The 1958 diaries of Dorothy Day (1987-1980) capture glimpses of Day’s appreciation for land and the natural world. Her continuous indications of the weather and temperature, her love for the farm, and her peaceful visits to the beach reiterate that she had a deep connection to the land and natural world (Day 1958). 

These were not necessarily new practices for Day (1958). There is evidence that gardening was an important part of her earlier life. Day wrote gardening articles for The Staten Island Advance. The editor at the time, Philip Hochstein, who was “surprised at her eagerness to undertake a gardening page”, declared in a letter to the editor of the New York Times on Thursday, December 4th, 1980, that Day wrote with “humor and conscientious regard.”

Hochstein goes on to state that Day was “going through a transition in her life” from a “radical Bohemian to a crusading religionist and champion of Catholic labor” (1980). Day, in explaining her reasons why she wanted to write about gardening (other than the obvious need for income) was to provide a different life for her daughter, Tamar, and move away from the influences of “tobacco and liquor” she was experiencing. Day, at this time, would start taking her daughter to Mt. Loretto in New York “for the music and the serenity.” This transition, she told Hochstein, put her “chin-deep in crucifixes.” 

In what manner is this useful information for those who are seeking healthy transitions today? How can we learn from Day when it comes to her love for the natural world, writing, and caring for her young child? The COVID-19 virus is still a major concern, and people making decisions regarding mental health need to take the outcomes of this situation seriously. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention captures a major concern for many educators, students, and parents: children and teens feeling sad and hopeless is causing a decline in teen mental health (Balingit 2022). Since assumptions are always present when researchers collect and analyze information (Creswell 2014), perhaps it is best to bring to light that I am a female Catholic educator and a new mother. I currently teach World Religions and Catholic social teaching at a Catholic secondary high school in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. 

It is well known that students who study and learn outside can improve their mental, behavioral, and social-emotional health. Outdoor learning and engagement with nature, then, should be part of the curriculum planning as educators prepare for the 2022-2023 school year. Are educators considering the long-term, positive implications that may develop from connecting students and teachers to the outdoor world? How seriously are high school educators taking methods to implement outdoor learning in their daily practices?

This does not mean to suggest that this approach will make every child or teacher feel safer or more comfortable. There are certain topics that need to be made clear in terms of safety procedures, cost, and comfortability. What is suggested, however, is that connecting to the natural world will help students and educators who are also seeking spiritual transitions. To further, perhaps it is best to focus on Day’s love for her daughter as a beacon of light when the world presents serious challenges, especially difficulties that impact the younger lives of those around us.

Day’s efforts with gardening reveal a unique characteristic of her complex life and spirituality. This opens up venues to further research and practices in distinct ways, especially for educators. First, outdoor learning should be a focal point when a developing curriculum for teens today. Should educators encourage gardening with their students? What would an outdoor playground look and feel like for students who are suffering from sadness or loss of hope? Is outdoor learning a priority at the secondary level? Second, this conversation builds on the contextuality of what is going on in high schools in the US today. Lastly, this conversation opens doors for educators to explore the particularities of not only Day’s life, but also major female Catholic figures.

Let us look to Day as we encourage joy and hope in and—outside—the classroom. Perhaps, then, some of us will find ourselves “chin-deep in crucifixes” as well.  


Balingit, Moriah. 2022. “A Cry for Help: CDC Warns A Steep Decline in Teen Mental Health.” Washington Post, March 31st, 2022.

Creswell, John. 2014. Research and Design: Qualitative, Quantitative and Mixed Methods Approaches. Fourth edition. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications. 

Day, Dorothy. 1958. The Diaries of Dorothy Day, 1958. Miami Gardens, St. Thomas University. Archival material. 

Hochstein, Philip. 1980. “Letter to the Editor: Transformation of Dorothy Day.” New York Times, December 4th.

Photo by Filip Urban on Unsplash

One thought on “Dorothy Day’s Appreciation for Gardening and the Natural World: Implications for Teen Mental Health 

  1. Jane what a powerful reflection on our connectedness to the earth through gardening! Growing up with a Mom who was a Canadian farm girl allowed gardening in all of its varieties to be an important part of my life and my love. However, I still do not like WEEDING! Mike McCormack


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