The dark side of the houseplant boom

Megan Garber | The Atlantic | on Stefano Mancuso's The Nation of Plants

American culture is becoming more and more preoccupied with nature. What if all the celebrations of the wild world are actually manifestations of grief?

Megan Garber | The Atlantic | April 20, 2021

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It started, as so many of life’s journeys do, at IKEA. We went one day a few years ago to get bookshelves. We left with some Hemnes and a leafy impulse buy: a giant Dracaena fragrans. A couple of months later, delighted that we had managed to keep it alive, we brought in a spritely little ponytail palm. And then an ivy. A visiting friend brought us a gorgeous snake plant. I bought a Monstera online because it was cheap and I was curious. It arrived in perfect condition, in a big box with several warning labels: perishable: live plants.

Where is the line between “Oh, they have some plants” and “Whoa, they are plant people”? I’m not quite sure, but I am sure that we long ago crossed it. I would read the periodic news articles about Millennials and their houseplants and feel the soft shame of being seen. But I cherished our little garden. Potted plants have a quiet poetry to them, a whirl of wildness and constraint; they make the planet personal. I loved caring for ours. I loved noticing, over time, the way they stretched and flattened and curled and changed. I still do.

This year, though, as I’ve spent time a bit like a plant myself—rooted in one place, tilting toward windows—I began to wonder whether the plants had been changing me, too. Maybe tending to them, in a time of helpless loss, has been a way of making sense of grief. And maybe, too, as daily life sends ever more reminders that Earth will betray humans as readily as we have betrayed it, nurturing the seedlings has helped to assuage some of the guilt. Outside, fires raged and seas rose and viruses attacked. Inside, not knowing what else to do, I kept watering all the plants.

“Fill the earth and subdue it,” Genesis says. “Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move upon the earth.” The mandate, a burden and a bounty at once, long ago transcended religion. It infuses Americans’ habits, and our habits of mind—an element of a rhetorical regime that treats nature not as who we are, but as what we use. The distinction is there in our language, in the fact that people eat pork and beef rather than pigs and cows, and live in homes made of timber rather than trees. Even the word plant, for all its implied wildness, takes the shape of human will. “Nature has made all things specifically for the sake of man,” Aristotle announced, and centuries’ worth of humans, including many of today’s, have embraced that ancient hubris.

Little surprise, then, that much of the environmental literature of recent years has taken as its topic the fickle ecology of the human heart. Every day brings new reminders of the consequences of human exceptionalism. Every day finds American culture—its entertainment, its commercial products, its memes—coming to grips with an emergency that is as intimate as it is immense. Books, typically, are most explicit about the reckoning. Take, for example, The Nation of Plants, a polemic in the guise of a plea. Written by the Italian botany professor Stefano Mancuso and published in the U.S. in March, the book treats nation literally. Its chapters are framed as a political lecture (“Address to the United Nations General Assembly by the Representative of the Nation of Plants”)—a speech created for, and by, plant life around the world, as its representatives attempt to warn humans about the effects of our errant humanity.

Mancuso writes playfully; as manifestos go, he knows, his is deeply weird. (His brother, he notes in the book’s introduction, tried to dissuade him from the undertaking. He forged ahead anyway.) But this is peculiarity with a purpose. The conceit, an impassioned argument from collectivized flora that cites both atmospheric emissions and anthropocenic despair, forces readers to ask elemental questions. Who—and what—deserves moral consideration when the fate of one species is so often the fate of another? Mancuso’s plants, in the end, make some very good points. “We are the engine of life,” they remark. “Be conscious of that.”

The English-language publication of The Nation of Plants coincided, as it happens, with two other works that attempt to shock readers into re-seeing the world. Second Nature, from the journalist and novelist Nathaniel Rich, is a series of vignettes that examine human efforts to remake the wild. Under a White Sky is the climate journalist Elizabeth Kolbert’s exploration of plants’ and animals’ attempts to survive on an irrevocably altered Earth. Both books offer abbreviated journeys through our post-natural world: in Rich’s, for example, a tour of Louisiana’s geoengineered coastline; and in Kolbert’s, a look at marine biologists’ desperate efforts to reconstruct dying coral reefs through “assisted evolution,” or a consideration of the hazy moralities of solar geoengineering. Mournfulness permeates these narratives. They are stories not just of loss, but also of malign neglect. They are tales of wild things subdued. “What we still, in a flourish of misplaced nostalgia, call ‘the natural world’ is gone, if ever it existed,” Rich writes. “Almost no rock, leaf, or cubic foot of air on Earth has escaped our clumsy signature.”

We, when it comes to politics or culture or almost any other human event, is rarely the right term to use; in this case, though, it is the only one that works. The blame is unevenly distributed—and the people least responsible for contributing to climate change often bear the worst of its consequences—but the effects are, ultimately, communal. The Anthropocene, the proposed geological epoch that has been brought about by humans, is a fact of physiography that was popularized by a chemist and that has immediate impacts on biology. It is also, however, a fact of culture. The meals we eat, the clothes we wear, the way we move around the world—these are matters, now, of life and death. Rich introduces a high-school student who, on an outing to the California coast, discovered that the sea stars she loves—Crayola-colored creatures that were plentiful in the same area just a year earlier—have disappeared. “It was like, wow,” she tells him. “Did I do something to cause this?”

The uncomfortable answer is that she did. So did you. So did I. “Eco-guilt” and, with it, “eco-grief” have risen as emotions in recent years for a reason. Rich’s book, like Kolbert’s and Mancuso’s, takes for granted that science alone won’t save us. Their stories are unofficial sequels to books with titles such as The Invention of NatureThe End of Nature, and After Nature—works that derive much of their power from the recognition that hubris, at the level of the individual, can feel a lot like helplessness. (Another entry in the genre: Learning to Die in the Anthropocene.) Humans are setting fire to our home while we are inside it. We see the flames. We hear the alarms. But we don’t move. The crisis, after all, requires us to think the unthinkable. How can home be destroyed when home is all we are?

This is the perverse paradox of the Anthropocene. Addressing the ravages of human exceptionalism will require us to use one of the gifts we have credited with making us exceptional: our great imagination. Salvation will depend on urgent new assessments of humanity’s relationship to the natural world. It will require intentional acts of culture—new vocabularies and paradigms and empathies. Until we create them, the world will keep burning. And we will stay frozen inside the fire.

The novelist William Gibson talks about “soul delay”: the tendency, in long-distance flights, of a person’s body to move more quickly than their spirit. (Jet lag, in this conception, is what happens before the soul catches up to the cells.) Nathaniel Rich, in Second Nature, applies that notion to the bleak inevitabilities of a warming planet. Earth’s future is already here, he suggests, but “our souls haven’t caught up.”

Reminders of spiritual suspension are everywhere. The other day, I pulled up a weather app on my phone and was greeted with two pieces of information: first, that the 70-degree days ahead would be preceded by potential snow flurries, and second, via the app’s integrated news-story function, that there was a “Possible Environmental Disaster Unfolding in Florida.” I didn’t click; environmental disasters, at this point, have lost their capacity to shock. Five of the six largest wildfires in California’s history blazed in 2020. So many hurricanes struck last year that we ran out of names for them.

In 1989, the writer Bill McKibben foresaw a moment when our environment would exceed the capabilities of our environmental language. We’d keep calling summer “summer,” he predicted, even though “summer” as people of the past experienced it would no longer exist. (A study published last month reported that if current conditions continue, the “summer” of 2100 could be almost six months long.) The remade Earth, McKibben further argued, would set record after record—hottestcoldestdeadliest—before people realized the need for new ways of keeping score. But inertia is an intellectual proposition as well as a physical one; for a long time, he suggested, confronted with evidence of a changing world, humans would refuse to change their mind.

McKibben made his observations in The End of Nature, and the title—not to mention the sweeping, Cassandran work itself—foreshadowed what it can feel like to be alive right now, beset by delay of the soul. Seasons, for many Americans, now refer less to matters of weather and more to matters of style (Negroni season, cuffing season, decorative-gourd season). Planet Earth and the profusion of documentaries it inspired acknowledge the extent to which the wilderness now bears the scars of human conquest. “We have changed the natural flow of more than two-thirds of the planet’s longest rivers,” David Attenborough, the troubadour of the Anthropocene, intones in Our Planet, “by, amongst other things, building dams across them.”

Here’s another line from the same documentary: “For the first time in human history, the stability of nature can no longer be taken for granted.” The admission is at once radical and banal. Anthropocene, the term, was popularized about 20 years ago; as a fact of culture, though, it is just now reaching a saturation point. Climate change, my colleague Robinson Meyer wrote last year, “is the backdrop of our lives and one of the moral crises of the century, a globe-spanning force reshaping how we work, how we play, how we shop, and how we vote.” That insight is infusing itself into American culture, not just in works of entertainment, but also in art and design. Slowly, awkwardly, we are acknowledging our grave new world.

The environmental movement of the late 20th century communicated many of its insights through a series of sweeping warnings, a collection of mights and coulds and shoulds. The new environmentalism, by contrast, sounds its alarms through acts of everyday reckoning. It tries, sometimes self-consciously and sometimes less so, to reframe the very terms of the discussion: nature not as a commodity to be exploited, but as a community to be respected. Last year, as the novel coronavirus spread, a meme poking fun at humans’ relationship with their environment became popular on social media. “Nature is healing,” the joke went, as a caption for images that purported to show wildlife reasserting itself while people were trapped indoors. The original version of the meme, however, was a bit longer: “Nature is healing,” it read. “We are the virus.”

“I’m not here to impose myself on the environment,” a contestant on the survivalist show Alone muses as he navigates an Arctic wilderness. “I’m here to be as interdependent with it as possible.” Soon after, a fellow contestant licks the sap from a birch—holding its trunk, as she does so, in a tender embrace.

Not that long ago, “tree hugger” was a common insult. Today, the hugging of trees—figuratively and occasionally literally—is a common feature of American entertainment. The 2021 films Land and Nomadland feature humans who find new ways to commune with nature. George Clooney’s character in the recent climate-disaster film The Midnight Sky is a planetary scientist. Survivalist shows have become so ubiquitous that they were spoofed by that most hallowed source of cultural criticism: the NBC sitcom The Office.

Often, the tree-hugging impulse concerns actual trees. The indie horror movie In the Earth, which premiered last week, explores what happens when the forest comes alive. The new novel American Delirium, from the Argentine writer Betina González, follows the fate of an unnamed midwestern city as it descends into dystopia. One of the features of the dissolution is a new fluidity between the urban and natural worlds: Humans act like plants, and animals act like humans. The 2018 film Annihilation is a classic tale of alien invasion, with a notable twist. The visitors attack earthbound organisms through their DNA, altering those creatures at the levels of the chromosome: invasion by way of aggressive evolution. (The film’s other twist is that the hybrid genes cause animals to become, phenotypically, plants.) The most iconic—and meme-friendly—image of Midsommar, Ari Aster’s 2019 sort-of horror film, features its protagonist being effectively consumed by a meadow’s worth of wildflowers.

“It’s hard for me to think of the big picture,” a marine biologist tells Nathaniel Rich in Second Nature. “I don’t want to think about the big picture.” No one does. But the insurgent fictions help us contend with our urgent realities. Sometimes the messaging is overt, as in epics like The Hunger Games, which take for granted that humans are at their best when they are in tune with nature. Sometimes the messaging is more figurative, as in the climate-change metaphors of the Frozen franchise or Game of Thrones. The Nation of Plants, that florid thought experiment, operates within the tradition of Erasmus Darwin’s poem “The Loves of the Plants,” Thomas Cole’s “The Lament of the Forest,” Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, and many others. What makes it such a striking example of the new naturalism, however, is its protagonists’ plea for empathy. The book is not just recentering things from the plants’ point of view; it is arguing more specifically that, for plant life just as for humans, the personal is political.

I haven’t mentioned the happening, but I should probably mention The Happening. M. Night Shyamalan’s notorious and beloved 2008 foray into eco-horror is The Nation of Plants gone murderous. The plants in this tale take revenge on the humans who have been killing them: They develop a neurotoxin that, when inhaled, causes people to kill themselves. The film engages in deliberate acts of re-seeing. It shows a swing bolted to a tree, and manages to suggest that the bolt has made not just a hole, but a wound. It shows chimneys chugging smoke into the air, imbuing the landscape with latent menace. At one point, The Happening’s camera lingers over a sign advertising a housing development: you deserve this!

The Happening is not a very good film. (To be fair, writing about a monster calling from inside the house is difficult when the monster is the house.) And so “You DESERVE this!,” The Happening’s sardonic grace note, stands out. One of the grim ironies Shyamalan is suggesting with it—that in a democracy, the people get the environment they deserve—has only gotten grimmer since 2008, as the U.S. endorsed then rejected then endorsed the bare minimums of the Paris climate pact, and as Congress repeatedly arrived at what McKibben has called “a bipartisan effort to do nothing.”

Americans are living in the exhaust of that ambivalence. Just before McKibben declared the end of nature, Don DeLillo published his classic work of environmental fiction: a novel about the casual encroachments of an “airborne toxic event.” He titled it, presciently, White Noise. DeLillo understood what it might feel like to be trapped in a noxious haze, torn between emergency and complacency. He anticipated the extreme banality of our apocalypse.

He also foresaw, insightful as he was about the particular gravities of commercial culture, another feature of the new environmentalism: the impulse to buy our way out of the crisis. You might have noticed that natural materials—or, at any rate, materials designed to evoke the natural—are the latest trend in mass-market home design. Dressers are made of rattan, tables of wicker, rugs of jute. Woven baskets are so trendy right now that they’re being used as light fixtures. The aesthetic, of course, involves houseplants. (“Blur the lines between inside and out with plants,” IKEA offers. It adds that a houseplant is “a perfect way to bring the outdoors a bit closer, and have a sense of nature invited right into your home.”)

Target calls the trend “the new naturals.” The look is the latest iteration of what might be called botanist chic: banana-leaf wallpaper, living walls, flourishes of design meant to give even the most drab rooms the humid lushness of the jungle. The style is distinct from, yet spiritually similar to, the trend so efficiently skewered by Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen in Portlandia: “Put a bird on it!” It attempts an easy absolution. It recalls the way Americans in the 1950s made sense of the space race, and the atomic bomb, by turning futurism into decor.

In Target’s ongoing scroll of home goods—items that celebrate nature and consume it at the same time—you can almost feel the old paradigms at war with the new. Design is a matter of accommodation; the “new naturals” aesthetic is home design that hints at an environmental reckoning. Many other elements of American culture do too. “Plant-based” is quickly becoming a catchall sales pitch. Fast-fashion brands are turning Zion and Yosemite into wearable goods. Gorpcore is a thing. The desire to take in wildness in this way—to commercialize nature in the guise of celebrating it—carries shades of the old Romanticism. But these sanitized sellings of nature are also intensely modern. They allow people to do versions of what I’ve been doing in my own home: pruning my plants as the world burns.

It is not a coincidence that the proliferation of “new natural” furniture has come at the same time as a proliferation of entertainment about horticulture. There’s Monty Don’s American GardensThere are the various experts who refer to themselves as “plant doctors.” There are countless gardening TikToks. The shows take for granted the soft pleasure of tending to the needs of living things—of one species communing with another. They are complemented by an internet teeming with ad hoc advice not just about nurturing houseplants, but also about naming them. Houseplants, wild and domesticated at once, capture some of the abiding tensions of this moment. I am looking at mine as I write this. They make me feel soothed. And a little bit sad.

Paradigm shifts arise when what is known fails to accommodate what is learned. They are easy to talk about, but they can be wrenching to live through. Galileo’s observations, Darwin’s theories, Rachel Carson’s reports—these were radical ideas before they were canonical ones. Each required humans to renegotiate their relationships with the heavens, with other beings, with themselves. Those who are alive today are caught in the midst of another revolution of ideas. This one is particularly painful, though: It is founded on an insight not about how the world works, but about how it might stop working. The new paradigm is disorienting. It is terrifying. It is humbling. It demands that, on behalf of the birds of the air and the fish of the sea and all the living things that move upon the earth, we find a way, finally, to imagine the unimaginable.