Although my journey did not begin there, my first paid job was pulling weeds
in a sleepy river town in America for a dollar an hour.
I continued to be involved in the relationship between people and the natural world by starting an ecology club in high school which recycled newspapers, painted 'Love Mother Earth' on the trash cans, and planted trees beside the tennis courts. By the time I left high school I was a professional musician. But after a career that spanned two decades, playing and teaching percussion, I returned to my earliest love of gardens, and began a course of work and study that took me from horticulture to landscape architecture and geography, ending up with a design practice in America for 13 years.
But this is where the story begins.
As my residential garden clients aged and moved into retirement communities, leaving the homes and gardens we had designed and built together, I watched as their relationship with nature diminished drastically. I knew at that point that gardens lived, breathed and actually did something for people - that design was much more than aesthetics, that design had healing potential - (something I always knew but was never taught in school). My design needed to be about mental health, so I became involved in designing and building therapeutic landscapes.
The next turning point came when I flew to England for my uncle's funeral. I went that afternoon with the family to move my aunt into a care home in Northants. It was the first time I had stepped foot into the lounge of a long term care facility. From 'her chair', one of many arranged around the perimeter of the room, her view was of a dark stone wall, above which, I was told, there is a lovely rose garden. I somehow know she would never see it. She lasted 3 months. On the flight back to the US, I decided to study architecture.
And then the husband of one of my dearest clients developed Alzheimer's disease and went to live in a nursing home. When she and I would visit him, we would take him out onto the terrace where he could see grass and trees, and feel fresh air on his skin. She said he loved being outside, even though he couldn't say so.
I read everything I could get my hands on. I knew how beneficial a connection to nature was, both from the point of sensory stimulation and physiological health, but also the potential for exercise and social interaction that was possible through nature contact. I could see that buildings were getting in the way, so I set my sights on research at the University of Sheffield and moved back to England.
After being away for 35 years, so much had changed, including me. My personal struggle as a man without a country has been around identity and belonging, while staying true to myself. Which is perhaps why I can communicate so comfortably with people with dementia, who struggle to hold onto themselves and to be recognized for the spirit which continues to burn brightly, in spite of the difficulties mortal bodies bring. So much of their struggle reminds me of my own situation, having been born in England and taken at ten years old to live in America - my struggle to feel at home and to develop a relationship to people and place.
My early pleasant memories of England were of bucolic country lanes, massive horse chestnut trees, and clear water streams, where I paddled barefoot and caught minnows in a jam jar tied to a string. While growing up in America, as a way to escape home life, I spent hours on a local dairy farm around the barnyard animals and wildlife, in the woods and fields, skating on a frozen pond, and collecting shimmering skins, shed by snakes in the hayloft on hot summer nights. I learned to drive on an old Ford tractor, nearly killing myself racing sideways across a furrowed field. I read Whitman and Thoreau, and the transcendentalist poets. Nature was my sanity throughout those younger years. Nature knows no country and no time. It is always and everywhere, if we seek it.
The ability and freedom to seek nature on our own terms at any point in our life is a birthright.
I believe buildings can be facilitators throughout the life course, and especially when we are too old and frail to skate on frozen ponds, and our mind becomes a skin we shed. The role of architecture is to facilitate our connection to nature, not prevent it. The world moves on and takes the clear water streams with it. But for some of us, the ability to go back there is more alive than ever. Off with our socks, grab my hand and let's get paddling!