Plants as friends and family members

Reclaiming our sense of belonging.

By Luiza Oliveira

Photo by Morea Steinhauer

Looking at the many roots from my multi-racial family, I realized that most of my family background got lost in trauma, violence and it is hard to track. When I say most of my family background, I mean most of my brazilian indigenous, black, middle-eastern, and tunisian roots, also known as the non-europeans ancestors part of my family roots.

Many of their names, origins, live stories, language, culture, knowledge were traumatically erased, changed, or hidden. And more often than not is hard to understand the difference between what happened and what was romanticized, to cope with the pain.

At the same time, some stories and practices continue to pass to one generation to another by word of mouth, not knowing exactly from which side of the family it comes from.

One of the stories that I like the most is about learning to see plants like friends and family members. Both of my grandmothers and one of my grandfathers taught me to get to know the plants as friends and family members.

Looking back into my childhood, I remember the sweetness in their voices in presenting the plants in the garden as if they were presenting people, sharing their names and behavioral patterns, including some great stories about those plants.

As a child, I saw that as a game of some kind, but only with time that I started to understand the depth in this practice. Besides that back then, I didn’t know that I was also learning to:

  • Look systemically to spaces, understanding the relationship between the elements and their impacts in the system,
  • Understand that plants and other insects and animals are as important as humans to the health of our communities,
  • Observe plants beyond what they provide to humans, all of them are important to the system. No plant is useless, my grandmother Beth used to say.
  • Collaborate with Nature instead of seeing Nature as something to be exploited.

Today, I see that gardening with my grandparents was my first experience of collaborating with nature in a more intentional way. You take care of the plants and they will take care of you back, they used to say.

To learn how to identify plants from a place to another, gave me a deep sense of belonging. They taught me that each plant had a story, a name, a scent, a flavor, a medicine and/or a poison, a beauty, and a secret, as the people that I would encounter in my life.

Later in life, I realized that every time that I would meet a plant that I could identify, even on a different continent, it really was like meeting old friends, or old friend’s families.


My grandpa and the Tabebuia tree

My grandpa Luiz next to his favorite tree, the Ipê Amarelo. Picture by my dear aunt Bebel.

From all the plants that my grandpa Luiz loved, he had his favorites. One of them was this tree, the Tabebuia ochracea tree, or Ipê Amarelo as we say around São Paulo area.

She is a tree made of pure strength, determination, wisdom, and vibrant colors.

Her scientific name Tabebuia comes from Tupi-Guarani meaning wood that floats. This tree is known for her resistant wood and her vibrant flowers that appear early spring after letting go of all of her leaves during wintertime in Brazil.

Her flowering period is close to my grandpa’s birthday. And every year around that period of the year, he would take a picture with this tree, almost as a celebration of their relationship and how they were growing wiser together.


Growing through seasons together

My granddad passed and the tree continued to grow wiser. After that year, every time I saw an Ipê tree flowering was impossible not to think of him, of them, of this particular tree, and their connection.

After that year, every time I went to visit my grandma, I would go and visit and catch up with some of the plants and trees around the land. But there was always something about this tree that made me to always spend more time with her.

With time, this Ipê tree brought me so much comfort in so many times. She really became a dear family member to me, even though it is hard to explain how to another person with a rational mind, but I feel it in my heart anyway.

In 2009, when my brother died, as a family we decided to spread his ashes around my grandparents’ ranch. A place where together we shared many happy memories, a place my brother loved.

Some of his ashes I took to spread around this Ipê tree wishing that my brother’s soul could easily find my grandpa’s. At some level, I wished my brother could be close to family in this new space and this new phase of his path.

As I was spreading his ashes and thinking of that, a big butterfly came out of the back of the Ipê tree trunk and laid on my hand.

For that few seconds, I stopped breathing, I couldn’t believe in that scene. Transformation and butterflies sounded too much of a clichê, but what could I say? At that moment my thoughts and judgments took a break and I set next to that tree and let my tears roll.

Sometimes, when I think back about this memory, my mind tries to rationalize it, and I think that maybe it was just a coincidence … but whatever it was, I keep that memory in a special place of my heart, and also that Ipê tree.


Sense of belonging and social patterns:

With time, and especially after starting my permaculture path, when I started to learn how better connect aspects of life/culture together, I started to better understand what that family learning really meant.

Learning to see plants and nature as friends and family is much more than a perspective of how to live your life. It is a deeper sense of meaning and belonging that if you take care of it, it will take care of you, and no one can steal it from you. No matter where you go.

Only when I understood the depth and the unfolding branches of this learning that I realized the answer to many of my questions during medical school and practicing medicine were laying back of that particular understanding.

In medical school, I was always engaged in projects to create strategies to humanize the health care system and medical education. I’ve always felt that was the direction that I wanted to follow in my professional life, at the same time it always felt a bit of a paradox in working on humanizing humans… my main question was “where did we get so lost as a society?”

I have been always curious to understand the root causes of why people seemed to feel so lost and disconnected/dissociated from themselves, their families, communities, or why the index of depression and anxiety kept on rising, or why suicide rates in health care professionals were escalating, or why the rising violence rates in the city were becoming the new “normal”.

I know, all of these questions are part of complex scenarios, and I am sure that if there were an easy solution to that we wouldn’t be where we are as a society today.

So, instead of looking for the answer, I decided to look to the other way, toward my question, and I started to ask myself “what all of these questions share in common?” In my perspective, one aspect they share is a lack of belonging.

When you feel you don’t belong, it is harder to care for yourself, your community, let alone the trees, the water, the earth, the environment. When you feel you don’t belong you might feel that you have “nothing to lose” kind of mindset, even not consciously. When the “I have nothing to lose” hanging around, its partner “why should I care” lives just around the corner… and the cycle continues… And if the people around you, only reproduce these kinds of attitudes, how can you learn or act differently?

But no, I don’t think we need to enter in a savior kind of dynamic to break this pattern. Trying to be a savior or to enter in the sacrifice dynamic roll is just the other side of the same problem (a topic to another article).

But I see a hint to turn this cycle around: If you feel that you don’t belong where you are, or if you feel that the people around you don’t feel like belonging, start to learn about the plants around your area, and invite people to learn about them together with you. Dare to go around and find places to plant, cook, preserve food, save, and share seeds together. Start to look for plants and people that you feel nourished by.

With time, challenge yourself to start looking at plants as people that you are getting to know, talk to them, look carefully to their signs, their patterns, their behavior, their scents during the year, the change of their colors, and to all the lessons they share with you. Go one plant at a time, practice patience with yourself.

Speaking from what I went through and what I saw in other people going into a similar process while learning more about plants, I found myself connecting to the space around me differently as within myself.

Only when I fully integrated my grandparents’ lesson that I started to see myself as nature and nature as an extension of my family. This is when I really changed my relationship with my health, with what I eat, with my work, my relationship with time, and how I engage in a relationship with other people, and with my community.

Besides all the trauma and violence that my ancestors went through, I guess this lesson was an important aspect of their resilience, and this is why it has been shared within stories, songs, dancing, and playing… to make sure we would remember even when they were gone.

I am very grateful my grandparents taught me that I belonged no matter where I were. I belong because I am nature, nature is family, and we care for one another.

Photo by Elif koyuturk on Unsplash

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