Letter from the Director: Winter Is Coming

No, I’m not making a Game of Thrones reference, though I did think it might get your attention.

In a recent conversation with a friend, I was reminded how many people move towards happiness during the summer season. “It’s about this time of year that I finally feel like myself again. And, then, I look ahead and I know winter is coming again and I start bracing myself for it.” my friend said in regard to her potential decision to leave the state of Wisconsin for warmer weather.

Right now in the Midwest, everything is as lush, ripe, juicy, sexy, and beautiful as it’s going to be this year.  We, in return, soak it up with outdoor drinks, hikes, and swim-time activities. Yet, we all know, that in just a couple months winter will creep up slowly; first a chilly few evenings, then the dramatic color change of fall, and then the nighttime frosts that turn into frozen landscapes and dull, dark, thudding days and nights. We will all slug through it, like we did last year, some of us faring better than others.

In a favorite song, singer/song writer Dar Williams describes her own depression, “It feels like a winter machine that you go through and then, you catch your breath and winter starts again, and everyone else is spring bound.” The idea of a ‘winter machine’ is a rich metaphor for what it feels like to have your moods so controlled by outside forces of winter, spring, summer, fall – our disconnect from the natural world, and complete reliance on the built environment giving us the closed up, dull thud of winter.

But we in the midwest are earthy and hardy. We are one generation from farming.  Our rich soils produce food that feed the world. Having outdoor drinks, and getting your swim on, may not be enough to firmly ground us, and help us prepare for the winter machine. We cannot escape our evolution as earth lovers and soil tenders by attending outdoor festivals and loving margaritas. We, in fact, still need our mother earth and our mother earth still needs us at a deeper level.

In reviewing the research, we found that, in 2010, nearly 80,000 Milwaukee residents reported that they had been diagnosed with depression and nationally, over 42 million people were diagnosed in 2013 – this is 17% of the total U.S. population¹.  These numbers demonstrate a national crisis that is reflected locally, and all but ignored from the perspective of prevention.

We also know that the distribution of mental illness across the population is not equitable.  Individuals living in poverty, people who are considered a racial or ethnic minority, and veterans all have higher self-reported rates of poor mental health and higher clinical diagnosis of mental illness.²

It is no surprise to us at Victory Garden Initiative, that the County Health Rankings and Roadmaps, “What Works for Health” shows that using a multi stakeholder approach of pairing community building activities such as “gardening, group exercises and community art projects along with housing development, leadership training and supports for low income and public housing residents” is more effective at treating trauma and mental illness than any one of these programs can be on their own.³  

Gardening has been shown to be effective at relieving acute stress, lowering the risk of heart disease, increasing brain health and immunity, improving productivity and restoring concentration.⁴ Community gardening and individual gardening has also been shown to improve anxiety and depression, decrease social stigma surrounding mental illness and increase access to care for populations that are typically underserved.

A Penn State professor wrote a compelling letter calling for more rigorous research after experiencing success from a 2013 gardening project.  He wrote, “From our experience planning a community garden on the campus of the Pennsylvania State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, we learned that gardens are perceived as a valuable resource for persons affected by mental illnesses, particularly those whose diagnoses carry significant social stigma.”⁵  

A Utah State Ph.D student found that professionals who work with veterans believe that the complexity of PTSD requires treatment that involves an interdisciplinary approach and that Veterans Affairs Hospitals with horticulture therapy incorporated into their patient programs show a reduction in the duration of inpatient stays.⁶  A successful veterans garden in Brentwood, Calif., saw similar results and reported shorter inpatient stays, faster progress of participants to “participate more fully in the world” and increased rates of employment among those who were active in the gardening program.⁷  

Seed StartingMaking that plan the garden in the late winter, getting outside in the early spring, staying outside through the summer, then the fall, bringing that food in for winter consumption is the antidote to the winter machine.  Helping something grow, under your care, from soil, to seed, to plate, to soil again, is a way to be in flow with the cycles of life, rather than succumbing to the machine. We lead, tend, love, foster, care for, the earth and our health, rather than summer partying for three months than hiding until we can enjoy Summerfest again. We also eat. We eat the nourishment that we have created with our own two hands. And, we touch.  We touch the very biology from whence we were created. We eat the earth, directly.  And, we often do it in the company of others.

There is no other activity that can give us a more in-depth, complex, connection to our own carnal and spiritual duality, at once.

I appreciate the subtle rebellion of this quote from renowned author and cultural seer, Margaret Atwood. She notes, “Gardening is not a rational act. What matters is the immersion of the hands in the earth, that ancient ceremony of which the Pope kissing the tarmac is merely a pallid vestigial remnant.” Even our patriarchal, other-worldly religions, have not totally lost track of the ancient wisdom of touching the earth.

Recently, the Kubly Foundation has also become aware of the mounting evidence showing that gardening does, in fact, heal the soul. Victory Garden Initiative has been awarded a substantial gift to create materials that will increase public awareness of the healing powers of gardening, specifically as it relates to mental health. We couldn’t be more thrilled to offer this information to the general public. If your place of employment, leisure, friendly nonprofit organization or other institution would like to dispense materials to help more people understand the mental health benefits of gardening, please let us know.  We are in the process of developing these materials currently.

Beyond dispensing materials, consider how gardening might be implemented into your life and those around you. Maybe because you or someone in your family is depressed, or suffering from mental illness, but maybe even more so that you prevent suffering.

Though we still have a good month left before summer concludes, you better believe it that winter is coming. Will it be a machine or a time to slow down and resonate deeply with the natural rhythm of our humanity?

~Gretchen Mead

(Special thanks to Kelly Moore Brands for her excellent research on this topic)

Gretchen’s tips to keep your summer-fresh soul glow during the rest of the seasons:

1)  Extend your gardening season as long as you are able. Many of us understand the light and refreshing feeling of getting your tomato plants in May and placing them directly into the soil. But gardening stops and starts long before it is time to get those tomato plants from Stein’s.

2)  Take off your shoes. Don’t let your hands be the only conduit to the soil. Your feet can also absorb the mysterious bacteria that has been increasingly shown to be medicinal.

3) Compost everything that can be composted as if it truly matters that his valuable material once again becomes earth and food.

4) Harvest something fresh every day. This routine is very valuable in the same way as daily exercise, and brushing our teeth is. Integrate it into your life.

5) Order a few seed catalogs and read through them in January. Begin the dreaming and planning as early as possible.

6) Start your own seeds: Beginning with onions indoors in February and throughout the spring, as directed on the seed package. Yes, it’s convenient to plant something that someone else fostered, but build your capacities for knowing those seeds and how to care for them, from start to finish.

7) Plant edible perennials. Rhubarb, raspberries, and fruit trees will add so much joy to your gardening joy.  They return every year with such ease and in early spring.

8) Forage the earliest wild, edible greens at your local park or forest.  Not only is this fun and thought-provoking, this will start your spring diet off in just the right direction, filled with rich minerals that are likely depleted from our typical winter diets.

Reference list:

¹ Policymap, 2016

² MHA, 2016; Torres & Vallejo, 2015)(APA, 2016

³ County Health Rankings and Roadmaps, 2016

⁴ Van Den Berg & Custers, 2011; Eliades, 2013; Maller et al., 2005

⁵ George, D., 2013

⁶ Brock, 2011

⁷ Gardening Matters, 2012

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One Response to Letter from the Director: Winter Is Coming

  1. Mike says:

    Walking barefoot on the lawn is physically and mentally therapeutic but choose one that has not been doused with weed killer
    . Eat the dandelion leaves if you are fortunate enough to have them. Laugh at your neighbors who kill them.

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