Feature: Go to the forest – a professional secret revealed

Ella Marie Merle Kari.
Ella Marie Merle Kari. Source: Jerry Mercury

Ella Marie Merle Kari tells Jerry Mercury in an interview about her summer therapy sessions at community gardens, her work as a therapist and her love of nature. She urges everyone to take some time to just be active outside.

What is horticultural therapy in the age of mobile internet and digital technology? What draws people to come together and touch the earth with their hands, without fear of getting dirty? After all, meetings have become possible without leaving home and without the risk of staining clothes or catching a virus.

As I was working on the article about community gardens in Estonia ("When grass roots not only sprout"), I spotted an invitation to summer garden therapy meetings in the Kadriorg Community Garden. The ad read: "Horticultural therapy is conducted in our and other community gardens by Ella Marie Merle Kari, who introduces herself this way: My name is Ella and I have been involved with community gardens for almost four years through horticultural therapy groups from spring to autumn. My other work and activities are related to nature in one way or another..." Then it said that Ella works in the mental health sphere, but I could not quite comprehend how those jobs are interconnected. There must be, I thought, a special method here in Estonia, known only to experts, of treating mental health issues through gardening. I decided to investigate it by talking to the expert herself hoping to learn what the secret was.

Ella came to the garden with a straw basket, in which, in particular, there were two glass jars with lilac lemonade. Everyone tried this exotic drink from the cups she took out of the basket. Ella was wearing clothes that, as it seemed to me, personified her love for nature – a long felt vest of light green color decorated with images of plants and a long calico skirt. And her long straw-colored hair was tied up in a ponytail.

That workshop was introductory. At the beginning we stood in a circle and Ella asked everyone to introduce themselves. Then she talked about the importance of close contact between people and nature. She took out a box with a large number of paper packages containing seeds of various flowers and plants. Those invited began to select seeds and sow them in common flower beds. At the end of the meeting, we made a circle again and Ella asked us to share what we felt during the process.

After everyone left, Ella agreed to give me an interview. As we sat on a bench in the garden contemplating the lush greenery of the flower beds in the twilight, the conversation took a different direction. It turned out that Ella mainly works as an occupational therapist for children with mental health issues. Leading horticultural workshops in community gardens is her second job.  So, we started talking about school education and children with special needs. I also learned a lot about alternatives to the regular school system. And at the end of the interview, I had a chance to find out what the secret of Ella's special therapy method was.

A photo from a workshop of drying plants. Source: Jerry Mercury

How did you learn about this community garden and how did it happen that you were invited here?

I had heard about the Kadriorg Community Garden but this is the first time I'm here. This is the first day. But I have actually been doing this job (running horticultural therapy groups) for four years now. This is the fourth year. But I've worked in different gardens. This year I've worked for six gardens.

Why did you start conducting these workshops?

I started working in this position because I saw an advert. They were searching for someone who is a little bit like a therapist. And it fitted me because I love nature and I thought it was perfect: a little bit of people and a little bit of nature.

Do I understand correctly that your work in community gardens is not your only job? What do you do besides it?

I mostly work as an occupational therapist with children at school. Because nature is my passion, a lot of my work there is also related to nature. In the school we have horses, we go to the forest and we do some gardening.

Is your main job as an occupational therapist mostly about gardening?

No (Laughs). In the school it is not so much about gardening. We spend a lot of time outside, but we do different things. With a lot of kids, we go cycling or when it's winter we can go skiing. It really depends on the child. I never tell them "Oh, I planned this and that is what we have to do." If they say they don't want to do it today or they don't feel comfortable doing it today, then we can try doing something else. But we also do gardening. We plant things and sow seeds and stuff like this.

Flowers in the Kadriorg Community Garden. Source: Jerry Mercury

Please share more details about the school where you work.

The full name is the Vodja Individual Education Center of the Rocca al Mare School. It's a branch of the big school at Rocca al Mare, it's a private school. I work in the rehabilitation team as we have many kids who need additional support. But we also have children who don't need any additional support. So, it really is a mix. We are a regular school, but most children have individual study plans. The classes are very small – 5-7 children or even smaller. It is different from normal classes, because normally classes here have about 20 to 30 students, which may be overstimulating for some children. Because some of them have intellectual or behavioral struggles. But we also have, how to say..., neurotypical children there who just happen to live nearby and attend the school so it's a mixture of very different children.

And as for the neurodivergent children – what kind of neurodivergences are there?

If we talk about diagnostic or behavioral problems, a lot of children struggle with anxiety and depression. There are also children who have autism and ADHD and there're some children who have intellectual disabilities. But usually, all this manifests itself in difficulties with daily activities or attending school. Often the children who come to us don't fit in the system. So, we just try to work with them and help them. We also try to provide for them an environment that would support their education and wellbeing.

What is occupational therapy mainly focused on?

It's a complex approach. It's not that just a psychotherapist is working with the child. It's a team of us. For example, we have a psychologist, we have a special education teacher, we have an art therapist, we also have a social worker. Quite a lot of people. Occupational therapy itself focuses on both physical and mental wellbeing and actually on the functioning of the person. And the key term for us is the occupational performance – how you manage your daily activities: the basics like getting dressed, eating, also going to school, socializing, going to work, being able to maintain relationships. Because we look at the person holistically, it's a very wide area that we work with.

What exactly do you do at work?

I usually do individual therapy. I have appointments with these children and sometimes I am also in contact with their parents or their parents come to me and I give them advice. But with the children we usually do some activities. Sometimes it is something creative, sometimes when they open up, they come to me and say, "Can we do something with the horses, or can we draw."

Ella Marie Merle Kari showing her clothes. Source: Jerry Mercury

As an autistic person, I wonder if there are any special accommodations for the kids who have high sensitivity to noise?

We try to approach those kids individually. It doesn't help to force children to be in an environment that is very upsetting to them. Because as grownups we wouldn't do it to ourselves, why should we force children to go through it. We have an agreement with the children that if someone gets very frustrated or upset, they can leave the classroom. It helps them. They know that they can come back when they feel they can continue with the class. Or we can find a quieter place for them.

What do you think about regular schools?

I think with the regular school system it's very difficult. This is my personal opinion. I don't approve of the regular school system; it works for some children but not for everyone. When children who don't fit in at school grow up and they look back to school life, they think: Oh, thank God, it's over. School doesn't take into account students' individuality, the fact that people have different ways to learn, or they have different talents or struggles. It just goes the same way for everyone. It doesn't matter: you get dragged through it if you don't fit into the system. You get dragged through it, or you get kicked out. And that is all.

Is homeschooling available in Estonia?

Homeschooling is an option for the first nine grades. There are people who do it fully and some people do it partially. You just need to make a request and be in touch with your local school. They want the child to show up sometimes to see how their learning is going. But not much else.

How do you feel about your job?

I am quite happy with it. It gives me many opportunities to work in different settings. And it's a good base, because it has taught me that no matter what people are like, they have potential in them and there's always a way they can reach this potential.

Maybe you can say some words about your clothes? They are very green. Is it somehow related to you love of nature?

I can give a little show. (Stands up). My friend, who is a psychologist, helped me make this vest. It's merino wool, so it's warm but it also breathes and it's a very lovely thing to have (touches the vest and smiles). And when you make things with your hands it helps you to express your personality through it. That's why I like creating hand-made things. 

Two glass jars with lilac lemonade and a straw basket. Source: Jerry Mercury

Could you please say a couple of words about those drinks?

(Those drinks are so good that we've almost finished them. Ella takes out one of the jars with lilacs out of the basket and puts it on the bench where we are sitting). I am a total nature freak. Another thing I am really interested in is edible wild foods. Most of the plants we have around us are not used now. However, a lot of them are edible and they were eaten previously and people used them for medicine and food. And this is something I also want to pass on to people. It's my passion. And so, for horticultural meetings in community gardens it's good to make such things. This lilac blossoms in May here and it's edible. It's a medicinal plant. And it looks beautiful. The lemonade I made myself. (Ella points at the glass jar). And we have to recognize that nature is something we have always had but we tend to forget about it nowadays. And we are growing apart from it, but the community gardens movement brings people back to nature. They show how important it is to restore this connection. And this is a fascinating research field. Scientific studies have proved that when we have a tough day it helps to go walking in the forest or park. Because the body actually needs it: it's good both for physical and mental health. I would like to remind people of this connection between them and nature. 

Has nature been important to you since your childhood or was there a particular moment in your life when you started thinking about this connection between humans and nature?

I grew up in Tallinn, which is a city, but luckily on the outskirts. So, we often went cycling in the woods and we picked some plants and mushrooms as kids and luckily, in my childhood I spent a lot of time out in a kind of wilderness. And I think this is something that children today – some of them – don't experience anymore. Because a lot of people live in the city – most people actually. And parents today are also more scared to allow children to roam wildly in nature, climbing trees and putting dirt in their mouths, but actually it's an integral part of childhood. But when I started studying occupational therapy, I understood that this is the issue which is also being studied by science. Scientists want to know what effect nature has on our nervous system. And there's a lot of research into why it is good to be in nature or why it is good to take your shoes off and walk barefoot on the ground. And now science also explains all this but you can also feel it intuitively.

So, do you think that people in general would be healthier if they were more connected with the nature?

Totally (Laughs). I am a firm believer in this. And for a lot of people today science is very important, and now science is also backing it up. But I can also see it because people who are for example in this garden right now – it has a strong meaning for them. And it is not so much about growing food – it's about the connection that they get here with nature, with the plants they are growing and also with other people.

And the last question. Given what you have said, maybe you can reveal the principle of your therapy method? Maybe it could give us an idea how to make the world a better place?

In Estonian we have a very good phrase – it's "mine metsa" which in English would translate as "take a hike" or "screw you" (laughs). The literal meaning of this phrase is "go to the forest."  And that's the idea that I would like to put in it. Go outside. Take a friend with you if you want and just have a good time. Because we spend so much time indoors and isolated from nature and each other. We spend so much online these days and it seems to me that it all makes us unhappy and unhealthy. Just get outside (laughs) – this is something I would say to the world.

Drying plants workshop in the Community Garden. Source: Jerry Mercury


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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