I wanted mint leaves, so I bought a plant. I wanted more light, so I opened the windows and bought more plants still. An excuse, I told myself. A promise I will keep. I wanted to know how to keep something alive. I thought this might feel like power.
Looking for inspiration, I asked my father about his garden back home. The date palms and lemon trees. Fat-bodied figs and tendrilled bougainvillea. Sometimes, he said, Israeli soldiers will cut down acres of Arab olive trees just because. It felt odd to consider plant life political. I imagined my father climbing a date tree, pickling turnips, weeding a wide bed of something — knowing which green should live and which green should not. I imagined his hands uprooting something. I wanted that kind of discernment.
I remembered him putting old paint buckets over his tomato plants during one fierce summer rainstorm. Helmets, he joked, look at that. I remembered his thrilled squint when the motel down the street began building a greenhouse in the front parking lot. A dilapidated shed with clear plastic walls and a tentative roof, we watched the inside grow greener and greener though the plastic like a muscle toning up beneath the skin. Someday, we’ll build something like that, my father said. And I felt a childish kind of hope: I had an acknowledged capacity to build.
Inspired by memories like these, I went to Home Depot and bought a monstera and a lily. I told myself it was an investment in my own self-growth. I got home and put the plants on my windowsill and opened the curtains a little more. I started crushing my discarded eggshells over the soil because I’d seen it on a kid’s show when I was younger. I already felt stronger in learning to find use for my discards, for those things leftover.
I called a friend to ask her if she remembered that movie where a French woman swallows a flower and starts to die. I couldn’t stop thinking of one moment in the film, a rather unextraordinary one, when one character asks another, “Can you please stay?” My friend couldn’t figure out why I was talking about fiction. We both knew I wanted to talk about something else. Staying, for example. How difficult.
Here is where I could lie and tell you I started dreaming about the leaves by my bed catching the breeze from my fan, blowing from their stems into my mouth, into my nose, into my ears. Just like the movie: some new bloom seeded to the bed of my heart. But I didn’t have any dreams like that. I forgot my dreams by the time I woke up, and slowly, I also started forgetting to water the fern. Then the cactus. Then the monstera and the lily.
A few weeks later, I found myself working on a project, interviewing a plant collector in Brooklyn. They had over seventy houseplants stuffed into their seven hundred square foot apartment. They also had an elaborate series of thermometers strung up inside one self-made enclosure, which they vigilantly guarded to make sure the humidity levels stayed right. When the seasons began to turn, they would get up throughout the night, every few hours, making sure the plants were transitioning through the change. I wondered about the way this version of plant collection tendered a line between obsession and devotion. But then I thought about how both are equal measurements of your own aliveness.
On my way out the door, they gave me a tiny orchid in a paper bag and a folded-up index card with twelve step directions on how to keep the orchid alive. On the subway ride home, some vague cerebral voice came to me: you’re not up for it. The orchid was dead one week later and I felt really bad about it so when the collector emailed me some time after this, asking how it was faring, I wrote back: Thriving!
I wasn’t so much worried they’d be angry I let the gift die. I was more so embarrassed by the possibility I’d disappointed them in some way, revealing some terribly private and vigilantly guarded inadequacy. You’re a give-upper, my maternal grandmother used to tell me. It will leave you aimless. Aimless, I’d been moving restlessly from place to place for years, building nothing, folding my life into boxes, growing tired of old homes and cautious in new ones. I had developed many collections: used rolodexes, old gas lanterns. Maps of rivers, Chinese checker boards, corn cob pipes. Typewriters and whiskey decanters. Coins from different countries and empty cigar boxes. Discarded family photos relegated to the one cent discount crates in thrift stores.
Sometimes, entries in these little museums would travel with me. More often, they’d get stowed in a family member’s basement or closet. I felt myself scattered and relentlessly searching. I just want a few acres to call my own, I told my mother once. And immediately after: I just want to drive across the country in a renovated school bus. I just wanted over and over. The speed with which this changed disoriented me. I started new collections. I lost people. Where I wanted to hold, I gave way. Where I wanted to rest, I kept moving. I couldn’t imagine myself building anything.
The poet K.A. Hays has a poem, “Windflaw,” a term that refers to a sudden gust or blast of wind. An accompanying term “windthrow,” for which Hays also has a poem, describes trees that have been uprooted by wind. It’s a surreal idea that something so rooted and strong could be brought up and scattered by something so shapeless. But it’s not an idea that frightens me so much as it appeals to my appreciation of the kind of poetry that sneaks into moments of death and beauty equally. That examine the way the two can exist simultaneously, the same way a leftover and uprooted tree might still loom large and beautiful.
When I was young, my mother drove my brothers and I on a cross-country road trip. In Arizona, we stopped at the Petrified Forest, my mind unwound by the animation of the shortgrass prairie on one side of me, the hardened fallen trees on the other. They did not rot or wither down into the earth. They stayed lodged among the healthy vegetation they would surely outlast. This in itself, I thought, was its own kind of living. Even then, that beauty felt somewhat beyond me.
“Windflaw” starts with an argument: “Only the mundane middle-of-things / stays green.” This always triggers a series of questions for me. Is boredom a kind of health? Is the ability to fulfill routine its own wellness or vibrance?
In my guilt for killing that orchid, I bought a couple of cheap cacti from the drugstore, collected a snake plant donated by a friend, and haloed them around a ponytail shrub my mother had sent for my birthday. It looked like some kind of pagan offering, but I was resolved. I put post-it notes all over my apartment — the front door, the bathroom mirror, the hallway, my medicine bottle: WATER THEM FUCKUP.
I started thinking about Katie Paterson’s Future Library, a project I’d been following for years. In Norway, Paterson started growing a forest of one thousand trees in 2014. The idea is that every year, a new writer is selected to contribute a secret manuscript which is then locked away in a chamber, set to be printed — using paper made from the trees — one hundred years from now.
It’s an exercise in hope, said a professor when I brought the project up with her years earlier. Hope we’ll still be alive in a hundred years, hope that these writers will be able to articulate something about a time long gone, hope that people will still be curious enough to read.
And apart from this, isn’t growth inherently optimistic? Maybe this was what I’d been looking for in my collecting: growth, optimism. Some visual reminder that things do grow, slowly but surely, over time. Root down and spread. So why couldn’t I just stop wondering about the pragmatics? How hard, for example, a forest like that would be to maintain. Or if really, the trick of it was to just leave the trees alone. And how sometimes, this feels like the most difficult task in the world, even a distinctly inhuman instinct.
“Attention is the beginning of devotion,” Mary Oliver writes in Upstream. I wondered if this was the fatal flaw in my plan to turn to plants. I wanted the opposite of attention: I wanted distraction. Can you really devote yourself to a distraction or is this more a way to lean into some powerless part of you that is unable to tend to your own sadness? I used to write down a line from that same Oliver essay over and over. While describing her “heaven-verging fields,” she asks: “Do you think there is anything not attached by its unbreakable cord to everything else?” That feeling of simultaneity felt frightening and empowering to me. I understood it to mean something about how, if you care for a plant, you care for yourself. How the act of staying is also an act of devotion. How to be left is to be leftover.
I’ve started to think, now, about the differences between things like power and control and, at the end of the day, hope. Because these feel like three things that are so easy to mix up. Particularly when you find yourself in a state so desperate for growth, you’ll try anything: even obtaining, over time, a succession of some twenty or thirty plants, gradually killing them all to your own bewildered shame.
One summer when I was 19, I took a job with my father in the bindery department where he worked for 20 odd years. We commuted from the small Pennsylvania farmhouse where we lived for a time, surrounded by stalky cornfields and beleaguered Eastern Hemlocks — an 82-mile journey one way. His beat-up Honda would break down anytime the temperature climbed above 65 or below 50, the drive home sometimes stretching into a four-hour trek when we had to coast into the shoulder or a drive-thru parking lot every 20-30 minutes to let the engine cool.
Once, we pulled into a rest area to pass the time, napping underneath the shade of a massive oak. The great protector, my father called it, certain the shade would work power superior to the dwindling bottle of Zerex in the trunk. Lying like kids among the rootwork, he pointed out the way the leaves, big as dinner plates, were curling at the edges. Rain without question. I didn’t believe him, but he insisted: You can always tell, he said, because the leaves know to curl to protect themselves. It was something that stuck, partly because it sounded too beautiful to be really true — some innate understanding of self-protection. But I did look it up years later when I felt prepared for disappointment; he was right, just as he was right that day when it rained the rest of the way home.
Today, I can rarely turn down a rest-area oak, just as I can’t resist collecting fallen leaves and seed pods. These items, dry and brittle in the old cigar box I keep on my desk hardly seem alive or dead to me. More like a line in my favorite Adrienne Rich poem: “what in fact I keep choosing / are these words, these whispers, these / conversations / from which time after time the truth breaks moist / and green.” My need to care for them, successful perhaps because of their needlessness, parallels my effort to believe that things can grow against the odds — even when I am the odds. To save something doesn’t always mean to rescue it, sometimes it means to collect it, to keep it, to preserve. To choose this, also, is a way of living. Maybe even a way of building something — shapeless as it can seem.
Inevitably, I keep coming back to that image from that movie: a woman falling asleep on her bed, her body languid and at peace. The flower that sneaks into her body is not, in itself, a villain. Moreso some kind of testimony to the terrible hazard of surprises. Of accidents and, even, the inability to adapt to these. Again: the beauty of windflaw despite its capacity to uproot a tree. To uproot us.
Today, I’m surprised by the memories that come when I’m falling asleep: a friend making crowns from daffodil stems. My grandmother pruning hydrangea. My brother disappearing, leaving a dried leaf in the novel cracked open on his desk.
I can tell you an unsurprising fact along with these: the ponytail shrub my mother sent was uprooted and finished off by my cat on a Tuesday. The other plants stared — sentinel, jaundiced, soon-to-be-ghosts.
I wonder if the act of collecting is, in itself, a wager on hope.