The classic 1911 children’s novel, The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett tells the story of Mary Lennox, an unloved 10-year-old girl born in India to wealthy parents who never wanted her. When her parents die of cholera Mary is discovered alive and alone in the empty house and is sent to live with Archibald Craven, a wealthy, hunchbacked uncle she has never met, at his isolated moorland home Misselthwaite Manor, in Yorkshire.

Whilst settling in to her new home, Martha Sowerby, a good-natured maid, tells Mary a story of the late Mrs. Craven, and how she would spend hours in a private walled garden growing roses. Later, Mrs. Craven was killed when sitting in a tree and the branch broke. In his anguish, Mr. Craven had the garden locked and the key buried. As time goes on Mary's is occupied by wondering about the secret garden and a strange crying sound that can sometimes be heard around the house which the servants ignore or deny. As Mary is exploring the gardens, she is alerted to some turned-up soil by a helpful robin, and finds a key that belongs to the locked garden, and then the door into the garden. Being of a curious nature, Mary further explores her new surroundings and discovers a small boy her own age, living in a hidden bedroom nearby. He suffers from a spinal problem and can’t walk, spending most of his time in bed. His name is Colin and she discovers that they are cousins; he is in fact the son of her uncle Archibald. Mary visits Colin every day that week, distracting him from his troubles with stories of the moor, of Dickon, a local boy she has be-friended, his animals and of the garden. Mary believes that Colin would benefit, as she has, from the fresh air and she brings him to the window to show him the secret garden. Colin is put into his wheelchair and brought outside into the garden, the first time he has been outdoors for many years.

Restorative capacity of nature

Colin spends every day in the garden, and as the garden is flourishing and being nurtured and restored back to its former glory so too does he become stronger, healthier and happier and starts to walk again. The children conspire to keep Colin's now improved health a secret so that he can surprise his father, who is travelling and still mourning over his late wife. On his return Mr Craven walks around the outer wall in memory of her but starts to hear voices inside. He finds the door unlocked and is shocked and overjoyed to see the garden in full bloom with children in it and his son Colin running around, having just won a short race against Mary.

The story demonstrates the restorative capacity of the natural environment to nourish mind and body to enhance health and well-being. From near destruction a happy regeneration of family has occurred. It provides us with hope that the present difficulties we face may be overcome and we may yet learn to understand our dependency on and need to safeguard nature in all its manifestations. Also at the core of this story is the importance of people having and believing in a shared vision, working hard towards that vision, and the importance of building enduring relationships founded on mutual respect, and most importantly to never give up.

Shared vision

The 21st century is characterised by the need for more resource consciousness and the need to adopt a more integrated and holistic approach that acknowledges the inextricable link between economy, environment and society. The Secret Garden story is as important in 2020 as it was when first published in 1911. What the natural environment did to restore, re-build and sustain in the Secret Garden is exactly the same as what it does today. In 2020, more people are uniting, advocating and partnering to deal with the formidable socio-economic and environmental challenges we face at a local, national and international level. But what the Secret Garden story tells us that what may appear as insurmountable obstacles can be overcome when people join together and work towards a shared vision.

by Dorothy Stewart, Member and former Employee of An Taisce

Photo via OPW