At one time I was a natural cook. Not in the nutrition sense, but in the sense that the “recipes” I created were made with what was immediately at hand: acorns (caps taken off, crushed with a stone), dandelion (flowers and stems), grass (smashed, again with a stone), and a flour of clay-like soil (worms removed). My kitchen was a grassy hill that sloped down into a meadow of tall grass, and my countertop a large rock with a flat surface upon which I prepared my ingredients. Here, I could get lost inside my head. I forgot to mention that this meadow was in the back of a large church my family used to attend, in a seemingly insignificant New Jersey town about thirty minutes drive from our house. There was a parking lot to my back about twenty feet away. But it’s easy to forget all that stuff is there when it’s just you, the grass, and the wide open sky in your chosen periphery.
A meadow can give you many things, things I couldn’t quite articulate until years later when our teacher and guide John Beirne took a group of six horticultural therapy students through the Native Garden at the New York Botanical Garden. “If you get access to a meadow, take someone there,” Beirne said, “the effects will be immediate.” Bierne is the Superintendent of Horticulture at Willowwood Arboretum in Chester, NJ, but he’s spent many years as a horticultural therapist and teacher at NYBG. As he led our class through a landscape of tall grasses and wildflowers, he pointed out all the ways in which a meadow can affect a person, both physically and mentally. A meadow is a sensory experience -- the wind-rippled grasses, butterflies and birds who call it home, and the wildflowers that pop up at all the right intervals. A meadow is Texture seen, felt, and heard. A meadow is also Space -- room made for one’s physical, mental, and spiritual self. The “immediate effects” that Beirne had alluded to was, primarily, this feeling of immediate peace and calm upon entering a meadow landscape.
My eight year-old self playing in the meadow behind the church didn’t know what to call it then, but I was entering a meditative state, one only to be broken by my parents calling my name as they made their way up the hill to where my makeshift kitchen was stationed. I was a shy and anxious kid but in that meadow I had room to breathe and to imagine, to step outside my comfort zone and yet know I was safe. Every once in a while, I would climb up to the top of what I remember as a 15-foot boulder that stood at the peak of the hill. Up there I could see everything and beyond, the tall, yellow grasses bowing to the wind with the dark forest border in the distance. My legs would shake ever so slightly from equal parts fear and conquering triumph.
I returned to that spot about a decade later, with my mother. The Perseid meteor shower was happening that summer night, a natural phenomenon I had not seen before. We had driven determinedly to about five locations in our town to view the shower, only to find that each potential spot was under a light-polluted sky. Then my mother thought of the meadow behind the church. A half-hour drive later, we were laying on blankets near my old childhood spot, looking up at a clear night sky. The meteors would streak across the sky, a glimmer so barely imperceptible that we would often question our own sight: “Was that one?” As more presented themselves, we became more confident that our eyes weren’t deceiving us. It got late and we packed up our blankets. I looked at the meadow under the 2am sky, a landscape that hadn’t so much shaped my formative years, but nurtured my younger, less sure self. Peace, calm. And appreciation. Yes, that, too.