By Erin Gustin, PsyD
Students come to Pacific Quest from various parts of the country. Some have never traveled to the warmer, more tropical parts of the world. The plants, weather, and culture of Hawaii are unfamiliar and sometimes shocking to them. Working in a garden is likely something they have not felt like doing before, or have never considered working on the land as an activity that might create self-esteem, or help with anxiety and depression issues. Horticultural therapy is one the five petals of the Pacific Quest model, and it involves a process by which the young person engages in gardening and plant-based activities to achieve their treatment goals.
At Pacific Quest, cultivating and caring for plants are viewed as a metaphor for healthy development, both mentally and physically. Take, for example a plant that is not growing:
A student looks at the seedling questioningly and says “Maybe it needs some water?” and proceeds to water the plant. After a day, the plant is still not growing well. A staff intervenes and asks, “Did you water it?” “Yes, I watered it yesterday,” responds the student. The staff responds, “Why don’t you put it outside where it will get some sun?” “That’s a great idea. I will put it in a place where it will get sunlight. I just hope it’s going to grow well now.” Over the next few days the plant is growing well and the student and staff look in amazement at the beautiful process that just happened of problem-solving and growing something together.
The process of growing a healthy plant, and metaphorically a relationship with yourself and others, involves the same type of work. The student will be required to make strides to grow and make changes to better suit their environment. They will come to understand that things in the world are delicate and sensitive, and that all things can not only grow, but thrive. For each student, the emotional and personal work differs. It may include creating a list of things that they like about themselves, or writing a “not to send letter” to someone who has hurt them in the past. It may involve growing and cultivating things on the land that create self-esteem for the student, or learning to weed to ease their anxiety. For students struggling with anger, they may find release in using a sickle to chop down cane grass or an o’o bar to break up rocks.
Pacific Quest is located in the backdrop of a beautiful island paradise that can support a vast array of plant life. Beyond the physical environment, Hawai’i is an incredibly unique place because of the Hawaiian culture. Native Hawaiian perspectives resonate very strongly with plants growing on the ‘āina (land). Take for example the taro plant:
Early Polynesian settlers brought the taro plant to Hawaii over a thousand years ago. Taro is synonymous with food and nourishment in Hawaiian culture. The taro plant is considered part of the family. The Hawaiian word for family is ‘ohana and is derived from the world ‘oha, which is the name of the stalk that grows from the corm of the plant. Taro is regarded not only as a material object (plant) but also a set of beliefs that pervade every aspect of Hawaiian life from birth to death and from past to future.
Therefore, the interconnectedness between plants and humans permeate all aspects of Hawaiian culture. This perspective is beneficial when facing problems and provides a template for looking at the world in a slightly different and unique way. If we can learn to respect plants, we can learn from them and they will benefit us, just like they have done for people for generations.