Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life. — Hope Jahren, Lab Girl
The first time I ever truly understood plants, about stems and leaves and the flow of nutrients, was when I was younger. I came to know plants just as I knew myself; I charted the growth methodically. I made close observations on how sometimes leaves would shrivel and wither, but then there would be a spot of green, and that would be enough. I planted my feet firmly in the earth: solid, strong. I imagined myself as one with the roots, far more intertwined with my surroundings than I’d ever know.
On the first day of eighth grade Biology, we designed our own ecosystems: plastic containers taped to each other, tightly sealed, crickets unloaded hurriedly as if they were toxic. There were worms in the soil. We reached out, deposited them hastily into our vessels, and watched as the crickets trampled over them with their thin legs. Natural selection, our teacher told us. The laws of nature. Animals need to gain energy. I was confused; I thought that plants only needed sunlight. Photosynthesis was a process that everyone would undergo. She shook her head. No, I didn’t understand. Plants had chloroplasts but couldn’t move. Animals, though, were motile. They were dependent, yes, but they could also travel farther. Animals had cells that multiplied by the second through the endless processes of meiosis and mitosis. These cells shifted and became something greater than themselves. So too I imagined myself, small and yellow, submerging myself in the inner parts of my culture. The leaves curled up, opened.
That night, I imagined my veins as roots, stretching in a vast platform that circulated essential nutrients across the expanse of my body. Below, a voice speaking in soothing Chinese: the shuyie fall in the autumn, but the roots remain. I had always thought I understood plants, but just then, I began to comprehend just how much they were deeply interconnected. Some parts would change, but others wouldn’t. The roots were the string between the red solo cups, and here was where I listened to the communication between nations, countries.
My grandmother used to teach me the ways of plants in Chinese. Spring was when flowers came out, a purposeful unraveling of petals that signified the beginning of change. Change was always happening, but sometimes it was imperceptible. Sometimes, it was just the falling of a leaf; other times, the tree would shake and empty itself. Change was always present, she said, but it wasn’t something to be afraid of. What one needed to do was grasp that change, grip it tightly, and plant it somewhere where it could grow and prosper. That seed of change would grow into something greater than itself. In Taiwan, where she’d grown up, the trees were always speaking. You just had to listen.
That discovery was a deliberate kind of awareness, an awareness of a broad spectrum of classes and phylums and kingdoms. It was purpose. It was always being able to progress and move forward in the American Dream.
Here I recalled my grandmother’s voice saying that my identity was my tree, and it was my responsibility to cultivate it. The discovery made me conscious, made me recognize my potential as an individual to effect change in the world through believing in the ability to thrive, despite genetics and biological life expectancies telling me that I couldn’t. For me, it wasn’t just a theory, but a dream—one that had finally become tangible. I watched as the tree flourished and grew, noting the strength and resilience of its branches and its roots, the base.
The next morning, the first day of Spring, everything seemed so much brighter.