Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven’t time, and to see takes time – like to have a friend takes time.
The prevailing question for me at the moment seems to be how to live with moral responsibility to the environment. Not just the large, cumbersome concept of the environment as a whole, but every day the question narrows to the smallest aspect of my personal life. It’s the consequence of living in an age of relentless and synapse-clogging information, much of which makes claims on my conscience but is beyond my ability to act upon in a meaningful way.
The most recent object of soul searching is an orchid purchased on impulse at the grocery store in early December, one of those small, common, three-dollar hybrids with a ten-dollar Greek name, Phalaenopsis, which means resembling a moth. The five-inch plant came with four candy-pink blooms and two tiny buds at the end of the stem. I’ve never owned an orchid; they always seemed too close to the vanity that resulted in tulip fever and too high-maintenance, something akin to a cashmere sweater or an exotic-breed pet. But the instructions on the little plastic stake made it sound so simple: indirect light, medium temp, slightly damp moss. I placed it near a window and on cloudy days, kept it under a lamp. Since its moss seemed a little tired, I gave it a fresh layer pinched from nearby woods. Every couple of days, I held it under a slow drip from the filtered water spigot until the moss was minimally moist. About once a week, I gave it a drop or two of diluted plant food.
Soon, the two tiny buds began fattening like rhubarb-colored hearts. After three weeks, the larger bud formed a white seam along its north-south circumference. By Christmas morning, the seam had split open and by noon, the white and pink petals had unfurled. All the shiny, clever gizmos coming out of Silicon Valley could not have compared to that quiet and astonishing gift. On into evening, it continued to widen. Now, into the first of March, it has seven blooms and a new bud. The blooming season for orchids is winter to spring; the test will be whether or not I can facilitate a second blooming.
I can’t describe the satisfaction of watching each bloom’s slow fulfillment, like witnessing a mysterious incarnation. I don’t think even a degree in botany could explain the miracle of plants. In a culture which seems intent on reminding itself of its impermanence with its thrall to short-lived objects, the thought that orchids date back 76 to 84 million years gives some perspective to human enterprise. This precise date was discovered only twelve years ago when a chunk of amber was dug out of a mine in the Dominican Republic by a private amber collector. Scientists found orchid pollen fossilized on the back of a bee encased in the amber.
Still, beauty, mystery, and miracle aside, an orchid in a condo seems perversely out of context—how long can a plant, especially an exotic one, thrive or even survive in such an unnatural setting? It’s like the question that has nagged as long as I have lived with indoor cats. Haven’t I diminished their lives, both in span and richness, by keeping them from their natural habitat? I have no answer for that, only more questions. What, in today’s overpopulated and mechanized world, is considered a natural habitat for cats? My cats have all been shelter cats; wouldn’t their urban lives have been much shorter if left to their own devices? Does the seeming happiness and health of my cats compensate for the genetic potential denied them?
Knowledge can be a paralyzing thing, like having far too many clothes to cram into available closets. Some days I am drunk and dazed with the immensity and complexity of the world; on others, I feel overwrought by the sheer intelligibility of it all. I am reminded of my mother, just a generation back, who, as a child and then as young wife and mother in the Thirties and early Forties, did not have access to scientific knowledge. She lived in the rural Appalachian hollows of southwest Virginia where there was no library, no book mobile, no television, no newspaper delivery, where very few could afford a telephone, a magazine subscription, books, or travel. She did not know that the vanilla extract she bought from the door-to-door Watkins salesman and used in every cake and cookie she made (her cookbook was a Watkins cookbook) came from an orchid. She had never seen, nor possibly ever heard of, an orchid. She could not locate on any map Madagascar, the country in which Watkins claimed its vanilla pods originated. And, yet, she knew more about nature, about growing cycles and pollination of the plants in her immediate proximity, even if she didn’t have the vocabulary, than I ever will. She, by necessity, lived close to nature, not distanced, as I am, by endless third parties. I, with my three-dollar Kroger orchid which probably originated in an automated nursery in Florida, have merely the illusion of living with nature.
Can an orchid, then, for me, ever be more than a token gesture, at best a constant reminder of personal obligation to live smaller and make better lifestyle choices whenever I can? And can that be enough, given how much I know? I stare at the orchid, and its phalanx of pink faces seems not without a judicial aspect, their open magenta mouths with palates puffed with golden powder offered up like a gift I can only refuse. I may coddle it all the ways in which I am capable, but I cannot do the one thing Creation promised, I cannot bring it a bee.