A globe trotting HT

Tamara Singh is a lover of nature who knows no borders. After training in horticultural therapy at the New York Botanical Gardens with Gwenn Fried and working at the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation with Matt Wichrowski and at NYU Langone’s Tisch Hospital, she moved (back) to France in January 2015. A Dutch native, she had previously received an advanced degree from the Sorbonne in a program called « Gardens, landscapes and territories » and studied floral and vegetal art at the London University for the Arts where she led workshops with children about what we as humans owe to plants.

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Tamara on a few garden-related occasions, but I was curious what impressions she had formed of horticultural therapy in France after a year on the ground. On a rainy day this week (“I love the rain, I am Dutch,” was her positive reaction to the gloomy weather), we met in a cozy neighborhood café on Place des Petits Pères in the center of Paris. After months of meeting people, visiting gardens, reading and investigating related fields, Tamara has confirmed the first impression she had shared with me while packing her bags in New York. “In the New York hospitals built in the 50-70s, there is no outdoor space. We bring everything inside for the patients. This doesn’t stop us from offering horticultural therapy. As a matter of fact, we can help more fragile people who could not get out in a garden. But in France, everything revolves around an outdoor space.”

To put it another way, “I come from the occupational model tradition whereas I see mostly the healing garden model at work in France. Neither extreme is best anyway. We have to be flexible. I really think there is lots in store in the coming two or three years here, because there is a green movement, there is an attempt at protecting the patrimony, and there is this agricultural past coupled with a love of the patrie (the land, if maybe not the state). Also the countryside, le village, is not too far away in many people’s memory.”

The garden comes first, therapy a distant second

“It is overwhelmingly a material issue here. It is about the garden as a space. How to design it, what to grow, how to grow it…What seems important is to have one’s hands in the ground,” she shared with me. “The therapy part is not a central piece. People here don’t seem as concerned with the capabilities of each population and how to engage them. There are tools, techniques and a framework, very much linked to occupational therapy as I learned in my training and practice in New York. There is a language we use and there are goals we set. We build a therapeutic alliance with the patients. Here, there is something more magical and mystical about the practice.” As a matter of fact, the term “hortithérapie” is not widely used in France as if people were a bit leery of making an unsubstantiated claim in the current state of available training.

Those cultural differences make Tamara a bit uncomfortable, not an uncommon situation for people who live between several cultures. “To be credible, we have to offer a safe therapeutic practice and have a good sense of who we are dealing with. We can adapt and model compensation tactics for patients. I believe that detailed task analysis is important.” In contrast, Tamara has visited French therapeutic gardens she found magical, but where safety issues raised red flags for her (a spade in the wrong hands, a root as a tripping hazard,…). “I have heard two highly-trained HT in the US say that the garden is nearly subservient to the alliance and that we should not get hung up on botanical names for example. Of course, the best thing is to get out. But the most important thing is to engage. When people call me in France, their main thing is the garden. What strikes me most is that it is all about the space.”

A break from the medical field

“Of course, they have been practicing this for centuries here. But HT is not recognized as a profession with standards, training and a code of ethics which is what AHTA brings in the US. Another difficulty is getting access to patients. Fragile populations are protected in France and you need all kinds of degrees and certifications to work with them. I also find that in the US, once a place is on board with HT, they will put their money where their mouth is. Here it is difficult to get funding.”

As Tamara realized quickly, France is home to several schools of thoughts about healing gardens/horticultural therapy, a debate from which she intends to stay away. “It is about the people we are servicing, not about us. We are not important. It’s just a question of deciding how to turn this modality, this link with the earth, into a viable profession where people are trained to maximize – that’s the key word I think – the benefits that are already reported empirically and impressionistically.”

As for herself, Tamara has devoted the last few months to building a private practice in part because she was keen on a break from the medical industry. She is seriously considering getting her credentials in art therapy, which was finally recognized as profession in France since 2011. What Tamara might have forgotten during her time in the US is that things move much more slowly in France and that the French are in love with debates and ideas sometimes to the detriment of action. Welcome back!

Tamara Singh can be reached at hortustherapy (at) gmail.com.