River Garden Diaries: The Mind is a Garden

The river garden is wild. Wilder, even, than usual. There are three main reasons for this. Firstly, we’ve had lots of rain and milder-than-usual summer temperatures; secondly, our attention has been focused on big, essential jobs like installing a new septic system and re-building old retaining walls; thirdly, I’ve been preoccupied with wrangling Wonderground print journal. As is often the case, the garden that is my work output receives more attention than the physical one I tend with my hands.

This is, of course, not necessarily a good thing. I know both mental and physical gardening share equal importance in regard to my sanity, but I find it hard to prioritise ‘just gardening’ when deadlines are piling up. Before I know it, I’m spending half an hour deliberating over an email reply that can definitely wait until tomorrow, rather than gardening, tending not only the soil but my mind.

We moved to the river for many reasons. The big one for me was this: to live in alignment with my values. To grow a life in deep connection to the things that are important. Trees, soil, water, sky. To exist in reciprocal relationship with place. For me, this is grounding for a good life.

We renovated the house, we cleared weeds, I built my tiny writing shed. I planted myself here. And it’s funny, because I know what the important things are – they are why I am here – but so often I get tangled in the mess and noise that isn’t. Expectations, fears, attempts to prove something of myself, whatever that might be. I spend too long in the little shed I made, staring at the screen, trying to make more happen. To do more, more efficiently. To write all the things I should write. More, more, more.

Over dinner with my teenage stepdaughters the other night, we had a conversation about what a good life might be. For me, I told them, it’s about asking a simple question: What can I do that might be a gift to others, to the world? What can I offer? I like this question because it immediately composts the assumed markers of success – money, status, things. The good life, in this context, is about generosity, about looking to see what can be done and finding a pathway towards doing it. Success is about knowing your gift and giving it freely and with purpose.

I know what I can give. I know what I am here to do. It is exactly what I am doing now. Telling stories, sharing ideas, looking, caring, giving. The tricky thing, though, is turning the lens back on myself. Offering the care and the energy I put into my work, to myself.

I find world-care much easier than self-care. But of course, one cannot happen for any length of time without the other. “The mind needs to be gardened too”, writes Sue Stuart-Smith in The Well Gardened Mind.

Much of the language used in the Western World when talking about the brain and the body is mechanistic. The brain as computer. The body as machine. But there is a fluidity and complexity in natural systems, in all lives, that is non-linear and irreducible. “The brain as computer metaphor is woefully misleading”, writes Stuart-Smith, “in the idea that it is possible to separate our hardware from our software. The two are in fact so intimately related as to be effectively indivisible. Our experiences, thoughts, and feelings are constantly giving shape to our neural networks, and they in turn are influencing how we think and feel.”

It’s a cycle that is endless until, of course, we end. How we think, feel and do affects how our brain responds and how our brain responds affects how we think and feel and do. The point? For a healthy mind and body, care needs to flow both ways – outwards and inwards.

In other words: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Annie Dillard, as always, gets to the heart of things.

Dump the brain-as-computer metaphor. Replace it with the brain-as-garden. Because, as Stuart-Smith suggests, the brain is actually gardened. The neural networks in our brains, called dendrites (named after the Latin word for tree), are constantly shaped and reworked over the course of our lives. The tiny gardeners who do this job are the microglial cells: “These specialist cells are highly mobile, and as they crawl in among our neural networks, they weed and root out weak connections and damaged cells…each one has its own patch of neural territory that it tends… like true gardeners, they don’t only weed and clear, they also help the brain’s neurons and synapses grow”, writes Stuart-Smith.

Health is not a passive process. “Our emotional lives are complex and need constant tending and reworking. The form this takes will be different for each one of us, but fundamentally, in order to counteract negative and self-destructive forces, we need to cultivate a caring and creative attitude. Above all, we need to recognise what nourishes us.”

I know what nourishes me. It’s walking between the sinuous trunks of Eucalyptus punctata along the path to the mangroves on the point. It’s sitting on the escarpment looking out over the river. It’s planting, pruning, watering. It’s gardening. I know this, but my knowing sometimes gets waylaid by my fixation with doing.

As a woman who writes often of the garden outside, perhaps it is time to pay more attention to the garden inside. To compost the machine-like ideas of productivity and worthiness and to tend my own internal garden with the same care I tend my words and stories, my ‘output’. To transform my computer-brain into a garden-brain.

I’ve begun placing my secateurs on the desk next to me while I write. Shiny red handles, polished from half a life of snipping and shaping. Blades sharpened by my dad on his last visit. A tool and a talisman. They are here to call me back to the soil; to remind me that caring for the garden outside is caring for the garden inside; to whisper this: a good life needs gardening.