How listening to plants helped me believe in people again

We are romantic, communal people who seek connection in any and everything

Nadine Wambui Waiganjo

In the beginning of 2020, I moved out for the first time and spent the better part of the year isolated in my very small apartment in Toronto. I went weeks without leaving my apartment, mainly because I was terrified of infecting my high-risk roommate. Consequently, my only connection to the outside world was social media, which — for most of the year — was a raging fire.

Scrolling through those apps was horror story after horror story compounding upon one another and packaged in a nice streamline of tweets, infographics, and endless conversations that went something like “did you hear?” and ended in something like “this is all so crazy.”

I undoubtedly fell into a lot of dark thoughts and eventually rekindled my relationship with my good friend, cynicism. That day, instead of being horrified by the new terrible thing I’d read, I regarded it as the inevitable reality of our world. I anticipated the new horror I’d wake up to and went to bed concluding that I was cursed to live and die in a world of horrors.

For example, after I attended one of the Black Lives Matter protests in the downtown area, I stopped by a Metro to pick up groceries. I stood on the floor markers in the line outside and happened to overhear two white women in front of me discussing the protests. One was adamantly against them — she believed that “All Lives Matter” was a much better slogan — and the other was essentially trying to explain to her that Black people are human beings who have a right to not be murdered.

The conversation felt like it went on for an infinite amount of time, and within that plane of timelessness, I made peace with the fact that sometimes, maybe even most of the time, I simply don’t take up space. I had walked past them to stand behind them, they knew I was behind them, and it simply didn’t matter to them that they were actively debating my life in front of me.

It was instances like this that had me concluding that whatever I was doing — the protest attendance, the financial support, the learning and sharing of theory — was, frankly, useless. At some point in the future, I’d probably find myself holding back tears again in a new line.

I concluded that there had been many before me who’d stood in similar lines, quiet and fuming. I became acutely aware that I was part of a painful history of people waiting around for something that they weren’t even certain would ever come, in part because our reality tells the story of a line that simply never moves.

In the midst of all this, I discovered a community of people online who had devices that converted the vibrations plants emit into sound waves. They posted the different sounds plants made when it rained, when they were dry, when people spoke badly to them, and when they were kindly spoken to. This threw me into an obsession with learning everything there is to know about plants and gardening.

For the larger part of my life, I resisted gardening in all aspects. I wasn’t patient enough to wait for things to grow; I never knew how much to water plants or how often, and learning that you had to cut them from time to time seemed to complicate things to the point where I simply concluded that my thumb just wasn’t meant to be green.

Yet there I was, researching all the different kinds of plants and specifically which ones I wanted to fill my room with — I’m determined to one day own a fiddle leaf fig — and fawning over videos of people’s plant tours. In all honesty, I would never have been able to own any plants, or at least not as many as I wanted. While my apartment’s living room had large windows, my bedroom was tiny and the window was angled in a way that meant I wouldn’t be able to spread the plants around.

I spent all that energy researching and bookmarking just to never own even a simple pot plant because I eventually moved back in with my parents. But the imagining and the planning gave me something to look forward to, and the possibility that I still might one day fulfill my dream of living somewhere covered from floor to ceiling in various plants brings me joy. Doing so, I learned to reflect differently on the world around me and my place in it.

The truth, I’ve realized, is that if we were to neatly sum up all the ills of the world, we’d discover that they require a certain level of complacency. My constant cynicism provided this on a silver platter. You contribute to the very things you hate when you dedicate yourself to finding the darkness in the light. It will always be there, and actively searching for it is just as ridiculous as fighting the inevitability of death. The inevitability doesn’t negate the reality that you are currently alive.

This cynicism doesn’t change the fact that we have created technologies because we wanted to hear the music plants make when they are happy. We are romantic, communal people who seek connection in any and everything. Resistance then — or the very first step of it — looks like committing ourselves to believing in this truth and in each other. I somehow made peace with this truth by obsessing over palm trees.

This isn’t to say that the simple, beautiful things in life diminish the truth of horrible tragedies and cruelty. I probably will find myself standing in another proverbial line sometime in the future.

But I now remember in that moment, I had also just come from a protest where hundreds believed we could be something better. I discovered grassroot communities emerging to provide aid and support to those who have been systemically left behind. I fell in love with the madness that is believing in something better. I saw this belief come alive in the way that, in the midst of all the terror, people built community and they practised care.

I learned to critically reflect on these tragedies and acts of cruelty. I learned to recognize when they were consuming me to the point where I could no longer fight back. I have found a deeper understanding in the power of mutual aid and its radical differences from charity. As we suffer under the systems that oppress, we build communities to provide the basic needs necessary to have the power to fight back.

Simply put, there is a lot more truth in the song a rose sings when it rains than in the fire cynicism uses to burn bridges between us all. I no longer find use in believing in the destruction when the music is so sweet.

Feeling sadness, anger, and pain at our reality is inescapable, and we don’t need to necessarily avoid that. But accepting these pains allows us to move forward.

Just like when you find that the tips of your Colocasia plants are beginning to turn yellow and are covered in dark spots, you simply have to remove the affected leaves and avoid misting. Wallowing in the sadness of it being diseased just lets the disease spread.

After all, among all the disappointments and hardships, to believe in a path where we can be okay is critical. Recognizing that this belief is antithetical to the dark parts of our reality doesn’t make it any less important. Thomas Sankara put it a lot more thoughtfully: it takes a certain amount of madness to create fundamental change. Within that madness, I’ve finally found the line that moves.