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Why look after houseplants?

Why look after houseplants? Aside from their obvious function as emotional filler, I mean. Aside from this aspect, what is there in looking after a plant, that is so alluring to many – and perhaps so important? The answer, as always, lies in the question itself: ‘looking after’. If you want to take care of a plant, the first thing that you have to do is to look at it. The plant, when it is beloved, is a presence in the house – much more so than a heavy table or a worryingly long crack over the wall. As you look aimlessly around the room, scanning the background, suddenly you are caught by the plant on the floor. The rest of the room could as well be a bi-dimensional computer simulation, but the plant stands as a full-bodied entity of superior quality. It stops your gaze, breaking the flat spatial expanse that makes up much of our field of vision. A plant is capable of catching your attention like a person does – precisely because it is a person.

Being a person, after all, is not such a rare condition. As per its etymology, persona (a large mask used in Roman theatre, capable of amplifying the actor’s voice – in turn from per-sonar, ‘to sound through’), a person is simply that particular entity through which ‘something’ resounds. In this sense, we could deem everything as a person of sorts. Through every single existent, something, somehow at once internal and alien to the thing, manages to ‘sound through’. It is precisely in reference to this resounding ‘something’, that the eye of the poet is judged and his/her words are ‘verified’. “Poetry, after all, involves precision and concreteness: words are verified not […] through empirical, quantifiable observations. They are verified through existential preparedness, through experience, through our own lives, through reflection and moments of illumination. But they are verified. They don’t appear randomly.” (1) Any speck of dust, any sound or fleeting moment is a person. Yet, some entities are as if endowed with a larger resounding mask – they’re persons through which that ‘something’ speaks more loudly. Those are the entities that we commonly describe as ‘living’. Not because they are the only living entities in the world – we could argue that everything is alive at least to a certain extent – but because their life is more clearly manifest; it is as if ‘louder’.

A plant falls into such a group of persons. It is due to this condition, that it is able to steal the stage from all the other entities that inhabit a room. And thus, to steal your gaze moving through that space. I look at the room, then I’m taken by the plants that lie scattered on the floor, on the table and on the mantelpiece. I feed them water and occasionally remove their dead leaves or replenish their soil. I try to take care of them, but to do so, first of all I have to learn the rhythm of their own living melody. Looking after a plant day after day, like playing a piece of music repeatedly, has you walking down the street humming their tune. A plant, as living music, deeply affects its listener/carer. It sets their mood, it helps them making sense of a certain morning or of a certain atmosphere. Most of all, though, it guides their steps as they jog along the highways of daylight. And it affects their own internal music, too – more precisely, it re-orchestrates their own living music, like Liszt working on Schubert’s Wanderer-Fantasie.

When I look after plants in my flat, I often talk to them or caress their leaves, as if they were humans. I tend to anthropomorphise them, if you wish, because that’s the habit of my all-too-human way of interacting affectionately with another. To a certain extent, you could say that I’m trying to impose my human rhythm onto them. Yet, they equally infuse me with a rhythm of their own. They start by rearranging my geography: I notice that a plant suffers in a certain corner of the room, while another one thrives next to it. I learn that not all parts of a room are the same, and I begin to trace the trajectories cast by the light moving along the wheel of day. Each room becomes deeper, multi-layered: humidity and dryness begin to populate it, and it is suddenly filled with shadows and drafts, refractions of light and ways of passage. The battered side of a plant on the floor teaches me that my son runs to get his toys always along a certain path. A browning leaf reminds me to lower the heating while telling me where to position the reading armchair. Then they re-introduce time into my clockwork routine. Darkness arrives when certain leaves begin to curl, to reawaken at dawn. Seasons alternate following the movement of some pots in and out of the balcony, or along the cone projected indoors by a window. And occasional, secret springtimes, that would otherwise fall unnoticed, are made memorable by unexpected flowers hopefully peeking out of their branches.

Then they slip their roots into my idea of identity, breaking it like asphalt. Some leaves are soft as earlobes, others are hard like pieces of cutlery. Yet, to me, they are all ‘plants’. To me, their individual peculiarities don’t set them apart from each other: they remain legion in their polyphony, while being soloist in our duet conversations. I take care of them individually, yet I love them without distinctions. There is the same Urpflanze (Goethe’s ‘archetypal plant’) in each of them – and each of them makes visible its embodiment like as many, seamless portions of skin. They don’t remind me of my being a ‘species-being’ – rather, they awaken me from my daydreaming, like when I was a white voice in a choir and the boy next to me would nudge me to get back to singing. We are ‘orchestral beings’, both in the sense of parts of a musical ensemble, and etymologically as fellow ‘dancers’ (from orkheisthai, to dance).

Most of all, they teach me that there is no necessary divide between life and art. That is, they teach me that it is possible to think of one’s own life as an opera, an aesthetic spectacle whose body is composed of carpenters and skilled workers, sopranos and violins, scenographers and librettists. The harmony of a plant is never lost, not even at night, not even when it withers. Roots and leaves and chlorophyll, like the buzzing backstage of Naples’ San Carlo theatre or the Uffizi after closure, never cease to maintain their perfect-pitch litany. A sleeping plant is the archetypal Sleeping Beauty, incorruptible but worthy of venturing through the night to see it awakening again. A dying plant is a wounded Achilles, faithful to its destiny even as it is all that is left to him.

Looking after plants is an accelerated course into interpreting the writing allegedly inscribed over the gate of Plato’s academy: “Let no one who is ignorant of geometry enter here”. It clarifies the meaning of tile decorations in mosques, and the Romanesque habit of creating patters out of intertwined branches. Each plant suggests a forest, like a thin square of black granite found in the Southern sands suggest the presence of a buried mosaic. This is no ‘ecosystem’, to be sure – the mosaic spreads well beyond the threshold of our Earthly bedroom. “You too, like us, are a piece of the forest,” mumbles the plant as it returns your gaze. It does it so softly, that we can only grasp a few words at the time. “You”, “you too”, “like us”, “the forest”… It takes time to recompose their message – the time that a restorer devotes to looking after the discovery of an archaeologist. Clue after clue, watering after watering, the message can be finally recomposed. Only to find out that it is nothing but a dictionary, a grammar and a lexicon – from a language that we have never heard before, yet that is the root of each letter in our own name.

(1) A. Zagajewski, A Defense of Ardor, New York, NY: Ferrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004, p. 25-26.

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