None of my plants survive me. This is unequivocally my fault.
Some of my victims: a mini cactus on the cusp of flowering, purchased at the Brattle Square Florist freshman fall; my friends’ succulents and bamboo shoots I took home later that spring when we all got kicked out; the orchid I received on my twentieth birthday; the Italian basil I grew aspirationally for a cooking habit that never stuck; the sprawling pothos I acquired at the beginning of this year.
Whenever I have plants, I oscillate between lethal extremes: I water them overzealously or not at all, on a schedule dictated more by my mood than their desiccation. I put them in the sun and they wilt. I leave my blinds closed and they blanch. This past winter break, I forgot my dorm room plants entirely and found them shriveled and brown in the spring.
The only plants I’ve ever managed to care for were the vegetables in a tiny garden I tended to while living in a shared apartment. When a handful of tomatoes grew ripe, I gave them to my roommates. When the bell pepper finally fruited, I couldn’t bear to see it eaten. It was my perfect thing: glossy, red, smooth. I watched it rot on my counter.
Plenty of people kill their plants, but I shouldn’t be one of them. Plants motivate much of my art and writing; I’m taking a plant biology course and researching forests for my thesis. There’s an embarrassing dissonance between how much I care about plants and how little I manage to take care of them.
During my summer of raising vegetables, I had a day job as a research assistant for an environmental nonprofit. We were aiding in the redesign of Belizean fishing policy, balancing ecosystem health and sustainability with the needs of fishing communities. I loved my team and did my job well. When I finished work for the day, I nurtured my garden. What I was doing seemed meaningful and good.
I was standing in that garden in July, plastic watering can in hand, when I tasted ash. A strange film clung to the sky, coloring it a gray lilac. Smoke from forest fires in California had billowed all the way to Massachusetts, creating a thick, poisonous haze.
The smoke, and the despair that settled with it, permeated my other summer research: studying California wildfires. I was making biomass calculations to assess the effect of wildfires on forest ecosystems – determining how much of the forest was left, essentially. I kept troubleshooting my code because the biomass numbers seemed too small. It turned out that the fires were simply that devastating.
There is a great irony in computational climate research: the work itself is incendiary. Computing is expected to account for a fifth of all carbon emissions in the next ten years; in other words, the tools needed to understand, quantify, and mitigate climate change are also contributing to it. On its own, the power I was using to run my code was probably negligible. But it still rendered me a conspirator.
It didn’t help that I was doing damage quantification, investigating the minutiae of apocalypse. I don’t mean to diminish the importance of research that doesn’t center solutions: We need to know what has been lost. But it’s a form of research that most acutely feeds a sense of hopelessness. Why do I need to crunch the numbers when I can smell the smoke — when my dreams are choked with purple clouds? Why am I trying to save the forest when I can’t even take care of my succulents?
I watered my lab’s dragon plant religiously that summer, but it browned and shed leaves. The mulberry tree in my backyard never bore fruit.
When I think about this — the plants, the fires, the work without hope — the person who comes to mind is my mother. Her environmental anxieties traveled umbilically to me. We both read the same science articles, which are always titled X SPECIES OFFICIALLY EXTINCT or GLOBAL WARMING TO HAPPEN SOONER THAN LAST TIME WE SAID THIS. I know they keep her up at night.
But unlike me, she is constant, patient, even reverent in her plant mothering. I picture her dotting blossoms on our lime tree with pollen, coaxing forth a dozen fat limes; plucking sick leaves one by one from the hibiscus; lining her pockets with cucumbers and zucchini after hours bent over a raised garden bed. She has even resuscitated some of the plants I left withered and crumbling.
She is also resolute in her climate advocacy. For her, hopelessness is not an excuse; it’s a propulsive force – to keep pushing institutions, boycotting, and writing. Even when trying feels futile or even counterproductive, it’s an imperative. And it matters to her at every scale, from the plant pots beside her desk to the networks of forests she petitions to protect.
I understand, now, how she does this. She has detached optimism from her work — a lesson I am still learning. It’s not a question of whether I believe the research I do will produce knowledge that offsets the fuel it consumes. It’s that the research is necessary regardless. Or, to draw from the Talmud: “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
There’s one plant on my shelf that I want to see through the spring. An aloe vera: the healing plant. Despite months of dereliction, its leaves are jade and firm. This summer, as I research forests under the hot California sun, I will treat my sunburns with its gel and my work with my mother’s ardor: gifts from flesh to flesh.