In my grandmother’s yard there were so many flowers that we waged summer snowball fights with the puffy blue heads of her hydrangeas, their petals smooth like kisses in my palms. I can still see the plum trees where I would pluck myself a snack warmed by the afternoon sun. This was my grandmother’s gift to me: familiarity with dirt, love for growing things. Today my college apartment swells with plants. Winter’s onset has rendered the mint dormant, but the bromeliads staged a comeback from the stress of moving, and now my twin Hawaiian ginger stems race each other to see who can reach the ceiling first. I just learned how to propagate my lucky bamboo: it sits beside a miniature version of itself on my desk, presiding over me while I write.
When I am stressed or sad, I float from pot to pot, checking on leaves, looking for pests, tilting my head to see who needs a support and who needs a bigger home. “You look lovely,” I tell my new yarrow plant–a lacy green fern with the official name Saucy Seduction–and my roommate doesn’t bother to sigh this time. I’ve given her a scientific defense of why I need to talk to the shrubbery, but the truth is, it just makes me happy. Plants make me happy.
Right now, I need that. At 4:34am on November the 9th, I woke up in a cold sweat from a dream of a man who wanted to kill me. As the dream went on he learned my license plate number, my address, my schedule. He was there when I opened my front door to leave for school, there when I came home from classes, his eyes dark and his gaze clammy on my skin like the touch of an underwater thing. I sat up in bed and reached for my phone, hoping a connection with the real world would chase the dream back to the fringes of my subconscious. My phone opened to the election results I had been despondently refreshing the night before, hoping that when I woke, my country would have righted itself from its year-long seasickness. But in the dark of my room, my new president elect’s face smirked up at me, welcoming me to a future I did not ask for or appreciate. 270 votes; the House, the Senate, and the executive branch gone red. The cold sweat of my dream did not dissipate.
While Facebook explodes with Jobama memes, accusations that millennials are cry babies, accusations that baby boomers are racists, and a hundred plaintive cries for less fighting and more hugs, I am eyeing my young lucky bamboo to see if its stem is firm enough to stand on its own. It’s not that I don’t care. This election has easily removed three years and four friendships from my life. On November 8th I nervously stuffed pumpkin cookies in my mouth, one for each state Trump won. And in the days since the election, I’ve spent time arguing, consoling, debating, raging, and occasionally biting my own fist to keep silent. Some people, like me, hope that if we just put it plainly enough, our evangelical friends will suddenly understand why people are so scared, or at least want to understand. My dear friend Sarah avoids it altogether, narrows her world to the expanse of her living room for fear of being caught in a debate without a good response. Hannah weeps as she reads about students at her former high school receiving deportation papers, a ‘joke’ by a classmate who surely has never faced something so terrifying. Anne tells me she thinks we should be waiting for a real reason to protest, and then stalks out of my apartment without a goodbye when I say I think Trump is reason enough.. She returns later with an awkward smile and an edge to her voice, friendship and frustration mixed together like alchemy.
So my flight to the comfort of gardening isn’t based in apathy, but in rebellion. I find in myself a newfound refusal to ignore my country. Raised on Corrie Ten Boom and Anne Frank, I cannot comprehend a leader who would call for a Muslim registry. Or maybe I can, and that’s the problem altogether, the nervous feeling at the base of my esophagus. But the only way I know to fight hate is with vibrant, joyous life. And the best way I know to create life is to dig a hole and drop a seed in it.
Horticultural therapy didn’t start with me. Although humans have almost always been planting and harvesting, Edward O. Wilson is the American biologist who loved nature so much he came up with a term for our desire to be around it: biophilia. Biophilia is the idea that humans share an innate emotional connection with other living things. While there’s certainly science to back this up–we share an alarming amount of DNA with bananas, and are often guilty of acting like them, or perhaps electing someone who seems less qualified than a bushel of them gone rotten–the basic truth is so obvious as to almost be self evident. Humans belong in nature. All the allergies and bee stings in the world can’t keep us out of it. And when we are inside, bundled up to escape rain and politics, we’re always bringing the outside in. Our houses are full of plants, pictures of plants, drawings of plants–what’s your desktop background? Chances are it involves something organic.
There’s good reason why. Nature is calming to us. Our limbic systems respond to it like one of Pavlov’s dogs. You can’t help it; if you watch a stream rumbling peacefully over rocks while a black-capped chickadee fee-bees away in the trees, you’ll start to breathe easier. And it goes beyond just calming; nature is actively good for us. Roger Ulrich studied the records of cholecystectomy patients–in layman’s terms, people who just said sayonara to their gall bladder–and found that patients whose rooms offered a view of trees had shorter recovery times and needed less pain relief than patients without greenery in their windows. Jules Pretty tested ‘green exercise’ by showing people pictures of nature while they worked out. Subjects who saw pleasant views of nature while they ran had lower blood pressure, high self esteem, and better moods, a trifecta every one of us is looking to achieve.
Nature makes us the best version of ourselves. A study of single mothers living in Chicago’s low-income housing found that exposure to nature can help reduce domestic abuse. Mothers with a scenic view showed less aggression and were less violent than mothers who lived in identical circumstances without the greenery. But why? Why is the mere sight of a tree enough to help us heal, breathe, and resist the urge to hurt others? Why do I linger near the primroses like they contain the secret to rest and good dreams? The list of reasons to stay inside is overwhelming: rattlesnakes, slimy frogs, snow freezing your toes bright blue under two layers of socks, centipedes pinching you between the fingers, mud covering your favorite shoes, and rain slithering down the back of your coat collar to pool, salty with cold sweat, at the base of your spine.
Some people claim it’s genetics. After all, humans survived outside for ages. Our ancestors made their homes in caves and tents; it’s only in the last several centuries that we’ve experienced such an extreme and widespread detachment from nature. Others will argue that we’re just nostalgic for what seems a simpler time; who hasn’t fantasized about quitting their office job and starting a farm? But this is more than a Western phenomenon or a desire to return to an agricultural society, because even in those agricultural societies, people found joy and life in nature. So maybe the answer lies in something outside of culture and genetics; maybe it’s closer to the root of what makes us human.
Paul Van Lange of the Free University in Amsterdam thinks that the only way to overcome the noise of society is to be generous. Researchers at Simon Fraser University found that prosocial behavior–generosity–results in a direct increase in good feelings in humans. Gardening, caring for something that rewards us with nothing more than existing beautifully, changes us. A study at the Norwegian University of Life and Sciences found that a twelve week horticultural therapy program decreased symptoms of clinical depression, and the effects lasted for months. Like Ulrich’s patients, simply being near nature provided a balm that no medicine or therapy could. Don’t misunderstand me–we need medicine, therapy, doctors, and all the trappings of society that buoy us when we’re ill. But we also need to take care of something besides ourselves in order to take care of ourselves. We need plants.
In the wake of a political season that left us frayed and our teeth ground to nubs, there are a multitude of options available to us. But the jokes about immigrating to Canada are stale, the memes calling for the Queen to take us back are desperate, and even the hope for Bernie’s return leave us a little more hollow with each retweet. And while I wish I was wise enough to offer a true battle plan for reconciling a country beleaguered with strife, all I can say is this: plant something.
If seeing shrubbery is enough to stop single mothers from taking the rage of poverty out on their children, enough to help humans wired on morphine and ice chips overcome the loss of internal organs, enough to make even exercise more entertaining–it is enough to see you through this election. And yes, Donald J. Trump will still be presidential elect when you sit back, wipe the Miracle Gro on your jeans, and admire how dashing the geraniums look in that window box. Your Facebook feed will still be full of rage and protests and triumph and fear. Your Thanksgiving dinner will still be tainted by furious silence and gloating. You will still be facing every issue you’re facing today, but you’ll be doing it with dirt on your hands and a plant in your life.
When you care for a plant, you’re forced into a part of your mind concerned with nourishing. Plants refuse your money, your college degree, your How To Win Friends and Influence People small talk. Plants respond only to dirt, water, and sun. You can’t heal them in a day, and you have to work pretty hard to destroy them in one, too. They grow slow and lovely. A rose will not respond to bribery; all the sweet talk in the world won’t get it to bloom until it pleases. But it will be waiting for you regardless of your panic attack, divorce, demotion, bank account, and government. And so the effort it takes to dig our hands into the soil, to wrap the roots of gardenias around our fingers and watch earthworms mosey out of the flooded parking lot to the safety of the garden bed–maybe this effort is what saves us.
To plant something is to create and nurture new life. We need new life, and not just in our gardens, but in ourselves. I was raised to believe that the United States was invincible, but September 11th shattered that notion. I was raised to believe that the United States was fair, but a cursory glimpse of history has taught me better. I still believe that the United States is brave. I don’t mean brave in the sense of invading other countries and singing the National Anthem at the football game; I mean brave enough to stand up to bigotry and fear. I mean brave enough to weather four years of Donald Trump without once relinquishing our grasp on what is holy and right. And if we aren’t that brave yet, I believe that we can be. I refuse to stop believing in us. I will not stop planting that seed.
For Christmas last year, I pupped my bromeliad–a process that sounds complex but really means pulling a smaller plant off of a larger plant–and gave it to my niece. She is six years old; she loves stories and singing with me in the car, but I can see the stress on her already, the way the divorce is pulling at her seams, how school bullies are already leaving marks like an apple fallen from the limb, bruised by roots and earth. I potted her bromeliad in the loveliest pot I could find, a small purple affair that caught my eye amidst a mass of black and terra cotta in Home Depot. I told her that my plant and her plant were linked forever. I told her to take good care of it, to give it water and sunlight and say kind words to it, to help it grow. Of course I hope she grows up in a world that is less stratified by hatred than mine has been. But I’m also realistic, so I keep my fingers crossed that as her small, pale hands dig into the dirt, she will see beyond one country, party, or ideology. I hope that as she finds the roots of her plants she will also find the courage and joy I found plucking plums off my grandmother’s trees all those years ago.
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Jennifer Marsh is currently an undergraduate at Central Washington University. Her work has appeared in Manastash literary journal.