Lessons from nature: a guide to relationships in hard times

Maintaining healthy and consistent relationships, especially at a significant distance, can be very hard. The lack of physical contact makes it much easier to create that literal and emotional gap between you and a loved one. But hope is always born anew, like the blossom after a harsh winter.

What to do then? Luckily enough, every change, however hard it may be, comes with its opportunities. The crisis meant that I had to unexpectedly make a big move halfway across the globe, causing me not only to be physically removed from contact with people I was used to seeing on a daily basis, but also to experience a very different reality in terms of culture, climate and language. In a small rural town south of Rio de Janeiro, I turned to nature to find some answers, and I came across some interesting and inventive solutions.

Perhaps we can take a leaf out of nature's book

‘Plant Cognition’ is an area of study which is very new and still establishing itself. It is based on the idea of exploring conscious intelligence beyond neurological functioning. Instead, intelligence is understood in terms of effective problem solving, and plants are amazing at that! This area of study explores the ability of plants to learn and respond to create a healthy relationship with their environment. If they can do this without neurons, perhaps we can take a leaf out of their book.

I decided to see what I could take from nature and translate into human relationships.

Tuning in with yourself

Before establishing a good relationship with anyone or anything, we must first have a good relationship with ourselves. Nature has more to tell us about this than we could possibly imagine, if we are willing to listen. Of course, trees and birds don’t actually talk to us as they would in a Disney film, but the observation of nature can often reveal more than we expect.

Nature works in cycles. If you are patient enough to not despair and give in to your grumpiness, anger, stuffiness (whatever it is you are feeling) and choose to observe it instead, as if it were an external and impartial event, you will find that it too has its cycles. I realised that I have a much greater tendency to be grumpy during the day or when it’s hot (and for many women, you might find that your mood is closely linked to your ‘moon’ cycle).

Nature works in cycles, and so do you.

A lot of this might sound obvious, but learning to observe yourselfas you might a landscape or growing plantis surprisingly effective. This allows you to detach from persistent problems and watch them as natural phenomena (phenomena that come and go) and that way they may begin to lose their grip on you.

Setting boundaries

During my expeditions into the garden I also discovered that plants have an incredible diversity of techniques to sustain a healthy relationship with their environment. Of course, we all theoretically know this, but to see it is another thing altogether. I came across an old childhood friend: Mimosa Pudica, better known as touch me not. I used to love playing with this plant, touching it and then watching its leaves rapidly close. Similarly, pumpkin leaves respond to their environment by withering when the sun is too intense, so as to reduce the amount of surface area in direct contact with the sunlight. Both these plants behave in this way for a reason: it is a defence mechanism.

Take the helm and change the course!

What can we learn from these plants? When any kind of interaction with an external source becomes overwhelming, perhaps the best thing to do is withdraw. In this case, it might mean putting a stop to a conversation that has reached a dead-end, or taking a break from reading the news.

Another fascinating example I came across whilst reading around this area is that some plants’ roots can sense an obstacle before they reach it, and alter their direction before the collision. So instead of withdrawing completely from a conversation, if you know it is heading in a rocky direction, take the helm and change the course!


Returning to the metaphor of roots, we know that weeds can be extremely resilient. As unexpected as it sounds: be like a weed. Wherever you go, put down roots. This might mean reconnecting with childhood friends from your hometown, as in my case, or joining online communities for your hobbies and interests. Human roots can be virtual; after all, the internet can be seen as a system of interconnecting roots and knowledge-sharing.

Relationships are all about communication and teamwork. Many plants send each other messages to warn about predators. It seems that tomatoes and fennel don’t get along very well, so a tomato plant will send their neighbouring tomato plants signals with chemicals when they sense fennel nearby. Corn takes this a step further by emitting chemicals that work across species’ boundaries to lure wasps that attack caterpillars nibbling at their leaves.

Instead of sending chemical signals, we can come to each other’s rescue by sharing experiences.

Being a part of a very technological society, we have almost all the information we need already, but no amount of information can compensate for experience. When I came to Brazil, I was able to bring my experience from the UK to better inform those around me of the measures to be taken in relation to COVID-19. Instead of sending chemical signals, we can come to each other’s rescue by sharing experiences, ideas and information.

Other plants also use colours to attract pollinators (It seems bees are particularly keen on violet). Your friends are not pollinators and you don’t need to work hard to attract them. But you may consider creating something they’d like: a letter, a painting, a poem. Once you’ve done that, I’m sure the loving pollen will come straight back at you.

Likewise, different people might be coming up with different ways (be it artistic, academic or musical) to deal with isolation, and sharing that knowledge could be what makes another person’s day.

Find the sunshine and follow it. As a human being, you will not be able to perform photosynthesis, but the positive effects of vitamin D on physical and mental well-being are well known.


And we have come to the fourth point, full circle into the fourth season of our reflection. Why not use this time to reflect on ways to improve your relationship with the natural environment in and outside of isolation? If the crisis has shown us anything positive, it is that there is so much in our power to improve our relationship with the environment. According to scientific data, the levels of air pollution in China and elsewhere have visibly reduced. Even here in Brazil the number of birds and butterflies flying around seems to increase daily.

Caring for the environment is also a way of caring for ourselves.

Without plants, not only would these analogies be impossible, but our own existence, the air we breathe and the food we eat, along with all of nature’s richness would also be impossible. Caring for the environment is also a way of caring for ourselves and our relationships.

We have a lot to learn from nature. Let us begin, like spring, with a commitment to knowing how best to nurture ourselves, so that we too can grow together through and beyond the winter.

By Louder Than The Storm writer Nina Purton.


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