[A smartphone is] the last thing I want to take with me into the garden. What I love most about being there is surrendering myself entirely to the tasks at hand. Clearing out overgrown beds, digging in compost for new plantings, transplanting, repotting, pruning, feeding – whatever the job, working in the garden is the best way I know to untether my brain from pretty much everything that’s going on in my world, and especially all the frantic activity of social media feeds, news updates, SMS alerts and phone calls that keep us captive once our screens are in our hands.
There’s extensive research on the psychological benefits of being in natural surroundings (summarized in Florence Williams’ new book The Nature Fix). But one of the things I observed when I was writing Rest was that for a number of my subjects, gardening wasn’t just an opportunity to spend time outdoors and get exercise (though it was both of those things); it was also a form of deep play.
For creative and ambitious people, deep play provides many of the same psychological rewards and satisfactions as their work, but without the frustrations. At the same time, deep play is psychologically restorative because it offers those rewards in new and refreshing contexts; because it provides flow, mastery, and control; and because it has some deeply personal or autobiographical dimension that connects them to family, or their homeland, or their younger selves. So how does gardening become deep play?
Consider the life of Australian neuroscientist John Eccles. He had studied neuroscience at Oxford under the great Charles Sherrington, then taught in Sydney, New Zealand, and finally ANU in Canberra. Eccles investigated the nature of communication between the nervous system and muscles, a research area that involved working on live brains and animals (usually cats). This wasn’t work that you did for eight hours, then went home; an experiment required working for 36-hour periods, starting in the morning and continuing until late the next night, with a break to go home for breakfast and a shower. Consequently, much of his leisure was pushed to the weekends. Eccles was an enthusiastic gardener, and always had a large garden, culminating at Canberra in a hectare-sized plot with an orchard, vegetable garden, and flower plots. His fourteen years in Canberra, anchored by the lab and garden, were remarkably productive: he published 196 articles and four books, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1963.
Why did Eccles do it? For one thing, it was hard physical work. Eccles was a noted collegiate athlete, winning prizes and setting records in track and field, and his hobbies tended to by physically challenging. He played tennis, and he and and his wife were accomplished folk dancers (an activity that doesn’t sound exhausting until you try it yourself).
Eccles had also grown up in the country, in rural towns outside Melbourne. His early childhood was “a simple life in the country with a horse, a cow and some fowls,” according to one daughter. Maintaining a garden was a way for him to stay linked to that past. As a result, working in the gardens was psychologically restorative for Eccles: on Mondays, after a weekend of trimming trees and weeding, he would “turn again to the labs refreshed with new ideas,” his daughter recalled.
Eccles is a great example of a broader type: the scientist who grows up in a rural area, who makes a life in academia, often settling in a big city or university town (sometimes on another continent), but who maintains a garden or country farm, and uses it as a respite from work. Everyone who does this grew up in a rural area: I didn’t find anyone who took up this kind of serious gardening after growing up in Brooklyn or working-class London. But for those who do it, the garden serves as a respite from the laboratory, a place where they can immerse themselves in a thousand small manageable tasks, and retain some connection to their pasts.