Why the delight?

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It’s good to be in contact with the natural world ….. isn’t it? Everywhere I look I’m being told it’s good, even I bang on endlessly about the pleasures of the allotment, and (they say) it’s not just good – it’s a miracle cure for just about any affliction you could name – and if you put that particular claim on a herbal remedy you’d be in real trouble with the law.

What’s interesting to me is not that it’s good to be outside, but to wonder why it’s so good. Why do people with mental health issues feel so much better when they walk or garden? Why so, people with life-changing illnessses or those who are going through bereavements?  I think we can discount any sort of natural ‘miasma’, some undiscovered radiation that affects our dopamine levels, but in my unscientific way I do believe that our moods are linked to quite tiny physical changes.  Without making it sound as if this is a pitch for PhD funding, the question is – what’s the link between experiencing the natural world, in gardening for instance, and mood – and the subtle changes in our brain chemistry. If I were an academic – I haven’t got the patience in real life – but if I were, I’d quickly move on after I’d listed fresh air, sunshine and excercise … because they’re all very good and we know it.

But while I’m building a raised bed, weeding, planting out and watering there’s always a dialogue going on in my head.   Talking to the plants doesn’t make me certifiably crazy, it makes me more human. Having a chat to the robin that sits waiting for titbits to emerge from the soil when I’m digging feels like the most normal thing in the world. Examining the rows and clumps and trying to figure out if all’s well or whether I should look for a troublesome pest – that’s about relationship.  And so the first area I’d look for the answer to my question “why?”  would be in the relational. Of course allotmeteers are (by and large) a friendly lot but actually quite a few of us find relationships with other humans far more tricky than relationships with robins and runner beans. There are people on our site that I’ve never spoken to because they clearly don’t want to complicate their day by talking to me – far too risky – and I don’t hold it against them, they’re completely free to be themselves.

And that leads to the second promising avenue for research. We’ve looked at relational factors but what about the sense of agency that comes with allotmenteering? Being ill, being sad, being under-appreciated or jobless can send you into a vortex where you feel absolutely helpless.  Tending the allotment, or even a walk through the woods, can give you back a sense of purpose. There’s a link between what you you do and what you get back and so you begin to regain the sense of agency that’s so important to our wellbeing.

Yesterday we took some beetroots from the hotbed and while Madame planted out leeks for the winter, I finished planting the outdoor tomatoes and I put a screen around them to protect them from the expected winds on Saturday.  One of the problems with propagating plants indoors is that they can be quite leggy and soft and so they can be easily damaged by wind or rough handling or even sudden changes in temperature. That’s why we harden things off, gradually introducing them to ‘real’ life on the allotment. Of the sixteen plants, fifteen survived their first night in the rough and tumble and they’ll quickly develop more strength as the roots go down and the stems toughen up.

It’s the sheer generosity of the earth that heads my list of the healing properties of gardening. There is no explanation for the variety, the vitality, the colourfulness, the exquisite shapes and patterns, the medicinal uses, the food they provide.  Time without number I come away from the allotment with a trug full of food and a sense of thanksgiving. Even on the winter days when the bird nets are collapsing under the weight of snow and I drag myself up there to clear them, I get back exhilerated by the cold and the sense of adventure but perhaps more than anything esle by the sense that I matter, that my existence makes a difference, if only to a patch of purple sprouting broccoli!

That’s why the delight.

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Author: Dave Pole

I've spent my life doing a lot of things, all of them interesting and many of them great fun. When most people see my CV they probably think I'm making things up because it includes being a rather bad welder and engineering dogsbody, a potter, a groundsman and bus driver. I taught in a prison and in one of those ghastly old mental institutions as an art therapist and I spent ten years as a community artist. I was one of the founding members of Spike Island, which began life as Artspace Bristol. ! wrote a column for Bristol Evening Post (I got sacked three times, in which I take some pride) and I worked in local and network radio and then finally became an Anglican parish priest for 25 years, retiring at 68 when I realised that the institutional church and me were on different paths. What interests me? It would be easier to list what doesn't, but I love cooking and baking with our home grown ingredients. I'm fascinated by botany and wildlife in general, and botanical illustration. We have a camper van that takes us to the wild places, we love walking, especially in the hills, and we take too many photographs. But what really animates me is the question "what does it mean to be human?". I've spent my life exploring it in every possible way and the answer is ..... well, today it's sitting in the van in the rain and looking across Ramsey Sound towards Ramsey Island. But it might as easily be digging potatoes or making pickle, singing or finding an orchid or just sitting. But it sure as hell doesn't mean getting a promotion, beasting your co-workers or being obsequious to power, which ensured that my rise to greatness in the Church of England flatlined 30 years ago after about 2 days. But I'm still here and still searching for that elusive sweet spot, and I don't have to please anyone any more. Over the last 50 or so years we've had a succession of gardens, some more like wildernesses when we were both working full-time, but now we're back in the game with our two allotments in Bath.

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