Editorial: Plants and gardening are the seed of a peaceful, harmonious mode of existence

I have a longstanding argument with some chemists over whether plants or animals are better: I argue for plants, they think animals are superior. The joke, of course, is that neither plants nor animals are actually better in any relevant way, but just having the conversation has made me think about the symbolic role of plants.

Everyone knows the theoretical importance of plants for humans and animals. A Yahoo! Answers user eloquently describes the importance of plants as follows: “cause they make u live by giving oxygen without em we would die.” Wise words.

More than that, plants constitute nearly every important feature of the human world. Everything we eat is either plants or fed entirely on plants, our electricity is produced mostly by coal (plant material), our medicines are almost entirely derived from plants and our clothes are made from plants. Everything else is either oil (mostly algae, which are still basically plants) or rocks.

This may shed some light on the importance of plants for human life, but electricity and flush toilets are also critical for modern human life and yet sanitation doesn’t tend to have an important symbolic role in human existence (not in a good way, anyway).

There’s a cornucopia of phrases derived from animals: “more fun than a barrel of monkeys,” “more than one way to skin a cat,” “slippery as a greased pig” and of course, the mysterious “bee’s knees.” On the other hand, plant idioms are relatively scarce — once you’ve gone through anything related to roses or oaks, seeing the forest for the trees and falling off a log, you’re pretty much out of the woods.

This reflects the fact that, despite the incredible practical importance of plants, animals have captured our imagination far more than plants. Even when we think of farms, the most critical place of interaction between plants and humans, animals like cows and pigs tend to spring to mind first.

Agriculture has been the main employment of humanity right up until modern times, but with the rise of industrial farming, the number of people whose direct daily livelihood comes from plants has dropped immensely. Many have bemoaned this gap between “the land” — which encompasses food production and general ecology — and human civilization.

However, although the amount of people who work in agriculture full-time has dropped, community gardens have flourished. From gardening in the late 19th century to Victory gardens to a modern uptick in urban gardening to the expansion of the Calvin community garden, small communities have been utilizing free spaces to grow a little extra food.

Community gardens are certainly solid economic decisions, especially in communities with easy access to a vacant lot or other plot of land, allowing a community to grow otherwise-expensive fresh produce with relatively little work. According to the National Gardening Association, the average food garden has about a $500 return for the time and material input.

But for many, the activity of growing food is its own reward.

David Dornbos, biology professor, co-director of the Calvin Campus Gardens and avid gardener himself, says that, “It is a huge blessing, a gift of God, to see stuff grow and ripen and taste great, one that we too often take for granted.”

Rooting both the concern about shrinking agricultural and ecological awareness and the enjoyment of gardening is the ethic associated with plants and gardening.

An affinity with plants tends to grow in the same soil as an outlook on life characterized by an emphasis on coexistence and interconnectedness. Indeed, growing your own food can serve to remind you of how much you depend on other organisms for survival. Plants are so tied to the unique environment in which they grow that community gardens are not just an economically and environmentally prudent action but also uniquely suited for fostering a spirit of celebration of nature in general and a specific community in particular.

Plants are symbolic of a peaceful, harmonious interaction between individuals in an environment, and we could all stand to embody more plant-like traits. We could start by gardening.