HEALED BY GARDENING AND FARMING

If anybody had told me before now that gardening hard such healing powers I would have doubted it. But today, I can confidently say that I have experienced it myself!

Two years ago, within an interval of nine months, I lost my immediate younger brother and my mother. Both deaths were very traumatizing. It was my brother that went first. He died in his sleep. He was not sick, yes he had issues with alcohol and we believed that that was what caused a heart attack or something and he died in his sleep. It was a mercy death compared with if he had died from a terminal illness, cancer etc. Well he died, and death is death. There was the shock to till with and the trauma. The way my legs were shaking as I found my way to his room that morning when he wouldn’t respond to calls, that was the way, my legs shock for months afterwards. At any laud sounds my heart would jump as if it was leaving my body.

I had to accept the reality of the death and live with it. Not just that but also help my siblings and ailing mother go through the loss. Just when we thought it was over, a phone call came, Mama was hospitalized, one thing led to another and I found myself in hospital with Mama, and just within the twinkling of an eye, Mama was gone. Mama did not die a normal death. Covid was attached to the symptoms the ailment presented. And is Covid normal? She was isolated; those three days were agony itself. Eventually she died and was buried “Covidly.” As a family, on the one side, we had to deal with the pain of the loss, the suddenness of it, the accompanying trauma and on the other side, the pain and trauma associated with the stigma of one whose relative had died of Covid. I remember till date some close family friends have not come to condole with us, others surfaced months after the burial. We hugged our grief and blamed no one; we even made fun of the way people looked at us as if to spot the Covid symptoms on our bodies! For me, my siblings said, hence I was with Mama till death, people looked at me as one who had come face to face with Covid and survived.

Being a clinical psychologist, the recommendations, voiced and unvoiced was physician heal you! I did apply all I knew to keep sane, for myself and my siblings. I sought therapy from colleagues and had the support of my Congregation and friends. But what healed me most was gardening and farming.

Months after the burial, when I returned to our retreat and Conference Centre where I live and work, the beautiful ecological garden at the Centre became my place of comfort and refuge. I took walks in the garden daily, just working and staring. I felt like one whose soul had left her body. I wanted to be invisible, not to be seen by anybody, not to talk. I just wanted to be left alone.

So I stayed with the garden and she seemingly understood my need. She was mother to me, the mother I had lost, I found another in her. She understood my pain. Often times, I just laid under the shade of the trees and I would fall asleep at once. Sleep, which eluded me in my room and on my bed. The last days and minutes of the life of my mother had become like the broken bad of a tape, it kept playing over and over again especially at night when everywhere was quiet! In the garden, under the trees, I felt cuddled by a mother and I would sleep peacefully for hours. It was also here I asked all my rhetorical questions to no one in particular. It was also here that sometimes, I did my wild wailing, to my heart’s contentment.

Being in the garden was also like sitting at the feet of Wisdom and listening to her. She invited me to open my eyes and see. I did, and marvelled at the beauty of the flowers content to shine only for a day and wither away on the next, the singing birds without a care hopping from tree to tree, the busy ants, the butterflies with their different stages of development and the earth herself, always giving and giving. The garden taught about life. Life was all about living and dying, giving and receiving. You are alive to the extent that you embraced these dimensions and find a seat for them in your life. Embracing them opens the door to fullness of life, because fear gives way to courage and one is able to try new things and give their best to the present moment which is indeed all we have. This was the way my mother lived. She was alive. she gave of herself fully till her last breath; for us her children, people she knew and now even to the universe her breathe and back to the earth her body. I had to live too and so that I could die meaningfully when I time came. I had to develop my potentials fully, use them to serve, generously, freely, and in between to keep learning the act of dying to myself till that final letting go. I had known all these before, but there were coming back to me with greater clarity and intensity.

Gradually, I started cultivating, planting flowers and trees. After some months I decided to explore with tomatoes and peppers of all varieties. I was elated. I felt so alive, so full of energy. I exuded deep joy which neither myself nor those who marvelled at me knew where it was coming from. It is God, I often said, and truly it was him, using the garden and farm to heal me.

These months gradually grew into years, turning out to be among the most productive and creative years of my adult life. I committed a lot to writing and within a space of a year completed work on manuscripts I had in my head for years and published them into books. My grief had given birth to new life. And is still birthing, just like nature itself. I have been caught up in natures dynamic dance of life and death.

This experience has awakened in me a curiosity, on what the connection is between nature and psychic healthy/ mental health? Google continues to amaze me with the answers that pop up. Recently I saw one which says that working with the earth produces a “feel good” chemical called Serotonin. It is a natural anti-depressant and strengthens the immune system. Lack of serotonin in the brain causes depression. Contact According to research, the chemical Serotonin is released in the brain through contact with soil and a specific soil bacteria, called Mycobacterium vaccae (https://permaculture.com.au/why-gardening-makes-you-happy-and-cures-depression/). Similar to Serotonins are endorphins. Apart from these two, is dopamine which is released in the reward centre of brain and triggers a state of bliss or mild euphoria. The dopamine release is often triggered by the sight of one’s garden fruiting, by smelling the fruits in the garden, as well as plucking them.

Interestingly, these feel good chemicals are only present in organic soils or farm products which do not contain Roundup or Glyphosate-based herbicides.

Besides reading up stuff, trying to make connections with mental health and gardening and farming, I also feel inspired to encourage others to benefit from my experience. In my practice as a clinical psychologist and Spiritual director, I encourage people to take works in the gardens, to pray in the garden, to engage with the plants or trees, and the experience is always rewarding.

I would even like to take this a step further to encourage people to keep a plant in the room, which they can water and talk with, or to begin a flower garden. Those who are really ambitious could even start a vegetable garden. There is no need to decline that; there is no space in your house or that you don’t have the time. A lot can be done is just a cement bag or two. Recently I discovered that anybody can grow lettuce, and eat it all year round! All you need is to get a bag, fill it with soil, if you can get some compost fine, else, just go ahead and knot your bag. Make some holes on it, and plant lettuce seeds in the holes, water every day, and within a month you will be eating your own home grown lettuce, and I tell you, no food is as delicious or filling as the one grown with your own hands! The dopamine effect of course!

What is more? There would also be the psychological benefits of feeling renewed and revitalized. Wishing you joy and healing as you try this out.

© Bernadette Nyam

July 2022

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Bernadette Nyam

Bernadette Nyam

Passionate about God, people and nature and the interconnectedness of all three. Also a passionate writer of literature for young people. Have 3 published books