• Toby Santamaria

How I Learned to Love Plants

“…we are always reaching towards one another.”

Photo by Alex Ip on Unsplash

As a kid, I grew up in a multigenerational household:

my mother was young, and so she and I lived with my grandparents until I was 14. What people seem to think is that my mom and I lived semi-independently in my grandparents home in South Tucson, but that isn’t true. I spent the majority of my time as a child attached to my grandmother’s hip while my mom worked full time and attended college. In fact, one of the few times I wasn’t in the same room with her was when my grandmother would tend to her garden.


My grandmother has a huge garden that stretches from our front yard to the backyard, but it isn’t a garden in the traditional sense where lush flower beds are meticulously kept up by a lady in muddy jeans and oversized sun hat. Instead, my grandmother — who I call Nana — kept a garden of exclusively desert-native plants. Mesquites, agaves, aloes, cactuses, and various desert wildflowers bloomed freely in my Nana’s garden. She had bench after bench of rounded cactuses, some so finely spun that they looked like green bodies entombed in cotton candy. My Nana would spend hours in the morning with her plants: gently showering them with water, pruning the mesquites of their top-heavy crowns, and patiently building up an elaborate maze of water catchments around the plants.


As a child who was obsessed with animals, I couldn’t really understand my Nana’s obsession with plants. While I appreciated the small desert wildflowers — so small, yet so finely petaled and seemingly sassy with their bright colors — I couldn’t understand why she spent hours with those plants. Unlike the menagerie of animals that we also had, the plants couldn’t respond back to the love that my Nana gave them. It’s not like plants could bark happily like dogs, or give the slinky presses of affection like a cat, or even be cuddled like a bunny. They sat there as green, stoic, unfeeling beings; drinking up the desert water and my Nana’s love.


When I got to high school, I got my first real taste of plant biology during AP Biology class. For the uninitiated, AP Bio is basically where you memorize ALL THE BIOLOGY FACTS. This included memorizing that plants use radiant energy to turn carbon dioxide and water into sugars. Seems simple, right? To me, it seemed so simple as to be almost inelegant: like a modern poem so formless that it lost all meaning. 

It wasn’t until my first year of college that I actually figured out how to love trees. I was part of my first biology laboratory course, and we were walking as a class up to a pine forest. My professor pointed up at the canopy of the pine trees. “Look at the pine trees. Do you notice anything? Look at their branches. What do you see?”

"green pines with green background" by Loic Djibom on Unsplash

I looked up, the bright September sun filtering through the fall air. The scent of pine resin was everywhere, overwhelming. I saw nothing that made sense to me: a flurry of green, of spiky pine needles, the scaly scabby bark slowly sloughing off thin branches. Then, as a cool breeze blew rippled through the pine plantation, shaking the branches of the trees: I suddenly noticed a delineation in the canopy. The branches of the pine trees never touched one another. They grew close together, individual branches reaching out across space like the outstretched hands of lovers-but they never touched. Unlike the mesquites that my Nana so pruned to delicately, the pine branches stayed just one iota of space apart. In this tiny space between the branches, I felt a sense of awe bloom inside me.


My professor explained that this phenomenon is called “crown shyness”. Later, when he taught photosynthesis in our ecology course, he explained that plants essentially build their entire physical selves from gaseous carbon dioxide and liquid water. When I was taught to see plants as not stoic beings but organisms who actively mine their environment for nutrients while giving back life in the form of their bodies and fruits, I formed a fundamental appreciation for them. I could finally see why my Nana spent hours tending to her desert garden; not only were her plants beautiful, their entire bodies were living testament the history of my Nana’s love for them. Plants are the fundamental building blocks of ecosystems, their bodies the primary mediator between lifeless gases and living beings.



Now, as a 23-year-old Chicana in East Texas, I think of plants wherever I go. When I see the soft bluebells give way to sturdy live oaks and orbicular juniper trees, I know I have arrived at my field site. When I get to the giant live oak with her glossy leaves, I know I am halfway through my research for the day. When I eat the fruits of the prickly pear cactus, I know I am tied inextricably to the plants of the land.

My fondest plant memory comes again from the pine forest. I was doing my last tree census survey of my undergraduate career. The air was crisp, the sunlight bright. I had been working all afternoon and as I gazed out over the forest, I was hit with the sudden realization that this would be the last time I ever came to the pine forest. That in fact, this would be my last act of research as an undergraduate. Today would be the last day my feet so satisfyingly crunched in the mat of fallen needles, the last time the thick smell of resin tickled my nose, the last time I would hear the red-wing blackbirds sing from their hidden perches. This would be the last time I was in the safety of my lab, my department, the College where I became my formative self. 

I swooned and leaned against the nearest pine trunk. I sat there, my heels digging past the mat of pine needles to expose the fine-textured soil underneath. My hand fell naturally into the crevice between the roots; it felt almost like a holding hand. As I began to feel hot tears pour down my face, a cool breeze rippled through the pine forest. I looked up. Once again, I saw the millions of green pine needles swish and sway in the breeze. I noticed the red-tan bark, scabby and scaly, sloughing off some of the branches. In my mind, I could remember my professor’s voice-a light, sweet tenor, as if the smell of gardenias became a sound. I heard him ask again “What do you see?” 

And once again, in the interstitial space between the interdigitating branches of the pine trees, in the way that they reached for one another without ever touching, I felt that same of awe. As my tears dried in that cool breeze, I realized that the space between the trees was a physical metaphor. Because, although I may not be directly in contact with the people I love and who made me who I am, the space between us is only distance. In our spirits, in our actions, in our support for one another, we are always reaching towards one another.


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