Tuesday, November 8, 2011
Replica (And Not)
Here I am on Plant Talk, the New York Botanical Garden blog. Some thoughts on the Swiss Mountain Pine--and otherness. Below that, "Flair," the piece I was asked to write last spring. You can look for it on a placard by the tree in question. It will be up in the Garden for the foreseeable.
Replica (And Not)
The sandy soil, the boggy ponds: whenever I feel an inexplicable sense of geographic safety (say, in parts of Cape Cod, coastal North Carolina, or Florida), I understand soon enough that I’m looking at a replica of my childhood backyard–or at least the woods and marshes nearby.
And yet I once wanted to be elsewhere. Or at least I wanted my plants and trees to be elsewhere. I wanted them to grow in unexpected shapes, leaves large as shovels. I wanted them to be a little scary, a little closer to life as I knew it, which felt to me both beautiful and a little brutal. (Don’t children always know that consciousness is darker than their parents remember?) On childhood trips to Florida or California, my eye went first to the plants. The plants in warmer climates weren’t bound to restraint or to the pressures of some unnameable force, the codes always changing, impossible to decipher. Their oranges could be brighter; their trunks could be thicker, their vines could grow and twist until they made a mess of themselves, until you had no idea that the plant had once been a beautiful thing.
The Swiss mountain pine, the plant that stirred my attention, struck me as one of those exotics when I first saw it last spring. Only later did I realize that the plant was something else. I’d pictured it growing on the hot slopes of Greece, the foothills of the Catalinas north of Tucson. In actuality, the Swiss mountain pine is a giant version of the sweet, benign mugo pines that my parents had planted decades ago, around the paper birches and cedar diadaras in their Southern New Jersey yard. As much as I liked our mugo pines, ours were no wider than basketballs. Here something familiar had gone large, stark, and mysterious, and maybe that was why my spine straightened when I first saw its crooked branches. Two contradictions fused: my childhood home, and my incessant longing for other.
Flair (On the Swiss Mountain Pine)
Usually the trees of our region do not make statements of themselves. Usually they’re a sprawl of thick green, never one, never singular. Austerity is a part of this tree's flair. It stops you in your walking. You want to touch its cones and needles, though you wouldn't dare. This tree makes you wish there were more trees like this around, trees that take you somewhere, trees that shake you out of yourself, trees that conjure up animals. You never wanted comfort or obliteration, though you’ve been led to think you should want those things. You want to smell the resin. You want to be pulled into the work of comparison, so you are not just looking at the tree, but looking at yourself too, whether you know it or not. The nouns start flying: a chandelier, a menorah, a torch, some antlers, a sea fan.