Pottering Around

The tranquility of my garden

There has been much hype in recent years regarding Horticultural Therapy, that pottering around in the garden improves one’s mental wellbeing.

Last year, mental health awareness organisation Beyond Blue shone the spotlight on this humble public health strategy, partnering with nurseries nationwide to promote pottering around in the garden as a way of fostering healthier minds and bodies.

This is not a new concept. It was believed over a century ago that garden and farm surroundings assisted with the health of patients suffering from mental illness in the often oppressive and traumatising asylums.

Scientific studies have demonstrated that horticultural therapy in healthcare settings improves mood state, thus reducing stress and aiding both physical and mental health. One study, for instance, cites subsequent benefits to cardiac health. Other research suggests that ‘wander gardens’, typically designed to assist in the care of sufferers of dementia, also provide the essential first steps in gaining independence when recovering from stroke, improving attention and reducing stress. Furthermore, it has shown to contribute to patients feeling less self-conscious of their post-stroke neurological deficits and thus assisting with their normal rehabilitation program.

This type of environment has the potential to both escape the reality of their illness and exist in peace, at least for a short while, away from the odour of disinfectant, noisy corridors and exhausting physiotherapy sessions. Place definitely has the potential to alter the perception of our reality.

My elderly Great Uncle has been very ill of late but when he is well enough to walk, his first mission is to stand on his back step and check on his backyard full of vegetables. Part of his ‘unofficial’ physical and mental recovery has been tending and nurturing the dutifully sown fruits and vegetables which have not only provided him with great pride but also supplied most of the grateful neighbourhood! It has certainly been a relief from and tastier than hospital food or Meals on Wheels!

On the other side of the world, horticultural therapy has been utilised for many years in the context of the estimated 20% of British military veterans facing invisible wounds of conflict. Before closing in late 2015 due to financial difficulties, the ‘Gardening Leave’ program tended to troubled veterans in their journey with mental wounds and their transition to civilian life, with sessions individually designed to maximise physical, psychological and social strength. The gardens reconnected them back to the reality of civilian life, home and nature and away from the horrors of war.

Further to horticultural therapy being utilised in the hospital setting and for those with physical and mental disabilities, pottering around in one’s backyard garden or simply being at peace on a park bench in the spectacular Royal Melbourne Botanical Gardens is also beneficial for all of us.

During a trip to Sydney this time last year, I disappeared from the city noises by stepping through the gates of my accommodation and into a peaceful and serene garden, bustling with bird life and the evening breeze. Little would one know from the inside that behind the walls and sheltering trees was one of city’s corporate hubs; it felt as though I was at home amongst my own garden.

I am a keen green thumb myself and enjoy escaping from computer screens to immerse myself in the outdoors, whether planting tens of trees or simply pottering around raking and pruning. It is also a family affair; Nanna (my great-grandmother) loved her cottage garden, my Nan planted three acres of bush forty years ago and my Mum has created a two acre oasis from a bare block apart from a few established Eucalypts.

My woodworking is a similar pastime in its objective and application. The wholesome material of timber, the uniqueness of each section of grain, the cleansing nature of its aroma and the sawdust on one’s hands is akin to gardening; one nurturing the plants when alive and the other crafting its products into practical and beautiful forms. The creativity that can be expressed is as beneficial for the mind as it is for the physical activity, just as in gardening. If one is physically able to even perform the simplest of tasks, it allows the mind relief from ‘everyday’ life to connect with nature and its materials, whether in coping with disability or illness or recovering from a tiring week of work.

The place of a tranquil garden connects us back to nature and to what is truly ‘real’. It allows us to escape our busy, stressful, appointment-orientated lives and focus the beauty of natural surroundings and of what we can create with soil and plants.

As musician Joe Cocker sung, the best things in life are the simple things.

Back to the garden for me, then.



Natural Instincts

From ‘Man’s Best Friend’ to our affinity for meerkats, it is interesting to observe the human species interacting with other animals. Some we feed, some we feed off, others we are afraid of being eaten by.

Recently, an aviary was installed at my school, which as an aficionado of birds is simultaneously exciting and repulsive; I love watching the creatures but it pains me that they are not free to fly.

The small budgerigars and ground-dwelling quails do not appear to mind; however, the pair of female Eastern Rosellas constantly look to the sky and, seemingly frustrated, attempt to destroy the wall and their perches to give themselves something to occupy their time with between masticating seed. These birds may have arisen from pet shop stock but their natural instincts are very much intact.

As the coup is partially open to above with chicken netting, the Rosellas poke their beaks through and hang off the wire. Several times per day, a wild male of the same species can be observed perched on the other side of this barrier to the outside world and regurgitating food to the two captive females, a heartwarming yet heartbreaking sight to behold.

Many students have taken an interest in the birds, some even observing and making comment on their behaviours and plumage, the spectacularly ostentatious colours of some and the art of distinguishing between male and female quails.

Outside the enclosure, there is an abundance of birds in their natural states. Native Magpies, Crows, a pair of nesting Masked Lapwings and Rosellas and introduced species such as Blackbirds and Common Mynas abound the campus, yet little interest is taken in them. The only exception is the hatred by some of the swooping ‘Plovers’, or Masked Lapwings as they are officially known, as they rightfully protect their clutch from predators.

As a lover of the avian kind, it has saddened me that other students do not appreciate the external life but are interested in those that are caged for human pleasure.

Why is it that, as humans, we only take an interest in nature if it is caged up specifically for our pleasure, or euthanised, stuffed and exhibited on the wall?

This is far from a new phenomenon. An example that springs to mind is the quests by English explorers centuries ago to kill and transport back home exotic specimens for taxidermy and display. Of course, much of this was for genuine scientific purposes, to catalogue the fauna of the ‘New World’; however, despite this, a large proportion was destined to hang on the walls of wealthy family homes rather than in a museum for study.

Most zoos nowadays base their work around public awareness and the preservation of endangered animals but it is relatively not long ago that as a child my Nan rode Queenie the elephant around Melbourne Zoo. After 40 years of this, the animal fatally trampled her keeper after a lifetime of torment and beating to train her into a particular behaviour.

Furthermore, questionable handling techniques are still being employed even today. Only last year, a handler was near-fatally attacked at Australia Zoo by a tiger, after he deliberately ‘excited’ the animal by changing his appearance to encourage the beast to ‘play rougher than usual’, as was disclosed in the Workplace Health and Safety report. This was designed to produce a more entertaining show for the audience.

It makes me wonder what fuels our interest in other species; is it a love for and appreciation of the animals in their own right, or a disillusioned human quest to exert dominance?

Whatever the answer, the reality is that our relationship with animals has been as fraught with exploitation as much as mutual benefit.