The Paradox We All Live and How Plants Can Help
“There is a loneliness which must be entered rather than resolved” - Don McKay
Alone. A word often used to describe the predicament of being without a relationship, family or company of some kind. Fundamentally, however, we are all alone. Even if we’re in a loving relationship. Even if we have the love and support of family. Even if we’re sitting in a crowded room. We remain our own sovereign territory, housed in the confines of our own body.
And yet, we are never alone. As Canadian physician Dr. Gabor Mate says, you can’t separate mind from body and you can’t separate body from environment. Whether you like it or not, you’re connected to your surroundings through shared energy: from the ground you touch, to the air you breath, to the food you eat, to the vibes you emit through thoughts and feelings.
At the very minimum, I think we can all agree that we came from something, whatever that something may be. This makes us all pieces of that same something. And here we have it. One of life’s little paradoxes:
We are always and never alone. Autonomy is housed in our connectedness.
If you’ve ever seen the movie I Heart Huckabees, you may recall the competing philosophies of the two teams of existential detectives. With a sheet draped over his hands mimicking the shapes of various objects, Dustin Hoffman’s wacky character explained how everything was connected and everything was the same. The mischievous French woman, played by Isabelle Huppert, described life in the very opposite manner, saying everything was different and made of parts, and between those parts was nothingness. Spoiler alert: the two teams of existential detectives were working together, explaining the paradox I mentioned above.
So when we say we feel lonely, does that make us right or wrong? Well, right obviously. We’re all entitled to our feelings. But I believe:
Feeling alone is not a predicament; it is a disease of disconnectedness.
Alone is not a predicament that we must escape, it is a reality of our biology. When we’re overcome with the feeling of loneliness, it’s because we feel disconnected from our own mind/spirit, our environment, or perhaps both. We are bogged down by one side of the paradox. When we refer to certain people being comfortable alone, they’re essentially free of that disease. They are tapped into their connection to themselves and their environment. They accept both sides of the paradox: being always and never alone.
Some of the most lonely times of my life were not when I was single or isolated. They were when I was in a very unhealthy relationship, or when I was living in a crowded city where I had no sense of community or belonging to the people around me. In both circumstances, I was suffering from disconnection: a failure to connect to the person I apparently loved, or a failure to connect to the place I was living, and ultimately a failure to connect to my truest self.
Conversely, times when I have felt the least alone were often when I was isolated in nature, overcome with a sense of being part of it all. I was wholeheartedly connecting to everything, not concerned with being somebody loved or looked at.
So what can plants teach us about being alone?
Plants, like us, can live in healthy or weakened states. When healthy, they are far less prone to invasion of pests and diseases. When unhealthy, pests and diseases recognize the weakened state and monopolize on it. Organic gardening implements alternative strategies for dealing with pests and diseases, rather than relying on harsh chemicals to solve problems. There are a variety of biological controls and interventions that effectively control these problems. At the heart of it, however, organic growing is less concerned with controlling problems using healthier solutions, and more concerned on preventing the problems from arising by growing healthy plants to begin with. But what does this have to do with the disease of disconnectedness?
First of all, a healthy plant will naturally fend off diseases and pests.
As its own, lone entity, a healthy plant is equipped with natural defences against the invasion of pests and diseases. It might have physical barriers like spines or hairs that are damaging to pests or prevent invasion. Bean leaves, for example, have hook-shaped hairs that can actually impale caterpillars as they crawl across the surface. Bark is also a good example of a tough, woody exterior that prevents insects and pathogens from entering the soft tissue of the tree.
Plants also release chemical compounds, proteins or enzymes that inhibit the invasion of pathogens or pests. An example of this is a plant’s essential oils that give rise to its fragrance. Essential oils are highly volatile compounds that often function as insect toxins and prevent bacterial or fungal growth. As mentioned in my previous post, this explains how the essential oils of basil can be used as an insect repellant, in addition to having anti-fungal and antibacterial properties. When basil is under stress, not only does it lack a rich smell and taste, it is also more prone to disease. This is related to a low production of essential oils. When a plant is healthy, however, these natural physical and chemical defences are at their highest. But what makes a plant healthy?
For a plant to be healthy, it requires the appropriate amount of spacing from other plants.
A plant needs room to breath. It’s got to stand on its own in order to thrive and fend of disease. From a farming/gardening perspective, a healthy plant is generally not overcrowded with other plants, where moisture can build up and create ideal environments for fungal growth and where nutrients are quickly eaten up, leaving plants starved for essential nourishment. A healthy plant has good air flow, allowing its leaves to get the precise amount of sunshine and gas exchange they require.
In this respect, plants show us the importance of autonomy in growth and health.
Plants demonstrate the important role that self-sufficiency plays in maintaining health. In order for us to be the most in tune with our natural defences against life’s turmoil - defences like humour, creativity and peace of mind - we have to give ourselves room to breath. We have to recognize the boundaries of our own distinct existence. If we are constantly doing or needing things from other people to combat loneliness, so much so that we lose sight of our own basic needs, we risk putting ourselves in a weakened state where we are more prone to other diseases.
But as you know, the health of a plant isn’t just about having the right amount of space to grow. The other side of the equation is that:
For a plant to be healthy, it requires strong connections to its environment.
In order to grow properly, a plant also requires healthy connections to soil, air, sun and water. This means a steady root system in its preferred soil type. A sturdy stalk to convey nutrients to grow new leaves, to absorb more energy from the sun. It should not be competing for resources. Again, this comes back to appropriate spacing from other plants, but it also means in order to thrive, a plant requires a environment suitable to its needs. One that contains the right proportions of moisture, nutrients, sun exposure and temperature.
But a healthy plant is not just taking from its environment, it also provides to it. In addition to the natural defences mentioned above that can prevent the spread of disease, symbiotic relationships between different species result in a habitat that is beneficial for both. Comfrey planted beneath fruit trees, for example, uses its long tap root to bring up nutrients from deep in the soil to feed the shallower fibrous root system of the fruit tree. The fruit tree on the other hand, creates a lightly shaded, moist habitat perfect for the comfrey. They don’t meld to become one. They enjoy their separateness together. The roots of a healthy plant also creates habitat for microbes in the soil. They attach to a plant's root system, allowing it to better uptake nutrients. These examples don’t even scratch the surface of nature’s sophisticated network of interrelated ecosystems. But the point is:
In this respect, plants demonstrate the simultaneous need to feed themselves and connect to their environment in order thrive.
It’s clearly not rocket science that a plant is connected to its environment. I make the point, however, because I feel like we often miss this with ourselves. Whether you’re an introvert that gravitates to solitude or an extrovert that needs to be seen, you may ignore the importance of connecting to your environment on some level. Especially in times when we feel lonely. It doesn’t mean we have to actively engage, but we must at least be conscious of the fact that we are part of something bigger. This is where plants exemplify their built-in genius at sussing out the environments that are best suited to their needs. They simply won’t grow in environment that doesn’t provide those needs. And neither will we.
Without the balance of autonomy and connectedness we, like plants, cannot build up our natural defences to their strongest potential to cope with turmoil and thrive.
As a recovering people-pleaser, plants provide an important lesson about satisfying our basic needs. A few years ago, I would have considered it selfish to put myself first. But is a plant selfish for absorbing the basic nutrients it needs, despite all the other plants around it that need those nutrients too? No. It knows that in doing so, it connects to superpowers within itself that will allow it to withstand stresses, and create a healthier environment on the whole.
If you’re feeling lonely now, or the next time that feeling strikes you, think of yourself as a plant.
Water yourself. Give yourself some sunshine. Feed yourself some nutrients. Make sure you’re meeting your basic needs. Suss out your companions. Change your environment. And if you really want to feel connected, get your hands dirty. After all, soil is what we all came from, as our mothers ate food to grow us, and it’s what we will all one day return to.