On caring for green, living things

I’m a confessed plant lover, what my late friend Keith Cahoon called a “Hortisexual.” This passion does not include sex, but has led to what I’ve called the infidelity of “Multiple Simultaneous Relationships with Plants.” Though I’ve never cheated on my wife, I’ve been unfaithful to some of my cactus plants, some now over 30 years old. I’ve watched them grow –  slowly but surely day-by-day – and yet the sight of an new exotic species stimulates me and draws my attention.

When you live with plants everyday for a very long time an entire story about birth, aging, sickness and death is revealed. The plant’s aspiration, longing, satisfaction and fulfillment are expressed as its shapes and colors change. Living things need water of course, and caring for plants – just like caring for small children – requires paying close attention to life-affirming activity. And also like raising children, you get to watch plants grow up.

Plants and people alike change with age. Like us plants enjoy childhood, adolescence, maturity, mid-life, old age, decline and finally, death. And theirs is a very old story, vastly older than the story of people, a story so old as to be nearly about time itself.

Caring for any living thing is a teaching about life and death and the fate all we living things share; it affirms life and honors the life-force. Caring’s the mirror by which we see a reflection of our own mortality through the survival of another; each of us also thrive with care.

Whatever sin is being committed in our name by those in power, however discouraged or distressed we might become, the act of caring for any living thing imparts meaning and magic of its own; it is the refuge, the safe haven, the respite, the healing sanctuary to which we all have access. Caring for any living thing, including a cactus, builds discipline, skills of highly focused attention, empathy, responsibility and the rewards of companionship…potentially. The teachings are direct, of course; if the job’s not done right a captive living thing will die. If this sounds like having a pet, well, in many ways it is. Cactus plants can live a very long time and most likely many will outlive me. I’m making plans for them in my will.

Eighteen months ago a neighbor’s trees were removed that were partly shading my greenhouse and I replaced the torn polyethylene plastic sheeting with longer-lasting clear fiberglass. Turns out the cactus and succulents needed some relief, and I draped 50% green shade-cloth over the greenhouse top. The sum total of all this care and change, alongside judicious feeding with drops of nutritious Cactus Juice has been a summer of health and beauty; I’ve been blessed with more exquisite cactus flowers than I can ever remember, including some heartbreakingly beautiful ones on plants that have never flowered in 30 years.

People have learned about and lived with plants for immeasurable time. By trial and error we slowly learned what to eat and what not to eat, what will nourish and what will injure, and that knowledge was passed on. In this speedy industrial age filled with cynical greed and deathly aggression, I suggest taking care of even just one green living thing declares which side you’re on.

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