Bog Flowers, Nut Armor, and the Paradox of Precocity

Cattail in swamp foregroundSeeds germinated. Burial makes life possible two-thousand years later: bogged-resurrection, the wait that moves life forward. Ending and beginning are impossible as opposites before they have fused together in one moment. Something is dissolving in me: let me set the scene…

My dearest is a botany teacher; I will call her Apricot from now on. She suggested we go to the Kennilworth Aquatic Gardens, here in Washington, DC. Look East of the Anacostia on a map to find them, nowhere near the National Mall nor the affluence of the Northwest quadrant. Tucked near marshes that bear a vague sheen of pollution is a series of submerged beds brimming with exotic plants. We have a quirky, sweet love — nerdy, too. She peers knowingly into the pores and gills of capsized mushrooms. We share a compulsive curiosity for the aboriginal world and the interwoven ribbon of human culture. She relishes books but her PhD is in Plant Pathology. I hungrily read pop-science articles but my BA is in English, my MA in International Education. Accidentally, we studied to be partners: the consummate biologist and the nascent intellectual — the writer to be.

Sacred Lotuses, dozens of themApricot and I prowled from the garden gate to the marsh boardwalks behind, among hundreds of ‘sacred lotuses’. They might have seemed common to me by morning’s end if not for their enormous, pale-green leaves and quinceañera-pink blossoms. Yet as we prepared to leave we noticed an ancient jewel in a murky bathtub. An unburied treasure resides in the concrete basin behind the green-house: lotuses cultivated from seeds that were 2000 years old. The revelation surprised me less than it impressed me but, that morning, I had not fathomed the depths of its significance.

An opening blossom next to a seasoned seed podShe read an autobiography by respected female scientist Hope Jahren, a fellow plant-lover. It is called “Lab Girl” and Apricot regaled me of a part from the middle, one long weekend. I considered the book ‘spoiled’ but more than a month later she insisted I should read it. I am simultaneously nibbling the posthumously published “Letters from the Earth (Mark Twain writing in the voice of Satan), taking regular doses of “Plain Living: A Quaker Path to Simplicity”, and big gulps from a book of Thomas Merton excerpts (”Echoing Silence”). Each is thought-provoking but, one long weekend, I started Jahren’s book in hungry need of a story to follow.

Lotus seed-podsWhen I told Apricot excitedly about the third chapter — the one about seeds — it was elementary to her. She is a plant scientist: she enjoyed connecting to the author in the discipline they both love. She knew seeds were alive all along… all along. I cried, of course, because I connected to the stories of seeds! The idea that an embryo was already alive, already waiting, waiting for just one chance to grow, still alive when the muck rises (the decades too), ready to split safety asunder and begin when the conditions are right — it all seemed an epiphany to me. The lotus pods sank into Chinese peat bogs and neither died nor flourished for millennia: they waited. It should not have been surprising yet I was deeply impressed. I thought about armor-clad black walnuts — and the jacket of bitter green material around their nuts, too. Miraculously, the walnut embryo can stay alive and suspend its arboreal ambitions until that thick, pungent ball of impossibility finally wears away. Apricot nodded and smiled over her tea, adding, “it can travel a long way, too.”

A large, glistening dew-drop on a leaf“This tiny seed had stubbornly kept up the hope of its own future while entire human civilizations rose and fell. …I wonder where it is right now,” Jahren muses. I saw its contemporaries well into their growth, their glorious residency in the concrete basin at the Kennilworth Gardens. “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.”

Giant amazonian lily-padsI told Apricot, “whatever it is I’ve been desiring, I’m going to have to let it go,” in so many words, to favor germinating as myself — primarily a writer. My seed-coat could be made of precocity. As a child I was possessed with not only curiosity and originality but a pernicious precocity. I really thought my place at the front of the parade was assured and I would adapt and excel quickly at each juncture of my vocation. Instead of accepting short-falls as lessons from experiment and exercise, I felt them as holes missing from my self. Precocity’s opioid is the delusion of an instant opus, a redeeming work with no basis in trial. In lieu of excellence I dreamed of significance, a budding desire to play my role in global society. I attempted to cultivate bulbs of justice or else gild my own suffering, trying to hammer the shape of my own significance onto the surface of the pervading Internet. As I scrolled I became both partner and thrall to the addictive tapestries of “new media” and cocooned myself there, with the masses. I could not forge myself faster into something greater (precocious) but I ache to create meaning, still. Still, I am alive inside. The shells of my dissatisfied adolescence are not predictive of my deeper essence; the inner-child and the nascent elder are continuous (weirdly eternal!) and tend to muse rather than accomplish, to complicate as much as resolve — qualities that create existential drag but also eddies of provocative writing. I can accept the long processes of growth and discovery, if my protective coat of precocity dissolves in the promise of generative praxis.

'Impressionist' photo of a lily-pondMillions perish in a season, yet thousands of embryos retain viability, waiting for the right conditions to make one (only one) attempt to grow or perish. The paradox of the seed-coat holds me in suspense. Seeds get kicked to sunnier places, survive being eaten, float from coast to island — or wait on their parent tree until a raging fire melts the seal on their cone. The lotus’ coat entombed them in the bog — intact. Yet a seed might lose viability before its chance: split open on pavement, shat into a sewer, sunken in sediment to be fossilized, or imprisoned in cones on Mackinac Island where brush-fires are quenched by human authorities. So goes, also, my viability as an artist. Just over a year ago, a gardener about sixteen years older than me invited me to the U.S. Botanic Gardens to check-out an enormous corpse flower. To love and be loved mutually is a liberating condition. All of my gushing is distilled to one sentence: my ‘sweet apricot’ is the fire that opens my cone and, after this love, the cone cannot be resealed. Rather than patching the holes in myself, I sense they are necessary for my destiny to unfurl. My pungent, overwrought shell is cracking and the loam enveloping me is warm and wet. This soil is acceptable and my shoots and roots declare that emergence is NOW.

“Yes, we have to learn to write disciplined prose. We have to write poems that are “Poems”. But that is a relatively unprofitable and secondary concern compared with the duty of first writing nonsense. We have to learn the knack of free-association, to let loose what is hidden in our depths, to expand rather than to condense prematurely. Rather than making an intellectual point and then devising a form to express it, we need rather to release the face that is sweating under the mask and let it sweat out in the open for a change, even though nobody else gives it a prize for special beauty or significance.”

-Thomas Merton, “Why Alienation is for Everyone”, 1968
(emphasis mine)

'Apricot' stands on the boardwalk

Love wears a purple rain-jacket and walks with me on misty mornings.

Like all towering trees, I will begin in near insignificance and make sugars in the shadows. The canopy is far away. As Hope Jahren indicates later in her book, some lucky little trees have the benefit of being in symbiosis (with fungi). Someone established is nestled close to me, sharing in the journey upward.

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