Biosphere Trees: A metaphor for human resilience

Inside the Biosphere trees grew until they collapsed under their own weight

Trees need wind, rain, and storms for healthy development. So do people.

Biosphere 2 is a research facility in Arizona, USA built in the 1980’s. The goal was to develop a completely enclosed environment capable of supporting human life with the idea that perhaps one day Biosphere 1 – that’s the earth – would not be able to support human life. Or, perhaps relatedly, humans would try to colonise another planet. The technology developed inside Biosphere 2 could be used in either case. Long story short, this research project failed. “Biosphere 1” is a highly complex and inter-connected system which the researchers could not replicate. Many unanticipated challenges occurred, one of which involved the vegetation inside Biosphere 2.

A wide range of vegetation was planted inside Biosphere 2. The trees grew more quickly than in the outside world but would then die off and collapse. It was thought that the weather patterns inside Biosphere 2 were important. Biosphere 2 could produce a gentle breeze but could not generate more extreme wind, rain or storms. It turns out that winds and storms are necessary to a young trees development. During such weather trees stretch and bend and develop a structure called “stress wood” which allows for further bending and stretching. This stretching and bending it turns out, is vital for a trees healthy growth and development.

This story got me thinking about how what happens in the garden. Initially a seed is planted, it is kept in a hot house, in a propagator tray. It is watered daily and possibly given specific nutrients. As the seed begins to grow, the seedling is moved to progressively larger pots, giving it the room to grow, while keeping it inside the hothouse. As the sapling grows it may be placed outside for some time each day to “harden off” or get used to the elements outside the hothouse. When the tree is ready, it is planted in its permanent position. At this stage, wise gardeners place two stakes on either side of the young tree and tether the tree to it. This will provide some protection as the young tree experiences its first winter storms and spring gales. Eventually those stakes in the ground will rot and fall away and a healthy strong tree is left which can withstand all but the most extreme weather events.

Palm trees bend and flex during a hurricane

It strikes me that growing people is much the same. When our babies are small, we hold them very close, provide all that they need and protect them from as much of outside as we can. As our children grow, we slowly, bit by bit allow them out into the world, and allow them to experience some of the “stormy weather” out there.  Eventually, our children are ready to be out there full time but we don’t just let them get on with it. Parents remain, like the two stakes in the ground as a support. And I’ll stop the metaphor there before it gets too dark.

All of us have been out there in life’s weather and experiencing life’s stressors. We have therefore, developed skills and resources to assist us to be resilient in the face of stressors. We have discovered our own internal resources for coping, things like being flexible, persistent, or patient. We have learnt skills for managing stress, like problem-solving or making hard decisions. We have gained resources like healthy relationships which will see them through tough times.  Alternatively, if we try to avoid or deny these metaphorical storms, we do not discover our personal attributes which make us resilient. Neither do we learn strategies that add to our natural resilience. Likewise, if we try to protect others, such as our children, from life’s storms, we are denying them the opportunity to develop their own resilience.

It is stress that allows us to discover and build resilience.

2 Replies to “Biosphere Trees: A metaphor for human resilience”

  1. I think a Bio-social theory of personality is generally accepted. When babies had both a genetic predisposition as well as an invalidating environment these factors together tend to bring about this personality disorders.

    I would agree that to build resilience, young children need to have caregivers like stakes in the ground to give support. Even so, genetics still play a role. Some children are like dandelions and can blossom in almost any environment. Other children are like an orchid and need certain conditions in which to bloom.

    One thing is clear, without proper healthy parenting and role modeling, children will learn maladaptive coping skills, poor stress management, struggle with emotional dysregulation, and suffer a higher risk of substance use. Trauma as you know causes chemical insult to the developing brain, creating lasting damage.

    An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Getting mental health treatment to at risk children, now is the best way to prevent the generational transmission of some of these personality disorders.

    Great post!


    1. You are absolutely correct – personality is a result of both genetics and the environment. Thanks for your comment. Glad you like the post.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: