In the beginning was the word and the word was… no. Wait.
Before a word there is indrawn breath, inspiration, the original pregnant pause. Godhead, aleph, ein sof, unsounded sound. The undifferentiated everything/nothing potentiality field that exists before anything exists: infinite potential. What you have before you commit to something. Which is everything. And also nothing.
Then, on the exhalation, there are words, seeds that germinate and spread and elaborate themselves into a matrix of ideas.
Or something like that.
In the beginning there was inspiration. Spirit. Breath. Animating principle.
Then words were said. Fiat Lux. Let there be photosynthesis.
Shortly after that, there were gardens. Not long thereafter, expulsion from gardens. It’s a thing, see? Ancient, profound; a potent system of metaphors and archetypes known to every gardener and every pair of lovers. You say the words and something grows between you. Tend it and it repays you a thousandfold; or neglect it and it goes fallow, dries out or rots, withers, languishes, gets overtaken by something more naturally vigorous. Inspiration, growth. Putting down roots. Sowing, tending, pruning, reaping, pleasure, the Fruit of Your Labors, the satisfied sigh of something coming out right.
Then, Digging Up Stuff Better Left Buried. Getting a taste for something you’ve been told isn’t good for you and going too far. Knowing too much, unforeseen ramifications. Pain, toil, sweat. Labor. Weeds, thistles, thorns. Eviction and big burly Unnecessary Force-grade cherubim with flaming swords at the gates. Senescence, degradation, flood and fire and hard freeze and drought, decay, losing the farm, Buying The Farm: one way or another, Can’t Go Home Again.
The house had what realtors call “charm,” and one of those low-slung mid-fifties rancher roofs that forced my 6’4″ husband to duck to get through the door. The plumbing had rotted through. The electrical system was fire-hazardously outmoded and the swimming pool was such a deferred maintenance disaster it would have to be drained and rebuilt. The soil was solid clay — except for that one corner where under certain conditions a fountain of raw sewage would suddenly erupt from a pipe whose origin even the Central Sanitation District couldn’t determine. Rodents of Unusual Size roamed the crawl space (we dubbed them “Night-Squirrels;” it just had more cachet). The sandbox by the palm tree — so cute, I’d thought, for our little daughter to play in — sat, as we were to find out (thankfully before anything awful happened), on a rotted piece of particle-board over a 12′ sinkhole.
People’s landscapes are so rife with symbolism it’s almost embarrassing. If you do not see conceits and tropes and allegories for your marriage in the space you inhabit together — well, brethren, you’re simply not looking very hard.
How could we not have known what we were getting into? Simple. No one ever knows what they’re getting into. In the case of the house, the people who sold it to us lied about some things and neglected to mention others, there were 12 bids, and we agreed to waive our right to inspection and stipulate to theirs. My husband thought I was insane for agreeing. I thought he was insane for not wanting to — it’s illegal to lie about this stuff! It’s fraud! Why would they take the risk of being sued? It’s a distinction that would become very important later: one of us tended to trust things. One of us tended to look for the hinky sideways screwover thing that would go down without vigilance and outfoxing and end-runs. I’m not saying one way is better, nobler, or wiser — I’m just saying it is a very important difference.
In the case of the relationship, it was something of the same. Marketing spin, glossing over defects and focusing on “charm,” assuming it would all come out in the wash, non-disclosure about things that would turn out to be important. And expensive. We loved each other and that was supposed to be enough.
We moved in during a triple-digit heatwave. Heedless, full of bravado and what my Midwestern grandparents called “gumption,” I was outside planting fruit trees before the boxes were even unpacked. I started with two Japanese-hybrid plums, a pomegranate, and an apple. The husband was, let’s just say, not all that interested in yardwork, but I was determined to get it done with the fewest possible Little Red Hen outbursts about how he’d doubtless be perfectly happy to eat the fruit. I wanted the trees planted; I would plant them. I chiseled at the miserable clay. I blistered my hands with the shovel and my shoulders with inattentiveness to sunscreen. I was determined. I would be fruitful and multiply. I would turn this mess of low ceilings and unbearable DIY bathroom fixtures, dead beige soil and bewilderingly ugly hardscape, into a Paradise, an Eden. The place was modest, other than its pricetag; it wasn’t ever going to be a real farm, or particularly magnificent. But I would have a cultivated life and I would cultivate food. Especially the kinds of food you can never find in stores, or the things that, when you do find them in stores, cost an arm and a leg and have a shelf life of thirty-six minutes, or nearly always taste suspiciously un-foodlike. Figs and peaches, fraises des bois, meyer lemons and pomegranates, guavas, tomatoes, Persian mulberries, heirloom melons.
Oh, and apples. Real ones.
That first apple I planted was a Gravenstein, my Danish grandmother’s favorite and one you’ll almost never find in a market because they’re too eccentric to be commercially viable. Purportedly a seedling apple discovered by chance in Denmark in the 1660s, the Gravenstein’s a fussbudget, and grows reliably in very few spots: Scandinavia, um yes, northwestern Russia, parts of Germany, Nova Scotia, and the outer fringes of the San Francisco Bay Area, where it probably arrived in the 19th century with Russian fur traders. As it turns out, farm acreage in the Russian River Valley happens to be a lot more lucrative if it’s planted with, say, pinot noir grapes, and large-scale growers disdain the Gravenstein because it doesn’t play by their rules. (From personal familial experience: Danes are contrarians by nature. It’s not a coincidence that they invented the labor strike.) Gravensteins are triploids and require another apple varietal to pollenize them, but if you think they’re going to return the favor, think again. They are early-season apples, ripening in late July to mid-August in the northern hemisphere — in other words, ahead of nectarines, melons and a good many peaches and plums, inserting a faintly disconcerting note of Fall into the high season for soft, aromatic summer fruits. They’re short-stemmed, irregularly shaped, and the tree has the irritating habit of not ripening all its fruit at once, all of which contrive to make harvesting them a lot of work. They have the added indecency of bearing up in storage about as well as a peach, so forget being able to sell them year-round out of cold-boxes the way you can with a Red Delicious. Gravensteins have a pale, faintly waxy green-yellow skin that’s often heavily stippled with crimson. The flesh can be snowy, crisp and dense, or darker and softer. It has a full-bodied, tart, spicy flavor cooking does nothing to mute. No other apple is like it, and fabled Sonoma County horticulture magician Luther Burbank once quipped that if the Gravenstein could be made to fruit all year there would be no need for any other apple, but that was a trick beyond even his prodigious abilities.
Disease-deflecting amulets inscribed “Abracadabra” go back at least to third century Rome…
But that’s the thing about home gardens: you have the chance to cultivate things you just can’t have otherwise. In your own personal Eden, you are the magician, and you control the design.
Nonetheless, my apple burned to death; it was too hot outside to plant it and I didn’t water deeply enough. In the end it would take four attempts, five cultivars, and nine years, before I got an apple tree to live long enough to set fruit in this garden.
Few fruits are cultivated as broadly as the apple — probably only the grape has a broader range — and I can’t think of one with a deeper, more complex mythos. Nothing seems more American, yet apples are exotics here, brought from forests in the Kazakh range of the Silk Road through Europe and across the Atlantic. Western art has tended to depict the Forbidden Fruit in the Eden myth as an apple, but I side with those who believe this is a Vulgate hiccup, mala being the plural for both “apple” and “evil.“ Early English-language iterations of the Bible might have reinforced this, since “apple” was generic for tree-borne fruits in the same way that “corn” was generic for grain and didn’t specifically refer to the American Frankenstein-grass Zea mays. Some believe The Forbidden Fruit was a quince, some a pear. Given the probable location of an actual Garden of Eden, I think the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was most likely a “grenade apple” or “seedy apple” — which is to say, the thorny, dense, tangling, ensnaring, tough as nails, leather-skinned, liquid-crystal geode-bearing beast whose ripeness splits its own skin, hinting at something jewel-like yet fleshy, something that might be blood or rubies, something deeply interior and glistening that mesmerizes with its suggestive, faintly dangerous, I-like-it-rough demeanor. The tree that already had, when the Book of Genesis was concocted, a reputation for consigning the hungry and the curious to Hell. That apple was a pomegranate.
Well, I’d planted one of those, too. But still, there is something — isn’t there? — in the apple being the emblem of… of what? Of temptation, of helpless attraction. Of the strange ways in which wholesomeness and forbiddenness combine — of the pull of wildness and the pull of cultivation. Which is really the whole story of gardens and in a lot of ways the whole story of humans. Many archetypes and narratives and symbols and myths come together in an apple. No one brings their fourth grade teacher a pomegranate. Nor does the witch offer Snow White a poisoned banana. The Trojan wars didn’t start because an enchanted grapefruit from Hera’s dragon-guarded orchards was tossed into a wedding party to goad the Olympian goddesses. Do you think there is any way on earth that a grapefruit could be the indirect cause of a massive incursion? Comfort me with soursops, for I am sick with love? I think not. Despite its much higher antioxidant count, a mango a day does not keep doctors away, and Swedenborgian treehugger John Chapman would probably not be famous had he seeded the American frontier with persimmons, even though they are very handsome.
Apples, though. You believe these things of apples without question. Apples are mythic, mystical, complicated, come-hither — bite me. They’re irresistible; ask Isaac Newton. Universal gravitation, eternal gravidity. Someone gives it to you and you have to take it, have to take one bite — have to.
In the Rider-Waite Tarot deck there are 21 numbered cards depicting certain archetypes — they’re known as the Major Arcana. Major Arcana 1 (In the Beginning) is The Magician, who represents power, action, the primordial Creator, the bridge between human and spirit realms. The animating principle, Lord of Genius Loci, He Who Makes It Happen. Heavy clay soil, that. Slow on the uptake, if you see what I mean. But watch me breathe it to life. Watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat. Watch me as I escape the inescapable. Watch me saw this woman in two: you saw that, right? ‘Scuse me while I disappear; there’s this angel I need to have a Word with, you see. Plays cornet. Brazen type but man can he blow. Like Magic. Like, abracadabra, baby.
I don’t know what that word means. I’ve looked it up, but its etymology is conveniently malleable and vague. Disease-deflecting amulets inscribed “Abracadabra” go back at least to third century Rome, where they were recommended by the Emperor Caracalla’s personal physician to protect against fevers — which suggests some veracity to the claim that its original meaning was along the lines of “Let it be destroyed,” though other suggested translations from Aramaic and Hebrew include “I create as I write,” “I create like the Word,” or “it came to pass as it was spoken.” Tasty, no? Don’t we love the hall of mirrors ambiguities of a weird word whose exact origin has been lost? You can do so much with those. Anyway, creation and destruction embedded in each other like that – well, that’s gardens and marriage. And also, apples: a globe of pectin and nectar at whose core lie roughly five seeds bearing a lot of genetic information and a small amount of cyanide, in a sugar-compounded form called amygdalin, which I mention because the Greek “amygdala” (almond, the species in which this form of cyanide was first discovered) also gave its name to the almond-shaped pieces of the human limbic system responsible for concatenating, contextualizing and filing away your memories. Particularly memories of fear, anxiety or trauma.
Okay. So before the Tarot’s Magician there is a zero-card, an aleph card. Before creation, before the beginning, there is the archetypal Free Spirit, the symbol of unlimited potential and chaos, innocence and tribulation: The Fool. It doesn’t sound like an auspicious card; we don’t generally use that word as a complement. Pull the Fool in a Tarot reading, though, and what you’re actually having your attention drawn to is a field of infinite potential energy and unlimited choice. The inner wilderness of the human psyche, before anyone has manicured the hedges, selected an esthetically pleasing plant palette and hired someone to cut the lawn and pick up fallen leaves. The Fool is the only Major Arcana card that survived translation to the familiar decks we use to play poker and blackjack and bridge — those unfamiliar with Tarot know him as the Joker. Many card games remove it completely — where it stays in the deck, the card’s usually — say it — “wild.” See? Meaning it can mean more than one thing, meaning its rules are made up on the fly. The Joker, or Fool, is the court jester, the representative of truth-telling, childish wisdom, and utter fearlessness. He is an expression not of stupidity but of possibility, Mister Jump and the Net Will Appear, High Priest of Fuck Your Cost-Benefit Analysis I Want To See What’s Behind That Mysterious Door. What we each are before we ossify into adult creatures with deeply rooted habits and fears and compulsions that lead us to sabotage ourselves as we are told Adam and Eve did; behaviors that will get you kicked out of your Eden and facedown in thistles.
In the beginning we ignored our instincts and called it maturity. In the beginning we believed we were adults. Capable. Ready. In the beginning we were sure we would never replicate the mistakes of past relationships, whatever dysfunctional dynamics we might have had in the families we came from — this was the beginning of a family that was ours. Ours alone.
Thomas Grey: “Ode on A Distant Prospect of Eton College”:
To each his sufferings: all are men,
Condemned alike to groan;
The tender for another’s pain,
The unfeeling for his own.
Yet ah! why should they know their fate?
Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies.
Thought would destroy their paradise.
No more; where ignorance is bliss,
‘Tis folly to be wise.
That is basically what YHVH explained to Adam and Eve in the Book Of Genesis. But they were fools, and did not listen.
The house was ten minutes away from the one I was raised in, the suburban county I swore up and down I’d never come back to. Look, I had reasons. He was from a very old town in the part of the east coast where there is a long season of sleet and a constant low-level war of attrition against economic stagnation. I think he thought me preposterously spoiled and negative when, in the face of three entire bedrooms and a back garden with an actual swimming pool, I issued dire warnings about pro-Prop 8 banners on neighbors’ lawns, provincial nouveau-riche brats in tennis clothes who would never want to talk about anything but what kind of car you had and where your ski cabin was located. He remembered slipping in snow. I remembered a girl who threw rocks at me on the way home from the bus stop because I’d skipped first grade. He looked at the enormous unkempt canary palm in the backyard and saw himself lounging beneath it sipping a small-batch artisanal beer in eternal, prelapsarian indolence. I saw the Saint Regis for Night Squirrels.
They say people never do see the same things, that perception’s so shockingly personal that we’re proceeding on a massive assumption even when we agree that blue is blue or the sky is the sky or love is love or that a specific word with a specific, discrete dictionary definition means the same thing to any two people. I had a college boyfriend who used to respond to being rhetorically bested by shrieking, “There is no extralinguistic authority!” I told him in language no authorities would need to decrypt that we should see other people. Then I disappeared in a puff of smoke, Abracadabra.
But not this time. This time the minister at the Swedenborg church had asked me, beneath a wilderness of a vaulted ceiling raftered with raw madrone trunks, whether I would do whatever it took to remain in a co-creative, mutually generous and mutually trusting Growth Habit with another person and I had taken a deep breath and said the words “I will.”
As it turns out, will plays little part in the retention of memories, and a good memory can be a nasty enemy, or at least hopeless as an assistant in the kind of beneficent forgetfulness that allows people to grow old together.
The house was not exactly a co-creative mutuality thing. I pushed for it. In spite of his reluctance and in spite of my own, I pushed. Here’s why: wildernesses, and gardens. The summer heat and winter frosts on the east side of the coastal mountains meant the ability to grow things. The place had trails, woodlands — the coastal foothills to the west, green from the marine layer that drenched San Francisco in its iconic freezing summer fog, and covered in aromatic and intriguingly fire-hazardous groves of eucalyptus and scrub oak and greasewood and broom. To the east, Mount Diablo’s alpine meadows, oak-bay chaparral, and lunar landscapes of barren rock rose over the highway; it turned red at sunset, almost seemed to be emitting an incandescence, as if a fire burned inside it. Between Diablo and the coast range, rolling hills, wild oatgrass turning a sort of lion-pelt color in the dry season and a spectacular pale green in winter; valley oak, black oak, bay laurel, buckeye, elder, and miles of remaindered ranch and farm land that still dotted the landscape with groves of walnuts and pears and night-scented black locusts. Backyard swimming pools were typical even in little 1950s ranchers like ours, and thank goodness because the air conditioning never worked and it could top 110 degrees out there. You could live outside in this climate for most of the year: it was Mediterranean; warm, with a short rainy season, a kind of limpid juiciness to the light, which people often likened to the magical light of Italy and Greece. But unlike the City, even assuming you could get a place that came with a couple square feet of dirt, the east bay suburbs also had enough frost hours in the winter to prompt an apple tree to flower.
Adult: from Latin adultus, meaning grown up, mature — ripe. As a euphemism for “pornographic” it dates to the late 1950s.
I wanted it. It was a project and too costly for how much of a project it was, but I wanted it. I wanted a Project. I wanted to build something together.
What did he want?
I confess at this moment I don’t really know. I think he had some generalized, nebulous, white picket fence thing in his head, but I was quickly learning that I had wed someone who could be counted upon not to express himself even about things that seemed important — maybe especially not about important things. He was probably facing the equally uncomfortable realization that he had married the kind of person who thought fast and sometimes acted even faster, and who was often at her happiest and best when taking a machete or a sledgehammer or a woodchipper to Things that Didn’t Work even if she wasn’t exactly sure what was going to happen next. The whole househunting odyssey had been troubling for both of us. I didn’t understand why he seemed determined to drag his feet and avoid decisions while our rapidly-growing toddler was sleeping in a pack-n-play in the dining room. I’m guessing he couldn’t fathom why I was so determined to jump headlong into a decision with far-reaching consequences. To him that felt risky. To me it felt riskier to stand still while the world rushed past.
Well, we all know how this story goes — relationships are not democracies.
I wanted to grow things. I wanted to build for my family what had awed and delighted and fascinated and inspired me when I was a child and that was plants that offered us food. Corn stripped off the stalk and taken directly to the grill. Our own homegrown Halloween jack-o-lanterns. Plums. Walnuts. Pomegranates. Figs. Tomatoes. Apples. I wanted my children to be able to understand things like apples, to understand where they came from and what they were like when the farm-to-table transit time could be measured in seconds. Yeah, we wouldn’t be able to walk to the SF MoMA any more, but damn it, my children were going to know what real apples tasted like.
We had named our elder daughter Eve. But make no mistake; I was the one seduced by a tree.
It has been nine years, and for the first time ever, I am getting actual fruit from one of my apple trees. There are twelve of them, golf-ball sized and hard-green now, but there. It is a Gravenstein, my third try, though I now have three other, very old cultivars espaliered to the same fence in the great packing density experiment I call a backyard, and the Blue Pearmain did attempt to set one little fruit, which it thought better of and decided to drop. But this guy, this skinny little tree, the weirdo that only micro-farmers and Slow Food acolytes will bother with — this is in many ways almost literally my family tree, the favorite of my Danish grandmother, who, when she ate an apple, left nothing behind but the stem. The apple of the Bay Area, my extended family’s home since the 1860s. The apple my husband and I had eaten in extremely immoderate quantities on our first date, wheich was a trip to the Sebastopol Harvest Fair.
Nine years, and finally my ceaseless dogged determination to feed my family from these trees is beginning to — well, yeah, bear fruit.
Just in time for my family not to be a family any more.
In the beginning, it all looked right.
In the beginning I saw constraint as opportunity, I saw challenge as exciting.
I saw spontaneity instead of avoidance, and he saw wit instead of sarcasm. In the beginning I saw stoic, not stonewalling; containment rather than withdrawal, a grownup I’d be safe with and not a giant insecure eleven-year-old. In the beginning he saw tolerance, not bad boundaries; emotional honesty and not instability. Self-awareness, not self-centeredness.
Then, words are said that cannot be unsaid, and abracadabra, the truth unveiled. Fear, anxiety, trauma. Memories that don’t go away even if you want them to, a seed of discord nothing can kill.
What the chomping of the Forbidden Fruit bestowed upon Adam and Eve, the knowledge God cautioned them against, the knowledge of “good” and “evil,” was self-knowledge, self-consciousness. That’s what got them kicked out of their paradise. They realized for the first time that they were naked and were self-conscious about it and sewed fig leaves together to cover themselves. Being naked and vulnerable engendered conflict and upset. They became beings capable of shame and guilt, feelings that put down roots like a tree’s and ramify ad infinitum into pain. Grief. Anger. Blameshifting Enmity. Conflict.
They became adults. Yes, welcome to Knowing Stuff. You might find it a bit… arid, out here, but you get used to it. Mostly.
Adult: from Latin adultus, meaning grown up, mature — ripe. As a euphemism for “pornographic” it dates to the late 1950s. Adultery. Adulteration. Alteration. All come from the same root (see what I did there?) — alter, to change.
Every apple you’ve ever bought in a market is a clone. Like dreams or fairy tales, seedling apples do not “come true.” Apples are wayward, inconstant, wildly heterozygous creatures. They have a staggering number of genes and they are deeply interested in diversity. Apples are pliant and adaptive trees that can be trained into candelabras or vases or arbors or living rail fences, can be grafted to grow six varieties on one trunk. They are flexible. There’s an apple for every situation, every climate and every palate. But what you get in exchange for that flexibility, that sort of openness to experiment, if you will, is a tendency to run a little wild. The apple has many virtues but constancy is not one of them. Section an apple and what you will see at its core is a five-pointed star enclosed in a circle of flesh (in fact it’s a dead ringer for the image of the Pentacle in the Tarot, the suit associated with the element of earth, which relates to life in the material plane; it is manifestation, proof; it is how we shape our environment. It’s also the suit associated with desire. Just saying). Anyway, each spur of this pentacle contains a seed or two. Let’s say the apple is a Gravenstein, like mine, to take one of several thousand known examples. Each seed, in that apple and each apple on that tree and every other tree like it, would, if germinated, produce a different offspring plant. Most of these turn out to be unpalatable, too sour or bitter to be bothered with. Occasionally, you hit the jackpot in the gene-combining lottery and get something spectacularly delicious. Fruit trees like apples are the original GMO foods — grafting and cloning are the only way to ensure that the progeny resemble the parent. Alteration is the apple’s master skill. It is, though most of us are plain terrified of what will happen if we cultivate it, also the master skill of people.
The apple is the tree of the archetypal Fool, audacious, adventurous, adulterous. We have done our utmost to magic it into domesticity — any apple you have ever purchased in an American supermarket, regardless of the apparent diversity on offer, comes from some combination of only six parent varietals. We’ve made our apples as one-dimensionally sweet as possible, and mass-production and cold-storage compliant. But their apparent docility is a smokescreen. All you have to do is start growing them from seed and it gets complicated fast. In 2010, horticultural genomicists decoded the genome of the Golden Delicious — it was found to have 57,000 genes, which, for reference, is almost twice as many as you have. Along with trace amounts of cyanide, the seed of the apple contains infinity. It will always be an apple tree, but within that framework it can turn into anything. There are apples the size of pingpong balls, apples the size of small melons. Red, pink, yellow, brown, green, purplish, striped, freckled, russetted, shiny, waxen, bloomed, broad-shouldered, conical, round, flattened, angular. The texture of an apple can be watery or dense, dry or juicy; its skin can be thin or tough, glossy or dusty-looking, rough to the touch or smooth. The range of exotic sub-flavors in apples is no less complex than what you find in wines: herbaceous, nutty, floral, cidery, citrusy, breadlike, perfumed. They can be intensely sweet or astringent and tart. Some, like my Blue Pearmain, have been in continuous cultivation since at least the 1100s. But that’s due to diligent manipulation, not chance. Left to its own devices it’s the nature of an apple to be wayward. To reap constancy from such a tree, you have to force it, you must insist upon it.
To get it from a human, you have to ask nicely, and hope the human says, “I will,” today and tomorrow and all the days after that. But guess what: flexible as we all are, the human cannot grow in untenable conditions any more than the apple can. You have to cultivate a suitable environment or stuff simply dries up.
Out of an infinitely complicated system of words and silences — choices — you try to achieve some balance of traits that produce a beautiful or exciting or, well, yes, fruitful result. We cultivate ourselves as we see ourselves reflected in the eyes of our partner – at least I thought we did. Reversion to wildness? Deal with it; it’s nature. We all contain a little bit of everything. What you trade predictability and stability for can be bitter — but it can also be mystery, complexity, finding that the more you know the less you know, which is beautiful; and getting the chance to discover something latent in yourself or in your Other that you had no idea was even there. Which is beautiful. Or supposed to be. You’re in it together, whatever “it” turns out to be, and that is, or is supposed to be, the point. You didn’t choose the family you were born into (I know some who would disagree but I still think we are sent). You choose the family you make.
That is the human story, isn’t it? A transit from chance to choice?
Familiarity. Which is a seed, an heirloom type, a heritage variety, open-pollinated if you like, that snakes its vicious little runners and rootlets into everything and blossoms into what we call contempt. Or can. Shouldn’t, but can. Beyond naked disclosure, beyond familiarity, beyond disdain, beyond promises or their breakage, a sort of agitprop truth-distortion campaign, a place where you no longer see the other person at all, where they become a living screen onto which you project everything that has ever hurt, scared or humiliated you. Adoption of myths that have outlived their purpose. Family monster. Human Berlin Wall. Identified Patient. Stick in the mud. Bitch. Slob. Drama queen. All the things that have a tiny germ of truth in them and grow, in the right conditions, into a choking weed, like bindweed, like knotgrass, like kudzu, that kill whatever you tried to grow and intended to reap as your own.
In the beginning, red flags were easy to ignore. Cultivating, growing a relationship is work, everyone knows that. I wasn’t afraid of getting my hands dirty — I relished it. I knew what happened when you did. Profound satisfaction. And things that tasted good. One of us tended to trust things and one of us tended to look for the hidden hitch. I said trust was a choice and he disagreed. Later, he told me trust was a choice and I said it wasn’t one I could make any more, that I saw what he’d meant the first time.
In the beginning we had our whole adult lives in front of us. In the beginning I thought the things that made me anxious were things we’d naturally outgrow.
Here is the thing: it’s wilderness that offers abundance without toil. Gardens are a pretext of order and freely-given pleasure, of respite. It isn’t like that. Horace lauded gardens as places to slow down and “renounce grasping ambition.” Easy for him to say: he had a coterie of slaves maintaining his simulacrum-Eden for him. Building and maintaining a garden is a de facto act of defiance, of insistence that you wield some sort of control over the creeping, choking, inexorable forces we call the “natural” world. The gardener fights chaos, fights vicissitude and incursion, tooth and nail, all the time. In fact, it’s funny that weeds are called out, along with pain in childbirth, as part of the punishment for defying the strictures against eating whatever grew on that tree. Because a weed is simply a plant that is growing where a human doesn’t want it to be growing. By that definition there are no weeds in the wilderness. Invader plants in farm fields compete with crops for nutrients and sunlight, and they can win without a lot of laborious human intervention. In gardens they can do the same or simply convey the impression that the gardener is… negligent. In wilderness we are observers more than authors and the whole concept of a weed is essentially irrelevant. You can say something is a weed because it isn’t “native,” or to use an even more difficult word, “original,” to a landscape, and plenty of people do and even get rather remarkably judgmental about it, but that gets sticky in a hurry. Plants migrate; it is as much their nature as it is the nature of birds or whales or people. Half of the “naturally occurring” wild plants in wilderness areas in my region of northern California came from somewhere else, on the wind, via birds or migratory animals, stuck to the clothing of human travelers — and that’s before you get to the stuff we’ve shunted from continent to continent on purpose. All wildernesses have some degree of human footprint on them, and all cultivated spaces run a little wild. Nothing is truly untouched, or truly controlled, and nothing is meant to be. And isn’t that the point?
If the tree conferred forbidden knowledge, what was the point of putting it there?
Because being cast out of your garden, being made to endure toil and pain, is fundamental to humanity, is one of the overarching superpatterns of human experience? Because we are supposed to learn for ourselves how to find our own paradise in whatever cards we’re dealt? Because there are no supposed-tos, just patterns, and ours involves a beginning in the Eden of the womb, all needs met, totally provided for, all too abruptly followed by all hell breaking loose because you’ve become identifiably human? Because learning to be a fully conscious creature is something we do in the field?
Because it’s inevitable?
Because gardens, and farms, are the hard-labor sentence and the vision of them as some self-sustaining, self-perpetuating homeostatic perfection of voluptuous leisure is the vision of a child, or a fool?
Perhaps, as Richard Mabey puts it in his book Weeds, the troublemaker plants exist simply, “To scupper our best-laid plans.”
And why is it, again, that our best-laid plans must be “scuppered?”
I don’t know. I know that at a certain point in the trajectory of a life, the “why” questions start to fade because they cease to ramify, or to heal anything. Explanations can give you context, even infrastructure.
But they seriously suck at giving closure. Closure is the biggest myth there is.