Asleep within the seed the power lies,
Foreshadowed pattern, folded in the shell,
Root, leaf, and germ, pale and half-formed.
The nub of tranquil life, kept safe and dry,
Swells upward, trusting to the gentle dew,
Soaring apace from out the enfolding night.
Artless the shape that first bursts into light–
The plant-child, like unto the human kind–
Sends forth its rising shoot that gathers limb
To limb, itself repeating, recreating,
In infinite variety; ’tis plain
To see, each leaf elaborates the last–
Serrated margins, scalloped fingers, spikes
That rested, webbed, within the nether organ–
At length attaining preordained fulfillment.
-Goethe, The Metamorphosis of Plants (poem)
As spring draws nearer, I find myself thinking more and more about the nature of plants, and how much we can learn from them about ourselves.
Over New Year’s, I spent some time at a biodynamic farm, and had a chance to learn a bit about what biodynamic agriculture is all about. The idea is that the land itself is a living entity, and that the plants, animals, and humans that live on that land are part of a system that is interrelated. Compost plays a large role in this: only organic matter that is generated on the farm is used in the compost, and there are some very specific and rather odd preparations which are added to the compost (dandelion flowers stuffed into cow mesentery and buried over the winter then dug up in spring for example). The point of this as I understand it is that the health of the soil is paramount to the health of the farm and everything on it, and these are methods to re-introduce minerals and nutrients back into the soil. Of course they have done studies trying to quantify the value of this approach in terms of yield, versus regular organic and conventional farming, but I think that is missing the point. It’s not about what you take from the soil during this growing season, but about what is put back into the soil for subsequent years and generations. That’s where it really spoke to me.
Craig Holdrege of the Nature Institute writes in his recent book Thinking Like a Plant: “By taking root in the earth, plants become in a way more dependent on their environment and more vulnerable than a roaming, self-mobile animal. But this dependency is the flip side of openness to the environment and the plant’s ability to engage with that environment and to do what animals cannot, namely create, essentially out of air and water, living substance.”
All living organisms are adaptive. The genetic predisposition of a plant to achieve a particular form is shaped by many factors in its environment, much like animals and humans. Through its leaves, through its roots, it is in intimate contact with its surroundings and responding to stimuli. Although a plant can survive in less-than-ideal soil and light conditions, it will not achieve its true ideal form: its growth will be stunted or it will appear retarded.
It is no surprise that when you plant native plants in your garden, they are more resilient and drought-resistant, they attract and support local wildlife like birds, butterflies and bees; they are specially adapted to the geography, climate and ecosystem in which they live. The plant knows how to function as a part of that system.
We also know what happens when invasive foreign species of plants are introduced into an ecosystem. They can quickly become out of control, squeezing out native plants, shading them from light or choking out their roots. They can even change the pH of the soil to make it uninhabitable to native species.
Cultivating and observing plants is great for the body and mind. I encourage you, even if you don’t have a piece of earth to call your own, bring a plant into your home and see what it can teach you about yourself!