I recently bought some Tupperware with a similar mindset to that of the people who prepare their sports clothes the night before so that exercising is not a decision but a given, as if the presence of the clothes outside the wardrobe were a catalyst for the body to take itself to the gym or yoga class. I wanted to make it easier and more appealing to cook more and pack my lunches instead of spending money on quick, unsatisfactory, plastic-packed meals in London’s many Prêt a Mangers. The presence of the new containers (so shiny, and with their matching lids still in sight) would motivate me, I thought.
As if on cue, the same week, upon listening to a “pop culture” podcast, the presenters—two women in their early 30s—talked about how Tupperware is such a Millennial thing. A few days later, on distractedly glancing at the catacombs of an email thread forwarded by an editor, I discovered a pitch someone had made further down: “One foodie idea I had for the site was to do something on packed lunches. Doesn’t sound very glam but there is a way you could make it glam and very classy if you got the right foodie person on it. I think it’s something that’s becoming increasingly ‘Millennial’ and is so much cheaper and healthier.”
I think my exact reaction was to scream “Fuck this!”, which was definitely disproportionate. But I had been scorched before in the anything-you-do-is-part-of-a-hip-Millennial-trend realm.
My grandparents spent their summers in an old farmhouse outside Barcelona, which used to be surrounded by fields but, by the ’90s, was an oddity in a rich suburb of big houses with pools. My sister and I spent a few weeks there each summer, riding our bikes, watching TV re-runs, reading and pretending to swim in a 3-square-feet inflatable pool. At the start of each summer, our grandma would take us to the garden center, where we picked the baby geraniums and petunias that we’d plant and grow, and she patiently taught us how to take care of them.
My other grandma had filled the small terrace in her and my grandpa’s city apartment with plants, so crammed that it was impossible to step outside. Humans belonged in the dark living room, filled with a blend of smoke from my grandpa’s pipe and the cigarettes of everyone else. The only times I remember having been on that terrace were when my grandparents were away and we went to the apartment to water the plants.
Fast forward 20 years and I’m living in London, and plants have become a major instrument of bonding in my relationships. After having failed to keep alive the terrarium my landscape-architect ex had left me with when he went back to where he came from—the dwindling mini-ecosystem too annoying a metaphor for the relationship—in the summer of 2017 I moved in with my boyfriend, and we slowly filled our apartment with green as a way (I thought) to evoke those now-far-away Mediterranean scenarios.
There was the pothos vine that my grandma had given me when I moved out of my parents’, which I’d grown into a plant—from which I had taken a new vine with me to London. We got a Swiss cheese plant, a lipstick plant, a string of pearls, a ficus, some new cacti. We repotted, replanted, fertilized, fed, watered. It had become our loveliest and most non-controversial ritual. The apartment was a high floor in one of London’s most polluted roads, but the light seemed to compensate for the fumes: they thrived.
I started watching in amusement how my boyfriend was into them too, like the time he sprayed and wiped clean the leaves of a peace lily in an otherwise totally uncharacteristic gesture.
A friend recently Instagrammed a picture with the caption: “sum up middle-class millennials in one image.“ The photo is of a Facebook invite for a (SOLD OUT, in caps) event titled “How NOT to kill your plants.” It’s in Berlin, where hipsterism still happens in earnest, with a straight and serious face.
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you know that millennials have a thing for house plants. Let’s quickly scan some literature on the matter: Nylon published the piece “Why Are Millennials Obsessed With Houseplants? Join the club” last spring. Similar articles followed like a lazy parade: the The Washington Post (“Millennials are filling their homes—and the void in their hearts—with houseplants”); The Guardian, in their classic explainer for the liberal upper middle classes tone. It seems you couldn’t be a publication in 2017 and not mention this: The Telegraph, Jezebel, Cosmo, GQ, Bustle, Refinery 29, ELLE, The Huffington Post.
Why this obsession? Everyone agrees: keeping something alive is a small responsibility, and plants are a cool, mostly guilt-free trial-and-error at adulthood. This “generation” can’t afford to buy homes or have babies, so they spend their disposable income on ephemeral trendy shit (experiences over objects, apparently); they are big babies themselves, uprooted ones living in cities, so horticulture brings them closer to nature; they care about health and food origins, so greenery makes them feel good. And they care about Instagrammable aesthetics—nothing looks better than a plant next to an artisan coffee, book, or pink wall.
As a reluctant member of that over-analyzed cohort, it turns out that I had been hiding under a rock while embodying every single trope of this so-called trend. I proudly thought my plant love was inherited from the women in my family and from the matte pictures of my childhood, full of macramé-hanging pothos.
One day, after two weeks away, I tentatively touched one of the cacti, and it crumbled slowly, revealing that its stem had been rotting and emptying inside for weeks from over-watering. I had just managed to kill a cactus I had thought un-killable, called Acanthocereus tetragonus but known as “fairy castles” for its Disney logo castle-like structure. It was then that I reached my possibly most shameful peak-Millennial moment: eager for writing prompts and clearly unwilling to look too deep, I decided I’d write about my super unique experience of plants-and-relationships.
As I realized I’d missed the deluge of pieces describing my exact experience, I discovered that even the grandma thing was common, and I wasn’t the only one reaching back to visual cues from the un-digital decades past. In fact, no aspect of my thought process was remotely original. I started noticing that hipster bookstores were full of books about “urban jungles,” “urban wilding,” “jungalows,” and “styling plants,” and that it all had a lot to do with aesthetics and zero to do with the actual plants and the mess, soil, bugs that come with them. The plants-as-babies vernacular, too, is ubiquitous. I recently sublet a plant-filled apartment in Berlin from a woman in her late 30s, and she told me: “I don’t have kids, so I’m a plant mother.”
What’s most uncanny is that, despite being relatively aware that most of my domestic wants and needs were put in my head by capitalism, I had felt like this was part of an intimate sphere. Where else was I being duped into consumption, unwittingly?
Coming of age in the early naughties is weird because you emerge out of an analogue childhood into your fully digital 20s. From those formative years you carry confusing and contradictory beliefs, such as: I believe in the serendipity of the found object, the random song; that books come into my life at the right time. Algorithms make me uncomfortable.
I was of course duped and hypnotized by TV ads as a child, but it all felt more two-dimensional and one-directional. It didn’t feel like your brain was wide open to the world of brands and companies; like you were giving them hints so they could manufacture needs especially for you (and thousands of other people with similar whims) and present them back to you as spontaneous. The incipient Internet, too, was this magical lake full of ridiculous sea creatures. It didn’t feel like it does now: so tailored that you never have to encounter something you don’t already like.
This is the reason millennials are arguably the most annoying of generations, besides the economic collapse. They are caught in the middle. Too obsessed with social media to be relaxed in the “real” world; too unnatural to it to feel at ease within it.
Millennial trend pieces also tend to frame as “new trends” things that were already common among groups ignored by the mainstream media, and that have often been co-opted. Oakland-based writer Aura Brogado tweeted: “So. A lot of us have always lived with a ton of houseplants, especially immigrants from the tropics whose moms filled homes with all kinds [of] plants. It’s hilarious to me how popular monsteras are all of [a] sudden. Just go to houses of immigrants from the tropics we *been* had these.”
During our year in that apartment, we lived between a gas station, a grimy pub, a halfway house, and a betting house; the street looked like no life could ever grow in its derelict grounds, and the levels of pollution—air and noise—were the kind that will shorten your life by five years. That road cut through the heart of Hackney, London’s giant eastern borough, where one can track gentrification week by week, like a perverse cartoon dust in a Disney movie that magically changes storefronts and makes them look yuppie.
There are two types of shops in that neighborhood. The old shops that have stayed put, and the intentional shops. The former are there to satisfy needs; the latter are there to create them. Last year, the one traditional garden center suddenly went from the former to the latter, embellishing its offerings to cater to hipsters. They now sell stuff called “air plants” which I refuse to believe is a thing. For each time I have seen someone actually buy something, I have seen 35 people take a photo. Every Sunday, that street becomes a runway where early 30-somethings descend with big plants in their arms, holding them like you would a small dog.
We moved to a quieter road three months ago, and all the plants stayed with various care-takers for a few weeks. Most of them have died, and those that have made it seem discombobulated in the new, north-facing rooms. I now have in my hands a bunch of moribund plants, and a lot of brand-new Tupperware.
Image Credit: Public Domain Pictures.