They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but that’s only half the truth.
Sometimes what doesn’t kill you leaves you hobbled, scarred or weak with hunger. Sometimes it leaves you warped or bruised. Sometimes it leaves you cobbled together from scraps of disenchantment. Sometimes it leaves you swinging halfway between courage and despair, learning how to fight through the inoculation in hopes it’s better than the disease. What doesn’t kill you leaves its mark.
Sometimes what doesn’t kill you becomes a kind of fixture in your life. Like a gift from the gods, seeded from a lightning strike, some wounds are living testaments. You want to grow, but can’t. You want your life to be simple and straightforward, but it isn’t. And so you find yourself returning again and again to the past, that companionable parasite, only to find some old wound has blossomed into a tangled nest of new growth.
They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but it can also make you beautiful and strange.
It’s that wonderful time of year when a Druid girl can revel in her love of mistletoe — the all-heal, a plant sacred to the ancient Celts for both its medicinal and mythical properties — without anyone thinking her odd. During the other eleven months, most folks barely give mistletoe a second thought. But ringing in the Yuletide each December brings with it the chance to turn our full attention towards this marvelous parasite.
You read that right: mistletoe is a parasite. In fact, despite its romantic connection with the winter holidays, many foresters consider this plant — whose scientific name, Phoradendron, means “tree thief” in Greek — to be a nuisance with the potential to pose serious economic problems. Mistletoe rarely kills its host, but when an infestation spreads through a stand of trees, it can stunt their growth and cause early death among trees that are young or already weakened due to infection or poor soil conditions. Even in healthy trees, it can cause odd growths such as lumps, burls or what’s known as a “witch’s broom” — a dense, tangled mass of twigs sprouting from a single point — which can put stress on the host tree and distort its shape. It’s no wonder that foresters have expended a great deal of time, money and energy looking for ways to eradicate this pest in the interest of managing forests with straight, fast-growing trees that produce the most useable timber as quickly as possible.
Isn’t that just typical of modern society? So much of our everyday world has been built around the assembly line and its principles of mass production, predictability, efficiency and conformity. We’ve come to associate prosperity with progress, and progress with the ceaseless production of expendable commodities and interchangeable parts at an ever-increasing rate. In this culture, even people become expendable, interchangeable stereotypes. And yet, within the flood of sameness, unique expressions of creativity shine all the more brightly. Too often our reaction is to fetishize or idolize such expressions, isolating them from our mundane lives instead of striving to embody our own unique individuality every day in everything we do. We become so obsessed with making this a “special time of year” that we can drive ourselves to the brink of panic with our frenetic holiday shopping and planning, only to fall back into depression if our winter holidays fail to live up to the hype. We fill our museums and art galleries with priceless works of art, but continue to fill our homes and businesses with cheaply manufactured knock-offs. We tacitly consent to the belief that pricelessness — uniqueness — doesn’t drive an economy. And so our lives are full of mass-produced goods, including a plastic souvenir replica of that priceless artwork that we bought in the museum gift shop. Or the fake plastic sprig of mistletoe that we pull out with all the other Yuletide decorations this time of year, to hang above our door in hopes of a kiss.
Mistletoe has a great deal to teach us about the role of individuality in a prosperous community. Despite its bad reputation in the lumber industry, a growing number of ecologists recognize mistletoe as an important keystone species with a direct impact on biodiversity. Mistletoe refers not just to a single species but to a wide variety of related species that can be found all over the world, from the Amazon rainforest to the temperate deciduous woods of Europe to the Australian outback. Mistletoe provides fruit and nectar throughout the year to many different animals and insects, especially in times of scarcity during the winter months when little else is available. It also provides essential nesting habitat for many birds, both directly and indirectly by stimulating witch’s brooms. In fact, here in the Pacific Northwest, one study found that nearly half of the nesting sites for the endangered northern spotted owl were in witch’s brooms, which provide sturdy support and great camouflage. There is also evidence that raptors like hawks and eagles selectively use fresh mistletoe sprigs as nest lining because of its antibacterial and aromatic properties, which help boost the immune system of their fledglings.
Another unexpected link between mistletoe and biodiversity is its contribution to nutrient-rich soil. Most plants re-absorb the nutrients in their leaves before dropping them, but because mistletoe is a parasite that relies on its host tree for nutrients, it tends to be a bit less stingy. In areas where mistletoe is found, the leaf litter on the forest floor is often much higher in carbon and other important nutrients, aiding the cycle of decomposition. Even when a mistletoe infection does kill its host tree, the snag of the dead tree can provide important food and shelter for a variety of insects, birds and small mammals.
In a way, mistletoe’s romantic cultural associations with stolen kisses and broom-riding witches are a perfect symbol of modern society’s ambivalence towards individuality. Those of us who celebrate our uniqueness are often shrugged off as silly romantics — impractical at best, at worst somewhat selfish, maybe even a little dangerous. In the same way that mistletoe can be seen as an infectious parasite and a costly obstacle, when our own differences or eccentricities don’t fit neatly into modern society’s vision of streamlined progress we can be treated as an inconvenience or a burden, an obstacle to abundance that must be eliminated. As some citizens take to the streets to protest the killing of unarmed black men at the hands of police across the country, others complain that these public demonstrations are disrupting their holiday shopping and the protesters deserve to be arrested. We live in a society where some people believe that their ability to shop is more important than another’s right to live a life that isn’t haunted by the persistent threat of racism and violence. A society in which inconvenience is a crime, and messiness is a sin.
But nature is messy. Nature is wild. In the face of our assembly-line obsession with efficiency and expendability, keystone species like mistletoe serve as powerful reminders of why individuality is so essential to abundance. True prosperity lies in the diversity of our communities and the ways that we support that diversity with our own unique gifts. It can be lonely, even a little frightening, to be different. We’re often taught to downplay our differences, especially when those differences are the result of injuries or imperfections that make us feel embarrassed or single us out as “damaged goods.” We might want to hide our own unsightly warts, bumps and burls, to deny our own metaphorical witch’s brooms and conform to the tall, skinny, perfectly symmetrical role models we see on television.
But the truth is, in a society that so often demands that we conform our lovely multifaceted selves to an assembly line mentality, very few of us escape without a few scars. Rather than seeing these scars as a sign of weakness, mistletoe is a reminder to all of us to see our oddities — bumps, bruises and all — as a sign of strength. When we express our true selves in all our complexity, we not only nurture our own souls but we contribute to a healthy, prosperous society where everyone can thrive.
Our unique gifts are an irreplaceable aspect of sustainable relationship. We possess talents and skills that no one else can offer, and these gifts can be a lifeline for others, providing them with the nourishment and support they need during times when nothing else can. Perhaps the most valuable gift that mistletoe offers us this holiday season is the reminder that prosperity and individuality go hand in hand, and you can’t have one without the other.