After farming in Sonoma County for more than a dozen years and having been raised partly on our family farm in Iowa, I have come to see that agriculture can serve many functions, in addition to producing food, fibers and beverages. Some farms -- especially family farms -- are places where working the earth can be good for the body, mind and soul. Farms can heal.
Agropsychology is a growing field of study, whose practice is called agrotherapy. For example, farming has helped me recover from post-traumatic stress from being a member of the military family that gave its name to Fort Bliss, Texas, and having served in the Army during the Vietnam War era.
Living on or visiting farms puts people in direct contact with plants, animals, the elements and nature in ways that can improve mental health.
Psychological literature documents the fact that what has been called pet therapy and horticulture therapy can heal. Animals can help comfort people and draw them away from passivity and depression. Gardens are increasingly popular in hospitals for the beauty and healing they offer. People have long gone to nature and the countryside for relaxation.
Trees, animals, rivers and other natural elements can make good listeners and great therapists. Simply watching and helping plants and animals grow and feeling seasonal changes can be nurturing and lift one's spirits.
Though they do not use the word, recent articles in The Press Democrat report on examples of agrotherapy, including the use of animals for psychological healing. "With a year-old retriever at his feet, Iraq war veteran Christopher Hill slept soundly through the night -- something the muscular Marine staff sergeant hadn't experienced in four years," reports a story last year headlined "Canine Compassion."
The national group Farms Not Arms, which has an active Petaluma chapter, and the related Farmers-Veterans Coalition, seek farms where returning veterans can find meaningful work and recover from the ravages of war. Various groups use the biblical concept "from swords to ploughshares."
Chickens are the farm animals that I personally find most healing. At our Iowa family farm in the late 1940s, we did not yet have electricity. Instead of radios and televisions for entertainment, we had animals, which I still prefer to TV. They can be funny, as well as beautiful. I enjoy watching and hearing chickens dance, talk to each other, clown around, dig into the earth with glee and herald the dawn. Many adults could benefit from learning from chickens how to play more, which can be deeply healing.
I honor chicken wisdom, based on the alertness necessary for prey to survive. I sometimes take chickens as "teaching assistants" to my psychology classes at Sonoma State University, much to the delight of students. Learning how to lighten up, especially in the face of crises, can reduce stress and literally extend one's life.
We can all benefit from an animal of choice, and a plant of choice. Mine is the boysenberry, a local plant first grown by Rudolph Boysens in Napa County.
I began writing about agrotherapy at a gathering of the Veterans' Writing Group, which I have met with in the Sebastopol countryside for more than a dozen years. Support groups and writing can also be healing. The written and oral telling of one's stories can be regenerative.