In today’s increasingly crowded cities, many people are moving further and further away from mother nature. However, in response more and more people are also looking for ways to reconnect, including by abandoning packed schedules and finding a patch of greenery to relax in instead.
Unknowingly, they are following the techniques of horticultural therapy, which is based on interactions with nature to enjoy the earth and living creatures.
“Reconnecting to nature can help people with depression and anxiety disorders by providing psychological calmness,” said Hashim Bahri, a professor of psychiatry at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. “Playing in the garden can help children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder can also be exacerbated by being constantly indoors and away from nature.”
According to Hassan Abu Bakr, a professor of biology at Cairo University’s faculty of agriculture, our relationship with nature is key to solving some of the problems we are currently facing. Much of what we know today is based upon the interactions between humans and nature, he said.
“Cairo alone is home to roughly a quarter of Egypt’s population. How many people under such conditions take the time to experience a sunset or sunrise,” Abu Bakr asked.
“I have been teaching for 50 years and wanted to apply what I teach to my students on the ground. I set up an olive farm and invited people to come to connect them with agriculture and nature,” he said.
“The distance today is such that I once told one group of students to collect some potatoes but then saw them walking around looking up, thinking that potatoes grow on trees. Even some of the children who come to the farm have never seen a live chicken. These things made me realise how important it is for us to reconnect with nature.”
“We wanted to present a model of agricultural tourism,” architect Lina Abu Bakr, also Abu Bakr’s daughter, said. “We wanted to present a platform for interaction and awareness of environmental problems and climate issues, as well as for introducing the benefits of organic farming. The idea is to reconnect visitors with nature, while showing that actions that waste energy and isolate us from nature are endangering our survival.”
“Engaging children in agricultural activities attracts them away from screens and electronic devices. We have them spend time having sensory experiences by interacting with aromatic plants and picking vegetables. Adults can also engage in the same activities, as well as meditation and breathing in the fresh air, helping them to free themselves of the tension and stress of the city.”
Ola Soliman is living proof of the human longing for the return to nature. “I am passionate about nature, travelling, and discovering new places. A while back, I took a training course that showed me how to turn my passion into a successful business, and I began to transform my passion for travel into a job organising trips. I wanted to do innovative things that would take me away from the usual places, so I thought of visiting agricultural land,” she recalled.
She started going to the village of Shubra Baloula about 90 km from Cairo to pick jasmine flowers. “I then planned trips to harvest jasmine flowers and then to organic farms where visitors could take vegetables grown without pesticides and chemicals directly from the ground,” she commented.
“We collected aromatic plants in Fayoum while visiting nature areas on previous trips. Many of those I accompanied were surprised at how much the harvest trips and being in nature affected them, especially the jasmine harvesting trips.”
BACK TO NATURE: “I have always been associated with plants and nature due to my work and studies,” agricultural engineer Noha Saad said.
“As I frequently take Nile cruises and visit gardens, I am well aware of the impact of nature on mental health, but even so harvesting jasmine flowers was an unforgettable experience for me.”
“The jasmine flower blooms at night, so it must be collected before sunrise. We had to start out at 2 am while it was still dark. Once we had arrived at the farmland, the scent of jasmine captured our senses. The plants were a breath-taking sight. It felt like a dream because it occurred at night, and by the morning we had returned.”
Accountant Dalia Hassan, also a member of the trips, said that “at first I was hesitant to go to harvest jasmine because it was a long way away. But I went anyway, and the fragrant scent of jasmine lingered on my clothes afterwards. I managed to gather a whole bouquet, escaping the pressures of work and the city crowds during a special moment.”
“I have always had the impression that we have drifted away from our roots in nature and no longer know how to plant or harvest. We should follow our instincts and gather flowers from the ground rather than buying them from a vendor. I hope that the experience of harvesting trips and visiting agricultural land and other natural areas will be made available to university and high-school students so they can exit from the trap of social media and electronic devices,” commented Heba Nabil, a Cairo dentist.
Nevien Eid, a researcher at the Medicinal and Aromatic Plants Department at the Horticulture Research Institute that is affiliated to the Agriculture Research Centre in Cairo, believes that the impact of plants is due to their influence on the human senses of smell, sight, touch, and taste.
“Plants like grass provide more oxygen per square metre than trees, so when people lie on the grass they also absorb a large amount of oxygen, helping to improve their energy,” Eid said.
“Plants also absorb electromagnetic energy, and this can affect human feelings and human health without us even realising it.”
“There is also aromatherapy, which specialists perform using aromatic plants like jasmine that help to change the mood. Some hospitals in other countries have even used perfumes as part of cancer treatments, finding that they improve recovery rates.”
“Stepping out into nature was a custom among the ancient Egyptians during the Sham Al-Nessim celebrations in spring, as was going out to celebrate the Nile during the flood season,” Bahri added. “As a member of nature’s creatures, humans feel at ease in nature and have a sense of belonging.”
Therapeutic horticulture was also prescribed as a form of rehabilitation in ancient Egypt, according to research by Mohamed Naguib Ahmed Al-Sabwa, a professor in the Department of Psychology at Cairo University.
“Doctors at the Pharaonic royal court described the importance of strolling through the palace gardens for people suffering from stress, allowing them to contemplate flowers and water fountains and smell the fragrant scents of roses,” he said.
“The ancient Egyptians knew about the subtle differences between trees and fruit trees, and they left behind accurate descriptions of them. All of this was with the intention of changing people’s psychological state, just like what happens today during meditation and relaxation exercises.”
One explanation for the stress-relieving effect of nature is that it is less cognitively demanding than urban environments and requires only involuntary attention from us. For this reason, it provides relaxation and respite from mental efforts, lowering stress and anxiety while promoting mental health, contentment, and happiness.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 2 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly