The Last Glimpse of Garden: Landscapes and Death

It’s a Sunday mid-morning. The air is pleasant, not thick with the humidity of every other Sydney day this summer. I’m walking around Sydney University, pushing my baby son in his pram, my dog on the lead walking alongside us. From our shady vantage point, I see a man in a wheelchair. He is shrouded in a white hospital blanket. Beside him sits another man – his brother, lover, partner, or friend. We are beside the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, and it is clear the man is dying. He bears all the signs that are kept hidden from polite, functioning society. He is a transparent shade of pale and doesn’t move his body at all; he is locked in the stillness of sickness. He and his companion are staring at a patch of trees, comprising of some thin gums and maples, which border the sports oval. It is a pretty, shady patch, in a peaceful spot. I continue walking, and cross their paths again, me pushing my baby and a loyal carer pushing a dying man. It is a moment that strikes me – how could it not – as significant, bearing of consideration, an opportunity for meaningful reflection. That I am pushing my new child, just beginning his life, and pass a man being wheeled around, his time soon to end.

I see them again. I am walking randomly, keeping the pram moving so my son stays asleep. They have come back to the original spot, overlooking the dense patch of established trees. He obviously wants to be here, rather than wheeled past the action of the rest of the university grounds. He has left the hospital, perhaps hospice, to take in a glimpse of nature, perhaps one of his last. I imagine that he seeks peace, an alleviation of his no doubt horrendous physical symptoms. He, I think, has found it, for this moment.

My observation of the dying man staring out calmly to the humble gathering of trees leads me to many questions. What is it about plants, about nature, that provides respite to the dying, and those that love them? Does nature appease us of some of our anxiety as we knowingly reach the end of our life? Does it speak to us of quietude, and remind us of our place in the great scheme of things? Do simple sights and sounds – the wind rustling through the trees; the sway of delicate branches; the tweet of distant birds – help us to maintain gentleness, perhaps a spiritual insight, as we grow closer to what we do not know waits for us? Does nature’s simple existence allow us to let go of our own? The influential naturalist and author John Muir wrote: ‘Let children walk with nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of life and death, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stringless indeed, and as beautiful as life.’

Clearly Muir was a proponent of an interaction with nature well before one reaches the end of their time, prescribing it to children, to imbue them with the knowledge of the interconnectivity of life and death, early on.”

Confirming what Muir seems to have intuitively known well over a century ago, in her 2018 paper, Therapeutic Garden Design in Hospice Settings, Rose Tapia writes of the extensive research which has determined unequivocally that the sick and the dying benefit physically, mentally, and spiritually from a view of a garden from where they lay or walk – be it in the hospital, hospice, or at home. Tapia also reminds readers that it is not a modern concept to incorporate nature into spaces in which people are recovering from ill health or spending their final period on earth. She quotes Thoreau – ‘With the latest inclinations to be well, We should not be sick… Nature is but another name for health’ – and makes note that discussions of the importance of access and views to established gardens for patients was alive and well in the 1700s: “[the] Romantic movement’s revival of pastoralism gave birth and popularity to the therapeutic connection between the nursing and medicine within the hospitals and the gardens. Nature and gardens came to be thought of … as places of bodily and spiritual restoration….”

However, after World War I, “…new elaborate medical equipment, practices, and pharmaceuticals would soon replace the fresh air treatment… hospital gardens disappeared to be replaced with parking and tennis courts for employees and visitors, and landscaping was restricted to entrance beautification. This set the style for hospital design in the post-1920s.” According to Tapia, with the emergence of seminal research in the 1970s (beginning with The Hospital: A Social and Architectural History by Thompson and Goldin) came a renewed understanding of biophilia which continues to unfold to this day. We have come full circle in our appreciation of the healing power of nature.

This current understanding of the remedial properties of plants is no more evident than in the Mary Potter Hospice Garden, within Calvary North Adelaide Hospital. When planning the design of the (subsequently award winning) garden, Tara Graham Cochrane, Director of DesignWell, a landscape architecture consultancy specialising in healing and therapeutic gardens, interviewed the then current residents to determine what they desired, as dying patients of varying physical abilities, in a garden, and in their last ever interaction with nature. The answers had a common theme: most wanted a garden to provide for their grieving families. They requested flowers and herbs in healthy abundance that they could pick and give to their loved ones as gifts; flowers and fragrant herbs used as offerings from the dying to the grieving. Harkening back to John Muir’s notions of the importance of children experiencing nature in order to adopt an early understanding of death, the therapeutic Mary Potter Hospice gardens are landscaped strategically to encourage visiting children to play and interact in the natural space, to counteract what can often be an overwhelming and confusing time, made worse by a sterile, concreted locale.

I think back to the dying man at the uni and his peacefulness, having made the outing to stare out at the greenery of established trees. I wonder what his morning meant to him and where he spent the rest of his time. In a modern, western setting, we have arguably clinicised the experience of death. Most of us don’t experience the profound education of witnessing a loved one’s passing, in real time, until we are well into adulthood, if then. Death’s unfolding can take us by surprise when it is our turn. And yet, if we are lucky, we have interacted with plants. We have kept our own alive, and/or witnessed them bloom in the wild. And, crucially, we have seen them die; shrivel; transform from their youthful, healthful vibrance into another form altogether. They do so quietly, naturally. Indeed they accept medicine when they need it – water, fertiliser, care, their desire to live is strong and gallant – but when it is their time, they go in some kind of harmony, in a definitive mode of acceptance, making way for renewal.

Is there nothing more vital in our time of departure, in the months, weeks, days, minutes, seconds, when we are between the two states of life and death, than to cast our eyes upon the beauty of plants, our compadres in the dance of living and finitude?”

It is a life cycle we allow ourselves to see – the greening and then browning of leaves – perhaps because we feel we are separate enough from plants. And yet a plant both forms and succumbs with such grace and ease, that it is perhaps the best exemplar of how to transition between states. In any case, the research is clear that we benefit from keeping plants close – when we are in the throes of the confusion and joys of life, to sustain our wellbeing, and when we are preparing to pass – they are our nurturers of health and our teachers of peace.