Mark Zuckerberg, founder, CEO, and president of Facebook summed up the movie The Social Network by saying that, when it came to portraying his life, Hollywood fundamentally missed the point. He didn’t use money, girls, and access to parties and clubs as the drivers to develop Facebook, nor does he consider such things to be the spoils of its continuing success. Instead, as he puts it in Time, the real motivator is the fact that he thinks “it’s an awesome thing to do.”
Subtract a few billion dollars, and the parallels of his successful personal philosophy and those of the staff at Boyce Thompson Arboretum are closely bound. In fact, career plant professionals in general are notorious for their single-minded commitment to plants, often to the exclusion of what others would consider to be a more typical family enterprise. Not only is power, money, and attending all the right parties not important, neither are the normal imperatives to be fruitful and multiply. It’s amazing how many “plant people” I have known through the years who have chosen to remain single, or are divorced, or, if still married, then voluntarily childless.
At first, I thought that it was an anomaly; that my circle of acquaintances was small and I needed to get out more. But the more widely I travel, the more I am convinced that there is something about plants that, in certain individuals, turns on either a monastic or an addictive gene. For them plants graduate from simple objects of affection – a geranium in a clay pot on the front porch, a 20 year old pothos draped over an end table in the living room – to hundreds or thousands of life-consuming tenants that require daily care and maintenance, leaving little room for a normal life.
For these people, plant-a-holism often affects them at an early age, but others are struck down in the prime of life. Broken lunch dates are the first signs, then emails go unanswered, and finally, brief cell phone conversations become one-sided Latin rants about some endangered subspecies of pincushion cactus found only on a lonely, south-facing hillside in Texas. The terminal stage usually involves the purchase of a distant tract of land and a double-wide trailer, the drilling of a well, and the establishment of a plant nursery. The plants grown are generally unusual plants, either in species or size, and reflect the particular grower’s affliction. It’s a maddening scenario for those of us who want to buy these plants, because the only affordable land is usually a half day’s drive – one way – from just about anywhere.
In all fairness, only a few of the staff at Boyce Thompson Arboretum can be considered to be pathologically plant-centric. What we all share, though, is the willingness to spend our working lives nurturing the thousands of plants that we grow – not because of the vast material gains that we know we’ll never receive — but because it’s an awesome thing to do.