The Healing Elements of Natural Stone
What makes a healing garden, a healing garden?
Virginia Burt, FCSLA, FASLA, often gets asked this question and her answer is always the same. “Any garden is healing and research proves it to be so,” says Burt, principal of Virginia Burt Designs, and a landscape architect who creates landscapes and gardens of meaning for residential clients, healthcare facilities, and unique special projects. “It has been my experience, however, that deep transformative experiences can be facilitated in gardens designed specifically for healthcare settings.”
There is no shortage of research showing the power of spending time in nature. The scientific benefits of clocking in outdoor time range from elevated moods to better concentration.
What is new is the mounting scientific evidence that healing gardens are helping patients undergoing cancer treatment, Alzheimer’s disease, and other health ailments. It’s no surprise that more hospitals and health care centers are adding healing gardens to their campuses. The American Society of Landscape Architects even maintains an entire professional network of consultants who specialize in designing therapeutic gardens.
While Burt maintains that any garden can be a healing garden, she admits that when she designs gardens specifically for a population, such as people with cancer, autism, or a particular segment of seniors, she and other designers who specialize in designing healing gardens must consider the needs of the patients (and staff) as part of the design process.
“You’re making choices that support people going through that journey,” she adds.
The Power of Natural Stone & Intention in a Healing Garden
The design of a healing garden is important to its purpose and natural stones are integral to the process since they serve as the bones of the garden.
“People like stone,” says Burt, noting that the size, type, color, and texture of stone used in a healing garden will be dependent on the project’s intent.
“If you’re looking for it to be relaxing and meditative, you’re going to pick a material that you love to look at, that will inform those goals,” she adds.
Intention plays a big role in Alexandra Morosco’s projects, too. The artist and founder of Washington-based Morosco Fine Arts primarily work as a sculptor in stone and bronze. Her focus, she says, is telling “stories in stone.”
Morosco works as an interpreter or “channel,” as she calls herself, for her clients. “I listen deeply to a story, a memory, a dream or a desire and work to bring that to life through the vehicle of stone or other mediums such as wood, bronze, or landscape elements,” she explains.
Morosco believes there is no better place to heal than where growth occurs, whether it be botanical or an internal spiritual growth. “Gardeners everywhere know that they feel best when they have a healthy garden,” she says. “When the intention of a landscaped or built environment is that of healing – the healing effects can be immense.”
Healing gardens aren’t restricted to places like hospitals or health care centers. Morosco is currently working on a sculpture for a private garden where the central theme is healing.
“In my work, the commissioning process in itself is an act of healing,” she explains. “My current client is very excited about this process, and it gives her something to look forward to and a will to see something through. It means so much to her she actually took a chip of the stone with her into (cancer) surgery, feeling that this stone and the project had so much power, it would lend her strength through the surgery. This, to me, is evidence that stone has amazing strength and power in ways that are hard to define, but no less real to those who feel it. We see most every culture or religion has had some form of stone that they held in their hand, from prayer beads to worry stones, there seems to be an ancient thread.”
Burt has a number of stories where healing gardens have played a powerful role in the healing process. In some cases, it doesn’t even happen in the garden.
She was working to create a bench for a healing garden using a large boulder and a man who was building a piece of steel to support the boulder visited her in the shop with his then 5-year-old daughter to discuss the project. His daughter, for unknown reasons, hadn’t spoken for two months. He picked up his daughter and put her on the bench, which Burt designed to seem like it was hugging you.
“She was just as happy as can be,” remembers Burt. “She was there, having a quiet smile on her face.”
When the time came to leave, he walked over to her and he say “OK, we have to go.” As he reached for her, she said, “I want to stay here.”
It was the first time she spoke in two months, says Burt.
One of the common reasons designers and architects cite stone as powerful is because stone gives gardens grounding energy. “Sometimes we see gardens that are all color and fire – but we also need grounding energy to balance our energy,” Morosco says. “Even common stone, such as granite and fieldstone has an immense presence of having an ancient knowing, holding space in the garden, like a sage or wisdom keeper. I believe that people are drawn to stone in a garden for this reason, so if it is a sculpture, standing stone, or stone bench, it is all Earth energy and I think people need that, especially undergoing treatments that really challenge the body, fatigue them, or there is a lot of emotional ‘thinking’ about their illness.”
Other Types of Healing Spaces
While hospitals and health centers are among the first places we think about when we think of healing gardens in a non-residential setting, there are other places where natural stone and healing takes place.
“For centuries we have witnessed the emotional healing that occurs at a cemetery,” says Morosco. “I don’t think it is only the inscription. I believe the stone itself holds those in mourning. I have witnessed this by creating a monument for fishermen lost at sea in Ireland, in the Aran Islands. It is not a Healing Garden, but it is a Healing Stone.”
Placed with a backdrop of the sea and horizon as its environment, it holds a place for people to come and sit, pray, or simply mourn, and, hence, heal, adds Morosco. “They can share the space with others, which creates a place for conversation, or they can visit it alone, and share the space with just the stone. People have witnessed and experienced amazing healing there at that stone.”
Another form of “healing garden” is not for the people in it, but for the environment, Morosco notes. “Sometimes stone, or a water feature, can be the only thing strong enough to balance other elements, such as destructive past stewardship, visual blights, or noise pollution, say from freeways or trains. This can merge with Feng-shui, and is worth looking at stone as a viable solution to help heal a space, in addition to becoming a healing garden itself.”