W.S. Merwin is one of my favorite poets because he’s intensely connected to the natural world. He digs deep into plant love through his words. Not only did he believe in the importance of preserving the environment, he lived for years in Hawaii, gradually restoring a palm forest on Maui. It now houses almost 3,000 palm trees. Within that collection, there are 125 different tree genera, which subdivide into 400 species and 800 varieties. Botanically speaking, that’s incredibly impressive.
A Vision Early On
I also admire W.S. Merwin (as well as many poets) because he understood the important relationship between our mental health and the natural world. Decades ago, he noticed what we lose as a society when we go indoors. Here’s his thoughts from the 1990s: “We go into a supermarket and we have artificial light, canned music, everything’s deodorized–we can’t touch or taste or smell anything, and we hear only what they want us to hear. No wonder everybody wanders around like zombies! Because our senses have been taken away from us for us a while. A supermarket brings the whole thing into focus. The things that are there don’t belong there, they didn’t grow there. They have a shelf life, which is being tented, so that we can buy them. It’s only about selling things. This is a very strange kind of situation, but it’s typical of our lives.”
A Moment of Peace
Here’s a lovely poem by Merwin about a tree. Notice how the poem travels to different places and where it ends. So simple and ephemeral. I hope it gives you a moment of peace.
Place On the last day of the world I would want to plant a tree what for not for the fruit the tree that hears the fruit is not the one that was planted I want the tree that stands in the earth for the first time with the sun already going down and the water touching its roots in the earth full of the dead and the clouds passing one by one over its leaves
Photo by Maria Maliy
For today’s Daily Stress Releaf, I want to talk about a profound thought I recently heard. The other day I watched David Brooks give a great Ted Talk. First, I have to say, I’m aware of his work with a social media platform where he might have had a conflict of interest (more here). But in his presentation, he talked about how intensely empty he felt after he’d gotten divorced. He said he’d fallen for the lies that our culture tells us: career success is fulfilling, that he could make himself happier with external results, that you are what you accomplish. We often believe that people who achieve more than others are actually better than others. So he found himself stuck in this valley of disconnection. He realized then, as he said, “When you have one of those bad moments in life, you can either be broken or you can be broken open.”
Our Souls Are Like a Hard Nut From a Tree
I love this metaphor. Of course, the first thing I related this to was a nut from a tree. In particular, a walnut, one of the hardest nuts to crack. I thought about how hard the shell is, how wonderful the seed inside. The shell protects the seed from the elements until it’s time to drop and break open. Afterward, the seed has all it needs to start creating a whole other tree. A new tree! And with a new tree comes a new life. Of course, with a new life comes rebirth and hope.
But if the nut is smashed to pieces, the seed might be rendered unviable. That seems the saddest of all outcomes. All that great growth and potential lost. In Brooks’s talk, he used the idea of being broken versus broken open to highlight how people descend into depression and anger. “We all know people who are broken,” he said. “They’ve endured some pain or grief. They get smaller. They get angrier, resentful, they lash out as the saying is ‘Pain that is not transformed gets transmitted.'”
How Can We Go From Broken to Broken Open?
He also talked about how some people take their misfortune, their pain, and transform it. If you can ‘suffer your way to wisdom,’ you can transform. He says to get in touch with your heart. Let your ego crumble. Then get in touch with your spiritual self, your soul. But the key is not to think you can do it alone. It’s integral to connect with other people. You need the others who can reach down and help you out of the valley of disconnection.
I recognize of course that this is so difficult in early 2021. We’re still hampered by the pandemic. Believe me, I understand. I’ve lost loved ones during this time and will soon lose another one. Some days are profoundly sad for me. I feel too broken to break open. It’s difficult to keep one’s chin up. But I hope you will hang in there. See the suffering through. Spring and vaccinations and a more social life are right around the corner. We have a lot to be hopeful about. I try to keep this in mind.
A Country That Can Heal
Brooks’s last thought was that we are having a national mental health crisis. So many of us, as the statistics show, are in pain. Our divided politics reflects that. So as an entire society, we need to recover. To help with that, he founded a project called Weave, which aims to connect people in communities. They want to shift people’s mindsets from one of individual achievement to one that finds reward in deep relationships and community success. You might want to check them out.
Until then, I hope you will not let yourself be broken, but choose to break open and grow a better day tomorrow.
Photo by Wouter Supardi Salari
Social media is jammed with dreamy images of perfect people with perfect houseplant collections, but the truth is just one houseplant can heal you from the stresses of the day. There are a lot of myths in those images anyway, some of which I’ll write about in a future post. In the meantime, consider choosing and growing one wee houseplant to reap its destressing benefits.
Which Houseplant is Best?
Not too long ago, I wrote a post on the five easiest houseplants to grow. These are the low-maintenance, starter houseplants that nearly anyone can keep alive. They’re tough and forgiving of most conditions. While these plants are enormously useful and I love all of them, I actually recommend, if you’re going to grow a plant for the mental health benefits, you choose a houseplant that makes your heart soar. That way you’ll be more inclined to take the time to care for it.
My First Houseplant
When I was in my early twenties, I roomed in a house with three other women. Above the sink on the window ledge was a glass block with a hoya vine in it. It was a beautiful variegated variety, though at the time I had no idea it was Hoya carnosa ‘Tricolor.’ I just knew it was gorgeous. I asked my roommates who owned it but no one claimed it. So I started caring for it.
About a year later when I moved out, I took the plant with me. It was a part of my life for the next 15 years (before the cat chewed it away), through three different homes, all kinds of good and bad events, sadness and happiness, triumphs and losses, and all else. All the while, the plant grew new stems and showed off its pretty pink, green, and white colors.
What that plant offered me the most though was stability. During the most stressful times of my life, I could always come home to it. It didn’t care whether I’d had a good day or a bad day, it was just there for me. It didn’t care whether I’d been at my best or worst. The plant simply gave me its beauty and silence. It softened the hard edges of my life.
Your First Houseplant
So if you’re interested in trying your hand at growing a houseplant, I encourage you to visit a nursery and buy the one plant you fall in love with. Which one takes your breath away? Which one sends a surge of wonder through you? Find the one you will always want to look at. As I’ve said looking at plants is a significant way to reduce stress. So which plant do you want to look at after you’ve had a tough day? That one is the one to adopt and give a forever home.
How to Decide
But with little to no experience, what if you don’t know which one makes you happy? Well, you must be drawn to one plant in particular. And if it’s a high-maintenance plant like a String of Pearls or an orchid, that’s okay. You’re only choosing one. And if you only choose one, then you won’t be overwhelmed if it takes a little extra care. That care builds your relationship with it and the ritual of loving the houseplant will ultimately heal you.
But you have to put in the time. If the plant needs a lot of light, then buy a grow bulb and turn it on for a few hours a day. If the plant likes a dry environment, make sure to put it in a sunny window. Get the right soil and container and set it in the right conditions. If you’re unsure about what those are, check out the internet. Google of course is a wealth of information. And if you’re too pressed for time with that, you can always contact me through this website.
Quieting the Mind
The point is to incorporate a little green life into your world. Use it as a momentary refuge. Turn off your screens and visit it in silence. Let your soul leave the chaos and chatter of the hectic modern world. As you look at it, remember its innocence and simplicity. Smile. Breathe a deep breath. Study its unique attributes. Its arrangement of leaves, its overall form, its colors. If it’s not a cactus and your hands are clean, gently touch its leaves. Yes, like petting. How do the leaves feel? Does it smell at all? It might smell like freshly watered soil. Take in its little green wonders. Relax into the moment. All it takes is one houseplant to heal. Then you’ll be a bit more ready to deal with real life again.
Photo by Veronique Trudel
If you like houseplants, you may have a particular day you like to care for them. I’ve found it’s easiest for me to relax with a morning plant ritual every Saturday. After I wake up, I eat a light breakfast and, if I’ve slept well, ride my exercise bike. Then, the real fun begins: I visit with my houseplants.
Saturday mornings are my favorite time to tend plants because I’m not working and the weekend is still new. I get to look at greenery while enjoying the peace and hope of a free open day. I don’t feel rushed. Near the plants the light’s usually bright, maybe even sunny. And oftentimes with late-sleeping teenagers, the house is quiet. I have this time all to myself. It’s just me and my plant pals.
What Comes First, Second, Third, etc.
I have to confess I use a system. It’s not really a system but a ritual with a set of steps I prefer. As I arrive at my plant cluster area, I take a deep breath and soak in the sight of the various foliage. Already I feel a touch better. Usually, I greet them out loud because well, I’m weird and I like talking to them. They’re my little green babies and I want to make sure they know I’m there for them. Also, if I’m in a lousy mood, I tell them what’s on my mind, which surprisingly makes me feel better afterward.
Scanning the Collection
First, I scan an overview of my plant collection. I have the ones that like similar conditions clustered together. For instance, I have about five African Violets. Because of this, I can easily see when one is yellowing or sagging or blooming. Plus, this cluster of similar looking plants pleases me. When they’re blooming in unison, the area bursts with deep purple, pastel pink, strong magenta, etc.
Second, I examine the leaves of each plant for pests like scale and mealy bugs, which have been most common for me. You may find other insects depending on where you live. You may have spider mites or aphids. If you’re not sure what you have, here’s a list of the most common houseplant insects. If after reviewing the upper and lower surfaces of the leaves, I douse a Q-tip in rubbing alcohol and gently rub the leaves so the alcohol kills the bugs and they stick to the Q-tip. It may take several Q-tips but after I’m satisfied any insects are gone, I toss the Q-tips in an outdoor yard waste bin. Some experts recommend dumping the top layer of soil as well. I don’t. That’s too much work so I simply monitor the situation.
Tidying as Honoring
As I check the leaves, I of course find several browned or broken leaves and stems. Also, spent flowers. With houseplant snips (though clean scissors will do), I cut off any brown material. This also discourages pests and keeps the plant focused on putting energy toward its healthy stems only. Also, you’ll be left with gorgeous healthy leaves that gleam and please the eye. This in turn creates a visceral sense of satisfaction. You’ve honored your plants by taking care of their needs. And by tidying up, you’ve honored yourself. Just ask Marie Kondo.
Who Needs What?
After I examine and check and tidy, I assess any overall issues with each plant. Which plant might need to be shifted further into the sunlight, which needs to be pulled out of direct light? Sometimes a plant will put on new growth on one side and not the other so I rotate the pot so the weaker side receives more light. If it’s the dead of winter, I’ll turn on a grow bulb that I have in a nearby desk lamp (like in photo). I also take a damp cotton washcloth and wipe down the plant leaves that are dusty (though not succulents). Then I decide what plant looks like it’s outgrowing its pot and might need to be transplanted to a larger container.
Time for a Drink
Lastly, I fill a watering can with water and several drops of fertilizer. Plant experts will advise you to only fertilize in spring and summer but I’ve found in the overcast Northwest, my houseplants need a boost of nutrients to stay healthy. I don’t fertilize every week but about every other week. Then I soak the pot’s surface with water, careful not to water the leaves as best I can.
A lot of newbie plant owners will pour half a glass of leftover water in the pot. This doesn’t ensure all of the roots get water and is usually far too little to keep the plant going, especially if it’s larger and has lots of leaves. So give it a good soak, but beware that your tray may overflow. I pour lightly in a rotation, so that by the time I’m done with the last plant, I can go and check the tray on the first and see if it needs more. If the tray is dry, I pour a bit more.
A Simple System of Tools
After I’m finished, I park my watering can on the lowest shelf of my étagère. It has scant light down there so instead of struggling to grow a plant, I just display a decorative watering can. From time to time, I also store a faux plant down there, which adds a bit of greenery.
Beside the watering can, I have a small decorative bucket that I use to put my plant clippings in. This bucket isn’t used for anything else since, as I mentioned, I might have pests and I don’t want to spread those insects. Periodically, I wash the bucket with a spray of rubbing alcohol and water.
Behind the bucket and watering can, I store my snips. If I used them on the plants and suspect they have a disease or pests on them, I wipe them with a paper towel and rubbing alcohol.
I should mention that some folks might store a spray bottle of water here as well. They mist some of the plants as some of the more tropical houseplants like humidity. However, after I read that misting doesn’t really work, I gave up this practice. A better strategy is to set a small humidifier nearby.
Attention to a Worthy Activity
If you’re a houseplant parent, I encourage you to take advantage of their destressing benefits. I’ve found the above ritual takes me all of a half-hour to an hour, depending on what extra care might be needed. But as I said, caring and tidying for your plants honors them as well as yourself. You’re giving your attention to a worthy activity and demonstrating your love. Because after all, our little plants are our pets and we all love our pets, right? If you let them know that, they’ll reward you with pretty growth and relaxing beauty.
In my next post, I’ll talk about destressing by cultivating a relationship with one houseplant.
Photo by Sanni Sahil
So yesterday I talked about looking at plant photos as a way to relax. Today, I’m going to offer an easy way to relax with trees. First, we need to refer back to the benefits of looking at fractal patterns, which I explored the other day. These are the patterns that our eyes are naturally in sync with, where a simple design repeats itself over and over to form a complex whole. That complex whole can exist in several ways in nature. One of the most common is in tree branch formations.
The Beauty of a Leafless Tree?
In the Northwest, we’re blessed with conifers that hang onto their needles all year. But in much of the U.S. winter brings leafless trees, turning our horizons brown and making things feel a bit depressing. But in those leafless tree skeletons, nature has created an elegant network of a main thick trunk dividing into thinner trunks that divide into thinner branches and thinner branches until the tips gracefully end in a motif of little points. That elegant design is the beauty of nature’s work.
Ever notice a poorly pruned or topped tree that grows in a strange abrupt tangle of trunks and branches? How do you feel when you see it? Maybe a bit sad. Or if it’s Halloween, like it captures a dark mood. The perfection of a naturally grown tree actually pleases us (despite a lack of leaves in winter). We know it’s form to be “right” or “whole” because the fractal pattern fits with the natural way it needs to grow.
Relaxing Within the Elegance
Every day, my husband and I take a walk after lunch. It’s only about a twenty-minute walk up the gentle hill of our street and back. But because we live in a forested suburb, we’re immersed in a cathedral of fir, cedar, and pine trees. We usually chat about what we’re up to that day or our kids or the latest news, but as we do we’re unconsciously taking in the fractal patterns of our trees. They rise before us as we walk, both presenting themselves close to us and on our view’s horizon.
A Double Benefit
Because we’re taking a walk “in the woods,” we’re getting a double benefit: we’re looking at fractal patterns and we’re mildly exercising. Of course, I don’t need to go over the benefits of walking, but I do want to emphasize how refreshed and vibrant I feel afterward. My mind is clear, my body’s warm, my ability to tend to complex issues restored.
The bottom line is if you can go for a walk among trees, even down a busy city street with leafless trees, you’ll engage in a relaxation break exercise on steroids. You’ll gain the relaxation benefit of the branches’ fractal patterns and you’ll give your body the exercise it needs to renew your system.
It turns out taking a walk down a leafy street isn’t just a nice break from the work day but also a scientifically proven way to relax with trees and lower your stress. How awesome is that?!
Photo by Craig Vodnick