Sustaining Wellness:

Drawing from the Roots of Horticultural Therapy

by Jay Stone Rice

Master of the Universe,
Grant me the ability to be alone; may it be my custom to go outdoors each day among the trees and grass—among all living things—and enter into prayer,
talking with the One to whom I belong.
May I express there everything in my heart, and may all the foliage of the field awake at my coming, to send the powers of their life into the words of my prayer so that my speech is made whole through the life and spirit of all growing things, which are made as One, by their transcendent Source.

—Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav

Redwood sentinels (Photo by Gary Newman)

Wellness Under Threat

When I consider the images currently shaping my feelings regarding nature, the future of our earth and the lives of our children, I feel more fear than hope. Each day we receive more information that confirms we are living on a dangerously warming planet. The loss of arctic ice and the imperiled polar bears, the increases in fires, hurricanes, and drought impact each of us consciously and unconsciously. In my psychotherapy practice, I observe the growing strains in the lives of those I work with. Rarely is the state of the earth seen as a contributing factor. This speaks to our alienation, confusion, and dissociation from our essential nature. Michael Pollan (2002), in his exquisite book The Botany of Desire, notes how strange it seems that humans have a “relationship to nature.” His book eloquently makes the case that we are of nature, we are nature.

These thoughts of our current ecological/existential crisis came upon me unbidden, when recently I was invited to consider the applicability of horticultural therapy for sustaining wellness.1 My writing flitted upon the surface of this question of human wellness, until I turned towards my own growing despair regarding the health of our earth. I felt my soul stir when the shape of this inquiry moved from a unidirectional focus on how nature and gardens can foster human well-being and health, to how horticultural therapy might foster healing in completing the circle of human/nature. In the absence of hope, I call upon a faith that turning towards these pressing concerns will deepen our inquiry into the heart of our work.

In attempting to understand our contemporary ecological situation from a wider perspective, I first turned to mythology. Michael Meade (2008), the psychologist, mythologist, and activist, suggests we are in the “end of days” time of our cycle. In his book The World Behind The World, Meade looks to the old world tales and myths to learn how to live one’s life in troubled times. He tells a story of lions hunting in the savannah in Africa. The pride sends its oldest and weakest member to the far side of the hunted herd. What this elder lacks in vitality for the chase he amply makes up for in the strength and volume of his roar. As the lion begins to roar, the herd flees in the opposite direction where they meet the young hunters of the pride. Meade suggests the feeling that the world is going to end is represented by the roar of the elder lion. As the story portrays, sometimes the strategy for survival is counter-intuitive and we must go towards the roar. To go towards this roar, we must face our fears. Meade notes that the root word for fear is the same as for “fare,” as in thoroughfare. Fear means “to go through,” find our way through to a place of deeper understanding (p.6).

Jay Stone Rice, Ph.D., integrates training in psychology, community development and nature-based wisdom traditions. He teaches at the Horticultural Therapy Institute in Denver, CO and practices psychotherapy in San Rafael, CA. Dr. Rice studied San Francisco Sheriff Department’s Garden Project. He co-edited The Healing Dimensions of People-Plant Relations, Center for Design Research, University of California, Davis. Dr. Rice consulted with the Center for Mental Health Services and the National Institute for Corrections on developing ecologically sensitive treatment programs. He has written about the social ecology of inner city family trauma, substance abuse and crime, and gardening as a treatment intervention.

Turning to the root meanings of the concepts of sustaining health and wellness, I reexamine these terms in light of this new direction. Dunn (1959) defines wellness in the article “High-Level Wellness for Man and Society” as the balance of body, mind, and spirit that contributes to an overall feeling of well-being. Well-being is defined in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (1981) as “the state of being happy, healthy, and prosperous” (p. 1454). Each of these terms harkens back to “well.” One definition of well is “to rise and surge from an inner source” (p. 1454). The literal root meaning of sustain is to “hold up from below” (p. 1296). When we think of prospering, Americans often think of material success. Yet as we delve into the etymology of material, we find that its Latin root is “mater,” meaning mother. In Greek this was “meter” and harkens back to Demeter, who is the goddess of produce and grains. The “De” in Demeter means earth ( This suggests that we are unable to truly prosper, archaic root meaning to “flourish and thrive” (American Heritage Dictionary, p. 1051), without also attending to the health of our mother earth.

Sarah Anne Edwards (2008) writes of eco-anxiety as an intelligent response to the very real threat that the world as we have known it may be coming to an end. Global warming, resource depletion, extinction of species and plants, changing habitats, increases in fire and other environmental crises are having far reaching affects. In fact, she observes, they are connected to our worsening economic and social pressures, such as rising cost of food staples, housing, utilities, and transportation and play a role in our loss of economic opportunities. It is our collective economic and ecological survival that is currently being challenged. Edwards notes that “we may face an extended series of minor and significant losses throughout our lifetime that will erode the constants that underlie our sense of security” (p. 2). How is it possible to look at this without fear?

Michael Meade (2008) characterizes fear as the great awakener. “Healthy fear wakens the soul and guides it to greater connections to the living Soul of the World” (p. 6). Meade further counters the whole premise of security. He suggests that “nature is itself ever-changing, always cooking something up and shape-shifting and starting things over again” (p.18). He recalls a poet’s quip that false security is the only kind there is. Indeed he notes our current conditions are essential to “find our true selves and the dream threaded into our lives from before it began” (p. 6). The conditions we find ourselves in are the necessary conditions we must go through in order to find our true selves. What he is suggesting is that these global conditions have meaning, purpose, and intention.

To authentically respond to times such as these, we are called upon to draw deeply from our own roots and bring forth that which we have been born to bring to the world.

He maintains there have always been troubles in the world, and the world has always seemed to be held together by a slender thread. Turning to the roar at times like these entails preserving the beauty and meaning in our individual lives and recognizing the preciousness of all of life. Meltzer and Williams (1988) suggest the ability to apprehend beauty is connected to the recognition of loss and the passage of time. To authentically respond to times such as these, we are called upon to draw deeply from our own roots and bring forth that which we have been born to bring to the world. In becoming wholly ourselves we are able to add to the healing of our world.


To be wholly ourselves. To know who we are and what we bring to life that expresses our unique gifts and understandings. How many of us feel challenged by that task? There are many good reasons for this. Most of us have had to adapt to the misunderstandings of our culture and perhaps our families. For many of us, education has been a process of having to absorb the thoughts of others. We are taught how to think, be, and act, rather than supported in discovering who we are.

James Hillman (1996), archetypal psychologist and author, writes in The Soul’s Code that we are much like the acorn that carries the design of a mature tree within it. Drawing upon Plato’s Myth of Er, Hillman describes how each soul arrives at birth with an inner Daemon that carries one’s inherent knowing. The conditions of the soil and quality of the nutrients help determine how much of each individual’s unique shape is expressed.

When we enter the garden, we are also planting our selves.

A seed story that has brought me to my life’s work comes to mind. During my 13th year I attended a summer long Hebrew-speaking camp in Ontario. It was the practice at this camp to celebrate the Sabbath in a full and integrated way. The Jewish Sabbath begins on Friday evening because time is measured according to the moon. We began preparing for our Sabbath celebration on Friday morning after breakfast, when we cleaned up our cabins and the camp common areas. The campers in each cabin would take their weekly showers and dress in white clothes. Afterwards, we gathered in an outdoor forest chapel where we would have Kabbalat Shabbat, a welcoming the Sabbath service.

The Kabbalat Shabbat service traditionally includes the Lecha Dodi prayer. This prayer was written by a kabbalist, Rabbi Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz, in the 16th century in Safed. In Lecha Dodi, the Shechina, the feminine, immanent manifestation of the sacred, is welcomed. The kabbalists would don their finest white clothes and go out into the fields to greet the Sabbath bride as the sun was setting and bring her into their house of prayer. In current practice, when the last verse of this prayer is sung, the congregation turns to the door to sing and welcome the Sabbath Queen. It is important to note that much of what I am explaining about this prayer and its origins was unknown to me consciously the summer of my 13th year. As we sang this prayer one Friday evening, we turned at the last verse towards the cypress trees behind us. I looked about me and noticed all of the trees were shimmering with a golden light. Then I looked down at my body and noticed I was shimmering as well with this same light.

In Hebrew the word for wilderness is mid’bar – that which resonates. In this moment, I directly experienced the meaning of the mystical Kaballah creation myth, as interpreted by Isaac Luria (1534-1572): In the beginning the Ein Sof – The One Without Limits – emanated creative sparks which became covered with matter creating all life forms. It is our task to recognize the Sacred Spark in all things thereby reconnecting with the Source of all life (Vital, 2008). Knowing emerges through sensory perception and then moves to thoughts and ideas (Winkler, 2003). While understanding the illumination I experienced that Sabbath eve has been a life-long endeavor, I knew at a young age that everything was different than what I had previously thought or imagined.

Spring planting (Photo by Christine Capra)

Much later (about 27 years) I encountered horticultural therapy when studying the effect of the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department’s Garden Project on the lives of chemically dependent county jail inmates (Rice 1993, Rice & Remy, 1998). Horticultural therapy is a treatment modality that utilizes gardening to help clients adapt to the challenges life has brought them. It spans a continuum from occupational therapy in hospital settings, to community gardening for the homeless.

Our research showed that the inmates who participated in the garden project used fewer substances post-release and had a greater desire for help. The desire for help was viewed as containing an implicit hope for a better future. The hope generated through a direct, intimate encounter with nature and the cultivation of life enabled some students of the Garden Project to face the difficult challenges of recovery from chemical dependency.

When doing research for the literature review for my study on the Garden Project, I came across a reference to Edith Cobb’s (1993) The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood. The title intrigued me and I tracked it down. In this book, Cobb looked at the biographies and autobiographies of 300 creative people. She discovered that each person described a period in their lives when they had an experience in nature that brought them synergistically to an understanding of their essential work in the world. In a sense we could say they experienced their seed potential expressing its essence under the right natural condition. A significant contribution that horticultural therapy can bring to the conversation regarding health and wellness is the recognition that we are seeds needing to express our true natures for our individual and collective well-being. When we enter the garden, we are also planting our selves.

Psyche and Soil

Carl Jung emphasized the role nature plays in supporting our psychological health. He observed that our psyche is best understood in relation to nature; we experience daily and seasonal variations and go through cycles of death and rebirth (1960). Jung maintained much of our current predicament (which he foresaw clearly by the end of his life in 1961) emerged from the modern prejudice of over valuing the conscious mind (1977)2. Jung notes that despite our attempts to control nature, we are still at her effect. He observed it was as if “our consciousness had somehow slipped from its natural foundations and no longer knew how to get along with nature’s timing” (1969, PAR. 802). Jung’s prescription was “that every human should have a plot of land so that their instincts could come to life again” (1977, p. 201). For Jung, these instincts represented connection and relationship to the non-human world and the depth of our unconscious archetypal psyche, which contains 3 million years of experience living in the natural world. Jung theorized that just as we inherit physical genetic material that has been honed over millennia to foster our survival, we too inherit archetypal knowledge that provides us with the psychological tools to survive. When this connection is made, Michael Meade movingly suggests a doorway opens that leads to the renewing capacity of the Old Mind – “the inner ancestor who carries our instincts for survival and our intuitions of creation” (2008, p. 9).

Yet the question remains, is there time to pull out of our growing ecological peril? In truth, I fear not. What then can horticultural therapy or nature offer to support us? Jung maintained, “the wheel of time could not be turned back. Things can, however, be destroyed and renewed” (1975 p. 209). In medicine wheel teachings, which are directly drawn from nature, death is not an ending (Star Blanket & Dream Weaver, 2009). As we note in each season, there is birth, life, death and rebirth into the next cycle.

In exploring this area of endings and beginnings, Michael Meade observes “when there is no time left at all, it is time for the eternal connections to be rediscovered” (2008, p. 13). Indeed he rekindles our understanding of apocalypse by explaining that it means “to lift the veil between one thing and another” (p. 24). “When things unravel before our very eyes, when people become lost and the world seems to have lost its bearings,” Meade suggests, “it is lost ideas and ancient imaginations that seek to be found again” (p. 25). It is a time of returning to the garden to allow nature to affect us and bring forward our conscious participation in the great wheel of life.

Joni Mitchell’s voice enters my mind and with a few short quick keystrokes, the words are in front of me on the screen and the internet radio is playing Woodstock, (1970)

I’m going to camp out on the land
I’m going to try an’ get my soul free
We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

Nature helps us move beyond our limited human identification and provides us with intimations of the sacred. Gershon Winkler (2003), a rabbi who’s research, writing, and teaching has focused on recovering and reclaiming the indigenous roots of Judaism, says this of the life crisis that brought him to his life’s work:

…it had to do with a deeper yearning that had been buried beneath layers and layers of living my life the way that it had been defined for me by everyone but me. This long unheeded longing had to do with retrieving my ancestral roots as a tribal, earth conscious people engaged in an intimate relationship with the land (p. xviii).

Winkler titled his book on Jewish indigenous wisdom The Magic of the Ordinary. He affirms it is in the direct experience of the “so-called ordinary, mundane, material existence” that we can discover the mystery we often attribute to more transcendent realms (p. xxii).

This observation is also found in the theology of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772). Swedenborg was a Swedish scientist, philosopher, Christian mystic, and theologian. The Swedenborg Society has compiled a list of reknown artists and thinkers who have noted his influence including: William Blake, , Henry James, Sr., Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Butler Yeats, Walt Whitman, D.T. Suzuki and Carl Jung (Writers Influenced by Swedenborg, N.D).) He was a prolific thinker and writer whose careful empiricism brought him to an appreciation for the organic wisdom found in the study of nature, medicine and physiology (Frankiel, 2003). Swedenborg attempted to reintroduce to science the earlier understanding found in Egyptian and Greek thought, as well as in indigenous cultures, that there are direct correspondences between nature and the Divine Realm. Swedenborg was not merely speaking about symbolic or allegorical reflections. Rather he proposes through direct and conscious engagement with nature, we learn to live our lives with meaning and reverence and come to know the unseen heavenly realms (Toksvig, 1948).

Plant Ancestors

What of the plants the horticultural therapist work with? What part do they play teaching us about health and wellness?

“Who are you?” Star Blanket asked when I first met him just after completing my doctoral dissertation on the Garden Project. I felt compelled to tell him the story of my experience in the Cypress forest. Star Blanket drew a circle (medicine wheel) on a blank piece of paper and placed a few words at the cardinal points and within the center of the circle and described simply what the trees had in store for me.

Nature helps us move beyond our limited human identification and provides us with intimations of the sacred.

In an instant, I recognized my dissertation was not an end point; rather it was an entry into a deeper passage. I wanted to know more about the wisdom available through our conscious engagement with the natural world. Star Blanket explained that the plants are our ancestors. Plants populated the earth before we arrived and in fact created the necessary conditions for our ability to live and survive here. He spoke of how the trees were the communicators of the natural world. When one receives a vision of their work or a new name from Great Spirit, a tobacco bag is tied to the tree and the tree lets all the worlds know of you. The trees were mirroring to me my true nature. I opened to the possibility of more conversations with the natural world.

Claire Cooper Marcus (1990) was able to observe the communication between plants and humans as an intern at Findhorn in Scotland. The Findhorn community began with a few people living on unemployment, who moved to a trailer park on the Scottish coast. They started a garden by their trailer and struggled to grow anything in the sandy soil. These people were long-standing practitioners of Christian Insight Meditation. They began to hear the voices of plants in their meditations, which made suggestions for improving the growth of their garden. They felt they had nothing to lose and began to follow the directions of these plant devas or spirits. Miraculously they started to produce gigantic vegetables that caught the attention of others who believed something magical was happening in this garden. Many people were drawn to this area and a community was formed. Their meditations, gardening, and communal life were an abiding study of a co-creative relationship with nature and spirit. Cooper Marcus concluded that “gardens are places of reconnection with the intuitive, right brain functions, with holistic, ecological thinking” (p. 32).

Michael Pollan notes that plants have been evolving longer than we, particularly in the area of developing new co-evolutionary strategies for surviving. We sometimes fail to appreciate what plants accomplish because we humans place a value on mobility and miss the internal work plants are doing with their biochemistry in order to cultivate the partners they need to survive. In Botany of Desire, Pollan turns our usual human way of thinking on its ear, by confronting the assumption that intentionality is only a human property. Plants that successfully develop qualities that attract insects to help them reproduce have a better chance to survive. So too, plants that develop intimate partnerships with humans are showing evolutionary fitness that supports their continued existence. According to Pollan, plants, perhaps better than humans, understand that evolution favors interdependence.

Heather (Photo by Jean Hutchinson)

Plants teach us the value of experimentation in adapting to changing environmental conditions. Each apple contains within its star pattern of seeds five new potential apple types. Not all of these experiments are successful; nature does not promise this or require it. How often as humans are we caught in patterns that do not support our own evolution? We can certainly learn to be freer in expressing the various seeds of our nature that we carry within us. We may face some failures, that is true, but the willingness to take this risk may bring about new growth in surprising ways.

Plants teach us that growth takes time and goes through many stages. In my work with Star Blanket, he taught me to plot new projects according to their moon co-creation cycles. There are 13 moon cycles in a year. Each can be linked to a stage in the cycle of creation. The stages of manifesting are (beginning in the east of the wheel): Seed, Union, Egg, Sprout, Root, Trunk, Budding, Flower, Fruit, Return, Compost, Silence, and Renewal (2009, pp. 124-130). When we birth new ideas, such as horticultural therapy programs to promote and sustain wellness, it can be helpful to think of the stages these ideas will go through in growing on this Earth. This awareness is medicine in a culture that values the instant at the expense of maturation.

Realm of Time

Herein lies a paradox. I find myself noting ever more clearly the passage of time, along with my growing anxiety over the slowness of our collective response to our environmental peril. Yet the growth of consciousness can not be rushed. Pollan notes that our greatest happiness arrives “in such moments, during which we feel as though we’ve sprung free from the tyranny of time — clock time of course, but also historical, psychological time and sometimes even mortality” (2002, p. 164). Michael Meade proposes, “In the end or near it, the real issue isn’t the future of humanity, but the presence of eternity” (2008, p. 24).

According to Pollan, plants, perhaps better than humans, understand that evolution favors interdependence.

In his seminal book The Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel speaks of the Sabbath as architecture in time (1951). He notes that we tend to think of time passing and passing ever more quickly. What we perceive is the passing of our human, material built world. When we are able to stop our doing, and enter a moment of quiet non-doing, we access the part of our experience that is eternal and timeless. These intimations of a larger knowing are found in the garden and in nature.

Horticultural therapy supports health and wellness by fostering engagement with our earth mother. This in turn catalyzes our connection to ancestral wisdom, archetypal knowledge, and spiritual understanding and provides access to the regenerative magic of natural cycles. Horticultural therapy teaches us respect and appreciation for the soul renewal possible when we are involved in the co-creation of life.

In closing I would like to share two stories that illuminate the magic and mystery of our interconnectedness. Last August, my wife, Rohana, and I attended a Beaver Festival in Martinez, CA just across the San Pablo Bay from where we live. The small business area that comprises downtown Martinez is situated along Alhambra Creek. The creek had become degraded over the years and was used as an unofficial dump site. A local environmental group took on a wetland restoration project in this area about 5 years ago. The following winter, a large rain storm brought a beaver couple into the creek. Seeing the neighborhood had improved, they decided to take up residency. Dams and a lodge were built, and the family quickly expanded. Some business owners became concerned that the dam was raising the water level and placing the foundations of their businesses at risk. They asked the town council to relocate or exterminate the beavers. This generated uproar in the community, and the organization Worth a Dam was born. They organized and attended meetings, had engineering studies done, and developed a win-win solution. A “Castor Master,” flexible tubing, was placed through the main dam, to control the water levels. The beaver family expanded and did such a nice job with the area that a mink family moved in as well. Worth a Dam created the beaver festival that we attended. While we were waiting during the dusk hours for the beavers to appear, it occurred to me that horticultural therapists could develop community projects that restored natural habitats and helped to cultivate and reintroduce native (and in California and the Western U.S., drought resistant) plants. Clearly working to create a healthier natural environment will enhance the well-being of horticultural therapy clients.

I am grateful for the opening nature has afforded me and appreciative of the guidance I have received from Star Blanket and Stephanie Rainbow Lightening Elk while training in their mystery school. Rohana began her studies with them a year and a half before I did. She came back from a 10 day retreat in the Panhandle Forest of Northern Idaho and told me about a ceremony she participated in called Walk of the Wolf. Sitting around the campfire one moonless evening, the participants were asked to go out into the forest without flashlights and have an experience or communication with the non-human world to bring back to the circle. As I listened to her story, I could feel panic arise in me. Growing up in a well-built human city, Pittsburgh, I had a lot of fear of wild nature. I knew that there were lions and bears in Northern Idaho.

When I decided to pursue the same training, I knew that this walk of the wolf ceremony would come one night. I had almost two years to obsess and stress before it actually arrived. In a sense, I had more work and more opportunity because my fear had aged and grown in strength during this time. The last thing our teachers said to us as we were leaving the campfire was to remember to speak to the creatures and let them know we were coming into the forest for a ceremony, not to be anyone’s dinner.

Let me step back for a moment. The area where we set up camp, Lightening Creek, was undeveloped; there were no bathrooms, or even outhouses. When nature called, we went out to secluded areas with shovel in hand. After a few days, I became skilled at looking for soft places in the earth out of the range of tree roots to dig my hole. The night of the Walk of the Wolf was dark, although the stars were glistening in their multitude. In an act of bravery, I left my glasses back at the camp because I could not see with them any ways. In fact, part of the design of the ceremony was to develop seeing not connected to our outer senses. The first thing I noticed was that the plants that grew in the areas between the trees where I had dug my holes possessed a luminescence in the dark. I was surprised to see that these plants I had been feeding (so to speak) were providing lit pathways to follow through the darkness. Most of the time. these plants guided me past the trees; on occasion I did take a dive over a tree root. I would get up, thank the tree for not killing me, and continue on. The further I went, the more I realized that the fear I had anticipated being a part of this experience was not there. I realized I was not all alone, perhaps a bigger fear than even meeting an animal. Rather I began to feel a presence. At times I could see glimmers of lights moving, and had the sense of consciousness, perhaps spirits of nature. Rather than feeling panic, I felt peace, connection and mystery.

In actuality, our minds are of nature and when we remain cognizant of this, we discover plants, as well as all of our other relations, are continuously sending us tweets that can illuminate our way in this world. We find this guidance expressed in the voice of an elder in the following poem by David Wagoner.


Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.

—David Wagoner
From the book Traveling Light: Collected and New Poems,
published by the University of Illinois Press in 1999


1 This article is drawn from a keynote talk given on October 1, 2009 at the American Horticultural Therapy Association’s (AHTA) annual conference Sustaining Health & Wellness Through Horticultural Therapy, in Pasadena, California. The American Horticultural Therapy Association was formed in 1973 to support the development and recognition of horticultural therapy as a unique treatment intervention. Gardens have been known to be curative and peaceful since ancient times. In the U.S., Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the “Father of American Psychiatry,” reported that gardens were curative for mental illness. In the 1940’s horticultural therapy was utilized in the treatment of hospitalized war veterans. Currently, horticultural therapy is practiced in senior facilities, homeless shelters, prisons, rehabilitation hospitals, schools and hospices in the U.S, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe.
2 I thank Meredith Sabini, Ph.D., for researching and gathering together all of Jung’s writings on nature in The earth has a soul: The nature writings of C.G. Jung. (2002. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.


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