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Christian McEachern and his horse, Sozo. Photo by Marcie Rae Thompson

Healing with Mother Nature

Gardening gives veterans a 'fighting chance'

By Carolyn Pogue

There is a good reason that people traditionally give plants and flowers during bereavement, illness or times of stress. We know that seeing, touching or smelling greenery can make us feel better. It’s one small bell that rang for me while reading Stephanie Westlund’s enlightening book, Field Exercises: How Veterans are Healing Themselves Through Farming and Outdoor Activities.

Westlund, with a PhD in Peace and Conflict studies, has gathered scientific and anecdotal stories of Canadian and American veterans who are restoring themselves as well as the planet. The book is very readable.

Of course, General Romeo Dallaire’s book, Shake Hands with the Devil, planted the seed for the book. The image of Dallaire on a hilltop telling his wife, “Here I became human again,” stayed with Westlund, who then began exploring war, nurture and nature. For her book, she researched war trauma and recovery before interviewing vets.

Field Exercises reminded me of what I learned at the Husking Time conference on Six Nations of the Grand River, Ont. In Mohawk tradition, as I understand it, the community knew that to do the tasks required, warriors had to lose their minds. Then, when they returned to the community, Clan Mothers helped them recover and become whole again through ritual and other means. It's a recognition that soldiers need care to become civilians again.

In addition, I was reminded of Canadian prisoners who have suffered the loss of their working farms. Elda Thomas, who attends Trinity St. Paul’s United Church in Toronto and has devoted her life to working with former inmates, asserts that prisoners are wounded souls. But farming, with other therapies, can help them regain pieces of themselves (One film that deals with the subject of farming, food production and healing for prisoners is called ‘Til the Cows Come Home).

Not all stories in Field Exercises are about combat stress, though. One is about a woman vet who was raped by fellow soldiers; we know she’s not the only one. Along with legal counsel, she has embraced farming as a way back to wholeness.

Chris Brown, a former Marine, has struggled to reintegrate. On a counsellor’s advice, he began a garden box on his apartment balcony. These days, he runs a project called Growing Veterans, which involves more vets in farming. But it has changed his life, too. He says: ‘“...gardening and farming hold a lot of therapeutic value for guys who have been around death, destruction and bad things . . . veterans transitioning have higher rates of suicide, mental health issues, homelessness and unemployment. What I’m trying to do is address all of those. When it comes to farming, not only does it address the mental health stuff, but it addresses employment, which can address homelessness. . . . Getting vets into sustainable agriculture is using veterans to help improve their communities. It’s a holistic response to a lot of problems.”’

Working with animals or soil is not portrayed as the answer to everyone’s post traumatic stress, but the personal stories offer practical encouragement. Iraq war vet Nathan Lewis says that "there are not many fixes, but “[gardening] gives you a fighting chance. It keeps you in the game.”

On Nov. 11, many of us will watch or attend a Remembrance Day service, pin on a red poppy for soldiers and a white one for civilians. I recommend reading Field Exercises as another act of remembrance.

Author's photo
Carolyn Pogue is a longtime Observer contributor. New posts of The Pogue Blog will appear on the first and third Thursday of the month. For more information on Carolyn Pogue, visit www.carolynpogue.ca..
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