Published by City Farmer, Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture


Part II, The Spirit Of Healing

By Colette Parsons
(Copyright 1994)

Personal Perspective

If I leave you with nothing else today I would like to leave you with what a healing environment is for me. For me a healing environment is ultimately a sanctuary that allows for active involvement or passivity. The sanctuary is made up of an amalgamation of elements in which plants are just one part of a larger whole. The basis for a nurturing and restoring environment can be discussed in terms of; the framework or the overall structure of an environment; the elements within the framework; and finally, what I am going to call the "essence", or the tactile qualities of the environment.

The framework was the geographical place itself. Stinson Beach, when you spend some time there other than a day trip from the city, is a very special place. It is nestled into the backside of Mt. Tamalpias. The slopes, long and broad, reach down and almost touch the ocean. The landscape itself provides a safe haven. The element of safe haven and of feeling protected is crucial to any nurturing space. In visualization before you focus on your goal, yourself without cancer, the perfect athletic performance, one focuses on a safe and comfortable place. This is a technique to relax your mind so that you can begin to concentrate on your ultimate goal. My safe haven has always been the beach. At Stinson the notion of safe haven was enforced by the hills reaching down and around me. The fingers of the ridges extended out to the ocean on either side. They protected my backside while the open expanse of beach lay before me. For me, the beach was a strong protective metaphor. Even though I was exposed to the elements, I was able to see all around and to see oncoming dangers. At the beach I could choose solace or gregariousness. I could walk the deserted portions of the beach or throw myself into the fray of beach balls, dogs, children, and swimming. I could choose active involvement or to be passive.

Another aspect of the framework was the garden. I believe all gardens are nurturing, restorative and healing in themselves but this garden embodied the notion of sanctuary through courtyards which led from the public street, through a semi-private courtyard, to an inner private courtyard, and eventually to the house. The outer courtyard was rambling with flowers and vegetable patches. The inner courtyard was well protected from the sun and the wind. The garden, like the beach, invited involvement but allowed for passivity as well. There was privacy in the garden and a sense of separation. When I was ill, I needed privacy and separation. The frameworks of the garden and the beach, though different in scale, both suggested safety and protection.

In the garden I found elements which were complementary to the overall framework. These elements were the nature of the plant materials and the complexity of the setting itself. For me there was relief in returning to a more natural world. Tending to the garden and the plants within it was analogous to tending to my body. The time I took caring for the plants, picking off dead heads, weeding, watering and restaking would reap a bounty in the garden. So it was with my body. I felt that if I took care of my body, eating better food, rebuilding my physical strength, and taking the time to meditate, my body would reap the benefits more so than if I neglected it.


Within the garden and its setting was an element of complexity. Complexity is an element which, I believe, invokes involvement. What I saw walking in was not necessarily what I saw when I turned around and walked out. There was something else to focus on. In this case it was a series of artifacts that were scattered throughout the garden. The house I stayed in was owned by two antiquarians. They have travelled extensively and have brought back artifacts, masks, pots, and statuary, from all over the world. I needed to feel that despite the circumstances, there was respite. That respite I found in the garden. In the garden, I could experience a physical notion, similar to meditation, of going far away and then coming back refreshed.

The last category of "essence" is critical to a healing setting. It is the category that embraces the senses; sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. As I mentioned earlier, my sense of taste and smell were suppressed by the chemotherapy. My other senses, sight, sound and touch became more acute. Colour was a significant aspect in that curative space. Colour should be not a riot of colour from all spectrums but a soft range that lies within the blues, purples, pinks and greens with potentially a little red, yellow or orange as accent. In the garden, the brighter colours were in the outer courtyard, the more subtle tones of blues and purples in the inner courtyard. There was a warm subtlety to the colours that invoked tranquility, - tranquility and peace in every corner, in every direction I turned. I can remember the fading light on the hills. The sun bleached hills which intensified as the sun set turning from ochre and orange to pink, violet and finally fading to blue. Even in the interior of the house the colours were soothing; pale yellow in the kitchen, rich, deep reds in the living room. The warm and rich colours of the wood furniture seemed to absorb light. At sunset the deep, rich, introverted colours washed the rooms a glow with the warmest hues.

Sound was another prominent aspect in my healing environment. For me the ocean with its eternal pounding of waves is soothing and calming to the spirit. Even the slightest trickle of water is calming but the endless beat of waves is meditative. I feel I made progress by the water. There was a continual relation to the earth through my senses. After being in the desensitized and institutional environment of a hospital to be able to focus on a bloom of flowers or the ripeness of a tomato, then to pick and eat that tomato was to invite that whole environment in. To shake off the cobwebs of the hospital was refreshing. I appreciated all the sensual aspects of my environment - from the colours, forms and textures in the garden to the sound of the wind and the waves. It was a time to delight in the senses. That house and garden provided a milieu where that could be accomplished.

Again a healing environment is ultimately a sanctuary. For me, the framework of the surrounding hills and garden provided a safe haven. The elements of plants and artifacts mixed with some complexity within the framework allowed for active and passive involvement and the distinct qualities of the setting which stimulated my senses, were the basis, I believe, to the environment I found so nurturing, calming and restorative.

In closing, I would like to return to the notion of breaking the code of silence. I feel that in speaking out I am taking a step towards breaking the code of silence. The more people who hear stories like this the better. There are not enough advocates for people with cancer. Hospitals and the treatment of cancer is physically and emotionally very unpleasant. However, it does not have to be that way. As designers if you can listen to the voices of those with illnesses, I think you can create a sanctuary and ultimately participate in the healing process itself.

In closing, I would just like to mention that after I left Stinson Beach I returned to San Francisco. My doctors were amazed to find no trace of cancer on my body. We suddenly had a window of opportunity and within the week I was back in the hospital for a transplant. That was July of 1992. It has been almost four years since my remission and more than anything else in my life I am very happy and I feel very fortunate to be alive. I am also glad to have had the opportunity to share with you some of my insights.

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Revised Feb. 15, 2011

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture