Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary
Xerophyte: a plant structurally adapted for life and growth with a limited water supply esp. by means of mechanisms that limit transpiration or that provide for the storage of water.
Water is essential for growth and survival—of plants and animals alike. So how is it that some plants can not only survive, but thrive and even reproduce, with so little water? On top of that, they also provide beauty, habitation, and even sustenance for others. Their short-lived flowers splash color onto monochromatic landscapes. Regional animals are adapted to live nestled among some xerophytes’ barbs. Survival programs tell us to seek these plants as a source of essential hydration when stranded in the dessert.
Humans share many of these tough flora’s adaptive qualities. We evolved as omnivores, able to eat most things that grow in nature. Our big forebrains allowed us to cultivate plants to eat. We learned to capture, then herd, animals for our own use. We have come so far as to alter and control our environments, in order to live in places where nature may never have intended.
But the more interesting parallel between xerophyte plants and Xerophyte People is resilience. If we consider metaphorical water for human life, many things come to mind: joy, security, connection, purpose, meaning, love. Think of all the people who live with little or none of these things. Think of those who once had these things, and then had them forcibly taken away, often indefinitely—by war, abuse, illness, death. In medicine, we witness this kind of suffering regularly. Our hearts break alongside those of our patients and their families. But it’s not always forever. In primary care, where I have the privilege of knowing patients over long periods, I have also celebrated remarkable reversals. New relationships, revelations, births, treatment innovations—you never know what will happen to turn the tide.
So what keeps us hanging on? Like plants, maybe we figure out ways to prevent further loss—limit transpiration. Thick skin and prickly spines keep us protected. Only the very persistent or the specially equipped can penetrate our defenses. But more important, we have adapted to store what we need. Even if we cannot readily identify or articulate it, something keeps us going. Maybe it’s hope, remembrance, or some core value or aspiration we have yet to realize—some inner pilot light that never goes out. Some might call it the human spirit. Whatever it is, I stand in reverence of its mystery, its utterly saving presence.