Nature, Health and the Human: A brief sensory history

The Cider House, which offers Bed and Breakfast, on the National Trust owned estate of Buckland Abbey offers a sensory natural retreat for weary travellers. They pronounce that there is ‘something rather magical about enjoying the gardens once the Estate is closed, a real privilege and indulgence of all the senses; bird song, flowing water, the scents and sights of the garden and the essence of tranquillity that embodies the Estate, all combine to offer the most wonderful tonic for the mind and soul’.[1] Here the mind and soul are to be revived through a range of sensory interactions which include bird song, scent, flowing waters and that ineffable ‘essence of tranquility’. The lack of humans and elements of urbanised civilization are here seen as essential for a full ‘natural’ sensory experience.

This idea of nature as a sensory balm has a long cultural history. In his 1621 Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton discusses the curative powers of both nature tamed, within in gardens, and nature in the raw. To illustrate this he includes a quote, claimed to be from St Bernard:

A sicke man (saith he) sits upon a greene banke, and when the dog-starre parcheth the Plaines, and dries up rivers, he lies in a shadie bowre, …and feeds his eyes with variety of objects, hearbes, trees, to comfort his misery, hee receaves many delightsome smels, and fills his ears with that sweet harmony of Birds…[2]

Here the visual tonic was enhanced by a range of other sensual natural delights. However, Burton did not necessarily exclude human traces in his descriptions of therapeutic places. He argued that ‘the most pleasant of all outward pastimes is that of Aretus, deambulatio per amaena loca, to make a petty progresse, a merry journey now and then with some good companions’.[3] Within his list of cures for melancholy he included visiting friends, cities, castles, towns, fields and designed landscapes.[4] The inclusive sensory experience described here does not exclude other people or privelige nature over the manmade.

Fig 1 Lyveden New Bield
Lyveden New Bield, Northamptonshire. Created in the late sixteenth century with green banks on which to rest near the water.

However, today, even in very designed settings such as hospital gardens, there is a tendency to highlight the natural, particularly in relation to the non-visual senses. In 2004 Swedish researcher Ingrid Söderback and her team described their ideal healing garden as having, ‘a plentiful variety of plant materials that flower in different seasons, attract birds and butterflies, with leaves and grass that move with a light breeze, pools that reflect the sky and provide a home for fish’.[5] They go on to argue that although the garden should be open to all ‘it should be calm and quiet so that its voices (water-splash, birdsong) can be heard’.[6] Here the sounds of nature are seen as more valuable to healing than those made by humans and perhaps provide the essence of tranquillity described in the opening quote. There is a clear hierarchy identified here which sees what is made by people as less valuable than the ‘natural’ for holistic healing, even though the ‘natural’ space is itself manmade.

Figure 2 Bird garden at Dorset General hospital Authors Own
The Bird Garden at West Dorset General hospital is an internal courtyard, designed by John Hubbard in 1990, with a birdbath at its centre to attract birds as well as flowering plants to encourage insects such as bees and butterflies.

Any distinction between the human and the natural is a false division, of course, but one that has been increasingly visible in modernity. The rise of high-technology environments in medicine, for example, have been good for treating the body but less beneficial for the spirit. As technologies have been increasingly criticised as ‘dehumanising’ influences on the environment, nature has come to represent a ‘(re)humanising’ force.[7] Part of this role, as a balm for the spirit as much as the body, comes from the increasingly unusual sensory power of nature. Many modern built environments have controlled sensory environments, such as smells and sounds, and there is a common perception of modern hospitals as ‘unaesthetic’ spaces.[8] This context helps us to understand the Cider House’s description of its multisensory natural landscapes as a ‘wonderful tonic for the mind and soul’, and the importance it places upon getting away from the built environment. As manmade environments have become more sanitised and less sensory, it seems that nature has become more human than the human.

Figure 3 Maggies Centre Authors Own
The twenty-first century garden designed by Dan Pearson for the Maggie’s Centre at Charing Cross hospital, where the boundaries between natural and human blur.



Dr Victoria Bates is a Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Bristol. For more information on her current project, on the sensory history of hospitals, see:

Dr Clare Hickman is a Lecturer in History at the University of Chester. For more information on her research, including on the history of landscape and senses, see



[2] Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, (1621), ed. by Thomas C. Faulkner, Nicolas K. Kiessling, Rhonda L. Blair (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), p. 73.

[3] Ibid, pp. 72-3.

[4] Ibid, p. 73.

[5] Ingrid Söderback, Marianne Söderström and Elizabeth Schälander, ‘Horticultural therapy: The ‘healing garden’ and gardening in rehabilitation measures at Danderyd Hospital Rehabilitation Clinic, Sweden’ in Pediatric Rehabilitation, 7 (2004) 245-60, p. 246.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Victoria Bates, ‘“Humanizing” Healthcare Environments: Architecture, art and design in modern hospitals’, Design for Health, Online First.

[8] David Howes and Constance Classen, Ways of Sensing: Understanding the Senses in Society (London, New York: Routledge, 2013), p. 58.


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