A retreat is a place of privacy or safety, a refuge. Most people see their homes as a retreat from the stresses of work and the daily commute, but what about the outside of your house? How can nature and your landscape serve as a retreat?
Man is by nature, a natural being; we need to return to nature, to interact with it in order to rejuvenate, restore, and regenerate ourselves. Regular retreats with nature dramatically improve cognitive function, particularly our ability to exercise directed attention and working memory, which are crucial mental capabilities. Unlike the constant vigilance that is required for a walk through a city or bustling town, a natural setting has moderate stimuli that trigger our involuntary attention. You can’t help but notice the sky during a sunset—water-colored in pinks, oranges and blue. Watching the leaves flutter in the breeze gives your cerebral cortex a reprieve. Attending to these details doesn’t take any extra work or cognitive control—our brain is able to refresh itself. In contrast, a walk through a city pushes the brain to remain constantly vigilant: avoid cars, people, and objects and ignore an overwhelming amount of extraneous stimulation.
If you do an Internet search for “relaxing in nature,” “natural retreat,” or “relaxing music” you will see a deluge of hits on how to synthesize a natural experience indoors. There are a million and one sound recordings for relaxing in nature, yoga videos, guided meditations, and even a website, relaxinginnature.com, to help you create the feeling of being surrounded by nature while you are indoors.
Instead of spending the time and money pretending you are outside, this spring why not bring yourself outdoors? “How?” you might ask. By creating spaces in your own landscape this season that you can retreat to at the end of the day. Yes you could pull a blanket outside and sit on it, but most (including myself) never will, the outdoors must resemble my living room in order for me to do any relaxing. Don’t get me wrong; I can relax by weeding, but not regularly. Those of us who garden regularly know that weeding is a chore that, at times, can be relaxing, but it’s not something I look forward to after a long day. When I close my eyes and think “relaxation”, I see my couch and a stack of books, a glass of wine, some scented candles, and the sound of water. I count myself lucky that I have these things outside, so this spring, summer, and fall you can find me outside reading a good book on a couch. Did I mention that it’s outside? Add a fire pit and you have the makings of an amazing retreat that can be used for nine to ten months of the year.
How do you go about making your own outdoor space? It can be as simple as purchasing two chairs, a small table, and setting them underneath a tree outside, but first you must consider what you find comfortable, your personal style, and how you intend to use the space. Do you need to lounge on a luxurious sofa alone or can you sit comfortably for hours with a good friend? Look around your favorite room; are their plush fabrics with a great deal of color or white linen for a clean, open look?
Once you’ve established your specific taste or style personality, start thinking of how you want to transition from your home to your new space. A walkway can help create a route that will help you shed daily stress on your way to your sanctuary. Wood chips, pebbles, and river rock are favorable alternatives to a brick or bluestone walkway. They are very informal and are easy to care for (for easier care and less weeds put down more than two inches). What you choose for your walkway should almost always continue on into your space; this will give you a fluidity that would be lost if you broke the two apart.
Next on the checklist is whether you need walls. Ask yourself if you want to create privacy, a space that you can sequester yourself away and call your own, or do you want to create an open airy space where people are welcome to come and go as they please. Remember that walls don’t have to be made of stone—shrubs can create a solid visual barrier that would add to the nurturing arms of nature. Shorter shrubs, like boxwood, will give you a visual boundary without blocking your sight, since most varieties get no taller than 48 inches and are easily trimmed. Taller shrubs, like forsythia, can give you over eight feet of height, but they need almost as much space horizontally for their mature size. Whatever shrubs you choose, make sure you read the tag when you make a purchase. When you pick up the tiny shrub in the nursery and the tag says that it will grow to be over ten feet tall and wide, it will. We are blessed with some great local nurseries in the area; they know what they are doing. When in doubt, ask. Now, a ceiling; do you want to lay back and watch the clouds? Would you benefit from an ornamental tree to give you dappled light? The sound of dancing leaves can add a musical dynamic to most outdoor rooms. They are one of the few things that I almost always suggest to clients. A well-placed tree can give you shade from the noon sun without casting your entire space into shadow. Again, read tags before purchasing your favorite.
You’ve taken care of your “structure”, how will you furnish your new room? Do you need a chaise or a more traditional sofa; do you only need one chair to create a solitary retreat or multiple seating for friends? I always suggest a table of some kind; its size should be determined by the number of chairs you have. If you have one chair, you need a small intimately sized table. A water feature is another great addition to an outdoor space. Most people cringe at the idea, thinking of the cost and upkeep, and while I can agree that you have some commitment involved, it doesn’t have to be a full-fledged koi pond for you to enjoy the sound of running water. Local hardware, nurseries, and lawn and garden stores carry an amazing variety of very decent fountains that need minimal maintenance and power needs. There are also a number of very competent aquatic landscapers in the area that can help you with specific needs.
Add lighting, twinkle lights at the least. It will add hours of enjoyment to your space. Lighting is the most overlooked element in outdoor living spaces. If you have a large area, contact a local electrician who can help you select the correct fixtures and help you keep your wiring safely to code.
Now, step back. You’ve created your outdoor space; you have walls, a ceiling, furnishings, and lighting. Bring your favorite room in your house back into your mind’s eye: what elements did you decorate with? Do you have candles, beautiful antiques, treasures from various journeys? If some of them are weather resistant, bring a few outside. If not, a hunt at your local antiques store could be just what you need. Make sure you tell them that you are looking for exterior objects. Candles are a favorite of mine. I love finding handmade vessels from a local artisan, filling them with river rock or other smooth stones and placing a candle in the middle. The three elements of stone, earth, and fire together appeal to me.
How your space looks, feels, and is experienced is personal, as personal as the inside of your home. So imagine what you could do, if you brought your favorite parts of your home outside. All aspects of your life would benefit if you let your “attentional circuits” rest. So I invite you to stop, close your eyes, and dream for a second—the sound, smell, and feel of your ideal outdoor room.
by Vivian Mandala