The Garden of Rooted Memories
I come from the plant people. I know this because I am possessed by plants. My people were also possessed by plants. I know this because when I was a child, I spent time in my people’s lush tropical gardens. Memories of my people are tied to the plants they cultivated, cared for, lived with, and loved. The geography of my heart is mapped by plants. Spirit guides. Numinous.
Seeding. Rooting. Uprooting. Transplanting. Grounding. Growing. Living.
“We are plant people,” I heard my people say more than once.
Gardening Zone 13a: Plant relatives in my people’s gardens.
Papi: Quenepa, Guayaba, Maní, Toronja, China, Limón, Carambola, Coco, Guineo, Plátano, Lechuga, Pimiento, Berenjena, Calabaza, Papaya, Sapote
Papi Pedro: Anón, Achiote, Toronja, China, Limón, Gandul, Recao, Guinganbó, Caña, Acerola, Papaya, Granada, Guineo, Plátano, Recao, Habichuelas blancas, Pimiento, Berenjena, Menta, Orégano brujo
Mami: Sávila, Orégano brujo, Ají, Recao, Guinganbó, Gandul, Parcha, Mangó, Guanábana, Guineo, Pimiento, Tomate, Papaya, Caña, Pana
Julia: Jobos, Mangó, Limón, Caña, Orégano brujo, Recao, Ají, Sávila, Guinganbó, Menta, Anís, Oreganito, Pimiento, Parcha
Tio Frank y Alma: Guinganbó, Papaya, Mangó, Guanábana, Ají, Guineo, Platanos, Gandul, Aguacate, Pana, Parcha, Coco, Poleo, Recao, Habichuelas blancas, Berenjena, Pimiento, Toronja, Calabaza, Lechuga, Tomate, Batata, Yuca, Yautía, Chayote, Caña, Guanábana
María: Gengibre, Sávila, Aguacate, Mangó, Ají, Recao, Orégano brujo, Pana, Batata, Chayote, Calabaza, Tomate, Pimiento, Lechuga, Limón, Ñame, Yuca, Yautía, Café, Guineo, Plátanos, Oreganito, Pacholí, Cacao
My people thrived in hot, sunny, sandy coastal soil, where the rain is thick and generous, like mother’s milk, and the wind from the Caribbean Sea continuously exhales fishy, salty air. This is a teeming verdant land, where heat and sun loving plants paint the landscape in green-yellow-blue hues. Stand in any place in town and you will likely see wild caña, mangó, plátanos, limón, toronja, pana, and if you are lucky, algodón, guinganbó, and jobos, swaying in the salty sea breeze or peeking out from some seemingly forgotten field.
Like some of the plants in that fertile soil, some of my people were probably Indigenous to the Caribbean Island they knew as Borikén. But my lineage is mainly composed of transplants from faraway lands in Africa and Europe who labored and “settled” that already populated coast. That seaside was home to grandfather and grandmother plants. Some of that arid but fecund soil’s most beloved flora came from India and the Pacific Islands. Uprooting, transplantation, enduring, persevering, and rooting again are also part of my lineage.
All these roots now well developed and latched onto the soil signals a successful, centuries-old transplantation, roots firmly mixed with/in the soil to form a grid of mutual support that sustains life both below and above the surface.
As a I child, I learned to identify the tropical flora around me. My mother and my relatives taught me to see the plants and the ecosystem. Knowing the plants and the ecosystem is still a way to relate to my people now, this ability to identify plants, animals, wind, water, and soil in that Caribbean territory still marks me as one of them.
Gardening Zone 6b.: Twenty-First Century. Uprooting. Transplantation. Rooting. Seasons. A “northern” geography. Range of colors, many are muted, but some are vivid, magical, and out of place in their tropicality. Water comes in many forms. I like the energetic sea winds that border this place and the tranquil coastal fog that rolls in slowly extending its thoughtful mist, like a blanket over this land. Rejoice. Pouring rain. Snow. Hectic winds. Old grandmother and grandfather plants struggle for survival.
Green Capitalism and its industrial plant replication and its innovative northern hybrids. Then again, isn’t it all hybridity? Or is this a question that only hybrid people ask? Ornamental. Performers, showy varieties. But then again, aren’t they all performers, showy varieties? Flowering, flowers, pollinators, pollination. Life. Goes on. Early, middle, and late bloomers insure an entire season of blooms. Leisure folks and their showy gardens. Upper-class, educated folks with their rewilding. Restore. Rewild. Sustain, sustainable practices. The time is now to repair the destruction wrought by this settler-colonial catastrophe called progress, innovation, development, fast-paced production. Easily adaptative, adaptable. Flexible. Post-human. Is the post-human still human? Replace settler colonial plants with native plants. Allow grandmother and grandfather plants to re-wild, to restore the cosmic order of the universe, to repair the space-time continuum that was breached by the fast-paced, groundbreaking colonial settler catastrophe. The settler catastrophe was always more-than-human. Ecosystem. Interconnection. Restorative Relations Now!
I am a bloom chaser. I can’t get enough of the mystery and artfulness of flowering, of flowers. My neighbor is a pruner. She spends her free time, all of it, building a manicured mini-forest of small shrubs and trees in this semi-urban enclave. The birds love her small trees with their clear but hidden proximity to the ground. Worms are beautiful. From digging, amending, and serving the soil, I have learned that the soil is itself energetic, full of constellations, its own universe. The birds come to the birdbath in my garden to bathe, drink, and rest under the dogwood tree. The weather here is predictable in its fickleness. Some days, some entire weeks, it is windy with oceanic winds sweeping and howling through this land like small fitful hurricanes. The wind is a visiting companion.
My garden is mostly ornamental. It provides food for pollinators. It is a significant place of refuge for me. Because I am flighty by nature. I plant to root, to ground myself. I once planted a small patch of about half a dozen gandul plants during a short stay in Gardening Zone 12a. My nine-year-old neighbor named A and I worked together on the planting and when we were done, we named it “Jardín del Sol.” We even drew a sun on a piece of wood that we placed on a stick to let visitors know that this was our little plot. Eventually, we harvested enough gandules from those plants to make a delicious pot of arroz con gandules.
Here in 6b, I have planted crocus, anemones, tulips, alliums, peonies, cosmos, hydrangeas, clematis, roses, lavender, rosemary, stonecrop, valerian, tomato, sunflowers, monarda, basil, oregano, ninebark, yarrow, dahlias, Daisies, hostas, honeysuckle, ferns, astilbes, lilacs, rhododendron, azaleas, kerria japonica, milkweed, hyssop, sage, peppers, okra, eggplant, blazing star, phlox, coneflower, sweet Joe-Pye weed, butterfly bush, butterfly weed, cleomes, verbena, rose of Sharon, hibiscus, morning glory, zinnias, ironweed, blackeye Susan, flowering sweet peas, snapdragon, irises, lilies, elderberry, smoke bush, blueberries, arugula, kale, collard greens, bleeding heart, Spanish broom, Montauk daisy, chrysanthemum, and more whose name I can’t remember now.
When people ask me, “What do you plant?” I usually reply: “I plant all of the flowers.”
I’ve been called a “plant collector.” But I see myself as a plant companion, a caregiver. I have been attempting to accomplish the three seasons—spring, summer, and fall—flowering garden. In nearly two decades of gardening in this moody, northern ecosystem, I am a novice tender, the garden’s lessons are lifelong. Observe. Listen. Tend. Care. Amend. Cure. Love. Let be. Mourn. Accept. Admire. Celebrate. Respect.
There are many types of gardeners in this neighborhood. We know who the other “real” gardeners are. Our houses are colonized by plants. Visible, luxuriant, loud greenery. Plant Passion. Bewitched. Consumed by plant thoughts.
B is an “outsider” gardener in my neighborhood. It is easy to become an “outsider” gardener, but you must be willing to cross the threshold. B is a maximalist, setting up fantastic displays in her tiny yard. There are fairies, large rocks, porcelain ducks, figurines, and lights hidden among her plants. Her tree peonies are spectacular specimens and so are her poppies. Her garden is a wonderland of plant varieties, during bloom time it bursts into fantastically bright colors. It looks like fireworks. B is my favorite gardener here. The first, she says, to have started gardening in this neighborhood. I believe her. I swear that B can grow plants just by wishing and dreaming them in her mind. Her ease with, and knowledge of plants, reminds me of María, who dared to grow exotics like cacao and pachulí in her shady and calm, but busy tropical garden all those years ago. And like María, my father was also a consummate gardener who grew “exotic” plants from seeds he collected while traveling with the merchant marines. He planted sapote seeds he brought to Puerto Rico from Mexico. Even though Papi died over thirty-years ago, his sapote plant still lives in his now overgrown and nearly forgotten garden.
I am naturally drawn to people like B. The other day, she invited me for tea and biscuits. It was a fanciful, English-style tea-time. I loved it. We sat together in her jungle of a backyard, her plant creatures keeping us company, the botanical teacups were very properly printed with cosmos and peonies; and the black tea was delicious. After tea, we toured B’s garden and together we pulled plants, mostly groundcovers for my garden. She has introduced me to the practice of appreciating the overshadowed but beautiful varieties of hostas. I bet her garden will have a lasting imprint on mine. We share a tiny ecosystem, the same soil. B gardens for therapy, for soothing, for release, to have a reason to wake up in the morning, to display her inner world of fairies who live nestled among her plant companions.
Then there is my dear friend W, another “outsider” gardener whom I met when I was building my first garden over a decade ago. W is an artist. Her life is art. And when something ails me, she answers me with art. Her garden is all about sustainability and whimsical imagination. She relies on her plants to re-seed, renew, and multiply themselves. The wind, the birds, and the compost also do their part in seeding her plot anew. Because of this, her garden changes from year to year. It is sixty percent self-seeded and forty percent intervened by its tender. Some years, W will plant a patch of zinnias or sunflowers from seed producing a spectacular display and a feast for pollinators. She improvises trellises from vines and discarded wood for her peas. She forages for building supplies in the forest, from discarded treasures found on the curb, from friends’ hand-me-downs, from the seaside.
W’s garden’s soil is alive. She generously feeds it compost; and her plants thrive. Last year, she produced eleven butternut squashes in her very small yard. Wondrous. Some passerby stole a few of them from her yard, but with the remainder she made soup and pie. Plenty to go around. From her, I inherited my admiration for irises. Each year, I plant the irises she pulls up from her yard. W gifted me three rose of Sharon bushes that she sourced from a friend’s house for my new garden. They are doing well. She showed me how to plant and harvest rhubarb. The Queen Anne’s lace grows freely in her small yard. She is a gardener of wild plants and doesn’t try to tame them. W’s garden is messy, imperfect, in-process for all to see.
As a secret gardener, I admire the openness of W’s garden. For her, gardening as process is its own reward. I create secret gardens. Small emotional corners, blooming. W’s garden teems with life. There is an unruly, feral quality to her garden that she also embodies. She has created a colony of microbes, insects, birds, and small critters who dwell and transit through her tiny urban yard. W comes from a long line of tinkerers, wanderers, inventors, artisans, gardeners, and people who cohabitated comfortably with all manner of wild creatures. Her garden practice is informed by an Other, earlier time, as if in honor of her long-gone ancestors. Her plot is like an outer space colony built from/for this world.
I learned to garden with/in the northern ecosystem in Zone 5a. Moisture. Short growing season. Burst of deep greens. Generous soil. My teacher was an untamed woman named M. From her, I inherited the peony, the elderberry, my love of mushrooms, and northern herbs. Teachers. These are precious gifts. Medicine. She taught me to cure the soil, to feed it, to water it; to look at the sun’s positions throughout the day, pay attention to the changing light and heat; look at the shade and where the trees cast shadows; and at night to witness the gravitational pull of the moon in the summer garden; to water in the heat of summer when the plants need a drink; to feel the air, the breeze, the wind, and its rhythms. And most of all, to observe and listen to the plants. To look at them closely, in reverence. To understand that gardening means a life in service, communing, of living in relation attuned to the ecosystemic. Time. Energy. Patience. Change. Life. Cycle.
Antidote to this post-human catastrophe: Seed, re-seed. Water. Root, rooting, rootedness. Grow, growing. Unfold, unfolding. In/to/the Soil.
Dying biosphere. Dead Soil, dead Water, dead Air, dead Animals, dead Plants. Dead Relations. Dead Ocean. Dead Sky. Unbearable cold, unbearable heat, heat waves, drought, stunted harvests, floods, fires, hurricanes, earthquakes, desertification, famine, tornadoes, tsunamis, wars, terroristic massacres caused by who is who when how why, feminicide, extermination, ethnocide, take, get, trade, own, sell, consume, invest, economic growth, kill everything that cannot be controlled, contained, detained. Plagues, lockdowns.
Global disparity. Global North. Global South.
Climate apartheid. Climate inequality.
Unequal impacts. Unequal burdens. Unequal suffering.
Eco-anxiety, Eco-grief. Loss, lost. Guilt.
Green capitalism, eco-capitalism, green gentrification, green washing. Adaptation. Solutions. Conservation. Resilience. Extraction, extractive, extractivism. Eco-apartheid. Exclusion, exclude “them.” Money, ambition, power, takeover, wealth, wealthy, controlled access. Gates, guards, walls, fences, security. Produce, production. Technology. Techno-fix. Shiny. Productive. Performers. Showy. Manicured. Forecast(er). Finance, Financing, Financialization. Police State. Order. Assent. Integrate. Discipline. Social rules, conventions. Observed. Surveilled. Monitored, monitoring. Fitness. Good fit. Fit in. Measured, metrics, quantified. Streamlined. Efficient. Process-free. Fast, instant. Burnout.
Tourism, tourists, tourist sites. Explore, exploration. Adventure, adventurer. Live. Once. A marvel. A Paradise. Exceptional. Experience, experiences. One of a kind. Leisure. Happiness. Comfort. Wellness. Balance. Mindful, mindfulness apps. Health, whole, wholesome.
Electrify. Light. Power, power lines, hardened grid, networked. Influence(r). Connect, connections. Enter your password. Stay connected, relevant. Be heard. Narcissistic. Self-indulgent. Self-centered. Icon, iconic. Selfie. Image. Visual. See. Show. Exclusive. Exclusivity. Private, privatization. Jet-setting. Locate locations. Set, scenes, scenic. Be seen. Shop, consume. Prospector, prospecting. Mine, mining. Extract, extraction, deplete, discard, move on. Develop, development, developer. Luxury. Luxury real estate, Luxury homes, Luxury views, Luxury living, Luxury food, luxury Everything. Luxury People Only. Second homes, third homes.
Pollution, contamination, sacrifice zone, not in my backyard. Garbage. Waste. Disposable. Displace, displacement. Occupy, occupation. Land clearing. Cut down, burn down, tear down. Machines. Guns. Bulldozers. Build, expand. Corner, cornered. Disappear, disappeared. Encampments, tents. Routes, roads. Masses, massive. Houseless, stateless, rootless. Seeking refuge. Migrant. Alien. Colonial Subject. Reserve, Reservation. Seized. Interned. Captured, captive. Containment.
Note: These nonfictions are part of Big Other’s Puerto Rican Writers Folio: A Hauntology