A Heartfelt Path: Carl Jung, Nature & the Aging Gardener
By Marilyn Raff:
Decades ago, my husband and I returned to Denver with our three-year-old son and one-year-old daughter after a four and a half year stint in Zurich, Switzerland where we studied Jungian psychology. Jeff became a Jungian analyst while I cared for our children and slowly finished a long-distance (University Without Walls) psychology degree program with some Jungian classes.
Back home I was in my late 20s, full of energy, unsure of direction. One day I passed a sign for Denver Botanic Gardens. Without hesitation I parked and entered. Perhaps the staff might need volunteers to help with weeding? This was the start of a burning passion for horticulture. I loved learning all about plants: identifying them, researching their needs, attaching them to their Latin names. (This thrilled me! Helichrysum splendiums (strawflower), Thymus praecox ‘Pink Chintz’; Teucrium aroanum (Styx germander), Euphorbia polycroma (spurge).)
With my innate and youthful extroversion in full swing I taught gardening at a local community college and traveled to see great gardens in Germany and England. I loved working at Timberline Gardens in Arvada and enjoyed answering customers’ plant questions. At Denver garden centers I gave slide shows on rock gardens, shrub roses, and perennials, sharing how to create beauty in a home landscape.
In hindsight, I see that Dr. Jung would call this time in my life, “the Morning Stage.” Generally speaking, a young person pushes ahead, accomplishing concrete goals, carving out a place in the world, developing a trade, going to college, working in and toward a career.
Over a lifetime of psychological work Jung came to believe that nature “did not give us decades beyond midlife for no purpose.” He saw the “Afternoon” of life as roughly ages 56-83. Furthermore, he believed that in our 60s and 70s, as we retire, finish raising families, perhaps navigate health or financial challenges, new possibilities appear. If our life has been conventional or timid we might loosen up and maybe become a little outrageous. Our approach to this “Evening Stage” can be “just as rich and rewarding as our youthful morning times, instead of just staying on the physical plane while the years pile up.” Inner riches and perhaps a spiritual path may call us.
There is often a stronger connection to the earth through gardening and nature as we grow older. In our later life stage, and especially in our gardens, we can more easily toss out perfection and judgement in favor of more play and enjoyment. Much has been written about the significant psychological benefits of gardening, playing in and with nature. Read books by Dr. Oliver Sachs and Sue Stuart-Smith who wrote The Well-Gardened Mind: The Restorative Power of Nature.
Reaching my mid to late 60s, I internally and outwardly metamorphosed several times. I put gardening on the back burner to write poetry and study literature, but returned to it a few years later. By that time work in my Littleton home garden tuckered me out. Hours of daily weeding, moving soil and plants had run its course. I lost my dynamic verve, collapsing at days end, legs quivering, fingers aching. Less extroversion was also imminent; introversion beckoned. I stopped attending so many meetings, volunteering for jobs, being more “out there” as I learned to say, “No, thank-you.” Focusing more on my internal needs and quiet began to feel deeply satisfying. My husband and I realized that new digs were on the horizon and soon found a smaller, more manageable home and garden.
Over many years while studying Jung, I saw how the earth and the natural world played a significant role in his psychology. Along with his attention to dreams and therapy, he states in his memoir, “Trees in particular were mysterious and seemed to me direct embodiment of the incomprehensible meaning of life.” Trees embodied the union of opposites; we grow up, but we need solid, grounding roots below. We become more unified as we develop, grow, and expand our whole selves. I agree with Jung’s statement: “The afternoon of life is just as full of meaning as the morning, only the meaning and purpose are different.” Attitudes change. We needn’t cling to youthful ideals which are out of season.
Jung was very clear about the need for an aging person to be more reflective, self-aware, and concerned with him- or herself than the outside world. “An ever deepening self-awareness seems to me as probably essential for the continuation of a truly meaningful life at any age, no matter how uncomfortable.”
In one of Jung’s letters he states, “You must go in quest of yourself, and you will find yourself again in the simple and forgotten things. Why not go into the forest for a time, literally? Sometimes a tree tells you more than can be read in books.”
After a heart attack in 1944, Jung saw that change was at his doorstep; creativity and silence were calling. He wrote feverishly, producing several books as part of his Collected Works.
Throughout his life he spent a great deal of time in Bollingen, Switzerland, where he built and lived in a stone tower. As the story goes, he was so private in Bollingen that for years his neighbors thought he was a stone mason. With no electricity he camped, cooked, gardened, and tended his maize field. He believed that “every human should have a plot of land so that their instincts can come to life again.”
As he aged and began curtailing his practice, people would ask for a coffee or chat with him. He is known to have responded that this encounter might be joyful for the person asking for the meeting, but the get-together would be torture for him!
I still relish my reduced volunteer time with fellow gardening friends at The Denver Botanic Gardens Rock Alpine Garden. We chat about every topic under the sun while weeding, planting, and sorting seeds. Then I return home for art, cooking, baking, writing – solitude.
Older people may face aching joints and arthritic hands. We move more slowly and need helpers, special tools, adjustable chairs, benches and raised beds as we continue to maneuver and enjoy the immense beauty and sustenance nature provides for us in our gardens.
My garden has been vital to me, working alone and pleasurably through my golden years. I’m completely in awe of the impact nature and gardening has had on my life; it’s given me deep roots. I recently bought a car and my license plate contained the letters AWE! Jung would call this a synchronicity, a meaningful connection that’s rich and satisfying.