When I was younger living in rural Northeastern Pennsylvania, I recalled a statistic on the radio that projected more people would move to the cities, outpacing those residing in rural and suburban areas. I didn't really fully comprehend the consequence at the time, and perhaps still don't. However, it wasn't that long ago when city dwellers finally did outpace those living in rural areas. In the United States, nearly 63 percent of us live in cities; and by the middle of 2009, the number of people living in urban areas around the world surpassed those living in rural areas.
When living in cities, you arguably gain so much at your fingertips—a rich, vibrant and diverse culture; incredible access to cuisine; the ability to invent—and reinvent yourself; so much collaborative potential with other like-minded adults from a cross-section of industries; and arguably more job opportunities and financial mobility.
What many of us—moving from the rural areas to the city—give up, however, is also great. In my case, it was the ability to run around barefoot in the grass, to take a walk in the woods, grow much of my own food, and be more self-sufficient overall... those are things that you have to seek out in most of our cities, and for which I had begun exploring in my own home and community in Brooklyn—at the very least, to feel as if I'm home again...
The move to Brooklyn
I never expected to be in the city for so long.
During my time at university, I devoted a good portion of my studies to sewage sludge research, agricultural weeds, wetland science, brownfield recovery, and aquatic entomology—probably some of the most esoteric and unappealing subjects to the vast majority of people living on this planet. Before I even graduated, I was offered a position at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but a governmental job—at least at the time—didn’t seem to fit my vibe.
Instead, after college, I had decided to move to New York because I had found myself working professionally in the fashion industry for what was already a few years, with a particular emphasis on sustainability. For most of my time in the profession, I was known as “the eco-model”—a term that was bestowed upon me by the press for modeling with my values; it was a moniker that I would try to shake off for its non-serious, limiting tone, but that I would learn to embrace for its frankness. I thought I’d be able to finish “my work”—or my projects—in two years time, as I had never envisioned myself living in a city–let alone The City (NYC, that is)—for any extended period of time.
But as my colleague and mentor, Martin, (who happens to be a tireless advocate for the Amazonian indigenous peoples), has so sagely remarked many times, “Sometimes you think life, and sometimes life thinks you.”
Twelve years later, and I have grown roots in the city, having hollowed out a beautiful, old post-war apartment from a former steel building from the 50s. Up until about a few years ago, my home was surrounded by a vintage furniture restoration shop, two woodworking facilities, and a more modern day steel-working facility. Now a sports bar, a swank coffee shop, a dentist’s office, and a plant shop have moved in—in that order. My apartment is far from perfect—the plumbing doesn’t work well; the windows are hard to open and close; and I’m positive there is no insulation—given the way the drafts of cold wind fill the rooms in winter with assured, icy tenacity. But it’s my home.
It wasn’t my home at first, however. I had moved in with a roommate and it was her home that I was stepping into. A few years later, however, she decided to move back to Brazil and I, not totally comprehending my newfound space, decided to stay.
One’s spirit never seems to dissipate from a home. It’s part of the beauty of taking on old spaces. You layer onto them and create new stories, like the progression of a book’s chapters, a stack of newsprint, or even an old scrapbook. It took me quite some time to realize that the home was, well...mine. I mean, not entirely so, because I rent it, but it was largely a space that I essentially inherited and could call my own. So I did.
It took several months for me to come to this realization. I had largely stayed to my own room when my roommate moved out. The feeling of imposing upon someone, even when they are not there, is still strong. Plus, when you’re busy—arguably too busy—with your life outside of your home, then you tend to forget about the sanctuary for which you sleep.
This soon dissipated and I began to walk around the house with greater assuredness, probing different rooms, wiping the dust from the windowsills will my fingertip, and even moving furniture. I wanted the space to open up, so I pushed the beds to the corners, removed the coffee table and second desk, and got rid of the clunky television from the 90s, which lay enshrouded behind a Japanese blind, (the latter to which I would turn into a trellis for a clambering Epipremnum aureum, or golden pothos.
When my roommate was here, we had very little plants in the house. She always had beautiful cut flowers on the table, which was inviting, but within a few days, their rootless stems would drop their petals and begin to droop. A sad state of affairs, if you ask me. A plant with roots, however—now there’s an idea! With a little love, rooted plants could thrive for a long time—and be passed down from generation to generation, as a plant can often—and will often—far outlive its owner, if its owner was careful and caring with the plant.
My first plant
I purchased my first plant from the local plant shop, Sprout Home. It was a Ficus lyrata, or fiddle leaf fig, which has become the iconic, statuesque, big-leaved tree that you so often see in the lobbies of the myriad glass-walled high rises which have begun to populate the neighborhood. After I sold off much of the furniture, my apartment was fairly barren. So barren that when I spoke loudly enough, a resonant echo would reverberate off the exposed brick walls. I wanted a plant that was big enough to fill the space—but no so big that I wouldn’t be able to lug it up stairs, as most old lofts don’t do elevators.
I placed it where it is now—between two south-facing windows—in what was then my bedroom, but what has now become my work room. It was perfect. The sunlight shone through the leaves, producing a most glorious gold-green frondescence that felt both familiar and mystical. As with any plant I get, I don’t just place it in the room and go about my business. I tend to hang onto the feeling for the moment and stand in admiration of the other living, breathing being that’s now within my presence. After all, it’s there to be admired—and as a houseplant—cared for, so that in turn it cares for you—cleaning your air, calming your mind, and literally tapping into your ancient, biological need to feel connected to nature.
The latter point is an important one, and perhaps, the very reason for which I write. Those of us who have chosen to live in cities, surrounded by four walls and concrete sidewalks and asphalt streets, are likely the most in need for our own little oasis of green—whether it be inside our homes or outside. I do not have to spew the latest research to assure you of this, because you feel it; and I see it when people walk into my home. There’s something about the quiet, searching and persistent nature of plants that bring us great, immeasurable joy on the deepest of levels. Even if it’s not a scorching hot day, most people would prefer to walk under a tree-lined street than one that is devoid of plant life. We gravitate towards it because it’s beautiful, it’s peaceful, it’s energizing...but we don’t often ask why it is that way. But perhaps we don’t need to know the answer, but just be knowing of it.
A promulgation of plants
I don’t remember the second plant that I got. I don’t think it matters so much any longer. An indoor ecosystem has emerged of some sorts—an outward manifestation no doubt of my desire to be close to nature while doing what I love. I’ve often said that the only way that I’ve survived in this city for so long is by bringing nature indoors. And now my plants have made these four walls very much their home, as I have—(largely perhaps, because of them). They have, quite literally, placed down roots—and arguably—so have I.
When my home went viral this past year, it very much came as a surprise to me. Sure the amount of plants had something to do with it ( I have around 240 species and close to 550 individual specimens now), but it was something much larger. As I’ve begun to read people’s questions online, open up my home for meditators via Medi Club, and give public and private workshops and tours to raise funds for a project in the Amazon, I’ve begun to ask larger questions. “Why are people fascinated?” Sure a part of it is the seemingly uncanny ability to keep a plant alive—let alone hundreds of plants alive; but that’s just the superficial wonderment. What underlies that is a sense of place, a sense of home.
So many of us in the city are wanderers—sometimes by choice, and sometimes not by choice. I’ve sat with many friends who have spoken as to whether it’s worth it to continue to live in the city, as the cost of living is so extraordinarily unbearable. They often have to take jobs that are not what they truly want to do, just to pay rent in their little shoebox of an apartment that they have on a month-to-month lease. I don’t know anyone who isn’t affected—(whether they recognize it or not)—by unfulfilled dreams or an unstable, constantly shifting home environment. It leaves you questioning, “What’s next? Is this it? When should I leave?” And when we’re asking ourselves those questions, we intuitively know, that we’re not home: Home in our physical environment, but also home in our hearts.
My plants have taught me many things over the years. I’ve learned from my plants, that in order to grow, you need to seek out the sunlight—even if it means having to stretch or contort yourself to get it. Sometimes that which makes you grow requires work, and it changes your very character forever. I’ve also learned that it often takes more than one plant to create the ideal environment that they want to live in; it requires a whole community to shift and change the dynamics—not unlike a community of people. And perhaps, most importantly, my plants have taught me what it means to grow roots. You often cannot grow or even change the community that you want to live in, if you don’t stay long enough to imprint upon the very soil you stand.
I feel grateful every morning when I wake up, especially because my plants have given me a place where I feel spacious and reflective enough to share this with you. It’s part of the reason why I’m starting a new project, Homestead Brooklyn, to share in this gift, and to surface more of what I’ve learned over the years, so that we can all be more rooted to this earth and ultimately create the environment that sustains us. 🌿