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Second Opinion

On human-plant entanglements (2)

/ 04:25 AM August 21, 2020

Having grown up on the slopes of Mt. Makiling, and having climbed mountains at least once a month (that is, before the pandemic), I have never really felt the need to be surrounded by plants at home. Fortunately, I have managed to be with trees in the places where I lived and worked—including UP Diliman’s Palma Hall, where one could gaze at all the acacias along the Academic Oval.

Still, when my mother suggested that I bring plants to my bedroom, I followed her advice—as well as the prodding of my “plantito” and “plantita” friends. I settled for a Dracaena fragrans beside my bed, and I have to admit that it has had a rejuvenating presence in the room. “It seems that the plant is happy to be with you,” Ate Lanie, who has been with our family for a decade, told me. “Some plants get upset (nagtatampo) when they’re moved away from their friends to a place they don’t like.”

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Her “anthropomorphism” would resonate with many plant lovers—including a growing number of young people—who ascribe human characteristics and emotions to individual plants as with their dogs, cats, and other pets. For a long time, people were named after plants, but today plants are being named after people, perhaps signaling a new mode of engaging with members of the plant kingdom. Some may go as far as to talk to their plants, and while many others might dismiss—or get embarrassed with—the idea that plants can have feelings, they nonetheless act as if they do, showering them with care, monitoring them for the littlest sign of “new growth.”

Plants and humans, then, form a symbiosis of sorts, with humans providing nurture, and plants providing “nature”—while serving as a “project” to work on, one that requires the participation of both parties: creativity and devotion from humans, growth and development from plants. “They’re so pampered,” my cousin Elise Rocha says of the philodendrons and peace lilies in their condo unit, recounting her daily routine of checking for pests and monitoring moisture using water meters, adding: “Which is ironic because they’re supposed to be quite hardy in the wild.”

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But plants do not just form relationships with humans and serve as projects in the present, they also serve as links to the past. I never fully appreciated my mother’s green thumb until she explained to me the provenance of her most cherished plants. “Some of these are older than you,” she told me recently, referring to the bonsai that have accompanied her all her adult life. One of them, a 38-year-old Ficus, spent decades in pots but has now taken root—happily, I dare suggest—in the lawn.

My mother’s horticultural tales speak of distinct properties of plants: their longevity and relative stability. Animal pets—and even humans—come and go, but with proper care, many plants can theoretically survive indefinitely (some bonsai are estimated to have lived for over a millennium). Indeed, plants are “portable trees” that humans can carry along with them in their life journeys, from house to house, from generation to generation. My Lola Rosing may have passed away, but her bougainvilleas—the oldest of which are half a century old—continue to remind us of her cheerfulness and grace.

Of course, plants can succumb to pests the way humans succumb to pestilence, and many plants die from neglect. A friend, Emil Marañon, for instance, spoke of his sorrow over a yucca that “yellowed” in his apartment at the height of the dry season. Doubtless, such vulnerabilities—and the resuscitative efforts of humans—only make plants more relatable and special.

Finally, I think the appeal of plants is rooted not just in the past or the present, but in the future—that is, in their trajectories of growth as opposed to today’s uncertainties. As anthropologists Sarah Besky and Jonathan Padwe (2016) put it, “Human-plant entanglements, while never free from the weight of history, can afford new possibilities for imagining the future.”

Indeed, at a time when our very vitality seems imperiled by a deadly pandemic, plants offer an alternate vision of life: one of growth and germination, of the potential to bear fruit and keep growing. Herein, I believe, lies the beauty, wonder, and meaningfulness of our entanglements with plants: Amid a withering picture of the world, they offer hope that humanity, too, can turn over a new leaf.

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