Radical: Returning to My Roots

Sunday, October 25th, 2015


Eve was a radical. And how I love the word radical because it means going to the roots. --Eve Ensler, from her 2014 talk for the Bioneers Conference


I've been nurturing a radical notion for some time now, one that isn't quite clear yet. But I'm starting to see it take a kind of diaphonous form.


I mean "radical" in the sense Ensler was using the word in her talk about reimagining the story of Adam and Eve; the way Botany uses the word radical, as a term for something that springs from the root. (The word comes to English from the Latin radicalis, itself from radic- or "root.") 


The photo above illustrates radical plants: Cobra lilies, Darlingtonia californica in the language of science. They look like something out of science fiction, and they are carnivorous, supplimenting the meager amounts of nitrogen in the coastal swamps where they live by luring insects, especially flies, into those skylit "hoods" where the insects buzz around, confused by the light, and eventually fall into the pool of liquid at the base of the modified leaves and are digested by the microbes that live there and share in the nutrients harvested. That's a radical but very practical adaptation to thriving in a difficult environment. (The photo is from the Darlingtonia Wayside north of Florence, Oregon, a stop on my recent trip. )


My roots as a scientist are in Botany. But my affinity for plants goes deeper than that, originating at least partly in a childhood spent learning wildflowers with my mother, who loved all flowers, but especially those native to this continent, from inches-high "bellyflowers" she knelt to admire on alpine tundra to the head-topping Silphium, Compass plant, of the tallgrass prairies. 


 


Pursh's milkvetch (Astragalus purshii), all of three inches high in bloom, and just the sort of alpine wildflower Mom took delight in. 


Plants, I like to say, are "my people." Plants aren't demanding, though they do reward attention, and they don't overhelm me the way humans--especially en masse--sometimes do. I'd say that plants don't talk back, but given what we now are beginning to understand about plant communication and behavior, that's not exactly true. We just may not recognize their back-talk yet. 


The radical notion that is beginning to take shape in my mind is about going back to my roots in restoring nature. In addition to learning to identify wildflowers from my mother, I also learned to rescue them in clandestine raids to vacant lots slated for development. Mom and Dad would load our bike baskets with plastic bread bags, trowels and gloves, and off we'd pedal to a location slated for bulldozing, where we would dig up wildflowers to carefully transplant into Mom's garden. 



A young Lupine plant (I don't know the species) sprouting from volcanic gravel at Crater Lake National Park. 


The notion is rooted (sorry, I can't resist the pun!) in the field research I've done informally over three decades of restoring nature, whether burning patches of prairie or planting a bluff at a coal-fired power plant in a gritty industrial neighborhood to provide habitat for hummingbirds and bluebirds--and inspiration for the human employees; whether restoring a narrow ribbon of riparian shrubs and trees along a channelized creek to clean the water of urban pollutants, or re-wilding the abandoned and degraded parcel where I now live. 


This radical idea also draws on what I've learned over the years about nature as a healing force, both from my own experience of living with a chronic autoimmune disease and in the research I've read on the positive effects of "nature exposure" on all manner of conditions, from kids with ADHD to adults with high-blood pressure or mental illness.


Time in nature, we are begining to understand, has a powerful healing effect on all manner of ills, physical and mental to emotional. Restoring our bond with soil and water, animal and plant also restores our balance in the world, and heals the wound that being estranged from the community of life has dug in our souls.


 


A flower fly sipping nectar from the Blanketflower (Gaillardia aristata) in my restored mountain prairie yard.


Plants are the pioneers in restoring nature, the living architecture on which life builds. Native plants, in particular form relationships as soon as their roots touch the soil, "calling in" the other species, from microscopic microbes to winged, finned, furred and scaled being, who together heal soil, water, and land, creating the natural society that brings such joy and surcease to we humans. 


I speak "plant," I have personal experience with the healing power of nature, I practice habitat gardening, I do urban nature restoration, I write and give talks and teach. The idea forming in my mind is both rooted in and integrates those sometimes separate areas into a mission given urgency by Barry Lopez' comment over our lunch a week and a half ago that he feels we are in a time of perilous unraveling--unraveling of human culture, of our connection with each other and with the planet that is our home. 



Wholeleaf indian paintbrush (Castilleja integrifolia) recolonizing my formerly degraded industrial yard.


I believe that plants are key to restoring not only the glorious web of life that animates this blue planet, but also our own health and spirits. And I am beginning to envision a way I can be help a re-ravelling of sorts to revive we humans, our neighborhoods and cities and culture, and our relationship with each other and with the rest of the species on this planet. 


That way involves becoming an evangelist for estoring nature where we live and work, and recruiting and training others to help spread that renewal, plant by plant, plot by plot, across the country and the globe, a corps of people who know how to weed and seed, water and nurture the very roots that will help re-grow a vibrant planet and healthy humanity. A "Restore Corps" as it were. 


I don't know how this radical idea, this vision of sprouting a world-renewing movement from my own roots in nature, Botany, and writing will take shape. But I do know it is calling me to act from my deep love and respect for the community of humans and nature and for this glorious living earth, the only home our species has ever known.