Sunday, September 25, 2011


The little peach-colored carp hang in the artificial rock pool like mandarin orange slices suspended in lime Jell-o. Recorded squeaks and chirps of forest creatures distract from, but do not overwhelm, the rattle and rumble of the fan that maintains this cool and humid environment, a greenhouse fifteen degrees more comfortable than the desert outside. Orchids and epiphytes explode like fireworks overhead, while ferns tumble like green fountains beneath. Despite the marks of human construction—the unconcealed pots of plastic, terra cotta, and teak; the red gravel path, framed by deliberate boulders; the wandering tourists, burdened with cameras and scared off by my still presence; and the glass and metal structure itself, its artificial environment a tropical bubble in an arid bowl—it is very nearly perfect.

I can almost relax.

The strolling gardener, passing by the window with a garden hose, cannot see me, concealed as I am behind Dendrobium sp. Orchidaceae, a sturdy, flowerless stalk possessing thick, waxy leaves sprouting with alternative precision, very nearly to the ceiling, along with another, unidentified woody plant, thick with jagged leaves and topped with tiny purple blossoms. I can imagine myself alone, except when the door opens, and I startle at the next visitor.

Almost, but not quite, relax.

The disorder to my mind is not unlike the educational arrangement in the greenhouse. Orchids are strapped to trees, sprouting from boxes. Some are labeled, their relationship to the rest of the exhibit made apparent, while others hang in obscurity, part of the collection, but apart from the collection. Some of the flowers are not orchids at all—the largest is clearly a fine specimen of hibiscus, and other clusters of yellow, white, and red appear to have little in common with the orchids, except that they flourish in similar climates.

I love orchids, but fear them, like fussy infants who cannot communicate their needs, beyond letting you know that you’re not doing it right. Whatever treatment the amateur provides, the home orchid seems to whither. This has been my experience, at any rate. I love orchids, but leave their care and feeding to professionals.

Orchids are complex, their petals arranged to entice pollinators, drawing them into secret folds, whose lovely purpose is to ensure another generation of orchids. Their colors startle us singularly and in combination: pale pink and fuchsia, cream and orange, purple and gold. Their components fit in ways they should not, ways that defy the pen’s ability to describe their relationships.

My thoughts, disparate and wild but seeking organization and homeostasis, settle into this greenhouse. If my mind could take root here, or even hang, artfully suspended from a cork tree by a tangle of wire obscured by an arrangement of Spanish moss, perhaps I too could suck nourishment from the air and experience equilibrium. I might live like a pampered infant in conditions created wholly in aid of my caretaker’s wish that I might flourish.

But these are only flowers, after all, in a temporary exhibit. In a few weeks, they will wither, their succulent stems and leaves of interest only to serious collectors, those who can care for them in such a way as to coax the next offering of floral enticement. Without petals, the plants cannot provide a draw sufficient to warrant their elaborate display in this greenhouse. Soon, they will be removed to make way for the equally bright and equally fleeting colors of the walk-through butterfly exhibit. Children will shriek, linger, interact.

My mind, tethered to my body by more than a twist of florist’s wire, has at least permanent residency and cannot be displaced. Less delicate than a fleeting flower, it may be reorganized, more resilient to environmental changes.

I cannot live in a greenhouse, abandoning my own hydroponic tomatoes, thriving in a rain gutter balanced between two nutrient buckets and made animate by a pump that requires constant attention, and my straw bale garden, in which herbs and peppers sprout with good will, while watermelon vines grow wild around them, in a rapidly disintegrating medium. The human mind prefers a state of flux. A vegetative mind, of course, has little to offer.

Besides, the Botanic Garden closes early, at four-thirty, and I do my best thinking at night.