Contact with nature is restorative. Spending time in nature helps us relax and puts our bodies at rest, even when we are not aware of the change. It does this by stimulating our parasympathetic nervous system, which encourages our bodies to behave as though we are at rest, and reducing the activity of our sympathetic nervous system, which stimulates stressful reactions we associate with our fight-or-flight response. Both of these reactions are involuntary responses; triggering a positive, restful change can be as easy as stepping outside.
Our gardens and public parks are “nearby nature,” and can create the same beneficial effects that contact with nature in the wild has on our bodies. Why does nature produce this effect? In a way, it is because we are designed to appreciate nature, drawn to experience it with all of our senses. Imagine that you sit in the middle of a meadow and allow your eyes to drift over the grass and wildflowers around you. Would you find more variation there, or in the brick façade of an apartment block? The colors, sounds, and nuances of nature are a source of “soft fascination,” an experience which is partly responsible for nature’s restorative effect.
Whether brief or prolonged, exposure to nature provides an environment in which we can think clearly to find solutions to our problems. These may be personal problems occurring in our lives or problems that we are confronting in our creative endeavors. For example, unstopping a mental block when we are trying to find the right words to use in a novel or in a term paper. Many well-known artists, composers, philosophers and statesmen understood the importance of contact with nature. Beethoven’s description of the first movement in his sixth symphony, ‘Pastoral’ expresses this beautifully. (A nature-themed video of this piece is at the bottom of the post.) The cities in Beethoven’s time were odorous and noisy and he would go out into the countryside to clear his mind for composition. He describes this movement as an awakening of the senses on arriving in the countryside.
We can experience the restorative value of gardens in many ways, and benefit from all of them. Of course there is tremendous benefit in planting and raising a garden. However, it is also restorative to spend time contemplating nature in a public garden – even ten minutes at a time is enough to produce a mental and physical effect. Traditional Japanese gardens are one type of garden that was designed with restoration and contemplation in mind. One of the most important roles our garden can play is as a retreat, a refuge that helps restore our bodies and minds. Our gardens are a place where we can relax and engage in deep thought. Our garden can be a special place for contemplation.