A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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In the early weeks of quarantine I have started a garden. So far it exists mostly as haphazard sketches on the back pages of an old grad-school notebook, and in the seeds I have started in my too-cold kitchen. I fret over my “babies,” even though the beds they will be planted in haven’t been built yet. I have started sunflowers indoors in willful disregard of the packet instructions to “sow directly.” It turns out that many of us are channeling our anxieties into gardening. Grow lights are sold out everywhere. My solution is to move the seedlings from room to room, tracking the weak March sun. When it’s time to divide them, I can’t bring myself to snip the delicate green stems.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that we are going to have far too many tomatoes for two people. My partner is skeptical, but I am delighted by the problem of this bounty. I have fantasies of watering the garden as the sun comes up, sipping from a mug of tea, smiling at the neighbors who pass with jogging strollers and geriatric dogs. The social contact continues, albeit six feet apart. I will place a basket full of zucchini, sungolds, and mojito mint by the front walk. I imagine placing a squash the size of a newborn to hold down a sign that says: FREE.
I will be a very proud mother.
I am lying on my back in the dusk of the ultrasound room, listening to the inside of my uterus. As a scientist, I know that this is the whoosh of my own blood reflecting off the Doppler. But as a woman who has spent the last few years trying to get pregnant, I find the sound conjures the false waves of a conch shell; no one could possibly mistake this sound for an ocean. I try to bring up a mental image of the world’s first womb — the warm, salty seas from which life first emerged — but the best I can manage is the frigid, scouring darkness of a tundra blizzard. Lifeless. No, that’s wrong, I think. Even in winter the tundra is full of life, arrested. Even as I lie here, twinflowers and tufted saxifrage await the spring, and polar bears are giving birth in their dens. As the technician passes the gel-slick wand back and forth over my belly, I close my eyes and try to conjure something green into the void.
Instead I see the wind-scoured surface of Mars. And I know in that moment that nothing will ever, ever grow here.
It’s one month into our pandemic lockdown. The calendar tells me it’s Easter, and I’ve been looking for new signs of life on our daily neighborhood walks. One new thing a day is my rule. If, as Mary Oliver says, “to pay attention . . . is our endless and proper work,” then I am taking my work very seriously — much more seriously than my actual job, which seems to have blurred into the background like the landscape in a dream. I monitor the lilac bush like a mother checking for signs of fever. It keeps snowing, and I worry about the survival of a neighbor’s crocuses. Picking up after the dog, I gasp at the sight of green grass on my neighbor’s lawn. These small revelations keep me going: tiny heartbeats and churning chloroplasts that are unaware of the human world’s strange limbo. I stand in the middle of the empty street in broad daylight and raise my arms to greet the returning geese.
Every extra minute of daylight is carefully gathered, a twig to be fed into my secret inner hearth.
I lose my uterus, along with my fallopian tubes and my cervix. I keep my ovaries, just in case. I still feel myself ovulate each month, like a small, crampy tulip blooming on the right or the left. In the quiet summer of my recovery, my partner and I decide to look into adoption. It feels far too hot to do anything, though, and I can’t make it through the paperwork without dissolving into jagged, ugly sobs. The questions on the forms are too raw and too near, with my mother dead just a year and our house full of ghosts. Out of nowhere a close friend volunteers to carry our embryo. The Greek chorus of our losses sighs at this news — possibly in relief, or maybe out of consternation at our attempt to thwart destiny. Then, unexpectedly, the pandemic stalls us like seeds in the permafrost. Waiting. Preparing again to let go.
Fooled by the optimism of a warm spring, I have planted my garden too soon. A Memorial Day frost puts a swift end to the peppers, despite the protective milk cartons and flannel bedsheets. Nothing is happening as I planned, and I’m running out of time. I picture pollinators like passengers arriving at an airport gate only to find they have missed their flight. The seasons are constantly letting us down, and how can we blame them? It’s my job as an ecologist to understand nature’s cycles, but, in retrospect, no one should ever have trusted me with this. My own cycles have been off my entire life. From my very first period, which blew in like a nor’easter on my twelfth birthday, I’ve experienced my own version of global weirding.
It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. How could it have happened any other way?
I know that a raised bed is not a womb, and a seedling is not a baby. Here’s my problem: I can’t even think about thinning my lettuce without crying. I decide to leave it to nature to select the strongest shoots. Instead my greens just stall out completely, universally doomed by my indecision. I also can’t bring myself to put the Japanese beetles into a bucket of soapy water like I’m supposed to. I try to imagine them as shiny green robots, but this only makes it worse. I think of the Opportunity rover dying on Mars. (My battery is low, and it’s getting dark.) Since my own mother died, I’ve found it hard to kill anything. I console myself with the fact that the cucumbers and zucchini are thriving — but then a powdery mildew attacks their too-crowded leaves.
These plants may not be my children, but I feel like a terrible mother.
To live long enough in this world means to learn to nestle the twins of grief and hope in your arms. I tuck the bottle of fertility medication next to the black dress I bought for my mother’s funeral. We plant a white pine in the yard, in view of the window of our empty nursery. I read about the northern white rhino, its population down to two females and some frozen sperm. (It turns out their fertility journey is also on hold because of the pandemic.) But then the orca known as J35 gives birth to a healthy calf off the coast of the San Juan Islands, and hope feels possible once again.
Someone once said that being a parent is like having your heart walking around outside your body: you will never stop worrying about it. This kind of vulnerability both terrifies and compels me. I wonder if any of the eggs I have carried with me through all this death and near death will ever move around in the world one day, fiercely loved. I think about how love opens us up to loss.
I actually became a biologist as an act of love. I research climate change and extinction in the fossil record, putting the dead to work to protect the living. I am often asked by journalists to talk about climate grief, and I tell them that what I feel is not grief, but a fierce will to fight for the heart that walks around outside my body. I tell them I will not mourn what still beats. My work is a eulogy for what has been lost forever — the mammoth and the Critchfield spruce — but I will not write off the survivors. My answers rarely make it into the articles. My grief is apparently the wrong kind, even as its strongest swells pull me under. But here is my life preserver: There is death, but there is also resilience. There were mammoths, but there are still musk oxen.
I am not the same person I was before my grief. The pain uprooted me, but in the gap it opened up I am surprised to find new things growing. The most incredible wildflowers I have ever seen were blooming in a forest that had burned the year before. Their audacious display felt defiant against the blackened trunks. We’ve always existed in the liminal space between birth and death. We are here to make something of that space, to hold it fiercely, and to love, even as what we love goes up in smoke.
I am putting my garden to bed — a tender euphemism for the cathartic violence of plants pulled up by the roots. In this too-warm fall the peppers and tomatoes have found their second wind, but they have failed to account for my neglect. A sudden depression, abrupt and heavy as a heat dome, sent me into a torpor. The three raised beds in the yard have become yet another thing I am behind on. The tomatoes, caught naked by the frost, fall to the soil as I pull the vines free from their strings. I wince with guilt at every wet thunk. So many wasted. I turn them back into the soil, storing carbon, assuaging guilt.
I tell my students that a seed is basically an escape pod: an entire organism contained in a protective shell that, with any luck, will land somewhere it can survive. But every plant faces a trade-off between its maternal investment and competition: the more resources the plant gives to its babies (the bigger the seed), the more likely it is to compete for resources with its own offspring (the shorter the dispersal distance). Every plant solves this problem in its own way. The most successful, many of which we consider weeds, make a lot of seeds. Most will not survive, but a few will. It’s like the old gardener’s rhyme: One for the mouse, one for the crow, one to rot, and one to grow.
I am not a plant, so I am cheating. I have a very long list of medications that I ingest and inject to help me produce lots of eggs. (One for the mouse, one for the crow.) I only need one egg to make an embryo, and only one embryo to stick in the womb of our surrogate. But we are all in our forties, and we know the odds. (One to rot.) Every night before bed, my husband brings out the medication, which costs a small fortune and which, if luck and science and nature are with us, might turn me into a mother. (And one to grow.)
People keep asking me how I could possibly want to bring children into a dying world. I struggle with this question, because I don’t understand where it comes from. My body is striated with death’s scars, but my heart still beats. The rocks record our losses, but life asserts itself from the cracks — even, it turns out, on Mars, which is not as dead as we had imagined. In this third spring of the pandemic, the mint emerges from nothing like a magician’s trick.
From my window I watch the purple finches pluck tufts of my dog’s fur from the brown grass and carry it away. A pregnant squirrel hangs from our bird feeder, disturbing a Carolina wren, who isn’t supposed to be this far north, but there she is. Carpenter bees cut perfect circles from the leaves of the Norway-maple seedlings that I haven’t yet brought myself to pull. Ants are farming aphids on the white pine we planted. A pair of skunks takes up residence under our garage. I plant beans, which rot in the chill damp.
I tenderly lay them on the compost and try again.