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9,000 Ways to Be a Plant

9,000 Ways to Be a Plant

I went to college near Chicago – long, cold, snowy-icy winters. On campus, crocuses would start to push their blossoms through the snow in late April-early May.  Hope!  Spring! Warmer weather.  Like hope pushing through the murk now as people get vaccinated and the number of new coronavirus cases slowly comes down. 

Last week, when I felt a bit of cabin fever from the months of shutdown and not being able to drive at all for two months either (fractured shoulder) I celebrated the return of hope (and spring) by venturing out to one of the few places where it seems safe to be outdoors, with other people, safely masked and distanced – the San Francisco Botanical Garden. 

I’m blessed to live now in the San Francisco Bay Area – a Mediterranean climate year-round. At the end of February, the tulip magnolia in my back yard blooms so profusely I can’t see the sky through all the pink and white blossoms. The tree was planted by the previous owners to celebrate the birth of their daughter, always a joyous symbol of hope and new life for me now. 

I arrive at the San Francisco Botanical Garden at 7:30 am when it opens, not crowded; cold enough that I can see my breath as I begin to meander the 55 acres, home to 9,000 different kinds of plants, crossing over paths from South Africa to New Zealand, from Japan to Meso-American cloud forests to California redwoods, from bamboo to lily ponds to cacti. And this month, 25 different kinds of magnolias, an ancient genus appearing on earth 95 million years ago. 

After an hour of meandering, I come upon “my” magnolia, identical to the one in my backyard only twice as tall.  Magnolia sprengeri, from central China, also known as the “claret cup.”   I never knew.

“Biophilia” is the term coined by Harvard naturalist Dr. E.O. Wilson to describe the natural tendency of human beings to seek connections and affiliation with other forms of life, to commune with nature. In these days of such divisiveness and hostilities between human beings, as I roamed through the 9,000 ways to be a plant in the botanical garden, I realized there are 9,000 ways to be a human being, too. 

One of my favorite “unlearners and rethinkers” (see Unlearning and Rethinking – the Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know) is the late Oliver Sacks, a neurologist as renowned for his love of botany as for his compassion and curiosity about his patients. In Awakenings, as he discovers that administering l-dopa can bring catatonic patients to life and vitality again, he brings a small group of them to his favorite botanical garden in New York City.  Truth be told, his patients really wanted to go to a disco instead (he obliged). Maybe we would all prefer to be partying as the restrictions of the sheltering in place from the pandemic lift. 

In truth, there’s no one way to be a plant. No one way to be a human being. No one way to endure endless months of a pandemic.

Perhaps visiting a local botanical garden is one good way to begin.  Here’s a directory of botanical gardens and arboretums in the United States to find one near you. Enjoy, and celebrate the blossoming of hope.