17. The saving grace of plants

A thesis has been developing in my mind this past year or more, first taking shape as time slowed down so much for so many of us in the early stages of the pandemic.

Later, as the external world inevitably started to speed up again, this worldview which had taken hold in the long warm locked-down Irish spring of 2020, settled in and bedded down and told me it was staying for the long haul.

The thesis — underdeveloped, not thought through, maybe fragile — goes something like this:

The solution to almost all of our human ills lies in the abundant fertility of the land beneath our feet.

You’ll find lots of short documentaries on YouTube about the so-called “Blue Zones” around the world, scattered locations without much, it seems, in common apart from the fact that their inhabitants commonly live long, happy and healthy lives.

One recent film, made by the Vice online media platform, tells a little of the story of Ikaria, a tiny island in the Aegean sea about 100 miles off the coast of Greece.

Ikaria in Greece

The Greek island of Ikaria (Photo via Matías Callone on Flickr)

The film tells us that one in three Ikarians live past the age of 90 (the figure for the USA is one in 20).

There would appear to be a few factors in this life expectancy (and quality of life expectancy): the pace of the day to day, which allows zero room for any element of stress or even urgency, is one; the benefits of regularly eating fresh fish caught daily in the purest of eastern Mediterranean waters may be another.

Another factor that jumped out, though, was the prevalence of plants.

Lashings of local olive oil from the olive trees that are everywhere, wine freshly pressed from the vineyards on the slopes of the hills, tomatoes and peppers and potatoes from the garden, and a wide supply of fresh garden herbs.

Not all of us can live in the Mediterranean, and supply chains and food miles might make it problematic even to introduce more Mediterranean variety into our diets, but this isn’t really about the Mediterranean.

It’s about the lushness that’s possible when we nurture the ground beneath our feet.

For me it started amid some of the blind bottled panic of the early days of the pandemic, when supermarket shelves emptied and there were signs everywhere placing limits on the number of items we could buy. (“Feed the Nation” was a real phrase that came out of the mouths of politicians everywhere, double-underlining the unspoken fear, that lies so deep in all our DNA, that we would go hungry…)

We purchased seeds for Jerusalem artichokes and peppers, and onion sets and peas, and a few bags of compost, and set about trying to assemble a vegetable garden.

Success was mixed. The onions were a roaring success, and the peas were highly promising, but the rocket lettuce was feasted on by slugs and butterflies and the artichokes never raised their heads. But the major outcome, in hindsight, was much less in producing food for the table, and much more about building a connection between our lives and the possibilities presented by the earth around us.

We can look at this in big, international terms — many studies have been carried out to show the potential global benefits of switching to vegan or vegetarian diets.

But just getting through the day can be a struggle for many people in many parts of the world, and thinking about things that are outside of our personal, individual control — such as the apocalyptic vision of climate change — can be a major negative trigger.

So if you’re well enough physically and mentally to take a global view, go for it. But if you’re not, then don’t feel under any pressure to look anywhere beyond the confines of your own daily life.

But maybe the most important thing is that diet is only one part of our relationship to plants.

Growing our food is beneficial, of course, but there are countless other benefits for us from the plants that can sprout untamed from the ground beneath us and around us.

Touching the bark of a tree releases invisible endorphins into your palm and nervous system and blood stream.

Earthing — bringing as much of your body as possibly into contact with the earth (in other words: lie down flat on the grass, preferably face down) — has become increasingly popular around the world as people everywhere seek solutions to the internal turmoil that invades so much of modern living.

Planting seeds, and tending them, and watching, a few days or weeks later, the tiny green shoots sprout and soar and bend their bodies towards the light.

Stirring porridge oats, chopping a melon, catching a glimpse of a Cherry Blossom in bloom, discovering a sudden burst of yellow daffodils, watching a sole red leaf poke its way through the green of a two-year-old poinsettia.

There is an unseen, un-see-able, almost spiritual quality to all these things.

Plants might nourish our bodies, but they also, in countless different ways, nourish our spirits and our souls, and anything that is good for that part of us we can safely embrace without any doubt or ambiguity or fear.

This is part of a series of 30 short essays to make the Covid-19 pandemic, one year on. Sign up below to receive these pieces by email each day for 30 days.