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Why Messiness Matters

The garden as a reciprocal healing journey

TEXT by Real Eguchi, OALA (Retired)

Our twenty-three month old grandchild Reese marvels at the rainbow coloured soap bubbles floating in the heavy air. His jaw drops, his posture realigns. He feels awe aligned with nature… or something akin to that.

Dacher Keltner’s recently published book Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life is based on extensive research exploring the science of awe. He provides this definition: “Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your current understanding of the world.”

While observing the natural buoyancy of floating soap bubbles, Reese appears to experience awe. IMAGE/ Barbara Eguchi, OALA

Loosely described, awe is the complex emotion we have that could include mixed feelings of wonder and dread, joy and sorrow, reverence and humility, big and small. It requires being open to vastness and making accommodation for an experience. It leads to prosocial behaviour and compassion.

Keltner describes the healing benefits of awe, how it helps to regulate the nervous system, activate the vagal nerve, and improve overall physical and emotional health. He describes the importance of experiencing awe in nature and how the science of awe provides insight into the wisdom revealed by contemplative traditions and practices and Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK).

Reese is wonderstruck while playfully immersed in a room full of balloons filled with different gases of varying densities. SUMMIT One Vanderbilt, NYC. IMAGE/ Barbara Eguchi, OALA

When we consider messy gardens as opportunities for intentionally experiencing awe, not unlike a simple awe-walk, the subsequent healing benefits become evident.

Reese has been born into this garden we call Earth. It is not the mythical, perfect Eden of the Bible. Nature supports human life, yet can easily feel threatening. Earth is that complex, liminal space that metaphorically sits between heaven and hell. It seems imperfect. It appears messy and the apparent messiness of our earth-garden can fill us with awe if we are not overly traumatized.

Due to climate change, the public is increasingly aware of how the health of plants plays a critical role in our earth-garden. For this discussion, ”gardens” are viewed as landscapes we often physically occupy, live in, or near. They are landscapes that humans have influenced with intentional manipulation or design. They are cultural landscapes in which plants are considered key elements such as parks, public/private gardens, and ravines.

The beauty and awe of ermine moth larvae supported by invasive common spindle (Euonymus europaeus). Taylor Creek Park. IMAGE/ Barbara Eguchi, OALA

The extent to which he is immersed in nature plays a key role in Reese’s growth. While there is an abundance of information about the exponential, emotional-physical development of young children and the importance of nature to healthy growth, there needs to be a greater emphasis on the potential for reciprocal healing with nature. The messy garden is integral to this intention for humans of all ages. An awareness and acceptance of our wholeness as social mammals with a body-mind, versus a mind controlling a body, and arguably as spiritual beings, is key to our mutual healing journey with nature. We are animals. We are nature.

“By allowing children to identify with their surroundings, we’re helping them develop their own appreciation for nature and, over time, a recognition that these places are worth conserving. We protect what we love.”—The Nature Conservancy

Monarch butterflies roosting in the Lower Don Parklands prior to migrating south. IMAGE/ Steven J. Shpak

The messy garden is not inherently messy, and similar to a “wild” landscape, the level of perceived orderliness is subject to our individual aesthetic sensibilities and cultural worldviews. The messy garden seems inclusive of confusion, disorderliness, or mystery. Also included is a sense of somatic beauty and joy. Feelings of control are combined with uncertainty. At its best, it is an ecosystem we acknowledge as complex. It re-integrates the beautiful and the sublime of the 18th century Picturesque landscape style. Appealing elements go hand in hand with elements and processes that feel less or unappealing.

I have lived beside and visited Taylor Creek Park ravine in Toronto my entire life. There were no walkways or bridges when I was a child. To us, it was wild. It still includes areas of unmanicured thickets alive with messiness. These areas are a complex collection of native and invasive perennials, shrubs, and trees with bright coloured, oily water that seeps out of the ground and coats our boots. With each visit, we discover new species and ponder their relationships.

The Japanese water god Mizugami, including movable visitation stones, keeps watch over an engineered rain and pollinator garden while acknowledging earth-based traditional wisdom. IMAGE/ bREAL art + design

In this messiness, we feel awe. Reese doesn’t seem to dislike messiness and neither do insects. They appear to revel within it. He touches a prickly juniper and soft lamb’s ear. His body-mind senses the difference and his awareness and understanding of the landscape and
life expands.

A renewed sense of beauty, a somatic beauty and joy, aligned with awe experienced in the messy garden, complements the growing body of scientific information and changes in public policy, and can be helpful towards addressing sustainability, biodiversity, and climate change issues. Simply being cognitively informed seems insufficient to shift our cultural norms. If it was, then denial of climate change or apathy towards it would be much less an issue. Empathy and compassion (concern for suffering) for nature is founded in our senses and emotions and inner gratitude. We can care about the health of nature because we love nature. Somatic beauty and joy is the pleasure we experience from within our bodies that extends from our felt sense. It is complex, aligned with awe, characteristically ”messy,” and different than the externally imposed, codified sense of beauty we often subscribe to in our art and design practices.

From the sound and movement of splashes from stones tossed into Taylor Creek, Reese experiences a sense of awe and healing through embodied wholeness. IMAGE/ Barbara Eguchi, OALA

I have written and presented about the importance of the messy garden and sustainable beauty for about 13 years and I am cautiously optimistic about our shifting cultural interests and concerns for the health of nature. Commercial garden centres now carry native plants. Trendy pollinator gardens, seemingly promoted by the charismatic monarch butterfly, has turned common milkweed from a noxious weed to a portal into a wonder-filled, wider, wilder world. Discussions of fungi and mycelia deepen our reverence for the mystery that lies beneath our feet. Inanimate dirt has become living soil.

For these to have become media or trend-worthy, our feelings, thoughts and embodied experiences have likely holistically evolved and shifted. We have been open with a sense of awe. We are accepting, for example, that the formerly disdained common milkweed can also bring us pleasure. Conversely, the sensuous beauty and aroma of the lily of the valley, invasive in Ontario, now has to be reconciled with what science and our intellects tell us about invasive plants and biodiversity.

Reese is developing a relationship, and hopefully love, for Toronto ravines by exploring and connecting intimately with an unmanicured parcel of Taylor Creek Park. IMAGE/ Barbara Eguchi, OALA

Being open and curious to a somatic sense of beauty and joy, aligned with awe experienced in the messy garden, allows us to navigate between the dreadful and delightful, to revere the dandelion in the turf grass, to embrace biodiversity and natural processes, to acknowledge our existential fears while continuously falling in love with gardens, nature, and more-than-human communities. Like my grandchild Reese, we can remain curious, creative, and allow our senses and our felt sense to help guide and heal us when reason alone fails. We give ourselves choice, options, and hope. We can choose to develop wholeness, resilience, and combine personal and planetary healing.

Red-winged blackbirds revealed in the messy beauty of Taylor Creek Park where Real has immersed himself for over 60 years as a practice integral to his own healing journey.
IMAGE/ Real Eguchi, OALA (Retired)

The messy garden is a reciprocal, relational healing journey with nature

I have carefully witnessed Reese cycling between feeling big and small, feeling a sense of agency and frustration and perhaps humility in his journey with his great unknowns. With good fortune, Reese’s body-mind develops and heals. Healing is to become whole again. Like a vibrant ecosystem, in each moment Reese is whole and in transition. With renewed wholeness, he suffers less. We might all hope to share this ongoing journey towards greater wholeness. Adults, including those of us whose life force is in obvious decline, can keep reconfiguring our sense of wholeness in our healing journey, despite not always having a cure for undesirable illnesses. For example, we can heal from cancer even if we are not cured of cancer. Joanna Macy’s The Work that Reconnects centres on ”Active Hope.” It provides a method through which we can feel empowered, despite the despair and smallness we feel when faced with challenges such as climate change. We can keep returning to wholeness within ourselves, with others, and with earth through cyclical practice.

The delicate beauty of the native fringed gentian located in a polluted, wet thicket in Taylor Creek Park. IMAGE/ Barbara Eguchi, OALA

Free-play is also healing. It is widely discussed as a critical activity in healthy childhood development, especially within what we are calling messy gardens.

“Free play is unstructured, voluntary, child-initiated activity that allows children to develop their imaginations while exploring and experiencing the world around them.— Play and Playground Encyclopedia

The fragile beauty and awe of driftwood poignantly supporting life. Second Marsh, Oshawa. IMAGE/ Barbara Eguchi, OALA

There is an uncertainty with free-play: each moment in the process is filled with risk. Triumph and disappointment combine with joy and sorrow. It is a messy process that is essential for a child so that they develop the ability to navigate life within our earth-garden while developing increased resilience and respect for earth. Depending on the age of the child, we might view this as being the practice of experiencing beauty and joy aligned with awe. Messy gardens can support this practice for all ages.

The toxic beauty of native cow parsnip growing in abundance in a Toronto ravine, demands a sense of respect for nature and a feeling of awe. IMAGE/Barbara Eguchi, OALA

What might a messy, reciprocal, healing garden be for adults who are free to play and unconstrained by social norms that arguably extend the colonial mentality and a hyper sense of control? The garden could be a community vegetable or permaculture garden that includes risk and anxiety—especially when relied upon for sustenance. It could be a garden with predominantly native plants or a local ravine, habitats for all flora and fauna to thrive. With any example, there is the felt beauty and joy, the gift of nourishment, the reality of threat, and the comfort of control and safety. We feel awe. The level of messiness clients can sustain, such as a healing garden for dementia patients or those who cannot tolerate a significant deviation from a controlled aesthetic, are key considerations for education and creating safe, holding spaces for reciprocal healing.

Co-created with nature in the messy garden, ephemeral healing art by Real is in part inspired by an inner somatic joy aligned with awe. IMAGE/ Real Eguchi, OALA (Retired)

The messy garden is (a) holding  space with Earth
In the field of psychotherapy, ”holding space” is a verb which means, in part, to be present for ourselves, another individual, or a group, while being supportive and non-judgmental. The messy garden as (a) holding space can be viewed as a verb and noun, a process and a place. It is a safe place for nature to hold space for humans. When not fully human-centric, there is reciprocity. It is a safe place for humans to hold space for the more-than-human world.

Aphids dancing on Tuscan sunflower add an apparent messiness and uncertain beauty to a residential garden. IMAGE/ Barbara Eguchi, OALA

Reese’s messy and complex play garden must be a safe, holding space. Messy landscapes must feel safe for all of us. While much is eschewed about the healing benefits of awe in wilderness settings, for most of us awe would quickly shift to existential dread when the requisite materials and elements of our culture do not allow for safe experiences. Nature is not simply nourishing or supportive. Few of us would feel awe or even survive in wild nature if left on our own to forage for food and create shelter. 

A curious child developing agency, resilience and “active hope” in a growing relationship with her family’s disheveled, permaculture, healing garden. IMAGE/ Barbara Eguchi, OALA

The messy garden promotes the human experience of somatic beauty and joy aligned with awe and the more-than-human world
With this limited discussion that briefly touches upon the science of awe, health sciences, and traditional/contemplative practices, we might further appreciate how the messy garden supports and promotes the emotional health of humans and the health of our earth-garden.

Culture and nature align as delightfully messy shelter for birds in this multi-part sculpture. The Guardians by Amy Switzer, Humber Bay Butterfly Habitat Home Garden.
IMAGE/ Barbara Eguchi, OALA

The messy garden is a reciprocal, relational healing journey when we experience the beauty and awe within a safe yet complex landscape, a holding space for humans that also provides sanctuary for flora and fauna. When we are able to be still and present while being open to vastness, we feel joy and melancholy and other mixed feelings. We develop humility and deep reverence for the more-than-human world. Some consider this sacred.

Unstructured free-play in a park is a messy, healing process that can help to develop resilience, wholeness and a deepening respect for earth. Trinity Bellwoods Park, Toronto. IMAGE/ Barbara Eguchi

As speciesism and speciesist thinking diminishes, we feel our smallness. Yet, through intimate connection to that which is infinitely larger than us, our wholeness continues to expand. Some consider this spiritual.

At the least, the messy garden is (a) holding space to navigate between grief and gratitude, a practice towards developing resilience. This is perhaps why messy gardens matter most. They teach us equanimity. They prepare us for dealing with uncertainties and teach us how to discover new certainties. They encourage our capacity for creativity and collaboration, for finding new pathways to navigate the messiness in our lives, in much larger systems that lay beyond our precious moments immersed in our messy gardens.

The minimalist aesthetic of this residential garden, designed by bREAL art + design, was developed to respect the limited messiness the client required for their garden to be a safe, holding space. IMAGE/ bREAL art + design

An engineered rain and pollinator  garden, designed by bREAL art + design, is (a) holding space for many species. IMAGE/ bREAL art + design

“Well something’s lost, but something’s gained In living every day”—”Both Sides Now,” Joni Mitchell

BIO/ Real Eguchi, OALA (retired), was a principal of Eguchi Associates Landscape Architects/bREAL art + design for over 30 years. His current interests include reciprocal healing gardens, sustainable beauty, somatic joy, awe, and equanimity. He believes the design of lived-in landscapes must promote a healthy, reciprocal, resilient relationship between humans and more-than-human communities. As a survivor of the cultural genocide, incarceration, and assimilation of Japanese Canadians, Real views nature as a partner in his own journey towards wholeness and healing from racism and attachment/existential/ intergenerational trauma. Real believes that to holistically address environmental issues, it is critical to accept that humans are unexceptional, mortal creatures.

The three rainwater detention areas in this garden designed by bREAL art + design, fills the garden with flowing delight during heavy rains, while reducing the burden on city infrastructure and nature. IMAGE/ bREAL art + design

Little Island at Pier 55 in NYC, is a whimsical, organically flowing, human-created island landscape where “visitors can experience nature and art in a unique urban oasis on the Hudson River.” Its undulating topography challenges our perceived relationship with nature. IMAGE/ Barbara Eguchi, OALA