“Bonner Healing Garden: A Place of Solidarity at Life’s Threshold.” Guest post by Chris Garcia

In the following guest blog post, Chris Garcia, a U.C. Berkeley fellowship recipient for the study of healing gardens, writes about how Bonner Healing Garden facilitated an experience of emotional solidarity between him and six garden visitors at Bonner Community Hospice in Sandpoint, Idaho. To read the full the article, visit the Therapeutic Landscapes Network’s References page.

“Bonner Healing Garden: A Place of Solidarity at Life’s Threshold”

Bonner Healing Garden, Sandpoint, ID. Photo by Chris Garcia

Old-growth Cottonwoods and natural materials convey a sense of permanence. Photo by Chris Garcia

A gray and white pencil sketch faces Debra Kellerman, Director of Bonner Hospice, as she works at her desk. The sketch is composed of ghostly human figures that dance around the garden chapel, climb its pitched roof, grow wings, and ascend toward the moonlit night sky. Kellerman bought the drawing from a sixth-grade artist for twenty-five dollars, at a community auction to raise funds for the Healing Garden. “I think this drawing really captures how kids see the Healing Garden,” says Kellerman. The drawing is a symbol of the invisible community spirit that pervades Bonner Healing Garden; a place that fosters collective meaning and provides hope at life’s threshold where the “transformative ascent” is comfortable dying.

Bonner Healing Garden, Sandpoint, ID. Photo by Chris Garcia

The meditation chapel provides a private shelter for grieving and contemplation. Photo by Chris Garcia

I first read about Sandpoint’s Bonner Healing Garden in an article when preparing a list of healthcare facilities to visit for my fellowship granted by the University of California, Berkeley.

During my two-month journey, I evaluated therapeutic landscapes at thirteen healthcare facilities, starting with the Legacy Healing Gardens in Portland and traveling east to Idaho, Utah, and Ohio. In the article entitled, “The Healing Garden…A Personal Sanctuary from Dusk to Dawn,” Kellerman says that often “the tears come” to those who enter the garden for the first time after losing their loved one.

Bonner Healing Garden, Sandpoint, ID. Photo by Chris Garcia

The fork in the path permits choice and facilitates a sequence of sensory experiences. Photo by Chris Garcia

In my first hour at the Healing Garden, I discovered a pervasive sense of emotional solidarity that emanates from the meaning of hospice care. As I tracked garden visitors with behavioral observations, a burbling group of six women walked through the clematis-covered entry arbor. As the group approached a three-legged fork in the path, each member quietly dispersed to observe each garden feature: A rose garden defined by three arbors and an arching wall, a water wall that pools into a stream, the shelter of a meditation chapel, and a tea house half hidden behind verdant flora. One by one, the women gathered in the tea house overlooking Sand Creek.

Bonner Healing Garden, Sandpoint, ID. Photo by Chris Garcia

The sonorous water wall is a place-making feature as hearing is the last sense to go when we pass on. Photo by Chris Garcia

Upon joining the women, I discovered that they were celebrating their ten-year sorority reunion. Two women from the group, a grief therapist and the wife of a landscape architect, had read about the garden in an article and were drawn to it as a group destination. Some of the sisters had not seen one another in twenty years and came from all around the Northwest to reunite amongst the mountain beauty of Northern Idaho’s Lake Pend Oreille region.

After an hour of pouring out our experiences, we all embraced each other in a circle of solidarity. The grief therapist summed-up the meaning of our encounter: “Helping others in their time of grief and pain helps us cope with our own loss and in that way we are all united in understanding and healing.” The compassionate tears began to flow as naturally as the gentle creek waters below us.

Bonner Healing Garden, Sandpoint, ID. Photo by Chris Garcia

The sorority sisters through the tea house archway. Photo by Chris Garcia

Marni Barnes, the co-editor of the book Healing Gardens: Therapeutic Benefits and Design Recommendations, defines therapeutic design as the movement of emotions over time and through space.  In the tea house that morning, I found comfort in the sisters through a self-reinforcing cycle of awareness that validated our common experiences of loss and hope. The journey through the Healing Garden and its hospice setting provided a meaningful experience for the expression of our inner emotions. This therapeutic outcome is the result of an informed design effort that referenced Healing Gardens with the goal of creating a sanctuary for community healing.

Chris Garcia is a landscape designer with a B.A. in Landscape Architecture from the University of California, Berkeley. Chris has visited and evaluated therapeutic outdoor environments at over two-dozen medical facilities and has consulted with healthcare facilities in California and South Florida. He currently provides therapeutic landscape design services in San Diego and can be reached at cgarciagrow (at) gmail.com or through his blog at growingwithcare.blogspot.com.

To read Chris Garcia’s full article about the Bonner Healing Garden, visit the Therapeutic Landscapes Network References page. To learn more about the Bonner Healing Garden, visit the Bonner website and read this article in the Bonner County Daily Bee.

Thanks so much, Chris, for this excellent post!

Full citations:

Hanson, Janet L. (2005). “The Healing Garden…A personal sanctuary from dusk to dawn.” Bonner News, Aug 8.

Barnes, Marni (1999). ”The Role of Perception in the Designing of Outdoor Environments.” In Interaction by Design: Bringing People and Plants Together for Health and Well-Being, Ed. Shoemaker, Candice A., Iowa State Press, pp. 135-140.