Garden of Senses

A few years ago, National Association for the Blind(NAB) Sikkim Branch had organized a workshop at Gangtok on Digital Accessible Information System ( DAISY)  Talking Books for the visually impaired. After the workshop was over, the resource person Ms. Deepika Sood from Delhi, herself 100 percent blind, expressed her desire to visit the Flower Show. She later told me that she was really impressed with the wide array of flowers on display. All these years at the back of my mind a rather disquieting question kept troubling me, “ What had Deepika seen since she was completely blind?”

And I think got an answer to my question recently. At the eye camp organized by NAB at the Blind School Namchi  in April this year the members of NAB  felt that the sprawling compound of the institute was rather barren and decided do a plantation programme. Meghna Thapa the NAB coordinator suggested that we should plant Basil(Tulsi), Mint, etc. When  we discussed the matter casually with Usha Lachungpa of the forest Department  she came up with this great idea of Garden of Senses in which we plant a whole range of aromatic plants and also plants that can be easily identified by touching and which the visually challenged can move around guided by their sense of smell and touch. NAB immediately fell for the idea. The word Garden of Senses itself conjured up an image of something magical and metaphysical.

Over my last sixteen years association with NAB I had been too engrossed in use of technology to make the children of the institute communicate and employable through various assistive  devices  : Converting text books into Braille and Talking books ,  Job Access with Speech (JAWS) screen readers, tactile readers, Duxbury braille translators.  My head was too clouded with technology and  I had never thought there was a world beyond this:  a subtle realm where  the visually challenged could connect to nature. This excellent idea of Garden of Senses prompted me to do research on what was being done in this area across the world in honing the other senses of the visually challenged.  And to my pleasant surprise a lot was happening in this field specially in the USA.

Deaf and blind Helen Keller once observed that people were surprised that she could enjoy nature. It is really they, she said, who were blind, “for they have no idea how fair the flower is to the touch, nor do they appreciate its fragrance, which is the soul of the flower.” Those who have lost their sight develop their remaining senses to a heightened degree the sighted cannot imagine. Try walking through your garden with your eyes closed tight. At first you might be lost, but with experience your other senses will begin to guide you.

Here are some examples of how some visually challenged have resorted gainfully to gardening and has allowed plant lovers the opportunity to connect with nature, relax and grow food and herbs.

Kitty, blind after years of deteriorating eyesight, expressed a wish for some plants in her life.  Her friend gave her a few scented herbs—lavender, oregano, mint and sage—and suggested her husband plant them in a barrel, thinking that exhausted the possibilities. How mistaken she was, for that was just the beginning. Kitty wasn’t satisfied just to sniff and touch, she wanted a real garden, a place to gather herbs for use in her kitchen. “Why can’t she make her own garden?” she asked. There are misgivings how the blind can carry on their daily lives, let alone make gardens. But with the help of her husband Kitty created a beautiful kitchen garden which she tends to herself.

For Ellen Di Nardo, a longtime gardener blind since age 4, touch is the primary way of navigating the world. She is a voracious reader on gardening subjects, using an Optacon—a small camera-equipped machine that gives her access to traditional print. When Di Nardo runs the Optacon over text, she can feel a vibration in the shape of the letter it is photographing; if it’s an “o”, she feels a circle. She also uses it to read the names on seed packets, then makes Braille labels for them on a manual Braille typewriter. She gets Braille books or audio books from the local library

Northern Michigan gardener Connie Payne is legally blind from a condition known as retinitis pigmentosa. Her vision is limited to a small central spot, which is also imperfect. But as her vision has deteriorated, she has been unwilling to give up gardening. She has learned to identify plants using her senses of touch and smell. By rubbing a leaf, for instance, she can note its scent and feel its texture, as well as how it grows on the plant. She learns the shape of blooms and the plant’s form by touch, too. As she has become more aware of shape, texture and fragrance, she is better able to distinguish between the plants she wants to grow and unwanted weeds as she moves her hand across the ground. She loves to grow tomatoes and marigolds, which are easy to identify by touch and smell. When purchasing plants, she gets help reading the plant tags, paying special attention to height, color of bloom and suggested site. She says that adding a double row of patio stones—8-by-16-inch blocks—to her garden’s edge has helped her to recognize it more easily. Her favorite herbs for texture and fragrance are garden sage, creeping thyme, tarragon and various members of the mint family, which are easy to recognize by their square stems. She also loves groundcovers, such as sweet woodruff and the dead nettle ‘Orchid Frost’ (Lamium spp.) for their low, compact growth. “I don’t like bending over to smell or weed and getting poked in the eye by a plant I cannot see,” she says.

In schools and institutions across the USA, teachers and devoted volunteers help blind, deaf-blind and hearing-impaired children and adults (who may have other disabilities) develop skills and improve their social, psychological and physical well-being through gardening activities. Horticultural therapy, increasingly valued for its ability to directly reach students, is at the forefront of this effort..

Established in 1829, the Perkins School for the Blind is the oldest school for the blind in the United States and the alma mater of Anne Sullivan and her student, Helen Keller. Horticultural therapy began there in 1979 as a part-time pilot program (students had been involved in gardening and animal husbandry in the past). It quickly became a national model and with the 2003 establishment of its Thomas & Bessie Pappas Horticulture Center, Perkins continues to move forward with innovative plant-oriented programs that include science classes, garden and greenhouse experience, and learning vocational skills, such as making gifts, wreaths, herbal teas and potpourri.

Even the most disabled students can help water seedlings and transplant cuttings. These activities are a tremendous esteem boost to students who have spent a lifetime receiving care, letting them offer care and nurturing. The Perkins Spring Flower Show—with categories such as “Plants Grown from Seed” and “Fresh Flower Vase Arrangements”—highlights the students’ achievements for their families, friends and the local community and exemplifies the school’s slogan, “All we see is possibility.”

On 14th of July 2016, the idea of Garden of Senses was finally translated into action. The idea got a flip thanks to Regional Manager State Bank of Sikkim who agreed to sponsor programme.

The plantation program of the Garden of Senses was graced by Shri R Telang IAS, Principal Secretary SJEWD cum Principal Secretary to His Excellency to the Governor, Mr. S. T. Lama Regional manager State Bank of India and his colleagues, District Collector South Mr. Raj Yadav, SDM South Sikkim Mr. BC Rai, Usha lachungpa Prin. Research Officer, JS SJEWD Mr. K B Pradhan, Mr. Santa Pradhan Retd. Secretary Agri., JD Horti., Mr. Ongyal Bhutia Professor of Botany along with 31 students of NAB accompanied by volunteers from Namchi Government College and NSS. A total of 150 nos of  herbs like Bhimsenpati, Babari phul,  Curry-patta, Aloe vera, Asparagus, Lavender, Rosemary, Sweet Leaf, Thyme, Titeypati, Tulsi, Lemongrass; shrubs like Khanakpa, Neem, Parijat and fruit trees like Guava, Papaya and Orange were planted. The program was coordinated and led by Smt. Jayshree Pradhan President NAB along with Mt. Jiwan Rai Prin. JNMI and their team. NAB is grateful for the enthusiastic support of Ms. Sobha Pradhan Social Worker and Ms. Meghna Thapa, Centre for Environment Education,

A lot more needs to be done. The plants need to be tagged in Braille so that the children can relate the name with the smell and the touch.  Also a mechanism of involving the children in tending to the plants needs to be in place. We could even have a small aviary at the Garden of Senses itself so that the children can start identifying birds by their calls.

Now the tingle of the thorns of stem of a plant on the finger should be able to tell the child that it is an Aloe vera plant or that aromatic fragrance is from titipayti that can be used to treat a minor bruise sustained while playing  or that pungent smell  emanating from the dal  being served for lunch  is from the  curry patta  just picked up from the garden. I personally feel that the visually challenged access olfactory or tactile spectrum  which is much richer than is normally available to us. The Garden of Senses will open up a new world to the visually challenged other than just Braille and talking books.

So  do not  raise your eyebrow in askance next time if a visually impaired Deepika Sood asks you for a sightseeing trip to the flower show.  Or be surprised if  a visually challenged student of the School adroitly escorts you through the Garden of Senses then stands in front of each plant growing there and give its detailed description.