Five Senses, Four Seasons, One Earth
"The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired, in value."
—Theodore Roosevelt, 1910
We, as gardeners, landscapers, designers, and guests in the garden often talk about our love of nature in terms of our senses. The quote above, by one of our former presidents, speaks to our understanding of sustainability. It struck me that he used the word “impaired” in describing our natural resources.
We perceive the physical world around us by our five senses: sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing. At a recent conference, studies revealed the beneficial aspects of being close to or even just observing green spaces. A neuroscientist stated that a “dose” of green is equal to a dose of Ritalin when studying the effects on the brain.
Joy can be found in every nook and cranny of nature and the best part is that we can use our five senses to enjoy all of them throughout all four seasons.
The first three senses: sight, smell, and taste, are the most obvious. As designers we choose specific plants based on their appearance, or fragrance, or for the food they produce. For most of these plants, spring and summer showcase their best features.
I’m sure all of you have experienced the smell of the first cut lawn in spring, or the aroma just after an April shower. We notice the first flowers to emerge, like the cherries and the redbuds, followed by the dogwoods. Summer moves in with roses, hydrangeas, lilies…the list goes on. Soon, strawberries, blueberries, peaches, and pumpkins—among so many others—begin to fill our farmers’ markets. We enjoy this bounty until late summer and even into the beginning of autumn.
I always feel comforted by the aromas of fall, like the fallen leaves crushed under foot emitting a warm sugary smell or a burning camp fire. And of course, the color of the changing leaves from green to hues of red, orange, gold, and purple.
Our senses of touch and hearing are sometimes lesser known in nature, but they still are a vital attribute of the therapeutic garden. Have you ever walked along a path where a sweep of tall grasses lay to your side? And then you extend your arm over the tufts and run your hands a short distance? The feel of the feathery tops lightly brushing your palms can spark a memory for some, like when they were children playing outside carefree and happy. Or maybe the prick of a sharp leaf edge reminds you of decking the halls with boughs of holly around the holidays.
Hearing is a sense most often overlooked for enjoying nature. We are bombarded by noise pollution almost 24/7 and listening to the garden can be impaired. The sounds of the seasons, to me, do not refer to Johnny Mathis, Andy Williams, or Babs, although I will be baking cookies while listening to them.
Occasionally, I like to sit or stand for a moment during each season and just listen. Spring’s chirping birds, a passing storm booming thunder, and the pitter patter of raindrops.
In summer, I hear bees buzzing, lawns being mowed, children playing. I can hear the cracking of ice as iced tea cascades over the cubes as I sit in the garden or the crashing of waves at North Beach.
Autumn really delivers with wind rustling through the trees and fallen leaves. I like stepping on them, too, reminding me of jumping into a pile of raked leaves when I was a youngster. Sounds are a little louder, since there are no leaves on the trees to muffle them.
Winter arrives, and it all seems to slow down to a tortoise’s pace. If we are lucky, there will be snow. The white stuff may scare many, but I love it. It acts as a blanket, buffering all the noise. When the snow is falling, just go outside and stand. Listen to the nothingness. It washes over you like fog rolling in from the bay.
As you can see, I enjoy using all my senses in the garden and anywhere in nature. It defines our places and creates memories for us to relive later in life. This is also why we need to take care of this one planet we call Earth. For it to be sustainable, we need to protect our resources and make sure our future generations can see, smell, taste, feel, and listen to mother nature.
Have a joyful season and remember to share your bounty with friends and family all year long. Until next year, happy gardening! ▼
Eric W. Wahl, RLA is a landscape architect at Element Design Group and president of the Delaware Native Plant Society.
Photo by Alexandre Guimont on Unsplash