I count myself blessed that I was able to wander about in empty fields in my neighborhood as I was growing up – sit among grasses, follow the grasshoppers, collect bouquets of daisies, buttercups, and Queen Anne’s lace for my mom, strip the seeds off the yellow dock into my pail to make “coffee.”
I had forgotten a lot by the time I started my formal herbal studies in my late fifties. On our first field walks, the plants looked indistinguishably green to me. Over time I learned to observe smooth and wavy and notched leaf margins, the arrangement of leaves on stems, the patterns of veins, the colors and sometimes fuzz on the underside of leaves. I smelled and tasted. I started to pay attention to which plants seemed to like to grow near one another – like poison ivy and its antidote jewelweed. This was one adult way of becoming friends with the plants.
Science was another – the complex chemistry of each specie, how to extract and then dose the desired mix of constituents, how different bodies may respond to the same medicine.
Yet always there remains mystery: green plants turn the sun’s energy into food and medicines for us.
Yes, this is called photosynthesis, and there is a chemical equation for it. Still, it is a mystery. The plants’ variety, beauty, colors and countless healing gifts are mysteries. Just like the hearts and gifts of our human friends.
Some of these phytonutrients have affinities for certain kinds of tissues in the body, and can be selected to nourish, soothe, tone and repair those particular tissues. Others interact with hormones, immune cells, and neurotransmitters to foster balanced communication between cells.
It is my deep prayer that we never entirely solve these mysteries nor come to the end of praising them.
A Hymn to the Plants
from the Rig Veda*
Plants, which as receptacles of light were
born three ages before the Gods, I honor
your myriad colors and your seven hundred natures.
A hundred, oh Mothers, are your natures
and a thousand are your growths.
May you of a hundred powers make whole what has been hurt.
Plants, as Mothers, as Goddesses, I address you.
May I gain the energy, the light, the sustenance, your soul,
you who are the human being.
Where the herbs are gathered together like kings in an assembly,
there the doctor is called a sage, who destroys evil, and averts disease.
As they fell from Heaven, the plants said,
“The living soul we pervade, that man will suffer no harm.”
The herbs which are in the kingdom of the Moon,
manifold with a hundred eyes,
I take you as the best of them, for the fulfillment of wishes, as peace to the heart.
The plants which are queens of the Soma,
spread over all the Earth, generated by the Lord of prayer,
may your energy combine within this herb.
*Translated by David Frawley in Ayurvedic Healing: A Comprehensive Guide, 1989
I am delighted to continue my interview series with healthcare interior designer and fellow herbalist Bethany Ziman. As an herbalist and healer, I know how important it is to hold a space and deep listening for each client’s story. A story constructed from ephemeral sensations, fashioned memories, and enduring emotional patterns, each with its own syntax and language. shaped by our culture and family, our neighborhoods and the physical homes where we grew up.
As we awaken and heal, we often deconstruct or otherwise rewrite our story. And yet we continue to live in our stories, much as we live in our material homes and workplaces. It had never occurred to me before talking with Bethany that designing interior spaces, especially hospitals, also starts with story: not typical at all, she told me, but a method that works for her. As you read on, you’ll also appreciate her “not typical” results.
During uncountable hours I have spent as a family member, friend, and advocate in more than a dozen hospitals over the years, I know how the physical environment itself wears me down. Monitors buzz and beep. Urgent voices page medical staff. Carts clatter. Ever-present fluorescent lights and high-def screens glare. Plastic everything, even the plants. Windows are sealed shut. Air heavy with deodorizing cleaners poorly masking medical odors.
The healing power of nature, vis medicatrix naturae, has been abandoned. Read on and learn how one talented woman harnesses and translates this power into one of the most challenged of modern environments: the twenty-first century hospital.
Bethany is Director of Healthcare Interiors at the Baltimore architectural firm Marshall Craft Associates, and owner, herbalist and health and wellness coach of The Herban Pharm, LLC. She is an LEED accredited professional (aka “green” designer) and a Registered Yoga Teacher. Bethany brings both thoughtfulness and improvisational delight to all of her work.
Finding inspiration in the natural world
Bethany first visited Hamilton’s Pool near her hometown of Austin, Texas as a teen.This natural pool was created when a limestone dome collapsed exposing an underground river. She described to me the wonder, awe and overwhelming sense of connectedness she felt to the landscape and the people who came here before her: “I remember thinking ‘Wow, I am sitting at the very spot where Native Americans sat with their families.’ I imagined them enjoying – just as I was – the beauty and coolness of the cave-like limestone canopy, providing protection from the scorching Texas heat.” That formative experience continues to influence Bethany’s design work and reminds her how vital it is to “tap into people’s sensory and emotional centers when designing places of healing, by incorporating natural textures and materials that we have co-evolved with from the beginning of time.”
An Interview with Bethany Ziman
Sara: It seems as if you begin writing your “story” for a design project with the same kind of empathic imagining you described at Hamilton’s Pool, re-membering within yourself what it was like for travelers of a totally different time, era and culture to enter that space.
Bethany: I do begin with what I call the “energetics” – an understanding of how a design can evoke sensory and emotional responses from different groups who will enter and move through a space.
I consider how to design the interior architecture to uplift their mood; evoke a sense of peace, comfort, and reassurance; encourage collaboration and a sense of community; even initiate a movement toward health and healing.
Patients, their families and friends, medical and maintenance staff – each group enters with a different mindset and agenda. I approach a Physical Therapy/ Occupational Therapy unit differently than a Neonatal unit or a Heart and Vascular unit, yet they all have over-lapping goals. I think through the implications of these different perspectives.
In addition to the energetics, I draw on both art and science. The art is a choreographed play, using various media – color, lighting, texture, noise reduction, line, rhythm, balance, and harmony. Evidence-based design principles also play a key role. Studies have demonstrated, for example, how the presence of a garden or even just images of biodiverse gardens, can lower blood pressure and reduce patients’ anxiety and their use of pain medications
Sara: Recently you completed the design of a new neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) for the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC). A NICU functions as a kind of sophisticated womb, in a sense, where premature infants can come to “full-term” development so that they can go on to thrive in their own family homes. In your story you set out to draw on the healing power of the natural world, what you call “its consistent complexities.”
Bethany: I was working on my Master’s degrees in Herbal Medicine and Health and Wellness Coaching at the same time I was working on the interior architecture and design and “the story” of the NICU.
As I learned more about the world of plants and plant medicines, I understood how we draw comfort from complexities that we don’t necessarily bring to conscious attention.
The UMMC NICU is designed with 52 single family rooms divided into 5 “neighborhoods.” People enter the NICU off an elevator lobby, passing through double doors in a floor-to-ceiling glass wall etched with a field of lavender flowers. I wanted to evoke our memory of grasses naturally swaying in the wind, which is an invisible but real energetic force. Even though the lavender motif is static, people may sense a natural movement that subtly breaks the static box of the built environment.
I was also learning about the energetics of plant medicines, when to incorporate cooling herbs vs warming herbs to create balance in the body. In the NICU I used the medium of colors, which are also cooling and warming, to distinguish different neighborhoods, each entered through it’s own “portal,” an architectural detail that you walk through to transition from one neighborhood to the next.
I strategically placed the orange and yellow neighborhoods on the north side of the unit so the colors would energetically balance and visually warm up the lower-lit northern exposure, and the blue and greenish-blue rooms on the southern side to balance and cool down the brighter southern exposure. Solar shades in the rooms – also with a lavender motif – are programmed to rise and fall with the sun, reinforcing and rebalancing circadian rhythms. I chose photographs of healthy and biodiverse Maryland environments guided by this same color palette – their harmony and balance enhances the identity and sense of place of each neighborhood.
Sara: This design story, you told me, also takes into account the reality that NICU hospitalizations can run to weeks and months, and so the families need both privacy and social support.
Bethany: In my herbal studies I kept coming across patterns in nature that repeat at progressive scales, called fractals. I saw that I could incorporate this type of patterning to transition from spaces supporting refuge, intimacy and family bonding to progressively expansive spaces encouraging opportunities for social and environmental support.
A family can stay in the room with their baby, “huddle” or draw inward, regain strength and bond. When parents want to step away from the room but are not ready to travel too far, they can wander within their neighborhood, which includes a “respite,” a large window seat with a view and an architectural bulkhead overhead – a “protective canopy” inspired by the natural formations like the one at Hamilton’s Pool. Here a family may encounter other immediate neighbors.
And as time goes on, a family may wander through the other neighborhoods and encounter a larger pool of people going through a similar life event.
Community naturally evolves through these casual encounters where parents can teach and learn from other parents and the medical staff.
The unit is laid out like a large rectangular race track. To travel from one neighborhood to another patients and visitors move at their own pace along a wood-look path. Along this inner track, they walk among images of nature, sheltered from the fast-moving medical staff speeding along an outer track.
Practically speaking, “neighborhoods” met the need to conform to fire and building codes and functional “zones.” Together the single family rooms and the neighborhoods provide opportunities for this range of privacy, social and care needs.
I wanted the high-tech critical care to fade into the background so the space would feel more nurturing and less clinical. The consistent complexities found in nature help bring peace and a sense of stability and reassurance to the worried mind. Where better to transplant these potent and viable seeds but in a healthcare setting?
Sara: What would you like readers to take away from your story?
Bethany: To be inspired to observe the world and beauty around them, to feel deeply, compassionately and with overwhelming gratitude. I find importance in investing in the time required to discover your gift – your passion, investing the time to develop it and then taking the time to share it with those around you who may be touched by the enthusiasm. I have learned that it often takes “going against the grain” on the road to self-discovery and being the driver of your own life but it is well worth the stance and I am happy to have been a rebel in this regard for most of my life!
The anxiety of being human runs through our soul, fiber, bone and blood, attending both the existential anxiety of death, and the more personal anxiety that rides on it, schooled even from the womb by our mothers’ mood and stress, and by the ways our infant bodies sense the ever-changing shapes and forms of our immediate surroundings.
But we are also birthed into, of, and held by the larger rhythms of the natural world, which is utterly without anxiety:
human nature, Mother Nature, inseparable.
by Sara Eisenberg
Tendrils of intelligent vitality
creep in at every pore,
another green being in a sea
of sentient Ones.
I conspire with
cicadas courting with their forewings,
while the landscape whispers
in myriad tongues,
“There is no longer
in your face
the anxiety of being human.”