Native Roots

Think Like a Plant

Planting hope in a time of the virus


I have a friend who thinks like a plant. At least that’s how I see it. She worked for us in our nursery a year ago planting up seedlings, while I worked on willow cuttings for a forest service restoration project. She had the habit of setting up the mister on the hose nozzle overhead, working within a wet cloud in our arid corner of Southwest, the weeks-old seedlings dripping between pots.

My habit when setting out plants is to create tidy rows and columns grouped by species, a proper rhythm for my human agricultural urges. This friend set plants in a wet riot of spaces, clustered and jammed with no interest in clustering species together unless by chance. The plants were thrilled. Everything she touched flourished – even the ones I would have considered weeds that had invaded our precious native seedling pots. I have a mullein she rescued in a terracotta pot out front. It is beautiful.

This friend has the habit of growing bananas in Silver City. She has created a pocket of tropical wonder in a greenhouse at Western New Mexico University. I wonder at the exotic nature of one so enthralled with the plants of the world and the creative urge to transform space. This year I taught her daughter in sixth grade. Clearly her mother’s daughter, I now see how people can believe in elf kind.

Another friend is planting gardens in neglected spaces. Just this morning, while many of us hunkered safely in our homes, I found her, at an appropriate social distance, working well-aged manure into small spaces penned between building and sidewalk, determined to harvest radishes and greens where most see bare waste. What to make of this optimism and resolute action?

Our human urges in relation to plants and gardens often reveal our tendencies toward creativity, determination and, of course, optimism. In a time when we find ourselves under siege from the microscopic world, many are returning to gardens and rekindling our relationship to soil and water and the conception of food.

As a native-plant grower, I often entertain the idea that perhaps there are many plants that are native to human habitat, or perhaps we are mostly native to theirs. We grow our tomatoes and zucchini with determination, while holding to the hope frost won’t take the stone fruits again. We plant for beauty, but also for pollinators and birds. We restore damaged land. One wonders how a species so capable of destruction can also be one so capable of altruism and mindful of beauty. We plant hope.

Just days before social distance and locked-down homes I had the pleasure of sitting in a courtyard at Saint John’s College in Santa Fe, where I eavesdropped on a conversation of students discussing the nature of a virus. One said that viruses are just evil, they have no mind and they aren’t even alive.

My immediate thought was, how like nature. Of course, I see nature as that nexus between the biotic and abiotic world. I resisted the urge to jump in with ideas of our tendency to define the elements of nature by our own concerns. No need for an old guy with a wandering mind to interfere.

What to make of a virus so capable of destruction? One must not forget that viruses act like a biological ferry (or fairies), moving and altering genetic material, likely a creative force in diversity and change within the living world. That is a pretty creative act for something without a mind or the benefit of being alive. How like us. How much like nature itself.

But I digress. I intended to write about gardening and rekindling our relationship with land. My intent was to fill the page with ideas about companion planting with natives like yarrow, monarda and blanket flower under fruit trees. I should write about wild currents and native lycium and their use for food and beauty. There is much to say about fernbush’s ability to attract beneficial insects. I could go on about our long relationship with yuccas and agaves, and the unfair war we wage on fungus, insects, bacteria and, yes, viruses.

We plant, things die, we plant again. We hope, we create, we remain resolute in the face of a seemingly benign and thoughtless world beyond our control. So, go plant things. Get back to the garden. Tend to the health of the patch of earth where you live. Create something in the world that was not there before, and may all of us come out something better at the other side of what we together endure.

Mark Cantrell owns Lone Mountain Natives with his wife, Tricia Hurley, in Silver City. When he’s not teaching his 6th graders at Aldo Leopold Charter School, you can find him at the Farmers Market. You can get in touch with them at or on Facebook.