tree root brwn

It is impossible for me to think about health and relationships without thinking about plants. Ever since farming for a living, my introspection has been imbued with metaphors of growth and soil health and ecosystems. Lately, my mind has been tinkering with the idea of what happens when a person moves to a new city. I think most would agree that this is one of the most radical changes that can happen to someone’s life. Routines are uprooted, perhaps jobs or careers abandoned, and ties are cut to those people who were outside a certain level of intimacy. Radical change. That has been the spark for my agrarian metaphors these days.

Radical comes from the latin, “radix,” meaning “root,” or “source.” So, I guess you could say that a radical change like moving is a change of roots, so to speak. Roots, to put it simply, are where a plant’s nutrients come from. Healthy root systems work closely with fungal networks (i.e., mycelium*) and symbiotic bacteria to get nutrition from the soil. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to imagine human relationships within communities working similarly. The human connections that one establishes help a person to feel nourished by the community in which he lives. These roots, formed by engaging with others and cultivating close human relationships are what sustain us.

But, moving, like I said is a “radical change.” This got me thinking about how exactly roots change with respect to a person and a community.

Perhaps, the most obvious change as a person leaves a community he feels supported by is the feeling of loss by that individual. This is why moving is so difficult. But, if you view this situation through a metaphorical botanical lens, maybe it becomes somewhat redemptive and hopeful. Okay, so when a plant has its above ground foliage damaged the root system of that plant literally sheds a proportional amount of growth underground. The need for nourishment is less and the plant cannot afford to keep the extra root mass. This organic matter of discarded roots is returned to the soil and recycled as nutrients for other plants. Literally, part of the plant is left behind and becomes a part of the rest of the plants in that area.

People are like that. When a good friend moves away, that friend leaves remnants of himself behind and thus enriches the community as a whole. For me, this serves as a reminder that the more rooted I can become within the place I find myself, not only do I benefit more, but the community benefits as well.

External factors can influence your choices of where to move, but if you have a choice in the matter I’d say that the best way to assess the health of a community is by checking out the types of people that you find there. This statement comes directly from analogy with the health of plant communities. Interestingly, the weeds that we saw in a field were basically the litmus test of the health of that soil. Remember, I was on a farm, so by weeds I mean anything that grew naturally on the margins or in between cultivated crops. These weed plants were what came up due to soil conditions. But, not necessarily in a bad way. Certain weeds grew with the purpose of improving the soil. Think about a long taproot weed, like a dock. The sturdy root (pain in the a@# weed), served the purposes of breaking up hard soil and bringing up nutrients from lower in the soil profile that other plants weren’t accessing. So, now, here is the cool thing (and the process that Masanobu Fukuoka describes in his book, “The One Straw Revolution”), if left alone, eventually nature will restore balance and health to its soils and ecosystems through a progression of different plant species and stages of growth.

The biggest take away lesson in all of this reflection is that there is no downside to putting down roots. Wherever you are and in whatever situation you find yourself. There is value in human connection, period. If you are in a place for one day or 1,000 days, the community benefits from your involvement just like you benefit from being fully invested. I know that I have missed out on relationships that could have been deeper by trying to protect myself from the hurt of leaving. I have wasted opportunities for learning because I was so intent on my formal education instead of the teachers who were in front of me already. I have also made the mistake of being so focused on far away lands as to miss the immense beauty at my doorstep.

All of these personal errors, I believe, occurred because of my fear of putting down roots. I understand the human instinct for self-protection. I have felt the loss of leaving close friends and family. It hurts to do that. There is personal sorrow, like a piece of you is staying behind. And, I guess what I’m realizing with the extension of this plant metaphor is that perhaps that is true. What I’m also realizing is that this exchange, this process of uprooting is painful, yes, but more painful is the scenario of never having put down roots at all.

*A fantastic book, “Mycelium Running” explains these fungal networks in great scientific and enthusiastic detail.

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