Philippine Daily Inquirer

Healing gardens

- mtan@inquirer.com.ph MICHAEL L. TAN

Seeing the title, you probably thought of gardens where there are medicinal plants. And yes, that could be a type of healing garden. But I was thinking more of gardens—with or without medicinal plants—having therapeuti­c effects on people. I’ve been aware of the growing interest in this topic, growing more from architects and landscape artists, but I didn’t give it too much thought until these last few days, as the possibilit­ies of my mother returning home from the hospital become more real. She’s been confined for three months now and her doctors are optimistic, even as they warn about the many things we have to do at home to minimize the risks of new infections and allergies.

I finally decided I would have to renovate the dining room because this is the least cluttered room in her house. Before her hospitaliz­ation she was staying in another renovated room, my library with hundreds of books, and her geriatrici­an said books just accumulate too much dust (and, I thought, mites and all kinds of insects) that could set off respirator­y problems.

Feng shui and vitamin D

But I knew she had grown to love that room, surrounded by photograph­s of her grandchild­ren and all kinds of knickknack­s, Filipino abubut. Even more importantl­y, it was a room with a view of the house’s backyard, lush with plants that she had nurtured, from herbs to ornamental­s to fruit trees.

The window, too, faced the east, which is preferred in Chinese feng shui because that’s where the sun rises—a metaphor for life being renewed each day. I’m more hard-nosed, seeing the window as bringing in my mother’s daily dose of vitamin D, so important for the elderly. When my mother’s health was better, we would bring her out to the street to get some sun and sometimes, she would sit there, together with two other lolas from our street. No one would speak, almost as if they were intent on getting as much vitamin D as they could.

But let me make a detour and share this story, which I heard recently from my parents’ driver. We were thinking about the lolas on the street who had gone ahead, including one of the “Tres Marias” who passed away the other week. Our driver said that at one time, one of the lolas suddenly perked up, probably from an overdose of sunlight, and ordered the caregivers: “Get these two other lolas some beer. That should perk them up!”

So, yes, a garden is healing in large part because of the sun, and friendship­s, but there’s more in the garden which makes it preferable to sunbathing in the street. We need plants, real plants, so the waste carbon dioxide we exhale is taken in by the plant which then returns to us the gift of oxygen.

Stimulant

Back to the gardens now: I think they heal because they stimulate all the senses. The sun heals not just because of vitamin D but also because of the gentle—underscore gentle—warmth. Remind your patient when he or she is out in the garden’s sunlight about that gentle heat.

In my old age—well, older age—I will ask to be brought out occasional­ly when it’s showering. I want to feel raindrops, and if the sun is out, my caregiver will be reminded to tell me that there is a tikbalang wedding going on somewhere, to make me laugh.

Gardens stimulate the other senses as well. The visual is so important, which is why hospital rooms can be so depressing, often with no greenery to view. Some hospitals have put up wallpaper showing trees, but I think that can set off a worst longing for real greenery. The visual of gardens is so therapeuti­c because it changes throughout the day—a play of light and shadow.

Gardens heal through hearing, too. The birds, of course, and insects, but there’s more that you can learn to catch—the sound of stone and gravel and leaves at your feet, for example. If you have large trees, you might catch them with seed fall, each tree species having its own way of dropping seeds.

Then again the rain. If you’re afraid of the rain, as many Filipinos are, then appreciate its sounds, in the garden.

And how can we forget the scents of gardens? We love smells, even the overwhelmi­ng ones like those that come from the larger citrus trees when they flower. Then there’s ilang-ilang, the source of perfumers’ coveted ylang-ylang oil.

But don’t go out of your way to look for scented plants. Just the smell of leaves can be therapeuti­c. The other week I was feeling rather stressed inside a conference hall and then found myself calming down as I caught the aromatic compounds that come from the rain falling on dry soil. There’s even an English word for it: “petrichor”—petri for stone, and ichor, the substance flowing through the veins of gods.

Gardens heal because they stimulate the senses, each with its own repertoire and, sometimes, they converge like a group of musical performers. Each on its own, or as a group, they evoke memories, usually pleasant.

There’s something almost primordial about the healing gardens. As a veterinari­an, I’ve seen it, too, with animals, who get very excited when they see green. Once you let them loose, they race out, ecstatic. Cats go for the trees. Dogs in particular find the largest clumps of leaves that turn into trampoline­s for them. (Yes, they also seek olfactory nirvana, by rolling themselves in some of the most disgusting—for humans at least—stuff, and then come running to their beloved humans, wanting to share their joy.)

Culture and gardens

The anthropolo­gist in me takes over now, with a warning: Gardens and greenery are not always appreciate­d. Filipinos are raised to fear nature and the greens, as places filled with malevolent spirits and wild animals. (I grew up being warned by adults against spiders and their webs, the latter supposedly causing blindness!) Gardens set off memories, and if we grow up thinking of nature as an enemy, the gardens will seem sinister.

Walk through gardens and parks with your children and grandchild­ren. Tell them of your own memories, and why you love the gardens, especially in the concrete jungles called cities. Tell them about the loves of your life that came with the gardens and parks, and how you want to find healing someday in those places and their memories, when you’re too ill or weak to make the request.

Encourage the young to love the green and to find their own people, pets, places to love. Encourage them to build their own sanctuarie­s, even if home is a tiny condominiu­m or apartment, so that whenever there is a need for comfort and healing, there will be a place within one’s own home.

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