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The Healing Garden

A Michigan woman's decision to listen to the land led her to create a special space that heals with natural beauty.

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Running beside Zoie's Garden Gallery, a trickling stream reminds artist Nancy Endres to listen to what her garden is telling her.
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Beyond a lotus-studded pond, woods and a berm with a path beckons.
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The delicate lotus blossoms in the pond will transform into dried pods suitable for flower arrangements.
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A "moon window" frames the garden beyond.
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Originally published in the July/August 2005 issue of Midwest Living.

The land speaks to Nancy Endres.

When she learned how to pay attention to what it was telling her, the messages became surprisingly clear: Slow down. Look. Smell. Enjoy. Don't worry. Trust yourself.

For Nancy, the land also teaches how inner darkness can be transformed into outer beauty. How going outside into nature can actually bring you inside yourself. "There are forces that direct us if we just can be still enough and listen," Nancy says. "Everyone has this gift."

It was a gift she didn't recognize until about five years ago. During the first 20 years that she and her husband, Stephen, lived on their wooded five-acre lot in South Haven, Michigan, their yard was a playground for their three daughters. Every winter, a natural indentation was flooded to make a skating rink. In summers, the girls and their dogs romped on the lawn encircled by mature pines and maples. But when her daughters left home, Nancy realized it was time to return to her passions for painting, sculpture and gardening.

Nancy busily dug beds and berms to fill with ferns, hostas, conifers, lilies, hydrangeas and more. From nearby quarries (where she became known as "the rock lady") she dragged in literally tons of granite rocks, and she scoured nearby Lake Michigan beaches for driftwood and shells, some of which she formed into an abstract cross hidden along a garden path in the woods. Paths of grass and stone linked smaller spaces she carved into the land.

As the beauty emerged, Nancy started thinking of it not as her garden, but as Zoie's Garden (zoie is the Greek word for life). Something beyond her own abilities was driving the creation of this beauty, she felt. The land itself was helping her in ways she had not anticipated. "I am one of many who have struggled with depression," she says. "The development of Zoie's Garden has been, and continues to be, an intimate healing ground."

Gardens—special spaces within nature—can change us on many levels. A secluded garden bench provides a nook to read a book or share a confidence with a friend. A few whacks of a hoe at a patch of weeds offers a safe way to practice anger management. An evening's repose near the trickle of a fountain lowers blood pressure raised during the workday. The plants we tend with our hands deep in the soil produce food for the table, screening for privacy, beauty to surround us or shade for our houses.

By their nature, all gardens are, in a way, healing gardens. Now we know why.

In the past two decades, experts in medicine and horticulture therapy have paid more attention to the healing qualities of gardens. Research shows that patients with access to a natural view recover faster and need less pain medication. Hospitals, care facilities and other places now often incorporate "therapeutic landscape design" in their grounds.

Healing gardens are a bit different from therapeutic gardens, says Jean Larson, coordinator of the Center for Therapeutic Horticulture in Chaska, Minnesota. "A therapeutic landscape is really a part of the 'prescription,' for the patient's rehabilitation and healing," Jean says, "whereas a healing garden is for a person to find their own healing while in the landscape."

Nancy didn't realize at first that Zoie's Garden was anything other than a physical escape. It took a bulldozer—oddly enough—stuck in heavy clay when the operator attempted to dig a pond, for the spiritual aspect to emerge. The mired bulldozer could have been the last straw. But to her own surprise, Nancy volunteered to drive the precariously angled dozer while the heavy-equipment operator used a backhoe to pull. It was an empowering moment.

"I broke the barrier of fear walking into the unknown, freed from the hesitation and indecision that held me hostage for so long," Nancy says. "I'll never be the same."

The very next day, more lessons came from the land. Rain poured throughout the night, and water gushed into the new gash in the ground.

Suddenly, she realized that not having all the answers is OK. "I marvel at how being unsure of a situation is not a bad thing," Nancy says. "Rather, it opens us to being observant and allows us to seek the portal within, guiding us to our own creative flow."

As the garden grew, so did the sense of safety, peace and energy within it—and within Nancy. Her friends remarked about the unusually calming effect it had on them. Nancy herself doesn't understand it. But she knows it's real.

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