By Ethan Jacobs
February 26, 2021
On the window sill in my apartment, there’s a small jar of water filled nearly to the brim. Soaking just below the surface is the butt of a leek—the bulbous white part of the plant that TV chefs forbid you from using on account of its bitterness. It’s been there for a few weeks now; beneath it, slender white roots like jellyfish tentacles dangle suspended, their tips just touching the bottom of the jar. On the other end of the stub, flat green shoots the color of lemongrass have started to emerge. They form a slight protrusion, a milder version of the lumps you might see on the head of a cartoon character when they get whacked with a mallet. Still, it’s enough to let you know that the leek is alive and well.
Seeing something you devoured days earlier coming back to life is as disconcerting as it is uplifting. I don’t know if there’s ever been a loveable zombie—maybe Lazarus—but it doesn’t hurt that this reanimated leek is nutrient-rich and fine with being eaten again, rather than biding its time before having your brains for dinner. Because of this, I find myself rooting for the stub on one hand, and on the other, wondering what else I might be able to resurrect.
Not long after the leek experiment, an onion tail found itself wrapped in a damp paper towel on my counter. Next came a scallion; a mint stalk; some thyme and basil sprigs; ivy vines I’d snipped during a walk; a pineapple top and a hunk of ginger the size of my thumb, palm included. The jury’s still out on the ivy, but the rest all grew roots. When you’re hot, you’re hot.
It seemed like a shame to stop there, so I moved on to seeds. I hollowed out chili peppers, gutted a tomato and soaked legumes. I probed an avocado seed with whittled-down wooden chopsticks before submerging half of it in a matching jar next to the leek. If global stay-at-home orders were truly a harbinger of end times, I reasoned, best to have one of each plant to start over with in the aftermath of the pandemic. One after the other, the seeds sprouted, swelling for a day or two in their damp napkin cocoons before pushing out mutant roots of varying length and girth.
Over the days and weeks, my curiosity gradually gave way to obsession. Fearing that I wouldn’t have enough soil or space for all the seeds I was tending, I started looking into DIY hydroponics. I cut slits in damp sponges and buried sprouts in their crevices without any real certainty that they would thrive there. A cheap blender I bought a few months prior became a de-facto compost maker, turning all the rotting food scraps I fed it into rich, nutritious sludge. I sprinkled that and coffee grinds— a vestige of the caffeine that fueled my obsession—over anything with a stem like holy water in my daily botanical rites.
I’ve grown things in the past: I helped tend community gardens and even managed a small, raised-bed plot with my mom when I was a kid. But there’s something about jury rigging a garden from inside a cramped studio apartment that raises the stakes a bit. Maybe I should get a life.
A few years ago, a friend recommended a book to me—Ikigai, by Héctor García. At the time, I was working my way through a drawn-out existential crisis and the book, whose subtitle is The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, seemed like it might expedite the process.
In the book, Garcia talks about Okinawa, a Japanese island prefecture and one of five global “Blue Zones” touted by National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner for its dense agglomeration of centenarians. Buettner’s research into the lifestyles of Okinawans revealed that plant-heavy diets, community involvement, and moderate exercise seemed to create the ideal conditions for long life. This didn’t strike me as particularly novel information: prior to the industrial revolution, human beings had been living that way for thousands of years. The notion that atavism would hold the secret to increased life expectancy seemed counterintuitive.
Okinawans are also avid gardeners. That makes sense—they do eat mostly plants, after all—but that alone doesn’t seem sufficient to explain how they manage to live so long. More perplexing is that, while nearly every Blue Zone society consumes a largely plant-based diet, not all of these populations garden regularly. If the fountain of youth is hidden in a garden, you’d think each of these long-lived populations would know about it. Still, I’m reluctant to dismiss the connection completely.
Along with Okinawans, other Blue Zone members—including the Sardinians of Italy and the Ikarians of Greece—cultivate or forage much of what ends up on their plates. There’s also a growing body of research suggesting that farmers tend to enjoy markedly greater life expectancies than the general public. I won’t go so far as to call the garden a “fountain of youth,” but there is something there.
You can’t really read Ikigai without going down a separate rabbit hole, that of logotherapy. The concept’s premise, developed by neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, is that humans are mainly concerned with attributing meaning to their lives.
In his memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl used his experiences as a Holocaust survivor to say as much: he observed that a prisoner’s ability to survive seemed to be connected to their capacity for holding on to a sense of purpose. While held in various concentration camps, Frankl saw his wife, mother, father, and brother die, saying nothing of the countless other prisoners he watched perish. During that time, in the face of unthinkable suffering and uncertainty as to whether he would ever be free again, Frankl leaned heavily on courage and love. Perhaps more importantly, he found value in purposeful work: doing things in such a way that his actions were always inextricably linked to some future goal. It saved his life.
Understanding Ikigai—and, by proxy, how some folks manage to live so long— suggests that longevity has less to do with what people do than why they do it. Taking care of plants on a plot of land certainly amounts to moderate exercise, particularly compared with what most of us do in a day. It’s also a labor-intensive way to make sure you’ve always got food on your table. But if food and fresh air is all you’re taking from it, you’re missing the forest for the trees. The Okinawans have known for generations what I’ve started to realize in the past couple of weeks: it’s accountability that’s keeping them alive.
Each time you see a sprout bursting from a seed or a green shoot peeking out of a scrap, there’s a sense of magic, as though you’ve conjured something from thin air. Here, you’ve taken something small, dry, and lifeless—it may as well have been a pebble—and breathed life into it with little more than water and attention. It’s funny, you were ready to call it “waste,” this thing that was ostensibly at the end of its life, repurposing a word that describes an action to describe a thing because it’s more convenient. Unsightly and inedible, your instinct is to chuck it, oblivious to its instrumental value, saying nothing of what it has the power to teach you.
Thankfully, you resist that urge, realizing that it wasn’t you alone creating the magic. In an instant, it hits you that this tiny thing, a veritable Adam of your labors, always had life in it. Suddenly, you’re accountable: you’ve got a purpose. It’s on you to keep this thing alive, to do everything within your power to help it flourish. It’s your Lazarus.
But beneath the surface of your glowing altruism—wanting to see a living thing make it—lies the hulking iceberg that is your ego. You surely care about that fledgling sprout that someday could become a hearty stalk studded with fruits, grains, or herb leaves, but if you’re honest, that plant—this entire process—is really just a drawn out progress report.
Each new centimeter of stem is a confirmation of having done things the right way, another golden star from Mother Nature. Every wilted leaf or brown spot is a reprimand, a passive-aggressive warning that if you don’t get your shit together, the outcome will be irreversible. Each plant ends up becoming a reflection of life itself, reminding you to prune dead leaves as you should the extra baggage in your life, or to take a step back when it seems like you’re grasping for control.
Assuming a seedling dies on you—which, of course, is a foolish way to put it, it didn’t “die on you,” so much as you let it die—it’s hard not to internalize your failure as a reflection of your capabilities and competence as a human. But the flipside to that is that when you see the product of the energy that you put into something, no matter how small, result in thriving, it’s an indication of self-growth. You’re learning. You’re becoming stronger. You’re flourishing, as it flourishes.
Some mornings I wake up wondering how long this pandemic will go on. I think about my brothers and my parents, a continent away, and try to imagine what it will be like to see them in person when restrictions are finally lifted.
Amid so much human suffering, I think it’s normal to cling to whatever positive news you can, but the reality is that no one knows for sure when this will be over. I can’t really even wrap my head around what “over” means anymore—trying to do so can be debilitating.
But while we wait, it’s nice to have daily reminders that you could be doing worse, or that there’s always room to be a bit better. Finding purpose is good for that. It’s the first step to getting a life.
Photo by Victoire Joncheray.