How Landscapes Heal Even If They Aren’t Green

Photo of desert landscape showing how landscapes heal even if they aren't greenn
Photo by Christine John

One year earlier, I packed up all my belongings, sold my house and moved across the country to study landscape architecture. It may have seemed somewhat foolhardy, but my interest in healing landscapes drew me to it. Although I decided not to complete the three year program, studying landscape design increased my fascination with nature and the power it has to heal. I began searching for another way to become involved with therapeutic landscapes. When I discovered the healing garden certificate program at the Chicago Botanical Gardens, I gathered up the last of my savings, and excitedly signed up.

For one week, I absorbed as much information as I possibly could about green spaces and the way they help us heal. It wasn’t until someone stated ‘people who live in places without trees must be really depressed’ that I began to wonder if green spaces had to actually be green. The statement had made me jump and then cringe, as I thought about the seemingly brown landscape I knew as home. I felt somewhat conflicted. Ever since arriving in Indiana I had fallen in love with the green landscape. The forest trees and expansive lawns filled me with a sense of calm I had never felt before. I loved the frequent rains, the flowers, and the fireflies. But part of me still craved the open skies and never ending desert views.

Trees Have Both Psychological and Social Benefits

I opted not to say anything as the group continued to discuss the work of Dr. William Sullivan from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champagne. Who was I to argue with such an expert in the field? Dr. Sullivan’s studies suggest that trees have both psychological and social benefits and that exposure to trees brings people together, reduces crime, and lowers stress. Perhaps they were right. ‘Maybe we do need trees,’ I thought as I reflected on the expansive desert vistas that I grew up with. But people in the desert don’t seem more depressed to me. Quite the opposite in fact.

Research suggests that trees provide a landscape that blocks the viewer from seeing what is coming next. Kaplan and Kaplan refer to this as fascination or mystery. Natural settings that contain mystery can be very compelling and encourage us to explore further. Mysterious settings allow a person to make sense of their surroundings, while also creating opportunities for exploration. This can not only engage, but also sustain a person’s interest. A view of trees and foliage creates this mystery. However, other visual landscapes, such as a bend in the trail or stream, can also provide this sense of mystery.  

Photo by Christine John

How Landscapes Heal Even When They Aren’t Green

I returned home several months ago and found myself craving the lush green spaces of Indiana. I decided to venture out to rediscover the desert landscape. What I was reminded of is that the desert is full of mystery. Every turn, rock, hill and land formation provides a sense of wondering about what lies ahead. In addition to this, the desert provides an abundance of fractals. And fractals can also lead to healing. According to Richard Taylor, a physicist at the University of Oregon, viewing geometrical fractal images produced feel good alpha brain waves in study participants which led to a wakefully relaxed state. Taylor believes that our brains recognize that kinship to the natural world and suggests that fractals have the same effect as trees.

In addition to fractals, the desert provides an abundant amount of sunshine. And the sun can increase our levels of serotonin, making us feel less anxious and depressed. Sunshine greatly impacts mental health. Studies suggest that a day could include uncomfortably hot temperatures, thick air pollution, or even rain clouds, but that doesn’t necessarily affect our mood. If we are getting enough sun, our emotions should remain relatively stable.

Photo by Christine John

I Smiled As I Happily Watched a Lizard Dart Out From Under a Cactus

As I sat on a rock next to a prickly pear cactus covered in bright pink flowers and an abundance of fractals, I realized that it doesn’t really matter where you are in nature. Nature always provides healing. I smiled as I watched a lizard dart out from under the cactus. As I looked up at the big blue sky the bright sun warmed my face. ‘I really do like the desert.’ I thought as I slowly became re-enchanted.

Photo by Christine John