Garden Variety, or I Read Books on Plants
creative nonfiction by Michael Colbert
Garden Variety, or I Read Books on Plants
I buy Beatrice at Lowe’s in February. My ex picks her name, and it has stuck. Immediately she is literary, Dantean. In the bay window, she brandishes her fronds over the loveseat, which I read books on so her palms tickle my ankles. In winter, she brings green indoors, radiating health, warmth, the summer that will come inside the apartment. In summer, she reflects what is outside. Green is everywhere. She could be there too.
Alligators smash rows of shark teeth. Flowers grow into human topiaries, subsumed by the landscape of this cosmic disaster. A moody, seaside Washington town births a crawler that writes liturgy in goo and microorganisms.
Area X in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy explodes a world in which nature reclaims everything around it. This is already a subgenre of science fiction–nature outlasting humankind after we nuke each other. It was big in the Cold War. It was big when we learned we are capable of bringing about end times. Yet VanderMeer’s contemporary take is cosmic, biological. Something strikes earth and breeds with us, copulates with our DNA, becomes us. We become it. We duplicate. We cannot contain it. We flee when it spreads because there is nothing else to do.
When I move, Beatrice makes the trip with me to North Carolina. Here, she could live on the porch, for here is where she’s supposed to be, in a place thick with summer torpor, where I exist in air-conditioned capsules that transport me through the city. Far is Maine’s ocean air, the comfort conferred by knowing that Maine is the place to be when shit hits the fan. In Maine, we could retreat an hour inland when Casco Bay one day consumes Munjoy Hill. We can settle in farms and seek shade in potato houses.
But here, Beatrice remains inside my bedroom, to bring the outside in, to spruce up beige carpets and walls.
In Wilmington, I read everything I can find on GenX. For years, Chemours dumped the chemical into the Cape Fear River, and it seeped into our groundwater. I read about water tests, decreasing parts of GenX per trillion. I watch archived local news clips, reporters interviewing cancer moms. I debate whether I should drink coffee at cafes. I ask the cashier at CVS, my landlord, new colleagues if they drink our water (Can I taste it in the glass? Do I feel the difference on my skin in the shower?)
Gallons of water burst from my fridge, and I’m comforted by how plastic needs to be thrown away anyway (because my building doesn’t recycle, because we can’t ship our recycling to China anymore).
Yet my plants drink the water. Some of Beatrice’s palms fry brown after the move. But with plant food and sunlight and my tap water, new buds, conceived of in Maine, which had been just thinking for months, now erupt. They open and yet more new ones replace them.
My plants are my guinea pigs. I’ll watch them change. I’ll see what they produce, what comes of them. I look for crawler goo in the soil when plant food and water mold the surface.
If Area X births horrors from re-sequencing DNA, Florida is where climate horror exists in a reality only slightly unlike our own. In her collection Florida, Lauren Groff dwells in abjection. Barriers blur. We cannot distinguish where one human or animal or inanimate object begins and the other ends. Window screens pulse “with the tender bellies of lizards.” When a neighbor loses weight it’s as if he transforms “into a birch tree or a stream.” In this world, we exist on the brink of becoming something else. The becoming is a danger. It stalks us down suburban cul-de-sacs at dusk.
Maybe the drama is staged here because Florida is a land of magic, the uncanny. It births its own horrors. Its tragedies and transformations appear on national news. Or maybe Florida is where the gravity of the climate changing and world running out is immediate, embodied. In a liminal place like Florida, climate stress is felt more acutely. A snake is pulled one millimeter at a time into an AC fan, shedding skin as it disintegrates, in a Halloween rainstorm a woman imagines a sinkhole drawing her deep in limestone. As Groff’s characters move through the world with environmental dread, they become empaths to the suffering of creatures we’ve disenfranchised, whose swamps and forests we’ve developed into retirement communities and student housing. Her characters begin to see us more and more like them. We are snakes and wolves and bushes and streams.
In summer, I crash my friend’s family vacation to Monhegan Island, an island in the Atlantic, an artist colony with fewer than one hundred residents and only one grocery store. We hike Blackhead and pass fairy houses, each boasting something the others do not have–seashells, shiny rocks, plastic ephemera. Passing each tree, my friend explains how bulges in trees–the burls–are cancer. As a child, I went on a ghost tour of Savannah. In the park, I misheard the tour guide and imagined all the bulbous trees had consumed, imprisoned, the ghosts discarded from bodies left out in plague. Tree rings coiled their bodies into an unendingly tight fetal position. At night, my family shared a hotel room, and my dad said the straps binding my cot were intended for exorcisms.
On Mohegan Island, this gem of Maine, this community removed from the rest of the state, I track how many burls burst from trees. I wonder how they contracted it. I impose layperson understanding on all I see.
In North Carolina, I can forget I live in the South for days at a time. I can forget until I count gun shops and Confederate flags or step outside into sweat from my body pouring down without me realizing anything. I research road trips. I wonder how long it will take to get in the car and bear south. To Charleston, Savannah, St. Augustine. When I go, the palm, the jade plant, the cactus will fend for themselves. They will have to test the limits of this climate control, this condominium, this community alone.
I cannot read the signs my plants write for me. I do not know when to expect protrusions or lizards or slime emerging from Beatrice’s leaves or her trunk. Will she grow vines to squash the cockroaches? Will she grow two legs? And when she does, where does she go?
Alex Guarino, “Two years later, where do we stand on GenX?” in WECT.com, June 7, 2019.
Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation, 2014.
Kenny Malone and Sarah Gonzalez, “So, Should We Recycle?” Episode 926 of Planet Money, July 12, 2019.
Lauren Groff, Florida, 2018.
“Report: Extremely high levels of GenX-like chemicals in Wilmington drinking water for years” in WRAL.com,
October 9, 2019.