Practical ways to take small steps to beat nature-deficit disorder and reconnect to the living earth

Summer Rayne Oakes
Jul 9 · 7 min read
Photo by InspiredImages via Pixabay.

There is plenty of evidence that city people have begun to lose touch with nature. No shame, no blame — it’s just what happens when something or someone isn’t consistently part of our lives. We drift away from healthy habits and forget how good a workout or a session on the yoga mat feels. Inseparable childhood or school friends fall out of touch after growing up and graduations. Even spouses drift apart if enough time goes by without meaningful interaction. It’s no different with our relationship with nature.

“Nature-deficit disorder,” a description coined by journalist Richard Louv, may not be an accepted medical diagnosis today, but it’s a useful term for summarizing the harm done to human health and well-being when one becomes distant or even alienated from the natural world. Several studies have shown that this decline in time outdoors — the disconnection from farm, field, and forest — is likely responsible for another popularized nonmedical term, “plant blindness,” coined in 1998 by botanists James Wandersee and Elisabeth Schussler, which refers to “the inability to see or notice the plants in one’s own environment.”

Whether you’re a seasoned plant carer or just starting out, a great way to get in tune with growing things is to engage in what I call “active observation” of plants. This can not only sharpen your plant-care skills but also calm your mind by slowing the pace of life and helping you savor the moment. Peaceful interludes can be carved out in even the most bustling cityscape. Plants can be your ally in this uplifting odyssey. All you need to do is make the conscious decision to notice nature.

I set that intention each morning when I go for a walk. One plant I always pass on these walks is a persistent smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) with pinnately compound leaves that spread like large green plumes on bright red leaf stems. I consider her persistent because she has established herself in a most insignificant crack in the concrete sidewalk, which abuts a brick wall. Somehow, the shrubby Rhus, which grows outward from the wall at a forty-five-degree angle, has prospered for years in this seemingly inhospitable space, reaching nearly seven feet (2.1 meters) over the course of the last growing season. How she found and conquered the crack to begin with may have been by luck or by pluck — or more likely, a little bit of both. Given her position, I imagine a mourning dove — or some other feathered wildfowl — feasting on her red berries in winter and relieving itself off the side of the building, fertilizing the Rhus on the way out. Often, seeds of plants pass unharmed through the digestive system of birds or beasts, ensuring not only that the seed will be transported away from its original mother plant but also that it will have a rich, fertile medium — in this case, bird poop — to grow in.

I often wonder if and how the sumac, a colony-forming species, spreading by root suckers, will solve for her solitude. If left unperturbed, it may take many years for this narrative to play out. Perhaps her serpentine, subterranean roots will slowly widen the crevice, inviting new growth. Or perhaps she will have to wait for Old Man Winter to thrust his icy fingers below the concrete to expand and tear back the coarse, gray girdle containing her. Or she may remain forever single, a true wallflower in every sense of the word, sealed to her fate by the happenstance of her home. (Unlike us humans, plants can’t pull up roots and move if they don’t like the climate, the real estate, or the social scene. They must grow where they’re planted — do or die — and rely on seed or spore for their lineage to travel.) Or there may be outside intervention — say, a new development that goes up in her space. Then she may be unceremoniously uprooted, and my daily observation and relationship with this fellow urban citizen will come to an end.

Observations such as these allow us to be present and have a change of pace, even if the pace around us has not altered. They also allow us to appreciate change over longer periods of time — in this case, a plant’s sense of time. Daily changes, like that of my neighborhood Rhus, may be virtually imperceptible or infinitesimal at best, but over the course of a season, or several years, the changes can be quite noticeable and impressive — that is, if we take the time to notice.

These practices in observation, particularly if done on a daily basis, set us up to more easily have profound experiences and interactions with nature — not just in the city, but anywhere we encounter her. Building upon our daily observations and playing out possible scenarios, as I did with my Rhus, can give us a sense of fellowship, neighborliness, and even civic duty toward our chlorophyllic compatriots.

I also see volunteering at my local community garden four hours a week during the growing season as a moving meditation that can elevate mind, heart, and energy. I visited so often that I eventually inquired about becoming a member. The garden — a quarter-acre plot — is sizable by city standards and is a hidden gem for many people, particularly those who have been in the community for decades. With every branch pruned, every shovelful of soil turned, every flower planted — each action is like needlepoint, threading you tighter into the tapestry of the community that you call home.

“I’m a board member at [my local] botanical community garden. I joined when I was going through a rough time, and found getting my hands in the soil and caring for plants instantly elevated my mood. The garden also proved to be fertile ground for new friendships. I made several close friends. We bonded over our shared love of nature and plants.” — Christina Cobb

“After a traumatic incident, I found peace in plant-time. There is a slow and quiet delight in watching incremental change and being more attuned to the seasons. My growing love of plants caused me to join a plant society — my first steps back into a social world. I ended up applying for and getting into a horticultural course, which has been world changing. Plants are a constant source of wonder in what can be a disheartening world. It is among plants that I find hope, peace of mind, and a quiet heart.” — Tessa Kum

Admittedly, it may require some time to take notice of plants. You may need to be a bit more deliberate in your observations, as I had been with the Rhus. Plants, after all, are nuanced in their charm, subtle in affect. Theirs is a fleeting glance across a crowded dance floor, a clandestine rendezvous between two lovers under the dark hood of night, a momentary breath of wind on a hot, still day. For most of us, plants seem to be completely immobile, unresponsive, and just a pixelated blur of green. However, as we’ll explore in the chapters to come, plants are anything but unmoving — and offer a variety of dazzling colors, shapes, forms, and mysteries that they generously share.

Get Growing Exercise: Observation

  1. Pick a plant to observe on one of your walks around your neighborhood over the course of a week, two weeks, a month, or even an entire season. It could be something as insignificant as a dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) in a crack of a sidewalk, a coleus (Plectranthus scutellarioides) in a window box, or a giant oak tree (Quercus sp.) in a neighbor’s backyard. Make mental notes as to how that single plant looks each day. What color are the leaves? Is the plant pointing in a particular direction? Is it in flower? Is it leafier on one side?
  2. Craft possible explanations around your observations. Once you make your plant observations, begin creating stories that might explain why something is the way it is. For instance, is the leafier side of the oak tree due to the amount of sun it’s getting in the afternoon? Or is it because someone cut the tree on one side to prevent it from hitting a telephone wire?
  3. Note one subtle change and one major change over time. Did the leaves orient themselves differently over the course of a day? Did acorns start to form on the oak tree? The benefit to looking for both subtle and major shifts will hone your ability to detect changes over time. With practice, you’ll find yourself making mental notes about the pace “your” plant is operating at — which is more than likely different from your pace!

From HOW TO MAKE A PLANT LOVE YOU: Cultivate Green Space in Your Home and Heart by Summer Rayne Oakes, published by Optimism Press, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC Copyright © 2019 by Summer Rayne Oakes.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Summer Rayne Oakes

Written by

I run barefoot & collect bugs. Founder @SugarDetoxMe and @HomesteadBrooklyn. Love making adventures happen every day.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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