The Value of Multi-Sensory Elements in Contemplative Landscapes
by Vince Healy

Whether integral to landscapes at large or in gardens, contemplative environments add vital spice to the mix of places that help us gain/maintain vital equilibrium. In healthcare settings, they may entice patients and clients to discern and ponder aspects of their lifestyles which might have caused them to become ill. In everyday life, contemplation may inspire the reevaluation of what is truly important to us.

This is why it is crucial to instill contemplative landscapes/gardens with an ambience that inspires the examination of issues from a perspective larger than oneself.

These environments facilitate contemplation by encouraging their visitors to emotionally disengage from an immediate problem at hand; then freshly re-engage with the issue later. Psychologists who use hypnotherapy in their practice have labeled this successful, if indirect, route to eureka “disorientation-reorientation.” 

Whether we scrutinize our conundrums on analyst’s couches or contemplate them outdoors, the underlying dilemma is the same. This is aptly identified by the Zen Riddle: “When you seek it, you cannot find it.”  Contemplative environments support contemplation by distracting/disorienting our focus from the “it” we seek so “it” can find us.

These places draw attention away from “it” by exposing us to unfamiliar, multi-sensorial phenomena. When we are in these places, we can open ourselves to perceive hummingbirds, quivering Aspen leaves, waterfalls, etc. that surprise and allure us into sensing awe and wonderment. Arguably, Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu’s assertion that “from wonder into wonder existence opens” best explains what occurs during this initial stage of contemplation. Artist and pioneer of the Light and Space Movement, Robert Irwin, describes what results from this contemplation as “perceiving yourself in the process of perceiving.”

Later, as a way of bringing contemplation to an end, observers may reweave their new experiences into the habitual ways they have perceived their existence. This enlarged perspective provides meaning and may give invaluable insights into unresolved issues and what to do about them.

Historically, contemplative gardens were naturally occurring settings. Today, landscape architects and designers facilitate contemplation in gardens by placing nurturing, subtle, and complex multisensory stimuli in the spaces they create. In this context, designers have as their primary goal seducing beholders into states of serenity.

A proposed contemplative garden.
Image courtesy Vince Healy.

In order to gain a deeper understanding of contemplation’s value, I next share my recollections of how landscape features in a garden-like setting seduced me into solving a crisis.

A Personal Example 

My crisis rose from the need to pin down a topic for an upcoming long-term writing project. Though arriving at the right decision was imperative, a cornucopia of ideas rattling in my mind made decision-making impossible.

Some weeks earlier, I had designated the following morning as my absolute deadline. And, because it was already evening, this moment of truth breathed down my neck as something of a “deer- in-the-headlights” experience.

My undertaking was going to be difficult. For this reason, I sought out the most conducive setting possible as a workplace. The room I selected had been designed for intimate chamber music performances. It was large yet somehow cozy, with an enormous fireplace centered on its longest wall. After scrunching into a settee next to the hearth, I started jotting ideas on paper.

Unfortunately, the beauty of these surroundings proved to be, at best, only somewhat helpful. Over the next hour or so, new ideas did come. However, their quality and flow did not live up to expectation. I was therefore becoming progressively more anxious.

Just as panic was beginning to set in, a sweltering wind startled me by slamming into, and through the house. Soon, over the wind-sound’s noisy rushings, a still noisier “crack” shot in from outside. It was followed by an ominous rustling of leaves which crescendoed in an ominous “ker-thump!”

Alarmed, I left my perch and ran into the garden to check for damage. There I discovered a newly fallen sycamore limb resting against the terrace’s undamaged antique wellhead. Meanwhile, the wind continued wreaking havoc on the property’s forest-like surround. Nonetheless, it was more fascinating than annoying.

Despite the chaos, my intended endeavor for that evening returned to the fore. Finding myself craving the deepest possible solitude in which to make my decision, I decided to go to the garden’s remote upper terrace. This contained the long neglected remains of a World War II victory garden. Eventually, I found myself standing among mostly dead plantings protected by a surround of thick masonry walls. Finally, seclusion was mine.

As I stood beneath a brambly understory of untended fruit trees, I was immediately struck by the opaque quality of their shadows. This foreground of dark, rigid branches against its background of taller trees swaying gracefully under the full moon’s shimmering glow soon had me mesmerized.  Peering into such dazzling movement brought the realization that each plant species moves to its unique rhythm.

With this epiphany came three more insights: 1) plants dance; 2) garden plantings can be “enticed” to perform ballets; and, 3) designers choreograph these dances by attending to each plant's specific wind movement when juxtaposing them in a landscape setting.

While my eyes were taking delight from this vision, my nostrils had a field day as well.  The surrounding landscape was at its peak of spring bloom and fragrance. Each wind’s gust carried a unique scent. One was gardenia. Another combined citrus blossom with the musk of sycamore dander. Occasionally, several jasmine species added distinct scents the way aftertastes indulge one's palette at a Chinese banquet.

What next caught my attention was the wind's ability to compose and conduct every plant's idiosyncratic sound into a symphony. I was as much taken by the high-pitched whine from defoliated orchid tree branches as by the baritone rustle of eucalyptus. Occasionally, the flutter of succulent magnolia leaves took center stage. They held their own with operatic flourishes worthy of any Prima Donna.

Savoring this open-air concert made me freshly aware of how space and distance collaborated to enhance the sound of plants. The victory garden was sited in a small canyon perpendicular to a much larger one. The acoustics allowed me to hear the subtlest flurries, rushes, and eddies. Sources of these sounds were often as far as 250 yards away, but whether distant or close, each plant’s characteristic voice was clearly audible.

I was struck by the potential for architects collaborating with landscape architects to greatly enhance sounds of nature in built environments with judiciously proportioned and wisely laid out parallel and/or enclosing walls. I had long known of designers using the latter to baffle mechanized society’s ubiquitous noise. I then thought of greater opportunities to subdue this cacophony. Architects can “attune” walls around newly-quiet open space to “listen” harmoniously. This occurs in outdoor spaces designed with the sensitivity otherwise lavished on indoor concert halls. When landscape architects introduce into such well tuned places sounds of plants, water, birds, etc., these become music to our ears.

That night I observed the landscape in profound new ways. This experience kept me riveted in place for an hour and a half. The event forever changed how I perceive the world. In the process, it also temporarily eclipsed all my concerns about the pending writing project. Now, assessing it in hindsight, I believe this landscape supported my transformation on par with any well conceived contemplation garden.

Once disengaged from this all-consuming sensory fugue, I returned to the music room and began again taking notes. This time, thanks to having been drawn into that landscape, the topic for my writing project came within minutes.  I would explore multi-sensory (as opposed to strictly visual) stimuli in the landscape as a way to more acutely analyze and fine tune an environment’s “sense of place.”   

Three years later, my mentor disconcertingly said of the completed project that it was “so important that no one would know that it was important at all.”  Today, I believe what she said holds equally true for contemplation and creating/maintaining the environments which support it.

Vince Healy researched the benefit of gardens to hospice patients and has served on the Board of Directors of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’ nonprofit Shanti Nilaya. He can be reached at 510-465-8722.

A Recommended Exercise:

In order to enhance your understanding of how landscape supports the act of contemplation, please consider the following exercise:

  • Remember back to a time when you were in a special place that had an ambience which inspired you to gain deep insight into your own critical life issues.
  • With all five of your senses, use your imagination to return to that location.
  • Recall the elements within its milieu which encouraged you to embrace your broader perspective on things.
  • To help bring these memories to the fore it may be worthwhile to become aware of the pace of your breathing.
  • Now, breathe more slowly, and take deeper breaths.
  • Allow yourself plenty of time for the natural progression of memories to unfold.

Later, consider asking family members, friends, and colleagues to recall their experience of such places. Glean from them the specifics which they believe made these locales conducive to contemplation. Did fragrance play a role?  Could water reflection have been a factor?  Was there something unusual about the colors and/or textures in these spaces?  What about sound—or the lack thereof?

Each person observes the world using uniquely attuned sensory apparatus. This exercise is intended to inspire and deepen awareness of landscape features that support contemplation, and for whom. Also, it potentially broadens our vocabulary of the natural elements supporting contemplation that can be synthesized in garden settings. From this knowledge, landscape architects and other designers in health care have much to gain.

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