People like to take care of living things, like plants or pets. Watching plants or animals grow and change stimulates physical and emotional reactions only possible between living things. A pet rock may be attractive and a cute idea, but little more.
I’ve grown exotic plants for most of my adult life, and many members of my cactus and succulent collection are well over 40 years old. I’ve watched them grow–some very slowly–and mature. And of course, I’ve watched some die; witnessing the cycle of birth and death is inevitable when caring for living things.
While reading an article in The NY Times, I recently discovered that people like me have been given a name: Plantparents. The name implies the degree to which caring for living plants assumes the character of parenting; protection, water, nourishment, freedom from disease and harmful pests. On Facebook, Plantparents often refer to their cute or beautiful “babies” and proudly show off photos, lots of them. Honestly, it sometimes strikes me as a bit creepy, but then I reflect on what is actually going on in such relationships at deeper levels.
Human beings are fascinated–perhaps obsessed–with what the ancient Greeks considered the life force. They developed all sorts of theories to explain where life force comes from, where it resides, how it manifests, and where it goes when death is delivered. In short, they considered life force divine–a god-like entity taking up residence within a person, particularly within the bones . Translated from the Greek, this entity was called one’s “genius”–what we might call the soul–and upon death the Greeks believed the genius would leave the body. We still often use the word genius as something apart from a person, referring to someone’s “special genius” in the third person.
The other realization of the ancient Greeks was that life force required moisture, and in the absence of liquid, life would “dry up.” Accordingly, their rituals and blessings were closely associated with anointing, the use of water, oils or wine to enhance and reinvigorate the life force. These traditions remain part of modern culture, and we see them in baptism, toasts to good health and cultural emphasis on drinks of all sorts and flavors. Moisturizing our bodies is generally an element of daily life.
Life began in water, of course. The Greek myth of Aphrodite (Venus), the sensuous goddess of love, has her born within ocean foam. In this way, mythology often carries forth the elemental truths we moderns mostly take for granted. Greek and other mythologies are origination stories, necessarily connected to the elemental forces of nature from which we emerged and to which we remain irrevocably connected. The sacred and essential life-giving nature of these forces are forgotten at our peril.
So it is that caring for living things is a circular ritual; we nurture life because through that process we ritually nurture our own lives, a cycle of affirmation that psychically and spiritually offsets the inevitability of death.