried unsuccessfully to set up feeding stations around my lawn to attract more regular visits from Rainbow Lorikeets but I am now content to let the flowering native trees and shrubs in my garden bring them. IMG_1426 cropped

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A recent newspaper article attacked “baby boomer” empty nesters for staying in their detached houses after their families had left home instead of downsizing and making their houses available to younger people with families. As detached houses are in very short supply, so the argument goes, older singles and couples should release their free standing houses to the market. This would enable a greater number of families to enjoy the benefits of more indoor and outdoor living space.

Sounds reasonable?

Well, maybe – if it is indeed the case that younger people want bigger houses with front- and backyards.

Of course they do, you might think. Who wouldn’t want a big house with a spacious kitchen and living area and separate bedrooms for each of the kids, not to mention a garage for each of the family cars?

And as for front- and backyards, aren’t they part of the ideal modern family home? Well, they might be for some, but compare these photos of a new development on the left and an older suburb.

Loss of backyard

Loss of backyard b

Compared with the older suburb, the newer development has a much larger dwelling footprint and fewer trees. Instead of presenting as a patchwork of roofs and greenery, it is mainly roofs.

What the photos illustrate is a trend that has been going on since the early 1990s according to Griffith University’s Tony Hill. Since then, freestanding houses with big backyards have ceased to be built. Instead, the clear preference has been to build almost to the boundaries of the available land – and then enclose the site with high, opaque wooden or metal fences that provide privacy at the expense of outlook.

Freestanding houses and backyards are fast becoming a threatened species.

Even where the sizes of building blocks have remained much as they always have been (the “quarter acre” – actually eighth of an acre – block ), the same trend is occurring. People are choosing to build big and exclude green space. Here is an example from my own street.

IMG_2163The front yard will become a drive and the backyard a swimming pool surrounded by concrete or paving.

The finished house will certainly look very different from the original houses in the streetIMG_2165 like this one.

Practical or economic necessity is not all that is at work here. We are also seeing evidence of a general shift in the psyche of urban dwellers. We are succumbing to the belief that our “natural habitat” is the human-designed, developed environment. This allows us to tolerate the growing reality that the modern city is dominated by profit-driven development, marked by environmental degradation and disconnection from nature.

But as biophilic design guru, Stephen Kellert, reminds us,

This contemporary reality does not diminish people’s inherent need to affiliate with nature as a necessary basis for health, productivity, and well-being.

It does make it harder, however, to get home the message that by adopting a pro-nature approach to design and development, it is possible to restore an environment – even in our urban areas – where nature is still on hand to nurture and enrich the human body, mind and spirit.

And rescuing the suburban backyard from the threat of extinction has to be part of that process.

Many of my previous posts have directly and indirectly explored the place of the backyard in maintaining a connection with nature. A backyard is obviously critically important for building nature and outdoor activities into the lives of children – a theme of posts such as An authentic childhood, Nature play, An alarming message, and The campfire connection (with nature). For adults, having a backyard that contains a garden, even a small one, is hardly less important. The well-documented physical, psychological and social benefits of gardens and gardening are mentioned in such posts as Nature and wellness, The dream that can be a reality, and Urban density – the caution light is flashing.

Additionally, the backyard garden has a function and importance that goes beyond the interests of individuals and households. The presence of private gardens in aggregate brings significant advantages to the community, including:

  • contributing to clearing the air of pollutants such as ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and small particulates.
  • absorbing and sequestering atmospheric carbon.
  • increasing biodiversity – domestic gardens can exhibit a degree of planting density and variety that is not found elsewhere in urban areas, including playing fields and nature strips.
  • improving natural drainage and reducing the risk of excessive stormwater run-off.
  • combatting summer heat by lowering surface temperatures – by as much 5 degrees Celsius according to one Australian study.

Saving the backyard garden is not beyond the realms of possibility but it will involve a rethink of urban and household design by everyone, especially politicians, planners and developers. Far from being a radical move, it would be a return to traditional Australian values and the reversal of a trend that is, after all, only comparatively recent. And as Tony Hill rightly observes, It would also call upon people to relax and start enjoying life again, hardly a negative or puritanical goal.




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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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I’ll never tire of looking at waterfalls and I suspect that this is true for youm Marg at McKenzie Falls as well. It is not just the large and spectacular ones but waterfalls of every description. The sight of falling water is almost certain to arrest our attention, give us pleasure and lift our spirits. There are very good reasons why we go out of way to look at waterfalls and to “play” in, under and around them.

I have always assumed that our attraction to waterfalls stems from our general, innate disposition to find beauty in natural features, especially ones associated with water. This assumption is correct as far as it goes, but there is something more to the almost magical appeal of waterfalls. That “something” comprises countless invisible particles that are created by the motion of the falling water.

(Beware – some physics 101 ahead!) Like everything else in the universe, the oxygen in the air is made up of atoms, tiny, tiny objects consisting of a nucleus surrounded by circulating electrons (think of a planet with orbiting moons). The electrons in an atom are held in place by the force of electricity, the nucleus having a positive electrical charge while each electron having a negative one. When an atom is intact, it is electrically neutral (the different charges of the nucleus and electrons balancing each other).

But in a waterfall, the collision of the water molecules (which comprise oxygen and hydrogen atoms) strips electrons from the oxygen in the water allowing them to accumulate in the oxygen atoms in the surrounding air. This creates electrically charged particles called ions, some positively charged – those oxygen atoms in the water with fewer electrons than normal – others with a negative charge – those oxygen atoms in the air with more electrons than normal. The same thing happens in the surf, during a thunderstorm and even in your shower – the water becomes positively charged as the surrounding air acquires a negative charge.

Generally speaking, positive ions are harmful to the human body while negative ions are beneficial. Have you noticed that on dry, windy days you can feel out-of-sorts? Such days are not welcomed by school teachers because they tend to make children irritable and unsettled.

Scientists attribute these effects to an overload of positive ions in the human body. In parts of the world affected by desert winds like the Sirocco from the Sahara or the hot, dry foehn winds that flow down the leeside of mountains, these effects spill over into higher rates of mental distress, hospital admissions, suicide and crime.

In contrast, being near a waterfall, on a beach or even under the shower makes you feel refreshed, happy and energised. These are just some of the effects that a high loading of negative ions has on us.

Normal fresh air has about 2-3000 negative ions per cubic centimetre (the size of a sugar cube) but around a waterfall or by the ocean the count can be in the tens of thousands! Alarmingly, however, the count in the average office, car and over-heated or stuffy house can be dangerously low – zero to a few hundred per cubic centimetre. So those headaches, feelings of fatigue and concentration difficulties, together with the general malaise you perhaps associate with work, may not be “just the job”, but the result of spending too long indoors breathing in too many positive ions and too few negative ones.

If your house or office is in a natural setting – greenery is also a good source of negative ions – the remedy may be as simple as opening the window and taking a few deep breaths. In the right environmental circumstances, the advice to “go and get some fresh air” is very sound indeed.

Sitting by a waterfall, walking on a beach, spending time in a garden or otherwise increasing our exposure to negative ions benefits our well-being in a host of ways, including:

  • Lifting mood and alleviating depression
  • Reducing anxiety
  • Keeping our airways functioning efficiently
  • Accelerating recovery from fatigue
  • Increasing energy by stimulating metabolism
  • Strengthening resistance to illness

Negative ions produce these and other benefits by interacting directly with our physiology – by moderating levels of the mood chemical serotonin in our brain, for example, by stimulating the activity of the protective cilia in our airways, by dilating blood vessels or by increasing the alkalinity of our blood.

Negative ions also help to protect our health by removing mould spores, dust, bacteria and pollutants from the air we breathe.

It is certainly worthwhile taking whatever steps we can to increase our exposure to negative ions (and reducing the intake of positive ones). Apart from the obvious one of spending as much time in natural settings as we possibly can, there are others worth considering:

  • Surround yourself with greenery – indoors and outdoors (Recall the principles of biophilic design)
  • Put a water feature in your garden or create a garden with one
  • Eliminate pollutants such as cigarette smoke, exhaust fumes and chemical particulates from living areas
  • Replace air-conditioned with natural ventilation as much as practicable
  • Open windows to let fresh air flow freely

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Ask any professional garden designer or landscape architect about building garden paths, and I am confident that they will recommend including a curve or two wherever possible. The reason is simple: people usually find a winding path more attractive than a straight one.

Straighten this path out in your mind’s eye and compare the two images. Which do you prefer? Attractive path b

It is intriguing how the slightly curving stone path with its flanking vegetation makes this potentially dull side-passage into a place of interest and beauty.




See what the curve does to this boardwalk through mangroves.








Do you agree that it does a good job of integrating the engineered structure, the boardwalk, into its natural surroundings? You may also sense that the curved section is easier on the eye than the straight or rectilinear one.

This is likely to be your experience because human eyes and brains find rounded shapes easier (and more pleasurable) to process. Corners and sharp angles require more effort. In fact, angles can be a turn-off. One reason why spiders (even harmless Spiderones) evoke disgust and fear in many people is the angularity of their legs. Other reasons are their generally drab colour and their unpredictable movement.

Here is a diagram that nicely illustrates the point about curves. Which of the pathways between the boxes do you find easier to follow – the one with the curves or the one with the angles?


Do you find that your eyes are led smoothly on the curved path but not on the angled one? But there is much more to the attractiveness of curved pathways than easy visual processing.

If you compare again the two images of the boardwalk, you are likely to feel that the curved one is the more inviting. You can easily imagine that if you were actually on the boardwalk, you would be drawn to follow it round the curve – not simply to take in more of what you can already see, but to engage what you can’t see.

The appeal of the curve lies largely in the sense of mystery it creates. As your gaze moves along the curved path, you get a glimpse of a vista beyond, but information about this vista is hidden from us by the bend itself, as well as by the distant trees. Therein lies the element of mystery – the feeling that we could gather new information about the vista and other things by following the path and looking around the bend. To secure this new information, we would have to move from our present vantage point to a new one. We would have to do some exploring in other words.

Mystery in a non-threatening form is a prime motivator of exploration, especially when we are out and about in nature. For humans, exploration has been and remains a very important response. It satisfies our basic need to understand our environment – for survival purposes and to satisfy our brains’ insatiable need for the stimulation of novelty and change.

A natural or constructed path, especially one that winds or curves, is a common cue forBulga%20Denis exploration. And a path or a riverbank that can be followed into the distance can greatly increase the appeal of a landscape.

That is why curving paths, rivers and roads are found in landscape art across the world. Their impact is particularly potent if the scene suggests that a fertile valley or cool mountains might be where the path leads.


Landscape paintingLandscape painting b






We are usually not conscious of the influence of “curviness” on our feelings, actions, attitudes and even our values. The same is true for angles, flowers and many other features, objects and symbols that make up the fabric of the world we experience. Subconscious influences like these affect our thinking and behaviour in many unexpected ways. You can find many more examples in Adam Alter’s fascinating book, Drunk Tank Pink.

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